Read: Russia and the menace of unreality
But offices such as Zolotukhin’s are often under-resourced, and in a divisive electoral period in which campaigns are themselves combatants in the information war, separating fact from fiction, patriot from enemy, and friend from foe is not as simple as it once was.
The Ministry of Information Policy (MIP) sits at the top of a Soviet-era building just off Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s sweeping main boulevard, where relics of czarism and communism mix with more eclectic modern architecture. Founded in 2015, the ministry is charged with protecting Ukraine’s information space. Its logo, the state seal adorned with four USB cords, makes clear where the government sees the biggest threat: online.
I first became acquainted with Zolotukhin and the MIP when I worked as a strategic communications adviser to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry in 2016. The MIP was created in response to an onslaught of fake news from Russia, and one of its stated objectives is to “counteract ... informational aggression”—Moscow has been blamed for ongoing disinformation campaigns in Ukraine, including during the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine the following year. Yet the ministry is also charged with protecting freedom of speech, a duty that at times has placed it in contradiction with itself.
Unlike Washington, which has mustered hardly any official response to Russia’s use of disinformation to influence the 2016 presidential election, Kyiv has taken action. In May 2017, Poroshenko banned the Russian search engine Yandex and the social-media networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki within Ukraine, a decision backed by the MIP. A year later, the government blocked an additional 192 websites that supposedly had pro-Russian sympathies, relying on the MIP’s advice to compile the list. The bans have, in one sense, served their purpose; officials say that overt Russian-originated disinformation has decreased. Yet as Zolotukhin alluded to in his conversations with me, that has not meant Moscow’s goals have not been met.
In response, Ukraine has been accused—by allies as well as critics—of pushing the boundaries of acceptable democratic behavior. “We received immediate feedback from all of our partners, saying, ‘Well, this is an attack on free speech and attack on free expression,’” Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for Euro-Atlantic and European integration, told me. “We had a really hard time explaining to our partners … don’t forget that we are a country at war. We are losing people every other day, if not every single day.”
The situation has only become more delicate during the election period—Zelensky and Poroshenko were the top-two vote-getters after the first round of polling last month and are employing dirty outreach tactics ahead of Sunday’s final round. “If you see a certain story in Ukrainian media,” Zolotukhin tells me, “now you absolutely do not have any basis to call it a Russian narrative, because usually it’s a certain position that is being supported by some number of Ukrainians.” In 2014, Russian trolls attempted to spread outright fake stories. In 2019, disinformation is more grounded in the issues at the heart of this election: corruption, quality of life, and assessments of Ukraine’s progress since Euromaidan.