Why Russian Soft Power Is A Threat For Both Ukraine And Europe

September 8, 2020
In Western coun­tries, there is a widespread idea that the goal of Russian soft power is to divide and pola­rize. Ukraine’s expe­ri­ence shows that this is only part of what these tactics are aimed at.
article-photo
Photo credit: shutterstock.com

When Euro­pean tra­vel­lers came to Ukraine in the 18th -- 19th cen­tu­ries, they were usually told the Russian version of the history of the Ukrai­nian lands. In this version of the story, one would hear little or nothing about Zapo­rozhian Cos­s­acks, hetman-led Ukrai­nian state­hood in the 17th century, the dif­fi­cult but pro­duc­tive Ukrai­nian Ortho­dox-Catho­lic dia­lo­gue or a Ukrai­nian heri­tage of Rus', a power­ful Medi­eval state with the centre in Kyiv. Instead, one heard only a story about the glory of the Russian empire, or about a pan-Slavic idea that was desti­ned to erase the dif­fe­ren­ces among Slavic nations in the vast Russian state.

When Sta­li­nist collec­ti­viz­a­tion and terror killed about 4 million Ukrai­nian peas­ants in 1932--1933, the Western world heard little about the tragedy (with the excep­tion of a few voices, like that of Gareth Jones). It heard about the "great terror" in the Soviet Union only around 1937, when it was tar­ge­ting people in Moscow and Lenin­grad, though the majo­rity of the Ukrai­nian intel­li­gent­sia and mil­li­ons of ordi­nary Ukrai­ni­ans had already been killed or sent to Soviet camps by that time.

Today, when you hear the Russian nar­ra­tive about the World War II, it tells you that Rus­si­ans suf­fe­red most during this tragedy and that they played the most important role in the victory over Nazism. You rarely hear that between 8 and 10 million inha­bi­tants of what is now Ukraine died during the war (a quarter of the popu­la­tion) or that about 7 million Ukrai­ni­ans fought in the Red Army against the Nazis or that 3 to 4 million of them died in that fight --tog­e­ther with repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of other natio­na­li­ties of the Soviet Union. Instead, Russia tries to mono­po­lize the history of the World War II and victory over Nazism.

You don't hear all this because Russian soft power does exist -- and it is capable of chan­ging the nar­ra­ti­ves of entire nations, making them invi­si­ble to the world -- and even to them­sel­ves.

Today the power of Kremlin-led Russia is not only about tanks and mili­tary inva­sion, of the kind seen in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Apart from expan­sio­nist hard power, Kremlin also has soft power, a power that influ­en­ces minds, emo­ti­ons and stories. This soft power is much stron­ger than people in the West tend to believe.

In Western coun­tries, there is a widespread idea that the goal of Russian soft power is to divide and pola­rize. Ukraine's expe­ri­ence shows that this is only part of what these tactics are aimed at.

Indeed, the soft power of aut­ho­ri­ta­rian regimes is usually focused along two main tracks: divide and conquer. In the Western world, which Russia finds dif­fi­cult to conquer, the empha­sis is on the "divide" track. This is why it is so con­cen­tra­ted on pola­riz­a­tion there, the use and abuse of exis­ting con­flicts, the radi­ca­liz­a­tion of oppon­ents on all sides.

In Eastern Euro­pean -- and par­ti­cu­larly in Eastern Part­ners­hip -- coun­tries, inclu­ding Ukraine, the approach is much more ambi­tious. There, the Kremlin's ulti­mate goal is to conquer (or re-conquer), not merely to divide. "Divide" tactics are employed as a part of this wider approach. But other com­pon­ents are at work as well: crea­ting trust to gain an audi­ence, pro­du­cing ani­mo­sity in order to then radi­ca­lize it, shaping the image of an enemy and, finally, shaping the image of a pos­si­ble pro­tec­tor.

Indeed, every "conquer" starts with  "divide". And every act of divi­ding follows certain acts of pre­pa­ra­tion: "crea­ting trust" and gaining sup­por­ters. Trust must first be gene­ra­ted for it to be used to promote divi­si­ons and to produce ani­mo­sity towards other groups. Once ani­mo­sity has been spread within society, it can be used to create an image of an enemy. And the final step is the crea­tion of a "pro­tec­tor" to defend one against the enemy. The example of Ukraine in the past years pro­vi­des an excel­lent case in point.

Let's recall the story: in late 2013 -- early 2014, Ukrai­nian society rose up against corrupt pro-Russian Pre­si­dent Victor Yanu­ko­vych in a protest that we call "Euro­mai­dan", or the "Revo­lu­tion of Dignity". After Yanukovych's violent attempt to shut down the protest camp on the Maidan, which left to over a hundred dead, he left Ukraine, fleeing to Russia in Febru­ary 2014. The Kremlin, explo­i­t­ing the weak­ness of the Kyiv government, ille­gally annexed Crimea in March 2014 and sent its proxies to launch the war in Donbas.

Under­stand­a­bly, posi­tive atti­tu­des to Russia among Ukrai­ni­ans fell dra­ma­ti­cally: from over 90% to 30%. But signs of a Russian stra­tegy to re-conquer the Ukrai­nian lands were present from very early on. A few infor­ma­tion chan­nels with unclear finan­ces (112 Ukraine and NewsOne, for example) were created in 2013 and 2014. Rumour linked them to members of the entou­rage of the ousted pre­si­dent, Yanu­ko­vych, who still ans­we­red to Russia. Whether that was true or not, these chan­nels were initi­ally very inclu­sive in terms of their infor­ma­tion policy. They made room for all pos­si­ble sides and spea­kers: they were genera­ting trust and gaining the audi­ence.

In late 2018, word came out that these chan­nels, tog­e­ther with a few other ones, had been purcha­sed by an MP close to Victor Med­ve­d­chuk, Putin's key ally in Ukraine. From that moment onwards, their stra­tegy shifted from "genera­ting trust" to "divi­ding". They worked against the Maidan legacy, anti-cor­rup­tion reforms and Ukraine's pro-EU vector. They con­tri­bu­ted a great deal to the emer­gence of a feeling in Ukrai­nian society that the post-Maidan reforms were taking the country down the wrong path.

After the 2019 pre­si­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tion, which radi­cally changed the power equa­tion in Ukraine, brin­ging young come­dian Volo­dymyr Zelen­skyi and his party "Servant of the People" to the heights of power, the stra­tegy of these TV chan­nels and of other media with pro-Russian and anti-Western rhe­to­ric changed again. The climate of ani­mo­sity and pola­riz­a­tion having already been created, they started buil­ding the image of the enemy. The general concept of this image was "exter­nal gover­nance"; the key sym­bo­lic figure: George Soros; and the key insti­tu­tio­nal symbol: the IMF. Alt­hough Soros' foun­da­tion -- the "Inter­na­tio­nal Renais­sance Foun­da­tion" -- had been active in Ukraine since 1990 and had con­tri­bu­ted to major pro-Euro­pean reforms in the country, Ukraine had never before seen "anti-Soros" pro­pa­ganda on such a large scale.

The primary goal of this approach is to equa­lize dangers in the minds of Ukrai­nian citi­zens. After 2014, Russia had become a danger: in 2009 59% of Ukrai­ni­ans had a posi­tive atti­tude to Putin, in 2019 only 8% did. The actors behind Russian soft power unders­tood that it would be dif­fi­cult to change this nega­tive image very quickly, but they saw a pos­si­bi­lity to create an "alter­na­tive" enemy: the West. Today, the pro­pa­ganda of the Kremlin and its proxies por­trays the West and "exter­nal gover­nance" as posing no less a danger to Ukraine than Russian aggres­sion. By so doing, it is helping to con­struct the myth that Ukraine is under threat from two direc­tions, which then will lead to the idea that the Russia does not actually pose a real danger at all. Then it will all be the fault of the West, for having ins­ti­ga­ted a quarrel between the "bro­therly peoples".

To under­stand the scale of the problem, it helps to look at some numbers. From January to June 2020, we (Inter­news Ukraine) spotted 79,811 messages attacking Soros and his "agents" in 708 sources on the Ukrai­nian inter­net. Most of them were posted by pro-Russian actors; some ori­gi­na­ted in pro-olig­ar­chic circles. We also tracked 12,678 messages in 484 sources con­dem­ning the "exter­nal gover­nance" of Ukraine by the West.

The primary goal of the poli­ti­cal and infor­ma­tion actors sprea­ding these messages is to under­mine Ukraine's pro-Western vector. Apart from the war that Russia and its proxies are waging in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is also trying to win the hearts and minds of Ukrai­ni­ans, to make them disap­poin­ted in Euro­pean inte­gra­tion, and to win them back into the orbit of the "Russian world". In many ways, it is suc­cee­ding.

History teaches us that despite the emo­tio­nal enthu­si­asm of Ukrai­nian upri­sings and inde­pen­dence efforts, Russian influ­en­ces can easily come back.It also teaches us that Russian expan­sion never stops at Ukraine. In the early 18th century, Ukrai­nian hetman Ivan Mazepa joined forces with the Swedish king Charles XII but was defea­ted near Poltava by the forces of Russia's Peter I, marking the end of Ukraine's auto­nomy within the Russian Tsardom and opening the way for Russian expan­sion to the Black Sea and further west. In the early 19th century, the Decem­brist revolt in Saint Peters­burg had sub­stan­tial Ukrai­nian element; and its sup­pres­sion streng­t­he­ned the reac­tion­ary rule of the Russian tsar, who became one of the key leaders of the reac­tion­ary powers in Europe. In the early 20th century, Ukraine enjoyed a few years of inde­pen­dence but failed to defend it, unlike Poland and some of its other neigh­bours; when Stalin's regime grew stron­ger after the victory over Nazism, Soviet/​Russian rule exten­ded much further west­ward.

We don't know whether Ukrainian statehood, had it survived, would have kept Europe safer from these reactionary dangers. It might have, though.

Today, Europe should be aware that the pos­si­bi­lity of a U‑turn is a very real one for Eastern Part­ners­hip coun­tries, even a country as advan­ced as Ukraine. And that the advers­ary is employ­ing vast resour­ces, know­ledge and infil­tra­tion to achieve just that.

To prevent it, more action is needed. Pri­ma­rily in the form of giving Ukraine and other Eastern Part­ners­hip coun­tries a clearer and more tan­gi­ble per­spec­tive on their Euro­pean inte­gra­tion path. And making the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion of these coun­tries much more visible and tan­gi­ble for ordi­nary people.

Belarus pro­tests show that Eastern Part­ners­hip is beco­m­ing a region where socie­ties incre­a­singly want freedom and Euro­pean future.A process which started in Georgia and Ukraine in early 2000s, spilled over to Moldova and Armenia, and now to Belarus. All these revo­lu­ti­ons are dif­fe­rent -- but they have common traits. The whole region has changed -- and Kremlin will obviously not be willing to give it away. But despite its incre­a­singly strong infor­ma­tion warfare, I do hope that history in this region is no longer on the Kremlin's side.

This article was first published by Zentrum Liberale Moderne.

Volo­dymyr Yer­mo­lenko
phi­lo­so­pher and jour­na­list, direc­tor for ana­ly­tics at Inter­news Ukraine and chief editor at UkraineWorld.org

Related articles

VIDEO
May 4, 2020

How Russia Monopolizes The Memory of World War II

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the bloodiest military conflict in human history. While for many nations WWII is about grieving,...
VIDEO
October 4, 2018

Why Russia's Return to Europe's Key Body Is Dangerous

After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of Ukrainian Donbas, the country faced sanctions from the West, including from the US and from...