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Flipping the Hourglass: Ignoring History’s Lesson in Ukraine

Eighty-five years ago, Ukraine suffered at the hands of Stalin’s Soviet Union and to this day continues to fight for recognition of Holodomor, a genocide that killed more than 10 million people.

The Atlantic Council held an event titled “Connecting Ukraine’s Past to Present: From Holodomor to the War in Donbas” that drew a parallel between the events and disinformation campaign of 1932-1933 and the current invasion of Ukrainian territory and annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. 

The discussion opened with a trailer of the newly released feature film Bitter Harvest. Imagery of rolling, golden fields of grain as well as clips of muddy trenches stacked with bodies both accurately represent the tumultuous period that Ukraine endured. The overarching goal of the movie is to raise awareness about the Holodomor and open dialogue about this tragic and defining atrocity in Ukraine’s history.  

The featured panelists spoke at length about how Russia’s current actions and disinformation in eastern Ukraine and Crimea directly parallel the actions of the Soviet Union in 1933 and the campaign of disinformation that it waged in order to conceal the truth. Walter Duranty, the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, assisted the regime in spinning tales for foreign audiences through his articles, famously writing, “there is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” This is strikingly similar to what we are seeing today from the Russian Federation. The manipulation of evidence and inflammatory claims after the downing of MH-17 exemplifies the active and constant bombardment of Russian aggression against the truth.  

Nadia McConnell, the President of the US-Ukraine Business Council, presented on the Soviet Union’s playbook of concealing the truth and spreading disinformation that is being regurgitated by the Kremlin today. Just like Stalin’s USSR, Putin’s Russia is implementing and perfecting tactics of denial, propaganda, offering alternative narratives, creating fake stories under guises of legitimate actors, identifying experts or famous leaders who unwittingly support the regime, and vilifying or attacking those that seek the truth. In February of 2014, “little green men” without insignia appeared on the Crimean Peninsula and took control of key strategic positions and infrastructure while President Putin boldly refuted the claim that Russian troops had invaded Ukrainian territory. By March, Russia had conducted a Peninsula-wide referendum and annexed Crimea, which it peddled as free and fair employing modern ‘useful idiots’ from allied right-wing parties in Western Europe. Russia then attacked those who questioned the “democratic results” of the referendum, and produced its own polling results of Crimean sentiments of the annexation. 

Ukraine is not the only target of Russia’s disinformation strategy. Russian-sponsored attacks have been rampant in Europe, specifically in Germany ahead of its parliamentary elections later this year.  Russian propaganda also played a role in the April 2016 Dutch referendum regarding Ukraine’s accession to the EU.  And Moscow has used various financial vehicle to support Marine LePen, the Front National candidate for president in France. In the hopes of inoculating the public against Russian disinformation, Naphtali Rivkin - Research Fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation - called for a defense system that informs the West about the targets and content of disinformation. 

IRI has been at the forefront of combating this issue through its Beacon Project. Through its use of soft power, the Kremlin has been polarizing attitudes in target countries and capitalizing on the public’s decreasing trust in democratic institutions. By fostering dialogue among political and civil society leaders, the Beacon Project has helped local actors strengthen liberal democracy and illuminate the external and internal causes of rising illiberalism.  Additionally, the Beacon Project’s >versus< ICT tool is working in tandem with polling efforts to produce data-driven analysis on disinformation and produce a coordinated response Russia’s soft power manipulation in the region.

IRI is also building defenses against Russia’s targeted disinformation campaign through its e-Learning Platform in Ukraine. Supported by both USAID and Global Affairs Canada, the e-Learning Platform is an online educational tool for Ukrainian citizens and leaders that seek to learn more about their own government. Online resources feature animated videos and Ukrainian experts that teach Ukrainians throughout the region about how they can participate more actively in local politics and interact with their representatives. This platform will allow their voice to be heard on new regulations that will affect their daily lives and expand IRI’s reach beyond simply the folks that attend seminars or have heard of IRI. This effort directly builds up civil society and raises the voices of truth-seekers. According to Michael Sawkiw, head of the Ukrainian National Information Service, during the Holodomor civil society was quashed and the resulting absence of intellectual leaders allowed the Soviet Union to propagate false reports. Instead of local reporters broadcasting the genocide, the Soviet Union was able to control the language and simplify it to food shortages. Now that Ukrainian civil society is being empowered by democratic principles and tools like the E-Learning Platform, the defense against Russian disinformation is growing stronger. 

Understanding the past will allow us to better identify key tactics that are being used in current Russian disinformation campaigns and the most effective ways of countering them. Targets of disinformation shift, but the Kremlin playbook remains the same and Russia’s information war in Europe is getting stronger by the day. In order to fight this in the most effective way possible, it is important to provide strong defense mechanisms like the Beacon Project and the E-Learning Platform that will integrate with civil society and political organizations to effectively combat the alternative narratives propagated by the Kremlin.