Can Ukraine Win Its Information War With Russia?
Scrappy news outlets are emerging in Kiev to counter the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin may be playing cat and mouse with Ukraine on the military front, but Russia has long mobilized the big battalions in its international information war: the Kremlin spends hundreds of millions of dollars on English-language broadcasting, intellectual influencers, PR firms, and cultural-diplomacy campaigns.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has no international voice or image. The Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko captured this dilemma in her 1996 novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, when the heroine tries to promote the nation at conferences around the world, only to be continually asked, “Ukraine? Where’s that?” Even those who have heard of Ukraine have few associations with the country beyond prostitution, gangsters, the odd sports star—and now its revolution and ongoing conflict with Moscow. Into this informational vacuum Russian propaganda can project narratives that suit the Kremlin's geopolitical needs—whether that means slurring Ukrainians as fascists or promoting the idea that Ukraine is not a real country and thus destined for invasion.
So what can Ukraine do to strike back? How do you win a modern information war against a far more powerful enemy? When I traveled to Ukraine recently, first to lecture students on Russian propaganda and then to meet with members of the Ukrainian media, I repeatedly heard a new buzzword, “informational sovereignty,” though everyone seemed to have a different idea about what exactly it entailed.
Euromaidan PR (the PR stands for Public Responsibility), founded during the protests that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, consists of some 200 English-speaking volunteers in Ukraine and abroad. These volunteers, who range from geologists to restaurant owners, debunk Russian disinformation on Facebook (24,000 followers), Twitter (35,000 followers), and the organization's blog (13,000 views per day). In March, for instance, the group circulated photos that, according to Russian media, showed columns of refugees fleeing Ukraine to Russia. The pictures actually depicted everyday traffic between Ukraine and Poland.
“We’re basically translators and editors. We see something in Russian propaganda and react,” said Alya Shandra, the 29-year-old coordinator of Euromaidan PR, as we lunched on soup in Kiev. During the protests, Shandra left her job at the Kiev Bicycle Association to run the site, and sometimes spends up to 18 hours a day on the project. “We don’t trust the big Ukrainian TV stations and rely on smaller, independent sources like Ukrayinska Pravda or Hromadske TV to check our information,” she explained. Most of the larger Ukrainian TV stations are owned by oligarchs, each pursuing his own agenda, and their commitment to objective information is questionable.
The Ukraine Crisis Media Center is a beefier operation. The Center runs press briefings—featuring everyone from EU commissioners to civic leaders—out of the third floor of the Hotel Ukrayina, which overlooks Kiev’s central square, or Maidan. It has called out misinformation such as a Guardian article alleging that neo-Nazis had taken power in Kiev.
“We’re a bunch of five PR and advertising firms who realized the government wasn’t coping in getting information out,” Vasyl Myroshnychenko, one of the leading organizers of the Center, told me when I stopped by his office, which is full of brochures and posters from his firm’s usual work marketing the likes of CNN and Google in Ukraine. “Normally we compete with each other for commercial contracts, but we realized this was a national emergency, and after a midnight meeting decided to partner up.”
Fighting false information is only part of the challenge, however; dismantling Kremlin networks and narratives is tougher.
“I was in the U.S. recently and was surprised how many people on the Hill sympathize with Russia,” Myroshnychenko said. “There’s a whole expert community which has been wined and dined by Moscow, taken to Putin’s annual think-tank gathering at the Valdai. How many are on the boards of Russian companies or funded by Russian sources? We need a monitoring system to name and shame pro-Russian influencers, so they start to feel the heat. And we need to start introducing the world to our new government: we have a president and a prime minister who speak English, ministers educated in the U.S. and U.K. Ukraine needs to do direct marketing to convince the world we’re not, as the Russians claim, a failed state.”
But how can Ukraine move beyond merely reacting to Kremlin claims to spreading a positive, internationally inspiring narrative about itself?
“I’m sure when Western housewives realize that their dumplings share ingredients with Ukrainian varenyky, they will be interested in our country and realize how deeply we are connected,” said Mykhailo Smutok, who will be the general producer of the Ukrainian State International Broadcasting Company, a new body that will include an English-language channel to counter the Kremlin’s RT (Russia Today) network. Smutok, a Ph.D. student, will have a much smaller budget than his Russian rivals: he hopes for $10 to $15 million from the state, compared to RT’s estimated $300 million. But as we sat in a restaurant called Ukrainian Food With a European Accent, in the halls of Kiev’s TV Center, he was full of enthusiasm.
“I want to show Western viewers how deep Ukraine’s links are to the world,” he explained. “For example does anyone know that Anne, the consort of the French king in the eleventh century, was actually from Kiev and brought the Reims Gospel to France?”
Smutok’s approach is noble, but having worked myself on Western TV documentaries for more than a decade, I fear the audience is limited for programming about Ukrainian dumplings and Eastern European history. Smutok’s rival, RT, also started out in 2005 by telling positive stories about Russian history and culture—no one cared and ratings were terrible. Gradually, RT changed its strategy, becoming a platform for Western conspiracy-theorists, far-right nationalists, and far-left radicals who sympathize with Russia. The formula works: RT claims that it now reaches more than 644 million people worldwide, and it can slip in messages about Kremlin policy between more popular programming.
Any Ukrainian version should of course reject RT’s tendency to spread gross disinformation, but the Russian channel’s success in building an audience is worth keeping in mind. The secret is not pressing your national story, but engaging with existing, popular concerns.
The Ukrainian media, for example, could focus on international corruption—which is right at the nexus of Ukrainian and Western concerns. Offshore tax-avoidance havens and dubious financial instruments haven’t only provoked anger in the United States; they’re also behind the outrage that animated Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement against corrupt officials. Take Yanukovych’s gaudy palace of Mezhyhirya. The estate was bankrolled by misappropriated Ukrainian public money, laundered through London and Luxembourg. Such coverage would have the added benefit of shifting attention to the Kremlin’s Achilles’ heel: the Russian elite’s financial shenanigans and the Westerners who enable them. An expose on the money coursing through the London property market would be a great place to start.
Just as important as what Ukrainian news outlets cover is who spearheads the coverage. Can one trust a corrupt state, or oligarchs with political ambitions, to create an internationally credible news outlet aimed at anti-corruption and anti-disinformation? Probably not. To be trustworthy, the Ukrainian press must be led by civil society, not the state. The Euromaidan movement produced Hromadske TV, an independent online channel that became the most reliable news source during the revolution. Hromadske, which is funded by donations and small grants from Western embassies, and plans to run on a budget of $1.5 million this year, could potentially become an international voice for Ukraine. The challenge facing the channel’s courageous journalists is to simultaneously fend off Kremlin disinformation while sustaining pressure on their own officials to reform the country and defeat corruption.