As Jamala’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest demonstrates, Ukraine will be making the news again in 2016 —news particularly full of controversies and conspiracies. Everything started back in November 2013 when then-president Viktor Yanukovytch suspended talks on the Association Agreement with the European Union. Seeing in this move a Russian interference, mass protests spurred in Kyiv, eventually forcing “Moscow’s man” to relinquish office and flee the country. Days after the rise to power of Euromaidan supporters, unrests spread to the Russophone eastern and southern regions of Ukraine condemning the recent events as an unlawful coup d’état by far-left extremists. These pro-Russian movements led to the annexation of Crimea to Russia in March 2014, while metastasizing in the Donestk and Luhansk oblasts into an ongoing armed-conflict between separatist groups and the Ukrainian army. Russia’s participation in the conflict has raised severe criticism from the international community, Moscow being accused of deliberately destabilising the country and breaking international law.
A Competing Narrative Gaining Relevance
And so the story goes. But what do we really know about the Ukrainian crisis? To what extent is the EU responsible for the outbreak of the conflict? Didn’t the West provide logistic support to the Euromaidan movement? How lawful is the new Ukrainian government? What is the Kremlin’s real degree of implication in the conflict? Under what specific conditions do peoples have the right to self-determination? Could Russia be right after all? Isn’t the West quite hypocritical since it has proven in the past that it was willing to circumvent international laws to safeguard its interests? These questions reflect the alternative narrative about the Ukrainian conflict that has progressively emerged in the Russian media since the beginning of the crisis. This line of reasoning is not novel as such. Back during the Colour Revolutions of the 2000s and the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, the Kremlin had made similar arguments, challenging Western policies and values about free trade, democracy and the rule of law, and calling for another way, a Russian way. In fact, since Vladimir Putin’s 2007 speech in Munich, there is little doubt about Moscow’s foreign policy doctrine: the establishment of a multipolar world and a return to realism in international relations —i.e. the recognition of regional powers’ strategic interests in their own area of influence. To do so, targeting the EU appears as the most sensible strategy since Europe shares greater ties with Russia and that alienating it from the US would significantly undermine the current hegemonic bloc.
Russia’s mutlipolar narrative feeds on anti-American and anti-capitalist feelings that have gained increasing relevance in Europe.
Until now, Europe had remained rather hermetic to such discourse. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia seems to have found a more receptive public in European audiences. The reasons for that are plentiful. First and foremost, while most western powers cut back their Russian-language services following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia pursued its efforts in the area of international strategic communication. Over the last two decades, the Kremlin has dramatically increased its capacities to reach international audiences. Through its international medias such as Russia Today, Sputnik and Russia Beyond the Headlines, the Kremlin is now able to broadcast all over the world not only in English but also in various other languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Chinese, making Moscow’s truth more accessible. Another explanation is the fact that Russia’s multipolar narrative feeds on anti-American and anti-capitalist feelings that have gained increasing relevance in Europe since the Great Financial Crisis, with the rise of popular movements questioning the established order. In addition, in former Soviet states now part of the EU, the soft power concept of Russkiy Mir (literally “Russian world”) developed by the Kremlin since 2007 raises serious concerns given the significant proportion of Russian-speaking minorities in their population and their cultural proximity with Russia. The current political developments in Poland only confirm such worrying social trends.
Information warfare between the Eu and russia?
Those “useful idiots” as they have become known in Brussels’ political circles —useful to the Kremlin since particularly receptive to Russian propaganda, but idiots for believing that Russia could ever constitute a credible alternative— have now been identified as one of the most pressing issues to be addressed by European governments. Indeed, in its conclusions of 20 March 2015, the European Council ‘stressed the need to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns’. Since then, a few advances have been made. An East StratCom Team was created within the European External Action Services with the aims of promoting EU policies and values, enhancing media environment and tackling disinformation activities. The task force has already set up various initiatives such as weekly disinformation reviews and digests, along with campaigns on social networks under the banners ‘EU Mythbusters’ and ‘EuvsDisinfo’. The European Parliament will also discuss a resolution on ‘EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties’ during the plenary in September. Overall, European institutions are focused on increasing the EU’s communication capacities as well as building networks of communicators (in cooperation with the civil society) in order to raise media literacy and freedom of expression in the EU and European neighbourhoods.
When reading the working papers already published by European institutions on the matter, it makes little doubt that the confrontation between Russia and the West has reached a whole new level. Russia’s communication strategy is actually considered the same level of threat as Da’esh’s propaganda and radicalization methods. As a matter of fact, the term ‘information warfare’ is openly used by European officials. To some extent, this is justified. Indeed, in Ukraine, Russia did use an information warfare technique called ‘reflexive control’ to achieve its military objectives. Acknowledging Russia’s military inferiority, this soviet tactic consists of shaping the enemy’s perception of the situation on the ground in order to prevent direct confrontation. By concealing its real intentions as well as the presence of Russian armed forces in Crimea and the Donbass, Russia blurred the line of legality. Creating doubt and uncertainty, this tactic therefore made it difficult for the West to clearly assess the situation and decide on a way forward. The EU usually prefers inaction and Russia’s information operations provided support for this policy, giving Moscow enough leeway to annexe Crimea and to significantly consolidate its position in the Donbass. The Kremlin’s international media machinery played a decisive role in such strategies of confusion and destabilisation through the distillation of biased information and alternative narrative about the conflict. As such, the EU’s new strategic communication plan to tackle disinformation campaigns is completely legitimate.
The problem is not simply one of bad strategic thinking; it is essentially one of lack of mutual understanding.
It is quite ironic however that while acknowledging the importance of strategic communication in the confrontation over Ukraine, Russia and the West overlook the fact that it is precisely a failure of communication that led to the crisis in the first place. The Ukrainian conflict is first and foremost a massive diplomatic failure. While the EU downplayed the social instability of Ukraine and failed to recognise the strategic importance that the country constitutes to Russia, the Kremlin clearly played a zero-sum game, making any constructive dialogue impossible and excluding itself from key decisions. Nevertheless, the problem is not simply one of bad strategic thinking; it is essentially one of lack of mutual understanding.
The EU as an institution is fairly recent, constantly evolving and very complex, operating in mysterious and impenetrable ways even for its own citizens. Making information about the EU more accessible could be highly beneficial and smooth out its external relations. Similarly, Russia is a complicated country with a rich history, stretching over two continents and encompassing various ethnicities and cultures. Despite a certain cultural proximity, Russia is distinctively different and cannot be approached with the same standards as any other European country. As such, if not pressed to extremes, the current strategic communication plans emerging in both Russia and the West could constitute useful tools to improve mutual understanding. They could foster better relations in the future, providing concrete examples about Russian and European traditions, cultures, daily achievements and common ambitions to a larger audience. How those communication networks will be used however ultimately depends on the evolution of the conflict in Ukraine, where both separatist groups and the Ukrainian army seem unfortunately still shrouded in the darkness.
Cover Photo: futureatlas.com (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0