“Brothers in Arms”: How Ukraine, the Central European States and EU Can Fight Together against Kremlin (hybrid) Aggression

On 12 May 2021, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, in cooperation with TEXTY.ORG.UA (Ukraine), Internews-Ukraine, European Values Center for Security Policy (Czech Republic), and with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation, organised an online public webinar “Brothers in Arms”: How Ukraine, the Central European States and EU Can Fight Together against Kremlin (hybrid) Aggression”.

Experts have evaluated the recent developments focusing on the actions of the Russian Federation and suggested how Ukraine, the Central European States, and the EU can jointly stand against Kremlin’s aggressive activities.

Olena Carbou, Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels, welcomed the participants of the webinar and outlined the context of the discussion. Recent developments, in particular, in the Czech Republic and ongoing Russian attacks in Ukraine give us a reason to speak about how we can jointly respond to such activities and what different stakeholders can do in order to counteract Kremlin’s aggressive activities.

Carbou: “We gathered together to speak about important issues for Ukraine, Central Europe, and the European Union.”

David Stulik, European Values Center for Security Policy, compared the experience of the Czech Republic and Ukraine. We have learnt recently about the direct attack of Russian intelligence officers on the territory of the EU/NATO member state. According to Mr Stulik, many Czechs are now realising what Ukraine has been experiencing since 2014, including the lack of solidarity. For many Czechs, these actions could completely change the perception of Russia. The Czech Republic and maybe also Bulgaria became the subject of the explosions and following hybrid operations, including disinformation narratives. Putting the overall mosaic about Russian hybrid operations abroad together gives us a broader perspective of what is happening as well as discloses the real nature of the Kremlin regime.

Stulik: “We are now kind of “brothers and sisters in arms”, and I hope that all together we will be able to find responses to these aggressive expressions of hybrid operations of the Russian Federation.”

Petro Bodnar, TEXTY.ORG.UA, emphasised that in spring military tension on the border of Ukraine merged with informational operations. From the beginning of February, disinformators were constantly blaming Ukrainian Armed Forces for shelling and aggressive actions against the civil population, while in fact Russian militants were killing Ukrainian soldiers and ignoring the ceasefire. Accordingly, the informational campaign has started few weeks prior to the first military tensions and supported it in all ways. The goal of these operations could be the following: discredit Ukraine in the international arena, spread the panic among the civil population, and promote Kremlin’s interests in the region. The major narrative presented in disinformation about the concentration of troops is that the Russian army is preparing to defend against Ukraine’s offensive. In order to counteract Russian disinformation, Ukraine has imposed sanctions on TV channels controlled by pro-Russian politicians and established governmental centers to tackle disinformation. In turn, civil actors are constantly doing monitoring, fact-checking, and research on Russian propaganda and military operations.

Bodnar: “The unity and support among the countries threatened by Russian aggressive policy as well as further international cooperation in this field could make the fight against both military tension and informational operations more effective.”

Volodymyr Yermolenko, Internews-Ukraine, focused on the challenge, response, and measures that could be done to counteract Russia’s activities. According to Mr Yermolenko, one of the key challenges of the Russian hybrid threat is that it is not only promoting pro-Russian narratives but using the internal context of each given society, stressing its weak points. Besides, Russia is not limited only by disinformation techniques and fake news; it uses also malinformation, which is defined as a mixture of lies, half-truth, and manipulations. The third challenge is that Ukrainian society is vulnerable to these influences. Regarding the response, Mr Yermolenko has mentioned sanctions against pro-Russian TV channels and suspicion of Viktor Medvedchuk for high treason. He stressed that it is important to continue this kind of a hardline against Medvedchuk and other pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politicians. Besides, Ukraine should counteract and combat the fears connected to the topics, in which pro-Kremlin channels are very active. It is also very important to work with a lack of agency, values, and the ways how Ukrainians perceive themselves.

Yermolenko: “It is important to continue this kind of a hardline against Medvedchuk and other pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politicians and lead it to the end.”

Veronika Krátká Špalková, Kremlin Watch team, European Values Center for Security Policy, has stressed that despite the massive Russian disinformation campaign related to the Vrbetice ammunition warehouses explosion is taking place right now, Russian strategy hasn’t changed for years – it is denying completely everything and trying to blame someone else. Russia’s key idea is to make as many versions of what could have happened as possible, so regular people are just too confused and stop caring what the truth is. Ms Krátká Špalková pointed out that Russia uses many websites to repeat disinformation and spread it over the EU and partnership states. It is noteworthy that some Czech politicians, including the Prime Minister and the President, also made statements in favour of Russia, which confused the EU and NATO allies. Thus, internal pro-Kremlin narratives played an important role in Russian disinformation campaigns and led to a weaker international support than it could be.

Krátká Špalková: “The main goal that Russia wants to achieve is not to convince people that what Russia says is true, it just wants to create as many versions as possible.”

Anneli Ahonen, East Stratcom Task Force, European External Action Service, noted that since 2015 the Stratcom’s approach of countering Russian disinformation has been threefold. It is about communicating better EU policies in the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia, supporting independent media and civil society actors, and counteracting disinformation. According to Ms Ahonen, the voices from Ukraine were essential for the current level of awareness about Kremlin activities at the EU level. Ms Ahonen also revealed the plans to strengthen the work in the Eastern Partnership countries on raising awareness and countering disinformation.

Ahonen: “More targeted communication is one of the future directions of work.”