Since early 2014 the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center (UCMC) has served as an essential stop-off for every major figure visiting Kyiv, and as a platform for Ukrainians to speak to global audiences. Founded in the immediate aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution by a number of communications professionals who recognized the need to provide the international community with Ukrainian perspectives, the UCMC has played a key role in countering the Kremlin infowar against Ukraine. Business Ukraine magazine spoke to UCMC co-founder Nataliya Popovych about the evolving role of the UCMC in Ukraine’s global communications strategy, and the need to keep international audiences focused on the global implications of Ukraine’s struggle against hybrid Russian aggression.
Many pundits claim that Ukraine is losing the information war to Russia. Do you agree?
I believe the opposite is true - Russia is losing the information war while Ukraine is becoming stronger every day. Truth always wins. In the beginning of 2014, Ukraine did not have the institutional capacity to engage in this unwanted and unnecessary war. Since then, we have seen initiatives like UCMC and others developing and contributing to Ukraine’s growing communications capacity. The government’s work in the area of communications has also somewhat improved. If Russia was winning this war, there would be no sanctions against it, Crimea would be recognized as part of Russia, and the Novorossiya project would be a success. None of this has happened. Novorossiya has become a recognized failure and the Russian economy is suffering deep pain. Moreover, Russia’s deliberate weaponization of information has earned it many opponents throughout the civilized world. These countries are ramping up their own capabilities to defend against Russian propaganda. I believe we need to judge all communications efforts by their results and the results are in Ukraine’s favour.
The Ukrainian Crisis Media Center hosts international correspondents on a daily basis. Have you registered any significant changes in attitudes towards Ukraine among correspondents over the past 18 months?
We have witnessed major shifts in awareness among the international media regarding the situation in Ukraine. For example, when Crimea was annexed not everyone regarded it as major news. Awareness that Crimea was part of Ukraine was so low that many did not understand why Ukraine was so worried. However, as the international community became familiar with the Russian hybrid war tactics of covert military operations and fake news stories, numerous media outlets began launching their own investigations. Now we are seeing channels like BBC and CNN mirroring the work of Ukraine’s own StopFake.org and uncovering Russian media lies. The MH17 tragedy was a turning point. From my standpoint, this was the moment when the Russian media over-manipulated and lost the trust of international audiences.
The Ukrainian government is widely accused of failing to communicate effectively with domestic and international audiences. What can Ukrainian government bodies do to improve the way they communicate their messages to key audiences?
I personally believe that along with the reform of the civil service, the reform of government communications is one of the most vital steps for Ukraine. Government agencies need to recognize that Ukrainian society has changed. It has matured. This requires a new level of openness, transparency, and professionalism, treating people with dignity and respect. Having recognized this fact, the government should change the way they interact with society as a whole, not only with the media. Civic activists and the media are actually the government’s best allies in their efforts to bring about the necessary changes to the Ukrainian economy, fight corruption, and implement reforms.
Should Ukraine’s information policy priority be debunking Russian myths and fakes, or should the focus be on promoting Ukrainian narratives?
I am an advocate of an asymmetrical response to the information war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. I am a big believer in the much higher effectiveness of proactive strategic communications, rather than investing too much time and effort in reacting, debunking, and refuting Russian claims. We must confront major manipulations like the notorious ‘Crucified Boy’ story, but the majority of our time and resources needs to be dedicated to strengthening and promoting Ukrainian narratives.
Is Ukraine in danger of slipping off the international news radar?
There is a certain amount of information fatigue towards Ukraine in Western capitals and in the international media. It is clear that many European nations would have preferred not to know about the conflict in Ukraine and not suffer from sanctions. There is currently a danger that if Russia decides to switch from open warfare towards internal destabilization of Ukraine, it will become more difficult for Ukraine to remain in the international spotlight. It is vital for Ukraine to proactively communicate its position, and to stress that what we are confronted with is not a Ukrainian crisis but a threat to the world order. Until international order is restored, Ukraine needs to remain on the international radar. It is a matter of Ukraine’s national security that the world is informed, aware and ready to support us.
Many believe that Ukraine’s conflict with Russia is primarily an information war. What can Ukraine’s experience teach the international community about this form of multi-media warfare?
Analysis of the kind of hybrid warfare being waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and, in fact, against Western values as a whole, has already led many countries to review their own information space and to explore the extent to which they themselves are vulnerable to information attacks. Many nations are now looking to invest in making the next generations more vigilant and aware of the dangers posed by multi-media warfare. It is not a war of ideas - it is a war of principles. Countries that share the same values and principles as Ukraine will have to unite in order to win it.
About the interviewee: Nataliya Popovych is a Co-Founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center and President of PRP, one of the leading consultancies in the post-Soviet region.