For some time past thousands of Ukrainians have been browsing daily the Facebook page of Dmytro TYMCHUK, a Ukrainian officer, coordinator of Informational Resistance, director of the Military and Political Research Center. Every evening he publishes the final update on the situation in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Crimea, and this country’s borders. What remain unchanged every day are the morning address (“Brothers and sisters!”) and the evening-time hope that the next day will bring Ukraine only the good news. At the outset of the conflict, Informational Resistance, a group formed by Tymchuk and his colleagues, in fact performed the functions of the governmental bodies that were supposed to inform the people and the world community of the events in the country. In the past two weeks, this Facebook page has been by far the most valuable source of information for many Ukrainian and international media. About 23,000 users have subscribed to it over this period of time.
Mr. Tymchuk, has the Ukrainian state been paying enough attention to information security?
“While Yanukovych showed no interest at all in information security (except for what concerned his own personality), there were a lot of opportune initiatives in this field during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, but they were never put into practice. I mean, above all, the adopted Information Security Doctrine. Unfortunately, only specialists still remember this document, although, from the legal viewpoint, it is to be valid. Therefore, we have been blown up by a bomb planted long ago, for, by all accounts, nobody in Ukraine has ever cared about information security. I am convinced in this. There are some structures in the national security services that deal with informational and psychological resistance, but they are beset with problems. Their powers remain somewhat unclear – there are no documents that define their functions within the framework of a certain integral mechanism. We could amply feel the results of this situation on March 1 and 2. Let’s recall the way it was. As the invasion started, the Russian media began to spread outright disinformation and propaganda. All the news agencies – from RIA Novosti to Interfax – worked for this. Their aim was, firstly, to demoralize the Ukrainian army personnel and the populace; secondly, to justify the Russian government’s action in the eyes of Russian society; and, thirdly, to mislead the international community. And we saw how effectively this plan worked! All the national media were repeating the Russian news agencies’ claim that Ukrainian units in Crimea were siding en masse with the invaders and the Ukrainian Navy frigate Hetman Sahaidachny had raised the Russian flag. Even the UN Security Council, instead of condemning the aggression against Ukraine, advised us to focus on the domestic political situation. Just fancy that: we have been attacked but the UN is saying how important it is for UDAR to befriend the Party of Regions! Schizophrenia pure and simple… All this is the result of Russian propaganda. Besides, it was a weekend then, and the whole chain of command in the state was paralyzed. There was not a single entity that could react at least on the informational level and tell the world that aggression was committed against Ukraine.”
And you decided to undertake this mission?
“When I learned about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, I immediately got in touch with my former fellow student Yurii Karin, also a reserve lieutenant-colonel, who had once served at the Defense Ministry’s press center. He and I still maintain a lot of personal contacts in the army and security organizations. These people would receive a lot of information, but they did not know how to make use of it. We saw that it was a deadlock situation and it was inadmissible to wait until the official state agencies started moving. We decided to take the situation into our own hands. Not to be a ‘leak hole’ or be used blindly, we introduced a system by which information is verified through several sources at the same time. In case of very high-profile events, we try to appeal directly to their participants. The system works, and I think we have achieved our goal. The governmental agencies and press services began to function at last four days after the invasion. I would also like to praise the work of journalists – they began almost immediately to ‘land’ in Crimea and cover the events. We have thus repulsed the first strike at the initial stage of the conflict.”
Do you think the Ukrainian media space was prepared for this course of events in Crimea?
“March 1, 2, and 3 were the days of complete failure. From the angle of information, this period can be compared to June 22, 1941 [the day Nazi Germany attacked the USSR. – Ed.]. Then the situation gradually improved. After March 4, the forces were divided approximately 50 to 50. And on March 6 we began to gradually oust Russian disinformation from the air. It was not easy to do so because the adversary was in extremely favorable conditions – they did not even have to set up special facilities for Ukraine because almost all the Russian TV channels broadcast here and most of our media are in the Russian language – there was even no need to translate. In the very beginning, our media were in fact used blindly. As the governmental bodies were relaying no news, this created an information vacuum. Meanwhile, the events were to be covered one way or another – accordingly, journalists began to borrow information from the Russian media.”
What do you think about the way the Ukrainian and foreign media are working today?
“My observations show that it is the German media that took the most positive attitude to Putin’s propaganda. But when the situation began to change at the level of international organizations, when Europe classified Russia’s actions as aggression and condemned them, even the German media, in which Russia had apparently heavily invested, began to change tonality. It was clear that we had persuaded everybody. This is very important because Ukraine can only rely today on international support.
“In my view, the Ukrainian media are working as best as they can today. Of course, there still occurs a lot of disinformation, but now this can be put down to a banal intention to spread information as soon as possible rather than to the impact of the Russian media. Journalists should remember that this may cause panic among the populace. For example, when the Russians relocated a checkpoint by a few hundred meters in the village of Chonhar, Kherson oblast, on the border with Crimea, some media reported that they were almost at a stone’s throw from Kherson. Naturally, the very possibility of this kind of situations can also be explained, above all, by inadequacy of governmental bodies – we badly need a single body in charge of information security. When the National Security and Defense Council deputy head says on the fifth day of the invasion that they have resolved to thwart the Russian propaganda and will draw up a relevant document in a week’s time, it is not even funny. Hitler seized a half of Europe in two weeks’ time!”
Do you approve of the ban on Russian TV channels in Ukraine?
“This should have been done as long ago as March 2! Any country must immediately close its informational space during a conflict. Panic-stricken civilians and a demoralized army are terrible things. They can bring any military potential to nothing. If a soldier is morally unprepared for a battle and is convinced that the end has come, he will be of no value.”
What would you advise Ukrainian journalists – particularly those working in Crimea – to do now?
“Above all, I call upon everybody to exercise caution, for there are true bandits there, whom even journalists call ‘self-defense’ for some reason. But it is not self-defense because they don’t show the slightest trace of organization and discipline. We keep receiving the news that drunk Cossacks and criminals, hired by Aksionov, are threatening local residents with weapons. They are inadequate people who are responsible for nothing. I am sure they don’t care a fig about all the statuses and guarantees the international law has provided journalists with. Incidentally, let us not forget that the Russian military in Crimea wear no insignia, so it is highly doubtful that they can be considered as combatants. All these people are out of the international law, so journalists should not think that the ‘press’ badge will protect them. At the same time, I call on all the media people to remember that it is a war. Sometimes a provocative headline can boost a publication’s rating, but it is inadmissible to do so in the current conditions, for any unwary word may cause panic. We keep receiving calls from people in the frontier regions – any unverified report makes them wish to immediately flee somewhere in an attempt to save their relatives. Journalists should be aware of their responsibility today.”
I know you have your materials translated into many languages. How often do the foreign media use them?
“I want to thank Euromaidan guys – they help us very much. For there are only three Informational Resistance coordinators, and we are physically short of time to organize some work with the media. Our job is to look for, verify, and transmit information. Euromaidan PR guys offered to translate our materials. Besides, they already had some time-tested channels of cooperation with the Western media. I saw the effect of our work when I recently contacted an old friend of mine, who works at the NATO headquarters. I began to tell him about our group, only to hear that they all knew about and always used it as a source of information. I am very pleased that this system proved successful and continued to develop on the basis of patriotism and sheer enthusiasm without our direct participation. As far as I know, NATO and OSCE read all our reports. Our work may be said to be a continuation of the Maidan approach, when people self-organized without external coordination. Ukraine is waging an information war today, to a large extent, by the efforts of active citizens.”