Ukraine Is Winning the Information War—But Here’s the Bad News
Just because the West loves you doesn’t mean it’ll pay your gas bill
Ukraine has a propaganda problem. Nearly every day, dozens of Russian news outlets spin a story about the rise of fascism in the embattled country, despite the collapse of the far right at the ballot box.
“Ukraine needs to do direct marketing to convince the world we’re not—as the Russians claim—a failed state,” Vasyl Myroshnychenko—an organizer at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center—told The Atlantic.
The Kremlin spends a lot of time and money manipulating the media. Following Pres. Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, the Kremlin culled independent news outlets, created sweeping blacklists of Internet sites deemed subversive, launched a campaign targeting non-governmental organizations—all the while expelling outspoken foreign journalists.
For foreign audiences, Moscow spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year on English-language propaganda in the hope that it can control, or at least shape, any story Russia is involved in. The government has even organized online trolling in the comment sections of The Guardian.
This is—to put bluntly—all part of a broader strategy by the Kremlin to expand Russia’s sphere of influence using both hard and soft power.
Faced with such a campaign, what chance does a broke and relatively tiny country like Ukraine have at winning a media war? It turns out, a pretty good one.
To a certain extent, the Internet has leveled the playing field. Now that Ukraine has elected a government—its citizens are mobilizing in new ways. Crowdsourcing, independent news blogs and new media agencies are taking on Moscow’s media empire and winning.
However, a sympathetic ear in the West won’t save Ukraine or bail out its economy when Russia turns the screws. There’s also a risk Ukraine’s success could lead to a presumption among Ukrainians that Western governments support them more than they actually do.
Ukraine’s new media
There are dozens of examples from the past few weeks of Kiev trouncing Moscow in the information war.
On June 12, three T-72 tanks rolled through portions of eastern Ukraine. Kiev said Russia supplied the tanks to pro-Kremlin separatist rebels.
Moscow’s foreign ministry said that was false information. Russian media—if it mentioned the story at all—couched talk of the tanks deep within articles about a Ukrainian armored vehicle crossing the border into Russia.
Ukrainian outlet Euromaiden PR covered the tank incursions in detail, much of its information coming from citizens on the ground. By June 14, the U.S. State Department confirmed the tanks belonged to the Russian military. Western media picked up the story. The New York Times and other Western news agencies reported on the story with obvious sympathies towards Ukraine.
On June 11, the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti carried a story about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s disclosure that the Kremlin is sending “humanitarian aid” to armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Igor Strelkov—one of the military leaders of the separatists—posted pictures of the aid to social media. The opposition blog InfoResist saw the pictures and pointed out the aid came in the form of helmets and body armor. Ukrainian news aggregator Kyiv Post picked up the story.
Within hours, Lavrov admitted Russia gave military aid to rebels in Donetsk. The biggest non-secret in Eastern Europe was out in the open.
Kiev’s ability to control Moscow’s spin will likely improve. Ukraine’s government has effectively blocked all Russian news sources within their borders. The people of Ukraine watch Ukrayinska Pravda and Hromadske TV rather than Russia’s Channel One and RT.
Kiev also established the Ukraine Crisis Media Center to combat Russian disinformation and to call other media agencies to account when they swallow Moscow’s bullshit. All of these agencies, TV stations and bloggers are doing a great job. Western sympathies rest largely with Ukraine.
But just because the Western countries like Ukraine doesn’t mean they’re willing to help them.
It’s all about gas
“Ukraine is winning the info war in the West,” Mark Galeotti—a professor of foreign affairs at New York University and an expert on Russia—told War is Boring via email. “But in many ways simply because the West wants to believe the story of a plucky underdog being mauled by the bear.”
In a way, it’s a perfect fit. The West always loves an underdog story, particularly when the underdog is going up against Russia.
“This does Kiev no favors in the long run,” Galeotti continued. “They say what the West wants to hear, the West echoes it back. But this does not mean that NATO membership is going to be available in the foreseeable future, nor that the E.U./U.S. is willing to bail out the Ukrainian economy long term.”
Russia also has the ability to punish the Ukrainian economy—and hard.
On June 16, the Russian gas provider Gazprom cut off Ukraine’s supply of natural gas. The same day, Gazprom filed a lawsuit against Ukrainian gas provider Naftogaz in international court. Gazprom is seeking $4.5 billion dollars in debt owed to them by the Ukrainian company.
Western media spun this as an aggressive tactic by Russia to bring Ukraine to heel and separate it from Europe. Russian media made the gas cut off seem perfectly reasonable. RIA Novosti pointed out that legal disputes between Moscow and Kiev are better than fighting—and that Ukraine is sitting on a large stores of natural gas that won’t make it to Europe without Russia’s help.
This is not the first time Russia’s cut off the gas to Ukraine. The two countries have been fighting over gas for decades. In 2009, Russia cut off gas not just to Ukraine but through it. Neighboring countries suddenly found their supplies dwindling.
Support is good, support in the press is better but material support is the best. Ukraine isn’t getting a lot of material support from its friends and neighbors. And now that Moscow is threatening to mess with the gas supply, it’s hard to imagine Kiev getting substantial monetary or military support from the West.
“I encounter a great deal of naive overconfidence amongst Ukrainians based on an over-estimate of what they can expect from the West,” Galeotti writes. “So Kiev wins the info war, but arguably is going to suffer as a result as it may well overplay its hand.”