Given the news the past few years, one could be forgiven for concluding Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the world’s grand practitioner of information warfare. Moscow ostensibly tried through various information warfare techniques to influence the Brexit referendum, the U.S. presidential election, and several European elections. As a result, there has been much hand-wringing in the West about how to counter this menace.
Much of what Russia is suspected of doing is not new, just a more up-to-date version of the “active measures” employed by the Soviets decades ago. In the digital age, however, the effects can be much more immediate and far-reaching, and destructive cyber attacks are now possible. Thus, it is no overreaction on the part of Western intelligence and security services to take the threat extremely seriously.
That said, Western democracies can, at least to some degree, take heart at how Ukraine has so far stood firm against a ruthless and pervasive Russian information warfare campaign. Indeed, when measuring a national information warfare campaign against the political objectives it intends to achieve, Russia is most likely losing badly against Ukraine.
In 2014, following the Maidan protests in Kiev that ultimately ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia intensified a broad information warfare campaign against Ukraine. This complemented Russia’s grabbing—directly or by proxy—Ukrainian territory and creating, as it did in Georgia in 2008, another frozen conflict. The information warfare campaign aimed to undermine Ukrainian popular support for the nation’s pro-European leadership. Or, if that did not work well enough, to sow chaos and confusion to a point where Ukrainians eventually would become apathetic about their government’s decision to defy Moscow and lean harder toward Europe.
For nearly four years Russia has been employing all the information warfare tools it can muster, including cyber attacks, disinformation, and pro-Russian influence campaigns. Yet a comprehensive analysis indicates the Kremlin is failing in its ultimate objective of keeping Ukraine in Russia’s political, economic, and cultural orbit.
For starters, Moscow is bearing a tremendous cost. Because it is having to provide financial support to both the economically depressed Crimean peninsula and the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist regions, and is losing business as a result of sanctions, the whole Ukraine adventure is costing Russia billions of dollars. In fact, while the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea and separatist Donbass regions were easy targets for an information narrative portraying ethnic Ukrainians as beholden to anti-Russian fascists, the citizens in the Russian-controlled regions are not getting the level of support from Moscow for which they had hoped. While the rest of Ukraine is moving on with economic and governance reforms that, while difficult and painful, will set up Ukrainians for a brighter, more prosperous future, those in Donetsk and Lugansk struggle to make ends meet with meager steel and coal orders from Russia, social stagnation, and a pension of roughly $50 a month. More than 1.5 million Ukrainians from these regions have left for Europe or locations in western Ukraine. Moscow’s failure to back its information warfare narrative with real benefits undermines the whole campaign and fuels a corrosive cynicism.
In addition, Moscow’s objective to sow discord and cynicism among Ukrainians in the part of the country still controlled by Kiev is failing. Contrary to the Russian narrative, Ukrainians were never as anti-Russian as Moscow claims. For example, in 2010 the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology recorded that 93 percent of Ukrainians surveyed in all regions had a favorable attitude toward Russia, with 22 percent of the population believing the two states should reunite. Yet in 2016, only 17 percent of Ukrainians reported having a favorable attitude toward Russia. On the question of NATO accession, in 2010 shortly after Yanukovich was elected, in part to improve relations with Russia, only 28 percent of Ukrainians supported NATO accession. A June 2017 poll by the Democracy Initiatives Foundation showed Ukrainian support for joining NATO now at 69 percent. Finally, Russian meddling in Ukraine’s information space has galvanized Ukrainian distrust of Russian media, prompting the ban of Russian social media sites and media outlets in the country.
Russia’s failure to influence Ukraine’s political direction also is catalyzing Ukraine’s economic independence from Moscow. Formerly a major energy customer and economic partner of Russia, Ukraine began to distance itself economically years before the Maidan protests because of growing concerns of being too reliant on the former center of Soviet power. Since 2014, this trend has accelerated. Today, Ukraine has a greater trade turnover with the European Union than with Russia—$34.5 billion in 2016 compared to $8.7 billion with Russia—and the gap is widening.
This trend cannot be lost on Russia, and the question now is what Moscow plans to do about it. Short of more physical aggression, the Kremlin is left only with new ways to employ information warfare techniques in the hope they will be more effective. Potential new targets are foreign investors and businesses Kiev needs to maintain the momentum in economic reform. Russia already has conducted cyber attacks against the Ukrainian financial industry, and it should be expected Moscow will redouble its efforts here, as sowing doubt about the integrity of Ukraine’s financial system will give private investors and companies looking to operate there greater pause. Ukraine also needs outside assistance to implement key reforms in the medical, energy, logging, and banking sectors, and Russia is eager to dissuade Western entities from participating.
It is doubtful, however, that a more targeted information warfare campaign can turn the tide and help Russia achieve lasting political objectives in Ukraine. At best, Russia can slow Ukraine’s shift to the West and keep it out of NATO, although the latter objective is achieved mostly by compromising Ukraine’s border.
Information warfare champions tend to overstate its ability to achieve lasting effects. Ukraine’s information technology infrastructure already was heavily compromised to Russian actors, and with its historical and culture connections to Russia, it should have been an easier target for an information warfare campaign. Yet it has turned out to be the hardest of targets. Ukrainians have proven resilient to the point of defiance. And that should inspire the rest of the West.
Captain Bray served as a naval intelligence officer for 28 years before retiring in 2016. He would like to thank James Gregg for help in researching this article.
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