Ukraine is Losing the Information War
As reports emerge that the shaky ceasefire between Kyiv and the rebels is on the verge of collapse, and Russia is allegedly amassing troops and heavy weaponry just 30 miles from Ukraine’s border, it’s no surprise that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has had his hands full attempting to convince US companies to buy up Ukrainian state assets.
In line with a March privatization plan, in which the government selected 164 businesses, for the most part energy related, to be put up for sale this year, Yatsenyuk is looking for brave investors to partake in this fire sale. Indeed, the auction of these assets is said to be going for $150 million, a significant undervaluation of enterprises actually worth some $15 billion.
The conflict in the east, which has rendered much of Ukraine’s industrial base under the control of separatists, is not the sole reason why Western investors shy away from pouring capital into the country. The information war fought by Moscow has had perhaps the greatest destabilizing effect on the attractiveness of Ukraine’s economy, painting the picture of a divided country, at war with itself, unable to move forward.
With the European Union leaving unanswered the calls of serial financiers like George Soros to provide political risk insurance for investors in the forms of mezzanine financing, it’s obvious why nobody’s lining up to invest in Ukraine.
As Dmitry Kieselev, the Kremlin’s token propagandist, pointed out, “information war is now the main type of war, preparing the way for military action.” Disinformation, manipulation, threats, and the sowing of dissent are the latter-day equivalents of tank battalions. Indeed, Putin has largely succeeded in taking advantage of the media to conceal Russia’s obvious meddling in Ukraine, citing the threat to the rights of the ethnic Russian populations both in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine as a reason for intervention.
“Kremlin Hall of mirrors”
But despite allocating millions of dollars ($300 million to be exact), to push the Kremlin’s version of events both to domestic and international audiences, the reality on the ground and in the minds of Ukrainians puts into questions Putin’s destabilization campaign. While a comparative study on post-Maidan attitudes in Ukraine, funded by the US National Science Foundation, has underlined that Putin’s Novorossiya (New Russia) project, something akin to a pro-Russian state in southeast Ukraine, does in fact have minor support in places like Crimea, the Donbass, Odessa and Kharkiv, the initiative has recently been shelved by the separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk. In lockstep, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also announced that, “at all levels […] we say that we want [the republics] to remain a part of Ukraine.”
While the reasons for this sudden shift in discourse have yet to come to light, the marks left in the minds of international investors will be hard to erase. Who would commit the billions of dollars needed for Ukraine’s reconstruction when the media has bombarded worldwide audiences with stories about a coming world war with Russia?
However, the death of Novorossiya has received a warm welcome from a majority of Ukrainians, who are hoping to see their country remain as a whole. This message hasn’t nearly been trumpeted loud enough and has led to misperceptions with dramatic political and economic consequences. Indeed, Chrystia Freedland, a Ukrainian journalist residing in Canada, was quick to point out that the apparent divide between the primarily Russian speaking southeast of Ukraine and the predominately Ukrainian speaking west is largely oversimplified and is in fact “not so much an ethnic divide.” While Putin has conveniently insisted that there were 17 million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine (37% of the population), the actual figure of ethnic Russian is equivalent to 17% of the population.
A poll conducted in April by Kyiv’s International Institute of Sociology found that out of individuals residing in regions under the control of the separatists almost 70% were against the unification of their region with Russia, and 87.7% insisted that Ukraine should make its own choices regarding its internal affairs. If fact, many ethnic Russians consider themselves Ukrainian, don’t hold Russian passports, and don’t wish for subordination by Moscow. For example, both Poroshenko and Yatseniuk still use Russian at home and only learned to speak Ukrainian upon gaining public office.
Clearly, regardless of whether they are ethnic Russian or Ukrainian, the people of Ukraine are largely in favor of a strong and united country. But why isn’t this message ringing louder in the West? Ukrainians, especially Russian Ukrainians, would be best suited to counter Russian propaganda. Unfortunately, not many have dared to do so. Oleksandr Klymenko, the country’s former tax minister, has become one such voice, advocating for Ukrainian unity, as a bridge between East and West. He also put forward the idea of establishing a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for the Donbass, claiming that such a framework would provide the region with strategic and economic significance for Ukraine and allow it to become a prime investment hub.
With the Ukrainian economy plummeting, the government should do more to counter Russian propaganda, bolster the online resonance of Russian Ukrainians and send out a clear message to the world, that Ukraine is one. Such a move would not only confirm the wishes of the population, but bolster investor confidence and help Ukraine move closer to standing on its own two feet and away from Russia’s sphere of influence.