10 takeaways from 5 years of UCMC countering disinformation

The Ukrainian Society of Switzerland, in cooperation with the Swiss-Ukraine Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group, organize an annual panel on Ukraine at Swiss Parliament entitled Ukraine Forum.  The Forum provides insight to Members of Parliament, officials from government ministries, foreign policy specialists, scholars, NGOs, civil society and other policy makers about Ukraine.  Different aspects ranging from politics, elections, reform, international relations, security issues, economics, media and disinformation, decentralization, European integration, foreign investment, to sociological polls on attitudes, trust and outlook of Ukrainians are presented and discussed.

The world in 2014 and 2019 is not the same world. And Ukraine in 2014 and 5 years after is not the same country.

1. Let’s remember the path we have already walked and always put things in perspective.

In 2014 Ukraine was lonely, weak and under threat, the world largely unaware of Russia’s long planned efforts to undermine our sovereignty and democracy. In 2019, only 5 years after the Revolution of Dignity and the beginning of the Russian aggression, Ukraine has already undertaken a number of significant reforms which will influence the shape of the Ukrainian democracy and regional security going forward. The world at the same time has never been more aware of the Russian influence.

2. There is always more to learn about how Russia acts– we do this at UCMC every day.

Since the inception and serving as the state communications hub during MH17 till today’s ongoing studying of the Russian information influence and malign activities, we don’t cease to be amazed by the creativity of Russian propaganda (hundreds of versions and dozens of tactics vis-à-vis the Skripal case and the like) and the persistence of the distortions (formats of the political talk shows are getting longer, more engaged, with even higher levels of brutality and less objectivity).

3. The last 5 years brought more understanding of the Russia’s influence operations not only against Ukraine but other countries: stretching from extrajudicial killings and attacks and financially supporting fringe political movements to economic dominance through Kremlin-affiliated oligarchs and a number of online disinformation campaigns all sugar-coated by continuing with heavy Russian public diplomacy in Western countries.

4. The complex environment will continue to become more complex until the trend for “the diminishing role of facts and critical analysis in public life” – as RAND recently defined the global Truth Decay – will be reversed. A multidimensional issue will indeed need a multidimensional answer.

5. Ukraine, still not fully immune to the Russian influence, for long has been the testing ground for Russia’s extensive hybrid warfare arsenal in its efforts to undermine the democratic development of the country. Russia continues to work against Ukraine’s existential, although long-term, choices to join the European Union and the NATO.

While over 45% of Ukrainians would like the country to join NATO and 64% – to join EU, in the last 5 years – most aggressively, including via open war and complete disregard for the international law, Russia tried to establish Russkiy Mir on the territory of Ukraine. Having abandoned this narrative, it focused on convincing the Ukrainians  that they were a failed state, never capable of defending their sovereignty or identity.

6. Slowly, the Ukrainian identity is becoming more resilient and further from the homo sovieticus than before, but there is still a long way to go.

If, from 2008 to 2014, about 85-90% of Ukrainians felt positive about Russia, today only 48% seem to continue to show sentiment to Russia (the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the Russian Levada Center data). Since non-visa regime with the EU in June 2017, 2 mln Ukrainians have used it. Their values have more chances to be synchronized with the European ones, than with Russian, mainly seen as much more conservative and reactionary.

7. Before Ukraine’s Presidential election, Russia has intensified its efforts and rhetoric against Ukraine, continuously with the goal to discredit the future elections and imposing on the audience, both at home and abroad, based on the narratives that elections are illegitimate.

Per analysis from the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group of UCMC, “the stakes for Moscow are high – in case a pro-Russian candidate takes office, it will give Kremlin a chance to attempt the return of the country that has been approaching the European and Euro-Atlantic structures back into the field of its influence. In terms of the METHODS or the “how” of distorting reality before the elections, they are numerous as well. The main ones include informational laundering, benefiting from the lack of a powerful public broadcaster in Ukraine, exploiting the oligarch-owned media and local stooges, be it politicians or experts, to promote the Russian narratives.

8. Current observations of the Russian information space suggest that Russian media will get even more radicalized in its treatment of the political situation of Ukraine closer to the elections. The only meaningful response is to continue to work on Ukraine’s resilience and keep Ukrainians highly engaged in ensuring the health of our democracy.

9. Civil society has already made a significant contribution to strengthening Ukraine’s national security and democracy — both as a “first responder” to Russia’s aggression and as a source of resilience to hybrid threats that continue to come from Russia. Further whole-of-society approach towards national resilience needs to be pursued and will require even more bringing civil society and the state closer together at the national, regional and local levels, despite the existing gaps in values, objectives, capacity, motivation and communication between them presently.

The more changes in Ukraine – away from homo sovieticus to a self-sufficient and progressive identity on all levels from government to the civil society – the more immune the country will be to any threats from Russia or its proxies.

10. The challenges that Ukraine has faced are bigger than Ukraine. Less naivete and more international collaboration around identifying the problem and seeking joint solutions is necessary. Just like before the WWII some countries shared the resolution to preserve the free world against Nazism, now there is a need to recognize at a more fundamental level a global assault on democratic way of thinking and becoming able to address it.

The full text of the speech is available at the following link.

Nataliya Popovych, Ukraine Crisis Media Center