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Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs at the U. S. Department of State and Ariel Cohen, Director of Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security discuss Russian information wars in Kyiv on Nov. 19 at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference. © Anastasia Vlasova
Oksana Lyachynska, Kyiv Post.
What does the Russian propaganda war mean for Ukraine and the world? How do you fight it? Experts from the United States, Britain and Ukraine attempted to answer these and other questions at the Kyiv Post Tiger Conference.
Below are some of the highlights from their talks.
Macon Phillips, coordinator of Bureau of International Information Programs at the U.S. Department of State
“Russia, the Kremlin push a lot of disinformation and you nearly want to argue about every individual piece of information, why it’s right or wrong. … We need to do more in terms of response. We need to actually protect the open system of media that is by far the best way to respond to these things.”
“The most effective way to counter the information war here in Ukraine is for Ukraine to succeed. We can spend all of our time trying to respond to this or that. But ultimate reality is going to drive that. If the Ukrainian government continues to implement reforms, continues to move forward, continues to sustain itself, eventually the reality will reach everyone.”
“The best way to respond to misinformation is with the truth. But the truth is a difficult thing to talk about.”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ambassador-at-Large for Strategic Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
“Russian information aggression is a threat not only to Ukraine but to all democracies. … The only difference is that Ukraine is in the front line.”
“What Russians are doing is not information attacks or information campaigns or information operations. They created a comprehensive reality encompassing all aspects of their interests. When you have to confront reality you have to create your own reality.”
“Russian information machine is built on fakes and manipulation, so if we want to win this game we have to focus on credibility.”
“It’s about changing communication culture inside the Ukrainian government. For example, minister of defense is key here. And we are working to change the communication culture to become more available for media. This is critical.”
“Russian strategy is based on the use of weapons of mass destruction. By this I mean Russia Today, Sputnik, army of trolls, bots, proxies, paid commentators. We base our strategy on something completely different, we base it on opinion leaders. I call them precision weapons. What cannot be done by us, can be done by opinion leaders in their countries. They can help us to disseminate the message. All we have to do is make them trust. They need to have trust in us.”
Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security
“We believe that Ukraine can make it as a European, free, Western-minded country. So does Vladimir Putin. And he is scared of that because an alternative Slavic, Eastern Slavic, Orthodox, half-of-the-country Russian-speaking country next to Russia is something they cannot tolerate. And information warfare is a very-very important part of the fight that has been launched.”
“To me Ukraine is now fighting its war for independence. This is where the United States was in 1776, where Israel was in 1948. This is creation of a nation. A part of it is an understanding that information is one of the battle fields, it’s an integral part of the strategy, of the war fighting.”
“To answer your question about Ukraine, what this is going to be in terms of the information campaign or information warfare, there is a famous quote from the cult novel of the Soviet times “The Twelve Chairs”: ”Saving of those who sink is the matter for those who sink themselves.” So, it will be up for Ukraine.”
Timothy Ash, London-based head of emerging market research for Standard Bank
“Over twenty years Russian interests infiltrated the West.”
“To know your enemy is key. The Russian state knows exactly how West functions because they infiltrated business, banking, academia, journalism, politics in the West. … The infiltration of Russian interests in the West is a huge threat to Western values and Western civilization. … The weaknesses of European Union is certainly been exploited.”
“This is a wonderful opportunity for radical change. Countries very really get this opportunity. Crises create opportunities, they force change. Ukraine is in desperate need of deep structural change. Putin has done a huge favor by uniting the population around this concept of European values. There is the price, but the fighting for democracy and freedom is worth it.”
Paul Niland, managing director of PAN Publishing
“The Russian media is acting to continue this fight to encourage people as volunteers to come and to kill people in the east of Ukraine. And for that reason my conclusion is that the Kremlin is directly responsible for all those deaths. They are directing media campaign, they are responsible.”
“The second conclusion is as long as Russia’s media campaign against Ukraine continues we can expect the hot war continue as well. They go hand in hand one to support the other.”
As the economy nosedives, the public mood threatens to plunge right alongside it — and some of the Kremlin’s more questionable economic moves may come back to haunt the people who made them happen. Maxim Stulov / Vedomosti
Alexey Eremenko, The Moscow Times.
As the Russian economy ambles toward recession, the government grapples with how to explain the downturn — no easy feat after 15 years of slowly mounting prosperity and President Vladimir Putin’s campaign promises of lavish social spending.
So far, the authorities have been inclined to blame external factors, such as sanctions imposed by the West over accusations of Russian meddling in Ukraine and the sliding price of oil, which at least some Kremlin backers blame on a covert deal between Washington and the Gulf monarchies.
The approach is clearly working, with Putin’s approval ratings resting comfortably above 80 percent, and widespread public adoration fueled by a patriotic euphoria over said meddling in Ukraine.
But as the economy nosedives, the public mood threatens to plunge right alongside it — and some of the Kremlin’s more questionable economic moves may come back to haunt the people who made them happen.
The Moscow Times has compiled a list of 10 economic moves currently hitting the Russian business community and/or the general populace that the government has had a hand in. The impact of most items on the list — up to and including the hypothetical risk of “smoker riots” — is expected to be felt in 2015, just around the corner.
1. Falling Ruble
The ruble has lost 38 percent of its value versus the U.S. dollar since the start of the year, and earlier this month the Central Bank stopped supporting the exchange rate, apparently due to shrinking currency reserves. The devaluation is expected to hit all industries with foreign connections in the coming year, including retail, tourism and dining. About 25 percent of the restaurants in Moscow are expected to shut down next year, consumer confidence is sliding, and clothes shopping and travel abroad are becoming less accessible to middle-class Russians.
2. Borrowing Restrictions
The EU and U.S. have limited access to international capital for Russia’s state-owned banks and corporations, including VTB, Sberbank and Rosneft, because of Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine. Other Russian banks and companies are also reportedly struggling to borrow internationally, with foreign lenders increasingly distrustful of Russian businesses in light of a geopolitical standoff.
The end result is obstructed access to capital and rising borrowing costs for Russian companies, which already have a corporate debt of $600 billion as of October, according to Central Bank data.
3. Food Sanctions
One of the most questioned countermoves against the Western sanctions was an embargo on food exports from the U.S. and most European countries. The government promised that the embargo would boost domestic productivity, and that Asian and South American exports would make up for the rest. But dairy and meat imports have shrunk by a third, according to customs data, and food inflation this year has neared double digits, the State Statistics Service said this month.
In what has arguably been the highest-profile corporate scandal since the fall of oil giant Yukos in the 2000s, the government earlier this year voided the 2003 privatization deal for oil company Bashneft, nationalizing the controlling stake and placing its owner Vladimir Yevtushenkov under house arrest.
The selective inspection of a single privatization deal among dozens prompted speculations about its motives — with many commentators referring to it as a takeover attempt by state-run Rosneft. The company denied it, but the move — which highlighted a lack of property-right guarantees in Russia — did nothing to boost investor confidence, which had already taken a hit from political risks in the country.
5. New Business Duty
As falling oil prices ($79.2 per barrel of Brent as of Tuesday) drain the state coffers, the government is struggling for revenue and apparently expects small businesses to foot the bill. Though plans for a sales tax have been shelved, a government-penned bill under review in the State Duma proposes a new duty for small businesses of all stripes, from hairdressers to grocery stores, transportation firms and even public pay-per-use toilets.
The quarterly municipal duty is to vary from 6,000 to 600,000 rubles ($130 to $13,000). Analysts said it would cripple Russia’s already heavily taxed small and mid-sized businesses, which — according to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — account for a mere 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, compared with 50-60 percent in developed countries.
6. Gas Prices
As oil prices plummet, gasoline prices in Russia continue to soar (9 percent since the start of the year, to about 33 rubles, or $0.70, per liter). A hike to 50 rubles ($1.06) per liter is expected in 2015 because of new duties. Given that Russia is a leading oil producer, the government will have a hard time selling the hike to millions of motorists nationwide — and that is without mentioning the negative impact of increased transportation costs on the economy.
7. Property Tax
Russian real estate tax is currently a blip on the radar of public spending, but new rules will cause it to surge 10 to 20 times by 2016, to between 5,000 and 26,000 rubles ($107 to $550) a year for typical Moscow apartments, according estimates by news site Realty.NewsRu.com.
The tax has been in talks for years, continually mothballed over fear of public discontent, especially among apartment owners in the lower income brackets. Given the slowing economy and rising prices, discontent is exactly what can be expected to happen when hefty new bills hit mailboxes everywhere.
8. Pension Freeze
The government has approved a freeze of a combined 540 billion rubles ($11.5 billion) of non-governmental pension fund savings for 2014 and 2015, with the money expected to be spent on more immediate state projects. Simultaneously, it expects to spend the last 3 trillion rubles ($64 billion) from the state’s National Welfare Fund — intended as backup for the flagging, also state-run Pension Fund. The money has been earmarked for state corporations, with Rosneft and Russian Railways having already requested 1.5 trillion rubles each.
Though the official line is that the savings will be returned, and emptying the National Welfare Fund will boost the economy, many observers are skeptical. The state risks running out of emergency savings, while simultaneously incurring the ire of 28 millions of Russians who keep their pension money in those plundered private funds.
9. Social Spending Cuts
State spending on health care and education will be slashed in 2015 by 21 percent and 6 percent year-on-year, respectively, as outlined in the draft state budget. In Moscow, a handful of public hospitals are slated to be shut down — and replaced by malls and high-end real estate — already triggering street protests by medics.
10. Tourism Slump
The Russian tourism industry is in its death throes, with dozens of travel agencies having declared bankruptcy this year, in many cases leaving hundreds of tourists stranded at a time. A story by the Kommersant newspaper in October linked the industry’s turmoil to decreased revenues caused by the government prohibiting about 4 million officials, or 22 percent of all tourists, from traveling abroad over fears that they risked being seized by Western spy agencies. And that was before the ruble’s devaluation and its devastating effect on tourism (see above).
Honorary Mention: Tobacco Tax Hike
The State Duma last week approved a new increase in tobacco excise tax, the second in two years. Cigarette brands used by 80 percent of smokers will become about 10 rubles ($0.20) more expensive per pack, Kommersant said.
While modest, the hike may prove to be the final straw as far as public patience is concerned. In a country where the average salary is 22,000 rubles ($460) and half of the male population is smoking, “smoker riots” are undesirable but possible.
(L to R) France’s President Francois Hollande, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit (ASEM) in Milan, Oct. 17, 2014.
Talks between Russia, Ukraine and European governments on Friday were “full of misunderstandings and disagreements,” the Kremlin said, undercutting more upbeat messages from leaders hoping for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at the start of a meeting with European leaders aimed at patching up a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and resolving a dispute over gas supplies.
The various leaders emerged an hour later telling reporters some progress had been made and promising further talks.
“It was good, it was positive,” a smiling Putin told reporters after the meeting, held on the margins of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later poured cold water on hopes of any breakthrough, saying “certain participants” had taken an “absolutely biased, non-flexible, non-diplomatic” approach to Ukraine.
“The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, the exchange of opinion is in progress,” he said.
A similar message emerged overnight after Putin met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a formerly cordial relationship that has come under heavy strain from Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was reported by both sides to have made little progress, with the Kremlin saying “serious differences” remained in their analysis of the crisis.
Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due meet later in the day, their aides said.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its support for east Ukraine’s separatists.
The European leaders urged Russia to do more to end constant, deadly violations of a cease-fire that was agreed by Putin and Poroshenko last month in Minsk, saying Russia needed to fulfil its commitments.
Officials said local elections and the issue of using unmanned drone aircraft for surveillance of the borders between Russia and Ukraine were particular sticky points in the discussions, with Russia pushing to have its drones taking part alongside those offered by France and Germany.
The crisis in relations with Kiev has led Russia to cut gas supplies to Ukraine because of unpaid bills. The European Union fears this could threaten disruptions in the gas flow to the rest of the continent this winter, and is working hard to broker a deal.
Russia is Europe’s biggest gas supplier, accounting for around a third of demand, and the European Union gets about half of the Russian gas it uses via Ukraine.
The stand-off over pricing is the third in a decade between Moscow and Kiev, though this time tensions are higher because of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters that Russia, Ukraine and EU officials would meet in Brussels to try to resolve the gas row.
Taking the lead in the diplomacy, Merkel saw Poroshenko on Thursday evening and then met Putin until well after midnight — an encounter that was significantly delayed because the Russian president arrived in Milan much later than expected.
Speaking off the record, a German source said Putin had not been in a “too constructive mood.”
Putin had warned on Thursday that Russia would reduce gas supplies to Europe if Ukraine took gas from the transit pipeline to cover its own needs, although he added that he was “hopeful” it would not come to that.
More than 3,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out in mid-April when armed separatists declared they were setting up their own state.
Although Putin announced this week that Russian troops near the border with Ukraine would be pulled back, Western officials want to see clear evidence that Moscow is acting on this.
“Vladimir Putin said very clearly he doesn’t want a frozen conflict and doesn’t want a divided Ukraine. But if that’s the case, then Russia now needs to take the actions to put in place all that has been agreed,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“If those things don’t happen, then clearly the European Union, Britain included, must keep in place the sanctions and the pressure so we don’t have this sort of conflict in our continent.”
Conscripts of the National Guard, which is a part of police troops, demand demobilization during an Oct. 13 protest by the president’s office. Taras Berezovets says the rally was a rehearsal of a coup instigated by Russia. © Pavlo Podufalov
After realizing that it’s impossible to create Novorossiya, the Kremlin will move to a new tactic for destabilization of Ukraine. It will bribe the military officers, special services and police with the aim of organizing a military coup to remove the legally elected government in Ukraine.
Simultaneous protests of servicemen of the National Guard (the special police unit) on Oct. 13 and at the same time in two different capitals, the capital of independent Ukraine Kyiv and the Soviet-era capital, Kharkiv, and another attempt at a protest in Chernihiv is a rehearsal by the Russian special forces before organizing a military coup in Ukraine.
The rehearsal of an attack on the Verkhovna Rada on Oct. 14 that followed, belongs to the same category. All political forces that took part in that day’s celebrations (of creation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA), denied any involvement in the attack.
Chief commander of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko shares this view. He said that the meeting of draftees from the National Guard outside of the presidential administration was a provocation of foreign special services.
“It was a pity to watch adult men who fell for a provocation of the foreign special services and took part in this not-so-numerous action and attempt to discredit the Ukrainian army,” Poroshenko was quoted by lb.ua as saying in Zaporizhya.
He is spot on in this case. The Kremlin suffered a serious military fiasco in its war in Donbas. Creation of a Novorossiya in the form that Vladimir Putin envisaged, is impossible. And this fact cannot be covered by any amount of brainwashing in Russia by the Kremlin propaganda.
If you think that Ukraine has lost everything and sincerely believe that the West has betrayed us, here is what an authoritative Russian expert says about it.
The best representatives of the special services of the airborne troops and special forces of the army, were “ground outside of the Donetsk airport,” according to independent Russian journalist Stepan Demura.
He also says that NATO will soon be in Kharkiv as a result of a poorly planned military operation in Donbas.
There is also a difficult winter looming, which for the Kremlin can become very problematic in terms of trade of its main commodities that make much of the Russian gross domestic product, oil and gas. Even the primary school children (in Ukraine) know that oil price has been sliding.
Moreover, there is a really complex problem to solve of providing for 2.5 million Crimean residents in the winter, and the occupying military force on the peninsula. As a Crimean native, I will have to disappoint those who believe that the Kerch ferries will suffice for that.
In reality, during the half year of occupation, Russia has not made even a half-hearted attempt to make physical improvements at the crossing, even by buying several large ferries. The Greek ferry Dorius, which arrived in July, only fits 600 people and has been under repairs more than it has been carrying passengers. Moreover, the Black Sea storms that rage around the crossing, have always paralyzed the work of ferries in the winter. So, you can forget about the stable work of the crossing.
In these circumstances there are few options left for Putin. One is to start a full-scale attack with the aim of creating a corridor to Crimea through Donetsk, Zaporizhya and Kherson regions. Two is to start humiliating negotiations with Poroshenko to either allow Russian caravans through Ukraine’s territory, or ask Ukraine to renew supplies of its goods to Crimea.
But what about food sanctions, you might ask. It seems that the whole of Russia, choking on its gag reflex, will live on a diet of Ryazan swedes and Voronezh turnips, washing it down with powdered milk, while Crimea will be eating good quality Ukrainian food.
But what else has Kremlin got to do if the Potemkin-style bridge over the Kerch straigh has remained a public relations stint, while the hunger is real?
This is why the Kremlin has taken up the tried-and-tested Soviet technology of organizing a military coup. It has worked in Afghanistan and other republics, and is described well in the Wikipedia article about the removal of President Hafizullah Amin in Afghanistan.
In the hard times of trials the impact of a person with a gun is bigger than ever. If you top that with the network of agents developed under President Viktor Yanukovych, and then offer material interest for the uniformed people, you can achieve your goal.
This is why I am convinced that the Oct. 13 events in Kyiv and Kharkiv that featured representatives of the National Guard were a test of Kyiv’s reaction to a potential military coup in the conditions of war. If there are no criminal cases started in the next few days for leaving the place of permanent deployment, disobeying orders and participation in illegal protests, this would mean that the military prosecutors are not worth their pay.
Kyiv Post+ offers special coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Soldiers are the people who have given an oath. They cannot, like simple mortals, just come out and strike. They simply don’t have this right, especially in the times of war. How could they have simply locked the officers in the store rooms and go to Kyiv, like they say they did? Are there people who actually believe this farce?
Moreover, unlike the privates who do not carry weapons all the time, officers are always armed. How could one possibly disarm a trained officer?
In any case, suppressing an embryo of a coup is always easier than dealing with its aftermaths, which the Kremlin will continue attempting to organize as the protest sentiments grow in Ukraine.
According to the publicly available information, the protest actions of the National Guard in Kyiv and Kharkiv were coordinated by the same administrator in Kherson through the Russian social network Vkontakte.
This is enough entry data for a clever person. The case should now be taken over by the professionals from the special services. And the patriots, in the meantime, should make sure the government does not forget the crimes against national security that we have seen in the past few days.
(Taras Berezovets is a political consultant and owner of Berta consultancy).
The Kremlin is considering unplugging Russia from the global Internet. 1 Russian authorities say the extreme measure would only be taken in the event of military conflict or during “foreign-sponsored protests.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has in the past called the internet a special CIA project, has called a meeting of his security council for Monday to discuss the proposal.
- Basically isolating russian citizens from the outside world and news networks. ↩