From Trump to Brexit, 2016 was the year fake news became headline news. In Ukraine, however, it was old news. Ukrainians are currently living through the third winter of an ongoing hybrid war with Russia – a conflict driven to a remarkable degree by fake news. This is only one of the many ways Moscow has honed its hybrid war techniques in Ukraine before deploying them further afield. From information attacks to cyber warfare, since 2014 Ukraine has served as the primary testing ground for Russia’s emerging doctrine of hybrid hostilities. As the world wakes up to the dangers posed by Vladimir Putin’s revanchist revolution, Ukraine’s experience offers invaluable insight into the non-linear way modern Russia wages war. It may also hold the key to eventual victory.
EUROPE WAKES UP
Western governments and media groups are clearly starting to take Russian hybrid aggression more seriously. The slow but steady response to the fake news epidemic reflects this rising awareness. The EU led the way in 2015 by setting up East StratCom – a disinformation debunking unit charged with exposing fakes promoted in the Russian media or spread via pro-Russian EU-based platforms. Initially a tiny undertaking, it has since expanded and will likely grow further as EU officials become bolder in their condemnations of Kremlin conduct.
Individual EU member states are also taking action. The Czech Republic recently established a government-funded body specifically to combat Russian fakes, with Germany exploring similar steps ahead of this autumn’s national elections. In early January 2017, Sweden’s most authoritative foreign policy institute released a report accusing Russia of waging information warfare against the Scandinavian nation. Even in the US, where Donald Trump’s election victory has created the prospect of a grand bargain between Washington and Moscow, the incoming president finds himself confronted with bipartisan demands for a forceful response to Russian hybrid attacks.
News organisations and media platforms are also fighting back. Facebook will now deploy fact checkers and attach labels to suspect news – with Germany among the pilot countries for the scheme. The BBC has recently unveiled plans for a Permanent Reality Check team to combat what news chief James Harding called “the battle over lies, distortions and exaggerations.” We can expect to see similar steps from a host of mainstream news outlets in the coming months as they respond to the shifting sands of the media landscape. In short, fighting fake news is the most fashionable thing in the media today.
UKRAINIAN TESTING GROUND
Much of this is a direct reaction to the fake news furor generated by the recent American election campaign – but if policymakers had paid more attention to the information attacks Ukraine has suffered since 2014, Western audiences might not have been so vulnerable in the first place.
From the very beginning, information warfare played a key role in the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine. The initial invasion of Crimea offered a taste of things to come, with a steady flow of stage-managed outrages and fakes accompanied by official denials. As Russian troops fanned out across the Ukrainian peninsula, there were a number of suspiciously convenient attacks on synagogues. Russian TV channels broadcast archive footage of unrelated unrest masquerading as real-time news coverage from Crimea. Russian soldiers famously posed as local “self-defense units”. Mock street battles with phantom Ukrainian militants where choreographed for the Kremlin cameras.
As the conflict spread to eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s tactics became even more ambitious. Busloads of Russian citizens arrived in regional Ukrainian cities posing as local protesters. Actors took on multiple roles as “concerned members of the community” and provided suitably inflammatory anti-Ukrainian sound bites. Some appeared with such regularity that they even became minor social media celebrities.
Social media itself served as the ideal seeding ground for the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian conspiracy theories involving everyone from neo-Nazis to the American secret services. Fake atrocities included the mythical crucifixion of a three-year-old boy – recounted in gruesome detail on prime time Russian state TV by one of the aforementioned actors. Reports claimed Ukraine was preparing concentration camps for Russian-speakers, while Russian TV viewers learned that Ukrainian soldiers expected to receive two slaves each for their role in the genocide of the country’s ethnic Russian population.
HYBRID WAR GOES GLOBAL
We are now seeing many of the same techniques employed on a far broader front. In early 2016, Germany experienced protests inspired by a textbook Kremlin fake atrocity tale involving the fictitious gang rape of a Russian immigrant girl by a group of Muslim immigrants. The parallels with Ukraine were immediately obvious. As the year unfolded, similar Kremlin-run disinformation campaigns targeted EU-related referendums in the Netherlands and the UK, before culminating in the US presidential election. While the exact impact of these efforts is impossible to quantify, few would be prepared to discount them entirely. On the contrary, 2016 taught us that the methods developed in Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine are equally effective when deployed against audiences located far beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2017
What can the Ukrainian experience tell us about Russia’s likely next steps in its wider hybrid campaign against the Western world? If current trends continue, we can expect to see cyber warfare becoming a much bigger issue in 2017. Ukraine’s power grids have been the target of two particularly high-profile cyber assaults since 2015, while President Poroshenko recently claimed the country had detected 6,500 cyber attacks in the last two months of 2016 alone. Most of these incidents focused on government bodies and had the apparent aim of paralyzing the state apparatus. It would now be reasonable to expect similar attacks against selected targets within the EU. Detailed studies of the attacks launched against Ukraine would help other countries to understand the nature of the threat facing them.
Hacking will also play a prominent role in the Russian hybrid war strategy over the coming year. The Wikileaks hacks of the US Democratic Party have been widely attributed to Russia, but this was merely the most eye-catching example of another tactic previously used extensively in Ukraine. As far back as January 2014, Russia was behind leaked exerts of telephone conversations involving the US Ambassador to Ukraine and State Department colleagues that sought to portray the Euromaidan protests as an American plot. Numerous similar hacked conversations supporting the Kremlin’s preferred Ukraine narratives have subsequently appeared anonymously online.
Likely hacking targets within the EU will include Angela Merkel, who is widely seen as the Kremlin’s most powerful European opponent, and the EU leadership itself in Brussels. Ultimately, anyone connected to the national institutions of any EU member state will be on the radar. The goal will be to undermine faith in the existing authorities and feed anti-establishment sentiment.
TARGETING EU ELECTIONS
The fake news onslaught will continue in 2017, with particular emphasis on EU countries entering election cycles. Each country will face tailored messages designed to exploit existing tensions and aggravate local grievances. Russia’s information attacks against EU member states like Germany, France and the Netherlands will focus on fears of Islamification and immigrant atrocities. Conspiracy theories will spread via the alternative media, while Russia will work with domestic Far-Right organizations and populist politicians to sow distrust in state institutions and stir up social division. The Kremlin media will then amplify the resulting protests and scandals, with coverage looped back into the international media arena via troll armies.
How far will Russia dare to go in 2017? If Ukraine is a testing ground for Russia’s hybrid war tactics, is it only a matter of time before the EU comes face to face with the “Little Green Men” who conquered Crimea and ravaged eastern Ukraine? Few currently believe the Kremlin would risk escalating its current hybrid operations to the level of armed conflict within the EU itself.
However, the foiled Russian coup in Montenegro in late 2016 is a reminder that armed aggression of a hybrid nature remains a constant threat on the EU periphery, whether it is in the Balkans or the Baltics. Such doomsday scenarios might once have sounded far-fetched, but that is no longer the case. Prior to 2014, very few Ukrainians believed Russia would ever resort to force. Europe must learn from Ukraine’s mistakes and prepare for all eventualities.
DECISIVE YEAR FOR PUTIN
This year is likely to be prove decisive in Russia’s hybrid war against the Western world. If the EU unravels further and a Trump-led America adopts a policy of isolation, Moscow will edge to within touching distance of what would be an historic triumph and a reversal of the Cold War verdict. Alternatively, if the information war blitzkrieg loses momentum and Western unity proves durable, Russia will eventually have to seek an honorable exit in order to avoid a long-term standoff it cannot possibly hope to win.
As the testing ground and launch pad for Russia’s wider hybrid war, Ukraine’s dual roles in this global conflict are as frontline nation and case study. In the coming months, EU and US politicians would be well advised to spend more time highlighting the mechanics of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. Greater understanding of the methods employed in Ukraine will empower and inform Western audiences, allowing them to understand the nature of the challenges their own societies face while garnering support for necessary responses. The international community has wasted the past few years floundering in denial over Russian hybrid hostility, but there is now a growing sense of clarity over the Kremlin's true intentions. Ukrainians themselves are under no illusions, having had their own rude awakening back in 2014. This bitter but priceless experience can now help disarm the Russian hybrid threat.