The Kremlin: the Hybrid Evolution

In 7.5 year time since occupation of Crimea, Russian policy has undergone many changes. The occupation of Crimea and the unfolding of a low-intensity conflict in Donbas were only part of the Kremlin’s hybrid strategy. At the same time, active information operations have been and are being conducted by Russia not only in Ukraine.

Occupation of Crimea was accompanied by massive propaganda, which involved not only the Russian federal media, but also some Western media that posted materials about ‘Russian Crimea’. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign reached its peak with the announcement by RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS that the Ukrainian naval corvette Hetman Sagaidachny had joined the ranks of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The scale and scope of the propaganda campaign suggests that it was prepared in advance, which contradicts the Kremlin’s official version of ‘emergency aid to the people of Crimea suffering from the Maidan authorities’.

It should be noted that in 2014, Russian ‘war correspondents’ often acted in the ranks of militants of illegal armed groups, seeking to demoralize fighters of the AFU and volunteer battalions and to have a negative informational impact on other Ukrainian citizens as much as possible. The active stage of broadcasting the horrors of the undeclared war continued until February-March 2015, before signing of Minsk-2 agreement. One of the obvious aims of these information strikes was to rock the situation in Ukraine from within in order to overthrow the authorities and confirm the thesis of the Kremlin saying ‘Kyiv does not control Ukraine’. It is worth noting that in official statements of the Russian leaders, the relevant phrase ‘the Kiev authorities’ was often used.

Another important aspect of the hybrid campaign of Russia in 2014 was the dehumanisation of the Ukrainian military, culminating in the story of the ‘crucified boy’ – fake news that is based on the tradition of Soviet propaganda from World War II. The disinformation picked up by the Russian media facilitated mobilization into the militant ranks. The wife of a OMON fighter Galina Pyshnyak, who later settled in the Russian countryside, was the informational engine of the fake news.

Apart from the informational impact on the theatre of hostilities (formally limited, but which has become the biggest conflict in Europe in the last 25 years), Russia has pursued a policy of systematically denigrating Ukraine in the eyes of EU citizens and the European establishment. The aim is clear – to portray Ukraine as a failed state. The effort of the Kremlin was particularly aimed at shaping a negative image of Ukraine in the Netherlands, where supporters of ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in 2016 were defeated in a referendum.  Its outcome was introduction of a clause in the Association Agreement stating that even the implementation of the document would not mean the prospect of Ukraine’s entry into the EU.

At the same time, Russia has been actively trying to exploit other ‘weaknesses’ in Europe, notably the 2016 refugee crisis, in order to destabilize it. Another notable trend is the provocations against the Hungarian minority in Ukrainian Transcarpathia and shooting of the Polish Consulate General in Lutsk (the administrative centre of Volyn, where Ukrainians and Poles carried out ethnic cleansing during World War II).  Elements of interference could also include Brexit in Britain and attempts to influence the results of the French presidential election.

However, the hybrid influence of Russia was not limited to the European continent. It tried to influence the results of the US presidential campaign. I am far from suggesting that Donald Trump is a Russian agent, but the very manner in which he ran his campaign had a negative impact on the US. His campaign was managed by Paul Manafort, who was later convicted of financial irregularities. Paul Manafort has experience in Russia and Ukraine, and he applied some of the practices of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential campaign in the US.

The Kremlin has abandoned its reliance solely on military force against Ukraine, suggesting that such action without surprise would not be conducive to success. Instead, it continued to bombard with fake news and undermine the position of President Petro Poroshenko, whose defeat in the 2019 presidential campaign was perceived in Moscow as its success. Vladimir (Volodymyr in Ukrainian transcription) Zelensky appeared to be a more flexible negotiator, and his victory was facilitated by the Kremlin.

After the change of power in Ukraine, Russia intended to increase pressure and even secured concessions from the Ukrainian leadership, using the Normandy Quartet Summit in Paris in December 2019 as an excuse. However, there has been no progress on the resolution of the conflict in Donbas.

In late 2019 and early 2020, Vladimir Putin personally took on the hybridization of the Holocaust, using the discussion in Poland and Lithuania about participation of residents of Nazi-occupied territories in the extermination of the Jews. The extent of manipulation of the Kremlin was so great that the leadership of the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem had to apologize for the manipulation from the lips of the President of Russi in January 2020. A Forum on Holocaust Remembrance was then held in Jerusalem, which Russia used as an opportunity to promote propaganda.

The coronavirus pandemic not only disrupted celebration of the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazism in Moscow, but also other events, and seriously changed the social and political climate around the world. Russia (together with China as states whose leadership does not depend on election results) tried to use the infodemic to its own advantage, undermining the West and promoting increased administrative pressure as a recipe for an effective fight against the coronavirus.

Already in 2021, Russia returned to its tactic of dehumanizing Ukrainians by promoting the story of a 5-year-old boy who died in the ORDLO. The story was promoted in the context of increased Russian military activity near the borders of Ukraine. It should be noted that starting in the autumn of 2020, after the dramatic presidential elections in Belarus, Russian newsmen entered the state media there. This was immediately reflected in the rhetoric of Alexander Lukashenko.

Of course, not all methods of Russian hybrid influence are mentioned in the article. Its purpose is to show that the Kremlin reacts flexibly to the situation in the world, uses various levers of influence and seeks to impose its game not only on Ukraine and post-Soviet states, but also on the West. The hybrid influence on the Kremlin can only be countered in a concerted and asymmetric manner.

Yevhen Mahda Institute of World Policy (Kyiv)

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