Active Measures – the Belarusian narrative in Ukraine

 “…The Kremlin aspires to sow chaos and discord and advance its agenda in targeted nations, particularly in Europe and former Soviet republics such as the Baltics and Ukraine. To do this, Russia effectively combines decades of experience in propaganda and psychological warfare techniques with its vast media apparatus …” — House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report on Russian Active Measures, March 22, 2018.

Belarus has always been of particular interest and strategic importance to Russia. At the time of the onset of open aggression against Ukraine and the occupation of Donbass and Crimea, Moscow launched an active offensive on the sovereignty of its ally in order to keep Minsk in the orbit of its domination, to “force integration”, and to exploit Belarus’s resources.

To this end, Moscow employs a whole range of so-called active measures along with other tools of hybrid influence.

According to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, active measures are operations carried out by Russian special services with the goal of  impacting the course of international relations.

 

Information Operations, Strategy and Tactics

Russia has for quite a while been conducting information operations and using numerous instruments of influence aimed at advancing the interests of the Kremlin. Russia’s common goals for these information campaigns include undermining Western nations, degrading Western political cohesion distorting events that threaten Russia’s image, and affirming Russia’s role as a geopolitical leader and an “empire.”

In addition, there are more dedicated and country-specific goals, which include, for example, an attempt to freeze further expansion of the EU and NATO, as in the case of Ukraine; promoting an exclusively Russian version of events, as in the case of Belarus; diverting attention from controversial Russian domestic politics, and various combinations thereof.


Russia is constantly cranking up the frequency and intensity of the active measures, increasingly resorting to modern technologies and means of communication.


The case of the occupation of Crimea makes it clear that misinformation and propaganda are the primary means deployed prior to military aggression. The Kremlin was carefully constructing an information backdrop and planting information viruses long before the military invasion of Ukraine. The methods of influence applied sought to shape and nurture social discord, undermining institutions of national power and paralyzing resistance to the aggressor.

Moscow is now applying methods tested over seven years of aggression to Belarus, working in two areas at the same time — the information field of Belarus and the Ukrainian media segment, using channels it has already honed.

At first, the Kremlin needed to convince Belarus that there was no alternative to “deeper integration” within the framework of the “Union State”. However, it did not play out as they had planned in the Kremlin, with Belarus choosing to make a stand – a failed blitzkrieg. Not only has Lukashenko still not recognized the illegal annexation of Crimea, which certainly irritates Moscow, but now Belarus is also importing American oil. In my opinion, the Belarusian leader is digging in his heels because he is reluctant to give Moscow any ground and wants to take a relatively independent position.

The stubbornness of its neighbors is certainly a cause of continual frustration for the Kremlin, which fully deployed its propaganda resources. Its well-known public address systems and new mechanisms and techniques were engaged.

 

Media Landscape

To begin with, let us analyze what the Ukrainian media space controlled by Russia looks like.

After the occupation of Crimea and Donbass, most Russian projects remained in operation. Some of them changed their names and the most ardent propagandists moved to Russia and are now broadcasting from there. They also had to change their format after Russian television channels and social networks were banned in Ukraine.

At the same time, new projects were sprouting up since 2014, clearly staffed by pro-Russian journalists. Some are quite crude, while others try to put on a veneer of objectivity. Both kinds are, as a rule, lavishly financed for the purpose of, inter alia, expanding their audience.

These resources, and they can hardly be called media outlets, generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Russian resources that actively present news about Ukraine in the distorted discourse that the Kremlin needs, resorting now and again to outright fakes;
  • Ukrainian resources, sponsored and news-fed by the Kremlin, delivering news with a vibrant pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian position;
  • Cesspools — points of entry and for further dissemination of misinformation.

In addition, there are major Ukrainian websites and television channels, some of which made it into the top 20 online media, that are still used to foist the Kremlin’s agenda on a broader audience. These include strana.ua, vesti.ua, comments.ua, from-UA, and politeka. On television, this niche is occupied by NewsOne, ZIK, and 112.

In order to illustrate how manipulative Russian agents of influence are in the media landscape of Ukraine, let us review the recent issue of sanctions from April 2020.

We remember that Ukraine joined the 2004 EU sanctions against Belarus involving the arms trade embargo . Of course, the Kremlin used the rich area covering this event in the media in such a way as to make it look like there is a conflict breaking out between Kyiv and Minsk. This can be clearly seen from the headlines:

  • Vesti.ua: “In defiance of common sense, Zelensky trips Lukashenko up by siding with the sanctions”
  • Channel 112: “Expert opinion: Ukraine’s introduction of sanctions against Belarus indicates a complete loss of agency in foreign policy”
  • Strana.ua: “Sanctions against Belarus obviously spell harm for the Ukrainian economy”
  • Ukraine.ru: “Zombies attack. Ukraine joins the sanctions against Belarus “

The issue of sanctions was covered almost identically by the engines of the Russian state propaganda – RIA, Regnum, Gazeta.ru. After that, these same messages were relayed to the Baltics: rubaltic.ru, baltnews.com. Take Rubaltic, for example: “The failed Slavic brotherhood — Ukraine joins the sanctions against Belarus.”

We note a similar route of information for other topics important for both countries where identical mechanisms were used. The most recent issue is, of course, the coronavirus, which iSANS covered extensively in its monitoring. This manipulative information included the mutually duplicating narratives on Belarus and Ukraine, trying to highlight the existence of a “belt of instability and chaos” around Russia, while at the same time projecting a stable country ready to assist.

 

Mobilizing Telegram

In 2019, in Ukraine, online media and social networks beat television in popularity for the first time ever. The Kremlin quickly reacted to this trend by mobilizing online media as instruments of influence and implementation of active measures.

And it is no coincidence that Telegram, an anonymous platform that allows for the uncontrolled distribution of any information without verification, gained special significance in Moscow’s promotion of Belarus-related narratives in Ukraine’s information space. The messenger is one of the most secretive and does not disclose information about its operation. At the same time, the founder of Telegram has been repeatedly accused of being connected with Russian special services, and the failed attempt to block the messenger in Russia has been seen as a publicity stunt.

The Russian invasion of the Ukrainian segment of Telegram occurred at the turn of 2018-2019 – at the height of the presidential campaign. Since then, it has become an especially popular means of communication and news delivery. Moreover, this was probably done with the immediate involvement of the Kremlin officials, who actively used Telegram as a channel for delivering allegedly “insider” information and outright fakes with the goal of favorably shaping public opinion.

With a growing audience since 2017-2018, the total Ukrainian of the messenger users is estimated to have reached 4.5 million. This year Telegram grew even more and jumped up from 51 to 28 in the ranking of popular sites. At the same time, Ukrainians began using desktop versions more frequently – not just on mobile devices. Telegram channels deemed to be Ukrainian also quickly gained popularity, hitting more than 100 thousand subscribers. At the same time, the top-20 channels have an exclusively political focus and are in Russian.

Why Telegram has become the ideal vehicle for Russian active measures:

  • Complete anonymity is at the core of the platform, which allows feeding in any information, warping it, and producing fake news. In addition, Telegram is not moderated and no one is liable for posted content.
  • Popular channels have gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers, outscoring some conventional media by a long shot in terms of outreach.
  • Information is delivered directly to your device via a Telegram channel. This virtually disables commenting and expressing one’s attitude towards content, allowing for one-way information flow.
  • Content can easily go viral due to the possibility of instant reposts.
  • Telegram cannot be blocked through the technical and legal efforts of a single country. Russia itself failed miserably in attempts to block it.
  • After Odnoklassniki, Vkontakte, Yandex, and other Russian services were blocked in Ukraine, the danger of Ukrainian audiences falling out of the influence of Kremlin strategists became real. Telegram allows for the keeping of the status quo to a certain extent.

After analyzing the content of Telegram channels, we found out what is in the Kremlin’s special focus and what popular Belarus-related narratives are being used by this popular platform. This makes it possible to visually trace the main goals and tactics of the Kremlin’s active measures.

 

Common Information Space

We mention language specifically due to its importance to the conversation. Telegram allows for the producing of common content for a Russian-speaking audience, which is especially numerous in the southeastern regions of Ukraine and Belarus – the number one target for Kremlin’s active measures.

This helps Russian propaganda address two issues at once.

Firstly, in one Telegram channel is offered a safe space for news concerning Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, which greatly facilitates and accelerates manipulations, while maintaining and strengthening the “unity” of the information field. The media space is distorted towards a reality advantageous for the Kremlin, where Moscow completely controls the agenda for Ukraine and Belarus, completely leveling their information sovereignty. Enter USSR 2.0.

Secondly, for the Ukrainian and Belarusian audiences receiving information via their smartphones, Telegram paints a non-pluralistic picture with no room for the position of Minsk or Kyiv. The Russian-speaking audience of Telegram in Ukraine will know about Belarus, and, conversely, in Belarus about Ukraine, only what they write about in the Kremlin. And while a person can live in an information bubble, Russian propaganda is an information ocean in which a person can drown.

 

Hobson’s Choice

It is critically important for the Kremlin to maintain unity in the information field to prevent segmentation while creating the appearance of diversity. There are so many channels for every taste. But the content for all these channels is sourced in one place and for one purpose. The user lives under the necessary illusion and stays on Telegram, not switching over to other media and believing that alternative sources can also be found here. Alternative opinions are helpfully presented by pseudo-opposition channels.

This controlled — in other words, handcrafted — opposition allows the Kremlin to actively use the information field to advance its own agenda, create the illusion of the existence of independent points of view, and, when necessary, put forward any number of different versions of the same event to cloud the issue.

 

Juxtaposition

Another objective of the anti-Belarus propaganda in Ukraine is the juxtaposition of Ukraine and Belarus. For this purpose, the Russian-language Telegram channels replicate the narrative regarding the differences and contradictions between the two countries. Tracing the trends of the last two months, we see that Belarus is presented to the Ukrainians as a “pest house” for not forcing a lockdown; that possible deepening of integration is interpreted as an example of Minsk’s voluntary renunciation of sovereignty; and that holding a Victory Day parade is used to emphasize this contrast in worldviews. Ukraine’s support for EU sanctions against Belarus, passport restrictions when crossing the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, and fires in the Chernobyl area threatening Belarus – all these news items, according to Kremlin strategists, should take up the information space and force the Ukrainians and Belarusians to cross purposes.

The ultimate goal of this information contrast pursued by Russian propaganda is to challenge Belarus’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to preclude the possibility of Kyiv’s support for Minsk in the event of Russian aggression.

It’s the same old divide and conquers technique.

 

Case study

The goals and tactics of using the Belarusian narrative are clearly visible from an analysis of content offered by the active Kremlin-backed media actors over the past two months. Let us consider one of the most nefarious Telegram channels operating in the Ukrainian information field — Ukraina.ru. We intentionally focus analysis on one channel so as not to promote others since their content, as a rule, is identical.

Ukraina.ru is an informational and analytical online outlet created in 2014 and is a part of the Russia Today media group. In September 2015, the editor-in-chief of Ukraina.ru, Alyona Berezovskaya, was included in the sanctions list by the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. In May 2016, Russian journalist Iskander Khisamov became the chief editor.

The Telegram channel Ukraina.ru is the official vehicle of the online media that bears its name. As of May 19, the channel had 7844 subscribers. The audience growth rate from March 16 to May 19 was 110%. Even given the many options for massaging the audience size numbers by using bots, the channel is frequently cited, which points to its active role in disseminating necessary information. Over the same period, there has been a significant increase in coverage of Belarus-related issues by the channel. We registered 82 posts dedicated to Belarus, which is more than two references per day.

Particularly illustrative is the channel’s own assessment of its audience as of April. Subscribers from Belarus, which is at the center of at least 2 posts per day, make up only 2%. So for what else, if not for shaping of necessary public opinion and the dissemination of “proper” information, are these materials being published?

There are cycles for the Belarusian narrative to appear on the channel that follow information campaigns conducted by the Kremlin. The bulk of Belarus-related posts during such periods are biased and negative in tone, aimed at inciting mutual hostility and creating grounds for conflict.

The current information cycle on the Telegram channel Ukraina.ru began on March 16 with a post titled “Ukraine officially notified Belarus about the temporary shutdown of the border.” A subsequent series of falsehoods followed the underlying Kremlin strategy. Below are some examples in reverse chronological order:

  • Difficult elections for Lukashenko. No help from abroad, no support from Russia.
  • Ukrainian asymmetric response to Lukashenko for the May 9 parade.
  • Today Slavic unity has badly cracked at the seams.
  • Who has a claim to Polesie? History and possible outcomes of the Belarusian-Ukrainian clash over the disputed region.
  • Journalist Armen Gasparyan on the fire in the Chernobyl region and “brother nations.”
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s take on combating coronavirus is exactly the same position as on the issue of the return of Crimea to Russia.
  • In the context of what is happening in Ukraine the positions of Alexander Lukashenko will remain strong, regardless of epidemiological developments in Belarus.
  • What is Belarusian nationalism and where does it come from?

 

Some takeaways

Russia continues active information warfare, having a major destructive impact on the political processes of other countries. The Kremlin finances, both in Ukraine and Belarus, various marginal movements and media platforms, both “right-wing” and “left-wing”, which form pockets of tension in society using modern technologies for immediate dissemination of information. For this reason it is important not to be goaded and to treat critically any messages, especially on social media. Telegram is bad enough by itself and  becomes dangerous when quoted by conventional media. This is how the Kremlin narratives and fake news become legitimized.

Both Ukraine, which is already in its seventh year of resisting Russian aggression, and Belarus, which has become a new target for Russian active measures, must pay special attention to ensuring information security. To this end, a step-wise counter-propaganda strategy needs to be developed and implemented. Post-hoc responses and reactive politics result in remaining part of the information agenda set by the Kremlin and only discuss topics that are force-fed.

To minimize the hybrid Russian influence on the media sphere in Ukraine and Belarus, it is extremely important to create an expert alternative agenda. It is important to take further steps to undermine the Kremlin’s resource potential in the information field of Eastern Partnership countries.

Maria Avdeeva,
European Expert Association,
iSANS expert

The article is also available at Reform.by.