Attacking cleavages – the question of identity in Ukraine’s hybrid war with Russia

Text: Florian Fuchs; Foto: Fabian Niehaus |

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They always want to attack you on an emotional level,” our host Victor Andrusiv told us. The question of identity is such a controversial issue in Ukraine that fuels emotions. It has been discussed intensively – also during our excursion – and remains a topic under debate. The main aim of Russian hybrid warfare is to attack cleavages; so the issue of identity is welcome to destabilize Ukraine. This is the topic we discussed with Mr. Andrusiv, the head of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Institute for the Future. Before he became the head of the institute, Mr. Andrusiv was deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, a party best known in Germany for its founder Vitali Klitschko. He wrote his PhD on hybrid identities and was the founder of the Ukrainian information army, a project funded by the Ukrainian ministry of information policy to combat misinformation. Therefore, he was a very proficient speaker for our excusions last meeting about the hybrid war in (Eastern) Ukraine and the question of identity in this framework.

The aim of hybrid wars is to “foment instability in another state’s domestic affairs, prioritizing non-kinetic military means such as cyber and influence operations in concert with economic pressure, support for local opposition groups, disinformation, and criminal activity.”1. In this essay, I’m focusing on non-military measures. In the context of Russia, the term hybrid war is often related to the Gerasimov-Doctrine2.

Before talking about hybrid warfare, Mr. Andrusiv elaborated the term hybrid identity in greater detail. As we’ve already examined during our previous meetings, there is no singular Ukrainian identity but rather a mix of different identities. Mr. Andrusiv referred to these different identities as “identity layers”, formed during the last century. Peoples identity depend on “what layer they belong to”. But the majority of the people went through all these phases, so he emphasized the probability of a mixture of identities.

The first layer of identity comprises positively preserved memories from the Soviet times. There are still people keeping this heritage alive, especially in Eastern Ukraine. This is what Andrusiv defines as the Soviet layer.

Then, there is the second layer, the layer of national struggle. This identity was formed during the period after the Collapse of the Soviet Union. It was shaped by two distinctive developments in the newly founded Ukrainian state in the 1990s. The first development was the emergence of nationalist tendencies in all post-Soviet countries. The other was the extremely harsh economic situation of that time, with economic downturn of up to 20% per year.

The third layer is formed by the strong desire to become a member or, at least, closer to the European Union. I’ll call it the European layer. However, the Ukrainian understanding of European Union is neither connected to European values nor to peace, but rather the promise of “good salaries and good roads”. It’s actually quite the contradictory; most people in Ukraine don’t support European values, but yet support a membership due to the promise of an improvement of living conditions.

If you ask people about their identity, their answer would likely have features of all three layers. That’s what he defines as hybrid identity. This ambiguousness is a cleavage mentioned in the beginning and an opportunity to attack Ukraine and its inhabitants on an emotional level.

But what strategy does Russia follow in order to do so? The Gerasimov-Doctrine mentions a wide range of possible measures.3 In Donbas region, next to the military actions, one cleavage attacked was the identity of the people. Here, the question of identity is even more difficult since people primarily identify themselves with their profession. In order to justify the hostile actions by Russian and the Separatist forces in Luhansk and Donetsk, two narratives had to be developed, connected to the history of the region.

The first one, Novorussia, refers to a territory that existed during the times of the Russian Empire, reaching from Crimea to the Zaporozhian Sich.4 This was brought back to life in the narrative of Novorussia. This is also the case for Crimea and the especially the city of Sevastopol, denoted by Vladimir Putin in his Presidential Address 2014 as of “invaluable civilizational and even sacral importance for Russia“5.

Defending Eastern Ukraine from the “Nazi”-regime in Kiev was the second narrative that was developed by the Separatist forces. They compare the situation with WWII, where the Soviet Union had to liberate the region from the German army. This time the “Nazi”-regime in Kiev attacked Donbas with the help of the United States. Therefore, declaring independence from Ukraine was inevitable for the Separatist regions; they couldn’t live in a country that is controlled by such a regime. Mr. Andrusiv made clear that the “myth of Novorussia” failed. The people didn’t understand this narrative and, therefore, didn’t perceive it as part of their identity. Nevertheless, Russia managed to create an image of Ukraine as the enemy, as a fascist regime that has no legal interest in the region. So while Russia didn’t manage to change the inhabitant’s self-perception, they still had the effect of establishing themselves as the enemy in some people.

In order to achieve such a change, the informational war takes up a crucial part in hybrid warfare. Mr. Andrusiv named three models of informational war: the American, the British and the Russian model. The American way is creating loyalty through marketing. The attractiveness of brands and lifestyles helps to create dependence. The British way is to create dependence by building strong ties to a nations future elite, e.g. by student exchanges.

The Russian way of informational war, which is also exerted in Ukraine, contains the idea of reflexive management. Reflexive management is an approach to change the understanding of values. One way to tackle this understanding is with the help of History. Since Ukraine and Russia are common regions, they also have a common history. Therefore, the writing in history is supposed to be changed, such as the perception of the Soviet Union. One example Mr. Andrusiv gave us how this works: changing the understanding of the SU from “the Soviet Union was a huge prison” to “in the Soviet Union were a lot of people in prison but only to be the most technological country in the world” to improve the reminiscence of the people. By spreading this twist of history’s perception in various (social) media platforms, the understanding of the Soviet Union can be changed and thereby that of nowadays Russia as well. As a result, the understanding of actions done by Russia shall be perceived more positively. Also, this concept can be used to foster existing cleavages within the society.

In order to achieve this change of perception, Victor Andrusiv named some measures that were conducted by the Separatist and Russian forces. A lot of websites were created that started as normal media outlets – some were even established before the Euromaidan – that started to spread disinformation. The amount and the simultaneous release of misinformation enhanced the feeling of an orchestrated information campaign. The overall aim is to create a form of hysteria where people don’t trust official news sources anymore. But they weren’t only targeting people on the Internet. A very common way is to spread misinformation with the help of bus drivers. They have a role as a communicator, especially for people who don’t have access to the internet or newspapers. The newest method to multiply misinformation is by renting social media accounts. People get paid $100 and have to give access to their account. Thereby, the social media accounts appear to be authentic.

Concluding Victor Andrusiv argued for more measures to fight misinformation on the Internet. He tried to develop a plug-in for browser that would help to identify suspicious content and website. Here, again, he wants to warn of content that addresses the user on an emotional level, especially by newly created websites. If misinformation could be marked as such, the danger of polarization would be diminished.

Footnotes:

2 The question, weather it was meant as a doctrine, is controversial. The term was created initially after a speech of Valery Gerasimov (Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia), where he described the mentioned measures. However, Gerasimov originally elaborated “how the Kremlin understands what happened in the “Arab Spring” uprisings, the “color revolutions” against pro-Moscow regimes in Russia’s neighborhood, and in due course Ukraine’s “Maidan” revolt“, that he saw as initiated by the US. (Cf. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/).

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