Debunking Russia’s fake popular struggle in Ukraine

(Instagram / Vonoru)

A pro-Russian demonstrator replaces the Ukrainian flag with a Russian flag atop the Kharkiv city council building. (Instagram / Vonoru)

A large animated crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators gathered outside the Kharkiv city council building in eastern Ukraine, watching and cheering as a young man in his mid-20’s, wearing a green military-style jacket, took down the Ukrainian flag at the top of the building and replaced it with a Russian flag. The startling action took place on March 1, 2014, just months after massive protests against President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an agreement on closer ties with the European Union — in favor of greater cooperation with Russia — had filled Independence Square in Kiev.

Yet, when news about the citizen of Kharkiv raising the Russian flag over the city council building appeared on the Internet later that day, ordinary Ukrainians had many reasons to doubt the demonstration was real. After all, the Kremlin had been waging a hybrid war against Ukraine to discredit the wave of pro-Europe protests, known as Euromaidan, since they began in November 2013.

A week later, StopFake.org, a website run by Ukrainian journalists aiming to refute distorted information about the events in Ukraine, discovered that Kharkiv’s pro-Russian demonstration was likely staged. The Ukrainian activist holding the Russian flag on top of the city council building turned out to be a young Russian man from Saint Petersburg named Michael Ronkainen. StopFake reported that the Russian activist outed himself in a picture he posted to his Vkontakte page (a Russian analogue of Facebook).

According to Tetiana Matychak, the editor-in-chief of StopFake, it was readers who brought the story to the journalists’ attention — specifically those from Eastern Ukraine, who were aware of Russia’s efforts at deception. “We were surprised, but we checked the information very carefully and concluded that our readers were right,” Matychak said.

After the “Kharkiv activist” was exposed, more readers began sending tips to StopFake, including one about a Russian flag being raised in Donetsk at a pro-Russian rally, where participants seized the regional council building. StopFake, with help from its readers, soon discovered that the activist holding the flag, Rostislav Zhuravlev, came from the Russian city of Ekaterinburg and was a friend of the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region.

Zhuravlev’s social media was also filled with anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with many of his posts calling on readers to liberate Novorossiya, the Eastern Ukraine region that fell into the hands of pro-Russian rebels and separatists shortly after the Euromaidan protests. These rebels seek to recruit young men to voluntarily join the fight in Eastern Ukraine. Ronkainen, for instance, posted a photo on Instagram with a police officer he met at Los Angeles International Airport, accompanied by the comment: “I met a cool guy [named] John. After his shift is over, John promised to go to Donetsk to fight for Novorossiya.”

The stories of these two Russian activists are just a few of the fakes among a broader range of false information and propaganda about the situation in Ukraine produced mostly by the Russian mainstream media. For more than a year now, journalists and activists from StopFake have tried to debunk distorted information and identify made-up reports and commentary through careful verification and fact checking.

“If we find 100 percent proof that the news is a fake, we write an article about it,” Matychak explained. “We discuss all the topics together, but I make the final decision if this news is worth debunking or not, and if the story is worth being published.”

When Matychak and her colleagues started StopFake, they only intended to run the website for two or three months, but the propaganda quickly increased and spread out of control, such that they could not let it go unanswered.

“We see the statistics,” she said. “A lot of fakes come from Russian media seeking to create propaganda about the enemies of the Russian Federation – Ukraine, Georgia, NATO, the United States. These countries and organizations are not the real enemies of Russia, but the Kremlin propaganda calls them ‘enemies’ in order to persuade the Russian people. I can say for sure that Ukraine was not going to attack Russia and Ukraine only fights back now.”

Matychak is convinced that the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda inspires pro-Russian activists to take part in staged protests pretending to be Ukrainian citizens. “Many people who came from Russia, came to Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk,” Matychak said. “That is the difference between Kiev protests and Eastern Ukraine protests. In Eastern Ukraine there were a lot of Russian protesters. Those people watched Russian TV channels and heard stories about Ukrainians and Junta.”

The ‘mirror image’ of Maidan

According to Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist and co-founder of online news station Hromadske TV, pro-Russian activists have used a number of nonviolent tactics, including occupations and barricades, to create the perception that they are engaged in popular struggle similar to that of the protesters in Maidan, the central square in Kiev. Even though pro-Russian activists were occasionally able to make their protests appear peaceful and resemble the nonviolent atmosphere of Maidan, some of the most important aspects of nonviolent struggle were missing — namely spontaneity and authenticity, as Gumenyuk explained.

In a 2014 webinar about the Maidan Revolution produced by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gumenyuk elaborated on several other ways pro-Russian activists have mirrored the actions of their Maidan counterparts. “There have been reports of protesters who came from the villages and stayed in the tent city in Luhansk — for publicity purposes — only to return home in the evening after the cameras were gone,” she said. Meanwhile, the barricades in Donetsk are “poorly constructed and serve no practical purpose, especially considering they are guarded by armed men.” This is in contrast to the ones at Maidan, which were created to stop the crackdown on protesters by police.

In one particularly ridiculous incident, according to Gumenyuk, some people in Donetsk donated warm winter clothes to the so-called protesters — just as Maidan supporters had done for people protesting in Kiev during the winter months. The difference, however, was that the pro-Russian donations “took place in April, when the weather was much warmer and winter clothes were not needed.”

Such actions led to the creation of what Gumenyuk referred to as  “the ‘mirror image’ of Maidan, an attempt to give legitimacy to the pro-Russian resistance movement. Unlike the staged protests in Eastern Ukraine, however, Maidan was an authentic grassroots movement. According to Gumenyuk, people followed the genuine spirit of the protest present at Maidan, which the staged pro-Russian protests always lacked.

Nevertheless, the Russian propaganda machine is learning lessons from its public outing. “After publishing those and other stories,” Matychak explained, “Russian activists in Ukraine became more careful and wise. Many of them stopped publishing selfies in social networks, for example.”

Misappropriation of nonviolent tactics

According to Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, a Boston-based non-profit devoted to advancing the study of nonviolent action, “Governments and others have, historically, tried to undermine nonviolent movements by accusing them of being created and funded by foreign governments.” Kremlin-sponsored media outlets, in particular, have played a leading role in such efforts, routinely crediting Western powers with the string of popular uprisings that took place in the early 2000s in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Some outlets have focused on Albert Einstein Institution founder Gene Sharp, often considered the leading theorist on nonviolent conflict.

In a 2012 segment on the Kremlin-sponsored cable news network Russia Today, Polish political activist Mateusz Piskorski called Sharp “an ideologue,” and “the man who invented the whole technology of the contemporary color revolutions,” adding, “Of course, the United States is the leading power when it comes to these technologies.”

In another 2012 interview, this time with Sharp himself, the Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, asked the 87-year-old Nobel Peace Price nominee to discuss how his work was “used to disintegrate the Soviet Union.” Sharp responded by saying, “If the problem of the Soviet society was that an old man could suppress it, then it means this society had very big problems.”

In a report published earlier this year, civil resistance scholar Maciej Bartkowki explained that the Kremlin’s preoccupation with the color revolutions stems from its fear of “a similar outburst of popular discontent in Russia.” Yet, despite its efforts to delegitimize nonviolent struggle, the Kremlin recognized, as Bartkowski noted in paper published earlier this year, that “a resemblance of popular grassroots support will be important for the ultimate success of the subversive operations that Russia planned in Ukraine.”

As a result, the Kremlin has relied on the political mobilization of a loyal and vocal minority in the targeted territories of Eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk. Bartkowski’s analysis suggests that such actions “provided an effective nonviolent cover for rebels and Russian special forces, bestowing on them and their actions a façade of grassroots legitimacy.”

Keeping the Russian population in the dark

During the recent conflict in Ukraine, Putin relied heavily on the information warfare conducted in social and mainstream media. According to Barkowski, his objective was to “deceive adversaries, blur the line between reality and fantasy, drive a wedge between Western allies, and keep the Russian population itself in the dark.” To that end, Putin’s strategy has been extremely effective. Russia’s information warfare has deceived large audiences. At the beginning of last fall, Putin’s approval rating was at 88 percent. Thereafter, the financial crisis notwithstanding, 70 percent of the Russian citizens expressed support for Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

In April 2014, David M. Herzenhorn, a Moscow based New York Times correspondent, described the Kremlin’s information warfare as “an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in Eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.”

Raqib also thinks the protests organized by pro-Russian activists in Eastern Ukraine were effective and — perhaps more alarmingly — can be seen as part of a larger global trend. “Governments are studying this,” she explained. “They recognize that they need to use some elements of nonviolent struggle against nonviolent movements.” This is something Raqib feels the nonviolence community needs to better understand, if it’s going to find effective ways of counteracting a growing trend toward hybrid warfare.

While scholars and journalists like Gumenyuk and Bartkowski are making strides in that area, crowd-sourced media watchdog groups like StopFake are creating a noticeable impact on the frontline of the struggle. “We are fighting propaganda no matter where it comes from,” Matychak said. “Our main hope is to attract the attention of foreign media organizations and encourage them to not only verify all the information no matter the source, but to also learn from our experience and protect their countries from any sort of propaganda.”

Matychak believes that victory will come for the nonviolent movement in Ukraine because truth is on its side. “Ukrainians don’t attack. They only defend themselves, and they try to do it using truth because liars only win in the short-term. People who use truth always win in the long-term.”

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