Editor’s note: In Hollie McKay’s latest special report for Deadline, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author is in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin’s forces loom just over the border as Russia threatens a possible invasion.
Amid fears that Russia is preparing to invade neighboring Ukraine any day now — echoed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who indicated in a call with the White House over the weekend that Wednesday would be “the day,” (though he has since walked it back) — Moscow has also turned up the drama dial, complete with the Kremlin putting on perpetual propaganda plays as part of its media manipulation mechanism.
For Ukrainians trying to manage the nagging uncertainty, its another layer to the seemingly endless cross-border battle.
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“We are getting very worried about the Russian focus on propaganda,” said a high-ranking official, who spoke with me in Kyiv on the condition of anonymity.
“For example, just a few days ago, Ukrainian police (arrested) a group who tried to make some actions during a peaceful demonstration in front of the presidential building,” he added. “These so-called protesters had a gallon of blood; one was dressed in a medical gown. It seemed they tried to make a movie showing one person laying down and medical staff desperately trying to help them.”
According to the insider, the theatrical aim was to show that Ukrainian police had turned on their own people.
“The authorities find three different groups of people in the crowd doing similar actions,” the presidential affiliate notes. “Furthermore, every few weeks, our intelligence is seeing Russian troops erecting a mobile hospital or bringing in blood. But the (Russian) frontlines are 20 miles from major cities and hospitals, so this drama is not necessary. They showcase these things to make us scared. What is next? A mobile morgue?”
The tactic has become a tried-and-true one for Russia, according to officials from Ukraine and the U.S. Ever since the early 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine that saw the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych – which prompted Moscow to retaliate by annexing Crimea and back separatists in launching offenses across Ukraine’s Donbas region – the embattled eastern area has been plagued by bitter and brutal battles.
However, the Putinesque procedure is just as much about soft power as it is about hard.
Similar to the Zelensky insider, the White House earlier this month publicly stated it had intelligence on a Russian plot to produce a “very graphic” fake video of an attack on Ukraine complete with corpses, mourning actors, damaged buildings and drones.
What is the elevator pitch to the Russian people? Those instigators of violence are the Kyiv-led government, the U.S. and its NATO allies, who are bent on hurting Ukrainian civilians and those with pro-Russian views. Therefore, Moscow should step in.
Consequently, what Russians see on their state-controlled media outlets is a powerful Russian Federation military prepared to face the NATO-driven aggression, as rumors circulate that the West is planning to remove President Vladimir Putin from power and steal the country’s abundant energy resources. In the Moscow-managed media landscape, failed state Ukraine is merely a political pawn for a weak Washington and embroiled in a divided European Union.
Igor Novikov, a former Zelensky advisor, notes that if you carefully examine the format of Russian show business, anti-Ukrainian propaganda dates back to the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. “One example is the ’90s Russian blockbuster called Bratva, meaning ‘brother,’ where they portray a ridiculous portrait of a Ukrainian character the protagonist kills. It is characterized as ‘payback for Sevastopol,’ meaning Crimea,” he says.
Crimea had been an independent state until 1783, when it was conquered by the Russian Empire. During the empire’s collapse in 1917, Crimea was seized by the Bolsheviks and folded into the USSR. Ukraine was declared a “union republic,” but Crimea obtained the lesser status of “autonomy” in 1921. Then, in 1954, the Kremlin transferred the coveted peninsula to the Ukrainian republic when all governance fell under the USSR. It remained part of Ukraine following the Soviet Union fall up until 2014, when it was controversially annexed by Moscow.
In the Kremlin, there is no right or left political propelling. All of this is about sowing as much discord and disillusion as possible to poke holes in the ineptitude of Moscow’s enemies. Unlike the U.S. media, which has projected images of Russian troops building up in Belarus for weeks, Russian media has instead portrayed NATO forces strengthening in the fragile region.
All of this is part of the pretext and follows a familiar pattern.
Russia has used such themes and theories to rally support and justify its actions during past conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and Estonia. Moreover, fighting in foreign lands not only portrays Putin as a global power player, but also serves as a convenient distraction from the country’s economic woes.
Nevertheless, state-controlled media isn’t the only way to achieve this goal. There are troll factories dotting the country where dramatized conspiracy theories accompanied by breathless headlines flood fake news sites, social media, and any other outlet where trolls can worm their way in.
The intrusion of cyberspace is indeed pivotal to the plotline.
During the 2014 spring incursions into Crimea and the eastern Donbas region, Russia seamlessly integrated cyber tactics into its propaganda, sabotaging water supplies, zapping a portion of the electrical grid, jamming cellular communications, freezing ATMs and hampering the electoral process.
Last month, the Ukrainian government pegged blame at the Kremlin for striking dozens of government websites, injecting fear and dismay among the populace with an ominous warning to “expect the worst” as a means of intimidation.
Oleh Derevianko, founder and executive chairman of Information Systems Security Partners, an international cybersecurity company founded in Ukraine in 2008, also says Ukrainian media outlets remain a key target.
“If you look at the massive energy attack on the power grids in Western Ukraine in 2015, literally the exact same infiltration was used to hack media outlets on the same day of local elections weeks earlier,” he says. “Year to year (cyber) activities are increasing, but at that same time, there is an advancement in capabilities to respond. The (Ukrainian) government has a long way to go to be fully prepared, whereas the media is a private entity so probably has greater capabilities to defend itself.”
Online and media manipulation are just as critical as kinetic warfare itself, if not more so.
For its part, the U.S. Department of State is endeavoring to bring awareness to the perpetual propaganda plots. According to officials, “several Russian military and intelligence entities” are involved in slick campaigns to “spread disinformation attempting to paint Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials as the aggressor in the Russia-Ukraine relationship.”
However, Kyiv’s arsenal of fighting back is yet to match its neighbors.
“They (the Kremlin) use the Internet, Facebook, all social media, to the maximum scale. So Russia has invested a lot in the case of Ukraine,” says Volodymyr Omelyan, Ukraine’s former Minister of Infrastructure. “Mostly, (Kyiv) tries to ignore it. But President Zelinsky did block many Russian TV channels in Ukrainian, and they are trying to establish a way to broadcast over the occupied territories.”
Vitaliy Barabash, a former frontline soldier now the Head of Avdiivka Military Civil Administration, positioned just a few miles from the pro-Russian occupied city of Donetsk, concurs that the age-old gambit is challenging to combat.
“For example, just before the New Year, there was a shooting in our territory that came from the (occupied) side. But it was reported by the Russian media that it was Ukrainian forces doing the shooting and people from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic had to come and provide humanitarian assistance to the village,” Barabash says. “But this was the absolute opposite to what happened. Even my mother’s friend saw it on television and was angrily asking how this action was possible, that Ukrainians would do such a thing.”
In Barabash’s view, more needs to be done by the top echelons of Kyiv to counter-message the separatist, Russian-backed pockets of eastern Ukraine.
“Ukraine has switched over to digital TV; we don’t broadcast anymore. But in Donetsk, there is a TV tower that needs an analog signal,” he points out. “So we should move back in terms of digitalization of the division. We need the analog transmission of TV channels. We tried to organize our own radio channel, but they (occupiers) suppress the signal. It works for a week and then is suppressed again.”