Lately, Den held our first pilot international roundtable which used several advanced technologies, including Skype, video, and traditional live discussion as well. The roundtable’s theme read: “The Assault of the ‘Russian World’ on Europe. How to Resist It?” Ukrainian and international participants of the discussion were asked to comment on the following questions: a) the promotion of the “Russian World” as a way of diluting Ukraine’s status as an independent actor; b) the information war and Russian propaganda used to distort Ukraine’s image; c) what we have to do together to successfully counteract this distortion; d) examples of successfully counteracting the Russian propaganda.
“RUSSIAN TECHNOLOGIES AIM TO PREVENT UKRAINE FROM BECOMING PART OF EUROPE”
In opening the discussion, Den’s editor-in-chief Larysa IVSHYNA explained the reasons for our choice of topic:
“It is necessary to speak about the assault of the ‘Russian World’ on Europe. Speaking of Europe, we mean that we belong to it, not only geographically, but also historically. We recognize, though, that politically we are not in Europe yet, for we are not EU members, because our political nation, conscious of its Europeanness, has not been fully formed yet. Meanwhile, Russian technologies aim at this very target, as they try to prevent Ukraine from becoming part of Europe.
“The assault of the ‘Russian World’ on Europe is the main threat. It comes from all sides, including through EU countries where they have pre-prepared bastions for a new offensive. The assault comes also through Ukraine, through perennial attempts to prevent the development of competitive elites who would be able to wrest Ukraine from its Soviet past.
“They employ a lot of different technologies to make Ukraine into a hybrid state which would be unable to join any promising project, much less NATO.”
Oleksandr TSVIETKOV, professor, Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine:
“I have a somewhat unconventional approach to the issues you have raised by your statements on Europe’s borders’ location and whether we associate ourselves with it. Look at the younger generation. Our kids, that is, my grandchildren, are comfortable with the fact that they are Europeans. Perhaps, the capital city factor is at play here.
“Previously, people had to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg (Leningrad) to defend their doctoral theses. Our capabilities and orientations have now changed greatly. The more we talk about our genuine interests or goals, and places where people find it easier to work as well as ‘psychologically breathe,’ the faster we will see the system and order arising here that we want to achieve by integrating with Europe.”
“IMPORTANTLY, DEN NOT ONLY RAISES THE ISSUE, BUT ALSO ATTEMPTS TO REPEL THE KREMLIN’S PROPAGANDA STUNTS”
L.I.: “I have never seen anyone raising the issue of the assault of the ‘Russian World’ on Europe in our information space. I want to emphasize that it is ‘Russian,’ not ‘Rus’/Ruthenian’ world that is currently on the attack. Our contributors authored a book called The Power of the Soft Sign on that very topic. ‘Russian World’ is totally different from ‘Rus’/Ruthenian’ world. However, the ‘Russian World’ as a technology is malignant in nature. It aims to bring discord to Europe and kill Ukraine as an independent actor. These are its two main objectives. What ways do you see to counter Russian propaganda?”
Serhii SOLODKY, first deputy director of the Institute of World Policy, Kyiv:
“The Ukrainian authorities are complaining all the time about Russia’s expansion and its penetration of the Europeans’ hearts and minds. Therefore, it is important that Den not only raises the issue, but also acts to repel the Kremlin’s propaganda stunts: it publishes English-language digest The Day, and attracts Europeans as contributors and experts... These are small but necessary steps to break the wall of misunderstanding which surrounds Ukraine.
“I recently returned from Hungary, where the Russian propaganda machine has had a great success. The problem is not only in modern technologies and the ‘Russian World’ imposing a particular worldview. We have to understand that Ukraine was off Europe’s radar in recent centuries. On the one hand, this was due to the fact that Ukrainian lands were occupied by several foreign states. On the other, more than 20 years of independence should have been enough to introduce ourselves to Europeans. Unfortunately, these efforts were not sufficient, if they were made at all. When we read articles by the historian Norman Davies, who tried to compile a one-book history of Europe, we see him complaining that Western Europeans do not give proper attention to Eastern Europe. Western Europeans simply do not know anything about us...”
L.I.: “You are absolutely on the mark. We often talk with Western diplomats, and hear them complaining that Ukraine is not doing enough to promote itself. This is a case of just criticism. In order to have powerful centers, to enable diplomatic missions to work actively, we should prioritize the Diplomatic Academy and pay much attention to personnel training. This is a classic theme, but there is another as well. Our diplomats must work with our partners and neighbors and ask them the questions now asked by Den’s journalists: How is Ukraine covered in your school textbooks? What do your university courses offer on Ukraine?
“I have always said that our politicians ought to undergo exams in history and Ukrainian language before entering politics. Similarly, diplomats must prove that they know the history of Ukraine before getting their agreements. We need it to prevent the practice being continued of our history being taught in accordance with the Kremlin’s and the late USSR’s propaganda, which lingers in the minds of many people. This fully corresponds to the course of denazification and decommunization. The Kremlin propaganda was part of the measures intended at keeping Europe in the area of Soviet influence. This process has not been completed.”
S.S.: “Our institute has seen in person people, particularly from Spain, who were Sovietologists, so to speak, Russia-understanders, back in the Soviet time. They did not like Americans who supported the Franco regime, and believed that the Soviet Union supported the democrats in Spain. They have finally been disappointed with Russia lately. Such people come to us proposing joint projects. In particular, we work with a Spanish organization to bring to Kyiv opinion leaders from nations where the problem of the Russian propaganda machine’s influence is the most acute, like Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Austria, France... Russia’s own actions destroy the ‘Russian World,’ which it tried to build.”
Dmitry SHUSHARIN, Russian political journalist, Moscow, joined the discussion on Skype:
“It is impossible not to resist Putin. Otherwise he will ruin all of us. As far as I understand, people who gathered in the office of the newspaper Den/The Day don’t want to die. Me too.
“Speaking about mass media, I mean the informational resistance. We should say that we cannot follow the way taken by the Kremlin propaganda apparatus. It chose several directions at once, but it is working in a very powerful way and is oriented at the vile side of human nature – both in European elite, and not only it – and the electorate, as well as the Russian diaspora. We should understand that the entire Russian diaspora is for the most part pro-Kremlin.
“Ukraine must be determined with its PR policy. You should begin with the understanding of what image Ukraine wants to advance. The image of a victim-country is a no-win choice. Meanwhile, you should appeal not to the political elite (I don’t trust it), but the electorate, the broad public – with explanation of how Ukraine stood in the breach of the new Russian expansion. This fact must be explained to the Europeans in a very clear manner.
“There is one more, no less important, detail: we see very well which countries are defending Ukraine in the most consistent way. These are Australia and Canada. Inside of these countries political elites depend on a large part of Ukrainian electorate. Therefore you shouldn’t exclude the Ukrainian diaspora, although it may be a local phenomenon.”
O.Ts.: “How well is the difference in the Russian society felt concerning the events in Ukraine? Can we hear your voice, sometimes the voices of journalists who give sober assessment? As for the mass, are any forums taking place where one can express his opinion? It is impossible that people keep silent and don’t notice anything.”
“UKRAINE MUST BUILD ITS IMAGE AND TELL ITS HISTORY”
Gerhard GNAUCK, German journalist:
“Many people in the West have no distinct image of Ukraine. Even if there is some, it is only fragmentary. Ukraine must build its image and tell its story. You should start with this, before starting to fight the other image.
“However, if someone wants to understand the history of Ukraine or Russia, the historical background is necessary. One of such examples is Bykivnia. This is the largest burial of the victims of the Communist system. This is Oswiecim of the Communism.
“This is an important place where not only Ukrainians, but Poles go too. I think the guests from abroad must be shown Bykivnia, because it is a place of the world importance. If someone sees the country with their own eyes, this changes a lot.
“You should speak openly about the painful points, anti-Semitism, collaboration. History won’t change. Everything depends on the fact that people are speaking about it today.
“As for today’s situation in Ukraine, authoritative people could lead a more active dialog with the international community.
“Last year Ukrainian writers Tania Maliarchuk, Yurii Andrukhovych, Taras Prokhasko, and Serhii Zhadan went on tour across Germany. They told to full houses about the situation in Ukraine and near it. You need to look for channels and ways for dialogs where there are no ways for dialogs yet.
“Only societies of journalists and newspapers can resist the propaganda. But you shouldn’t forget that mass media is a free and living organism, and it cannot be said what to do. On the other hand, it would be good to reinforce the information work about Ukraine in Germany or other countries. But this is the task for the civil society. For example, in Berlin there is a group ‘Partners of Eastern Europe.’ It will invite children from the families that have suffered from this conflict in Ukraine for the vacation to Germany. This group organizers trips and meetings.
“I find the Ukrainian project StopFake a successful example of resisting Russian propaganda. Another example is British website Bellingcat. It highlighted in detail the topic of Boeing MH17 which was shot down in the air above Ukraine. On a very professional level and concrete examples, it showed that it was quite possible that Russian and pro-Russian forces brought the Buk missile systems to the territory of Ukraine and shot down this plane. German magazine Der Spiegel created a very good video story as well.”
Edward LUCAS, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis:
“The first thing I want to say as a Westerner is that we need to learn from you guys. The Ukrainians, just like the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians, the Georgians, and others, are way ahead of us in the West in the terms of understanding the way in which the Kremlin uses information as a weapon. It is not just that many of you grew up in the Soviet Union, have experience of Soviet propaganda, and also that you can speak Russian mostly much better than we do, but you also have a real fingertip feeling for what’s happening, you can smell stuff that we can’t smell.
“Among the things that I’m working on in my Washington and Warsaw, is trying to get some of your information warfare experts over to Brussels, and Berlin, and London, and Washington, and other Western capitals, so that you can help train our journalists, editors, policy-makers and others to understand what’s going on, because you guys get this in a way that we don’t.
“I do think there are some things you could do more in the West, where Russian propaganda has really done very well, I am afraid to say. And I am ashamed, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, that my country has been one of the places where Russian propaganda has perhaps done massively well. But we need your help, and I think that Ukrainians abroad can do things that embassies can’t do. And I’m going just to suggest a few of them.
“One is social media. I think that we could have a stronger Ukrainian presence in social media, engaging not with the trolls, because it’s a waste of time, but really pushing back, if you have a Western news outlet which says that Crimea is historically Russian, or that there are neo-Nazis in Ukrainian government, or whether it wittingly or unwittingly reproduces these, kind of, Kremlin tropes, these Kremlin lies, Kremlin myths.
“We should call them out. We should object. And I think a good lesson here comes from the Poles who have done a really good job in finding anyone who uses the phrase “Polish death camp.” Obviously, they weren’t Polish death camps, these were in occupied Poland and were run by Nazi Germans. But the Poles decided it was a big problem to them in terms of Poland’s image, that they were being taunted with complicity in the Holocaust. And every Polish embassy, every Polish organization just get stuck in there, it comes on Google news that some local paper, or radio station, or someone has used this phrase. Then they can stalk it and object to it.
“So, that’s one thing to do. I think more generally, the Ukrainian foreign service still has some habits of the old Soviet bureaucracy. People are quite risk-averse, they think they’ll be punished if they make mistakes, it’s better not to make mistakes than to make mistakes in a good cause. And it varies very much: some Ukrainian embassies are fantastic, others are good at some things and worse at others, some are really, I think, shamefully passive. And I think every Ukrainian should say, “I’m paying taxes for this, I want my embassies, my consulates, all my diplomatic missions to be out there in the front line of information warfare, getting engaged, turning up to events, complaining to editors, writing letters, writing op-eds, blitzing social media. And if sometimes things go wrong, it is better to make a few things wrong in a battle that you are winning than to make no mistakes in a battle that you’re losing.
“I think that compared to where Ukraine was two years ago, you’re ahead now. And the people understand that this problem is not about what you did, and is not about anything that the EU did, it’s about something that Putin did. So, the problem is that people see that the war in Ukraine is a symptom of a wider problem, and that problem is a problem for all of Europe, for the whole European community. People understand that reforms are happening, they know that Ukrainians have lots of problems, but they also see that there is some progress.
“I do think you get to do a better job of highlighting the things that are going right in Ukraine. We have a lot of very good reporting from the front line, I think I’d like a little bit more about successes in anti-corruption, successes in public administration. Which is the best run city, the best run town, the best run local district in Ukraine. Let’s have some good examples of how those reforms are happening. Even if they are small ones, they still encourage a sense of hope, optimism, both at home and abroad. So, I can see a front for a bit more there.
“But in general, I think it’s going to be a long, long struggle, it’s not going to be done quickly. You are unfortunately doing most of the work, I’m sorry about that because you are most vulnerable, poorest, mini-wage, weakest of our allies, and you are having to bear the greatest burden, I’m sorry about that. But I do think that if we keep our spirits up and stay determined, we can win this one.”
“THE BEST THING THAT CAN BE OPPOSED TO THE RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA BY UKRAINE IS EUROPEANIZATION OF EVERYDAY LIFE”
Semen NOVOPRUDSKY, independent journalist, Moscow:
“Ukraine has never been independent in Putin’s mind. Moreover, it has never had the right for own statehood. Apart from personal fears for his own fate, the collapse of Yanukovych’s regime made Putin want to take revenge for Ukraine’s step to real political independence from Russia. However, over the past several years, especially when the attempts to create ‘Novorossia’ in eight Ukrainian oblasts failed, Putin is involved not in advancing of the ‘Russian World’ in Ukraine, rather into channeling the collapse of his own home policy and economic course into the logic of war with the West. In this situation the subjectivity of Ukraine is really wiped out in Putin’s logic to a kind of an advanced post in Russia’s struggle with the West. Besides, Putin has many times said that he considers Russia and Ukraine as one state. Apart from that, Russia has recently been changing the rhetoric concerning its role in the Ukrainian conflict. Previously the Kremlin tried to lie openly that it was not involved in the events in the Donbas, but now it is trying to convince the world that it is containing the so-called DNR and LNR and preventing the latter from starting a total war with new energy.
“Now even the concept of the ‘Russian World’ is a way of wiping out the subjectivity of Ukraine. Russia it trying to discredit everything that is going on in Ukraine, the world, and especially internal Russian information space, as much as possible (it is impossible to convince anyone that in DNR and LNR Russia is protecting Russians, because Putin denies that Russian servicemen are present in the Donbas, so, there is no one to defend) and is trying to destroy the Ukrainian economy using all means, waiting for the economic collapse of Ukraine.
“Russian task is not in specially distorting the image of Ukraine, rather in using the war, the information war, and actually the real military actions in the Donbas, as a means to split Europe. Russia is trying to break the united front of the anti-sanctions of the US and the EU, which came as a no less surprise to Putin than for Europe the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the attempt to further dismembering of Ukraine. In this sense I think that for Ukraine there is no more important task than demonstration of the efficiency of power, its honesty and economic reforms. It is impossible to distort your own or someone else’s image for ever. Russia has pretended for a long time to be a negotiable partner of the West and systemic political player, but in fact it is neither of that. But the moment of the truth has come, and the essence of Putinism has been exposed, now current Russian power will hardly be able to convince the leading world states that it is predictable and politically adequate.
“Strange as it would seem, the task of Russian and Ukrainian journalists is not changing because of what has happened in relations between our countries over the past 1.5-2 years. This task is formulated very simply: ‘say and write only the truth, the truth and nothing but the truth.’ In Russia it may be even more important to write not only the truth about Ukraine, but about it as well, rather about Russia and its role in Ukrainian events.
“In Russia examples of resistance are the honest reports from the Donbas made by wonderful military reporter from Novaya Gazeta Pavel Kanygin and the public activity of the deputy of Pskov City Council Lev Shlosberg, who published his own investigation into the death of Russian paratroopers in Ukraine, and many other texts by honest Russian journalists. Slipping into the informational nonsense is fast, and it is always a long and painful process to get out of this information coma. An example of this was Hitler’s Germany, which did not get rid of the propaganda darkness of Nazism overnight, and did so only after its catastrophic defeat in the unjust war. But the fact that there is no way to recover in such cases doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make any attempts. The best thing Ukraine can oppose to the Russian propaganda is consistent reforms, Europeanization of everyday life, cleansing of the power from the evil of corruption. For the Russian journalists the only thing left is using any opportunity to describe the characteristics of the national catastrophe which will result from the current course of the Kremlin.”