Don’t Forget About ‘Soft Power’ Part of Russia’s ‘Hybrid War’ in Ukraine: Russian Activist Yashin’s New Report

January 31, 2017
Ukrainian oligarch Oleksandr Onyshchenko, owner of race horses and patron of equitation. Photo by Michael Kramer CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t Forget About the ‘Soft Power’ Part of Russia’s ‘Hybrid War’ in Ukraine: Russian Activist Yashin’s New Report

Ilya Yashin, a prominent Russian opposition figure and activist in Russia’s Solidarity movement, has issued a report, “The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggression: An Analytical Review,” on yet another aspect of the Kremlin’s aggression and corruption, this time related to Ukraine.
The publisher is the Free Russia Foundation, a Washington, DC-based emigre non-governmental organization founded in 2014 to serve as a platform for those forced to leave Russia or silenced within Russia due to political oppression. They seek to develop a transition program for “After Putin” and “Without Putinism”. Part of that mission is documenting and exposing the complexities of terms like “hybrid warfare,” which has been enthusiastically used by Western analysts, but not always with a lot of content.
Yashin previously released a report that his friend and colleague Boris Nemtsov was working on right before he was assassinated in February 2015, about the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, Russian soldiers killed fighting in the Donbass, and the brutal suppression of anti-war critics within Russia. He also tackled the controversial — and dangerous — topics of the excessive power and corrupt practices of Chechen leader and corruption within Russia’s ruling United Party. 

Russia’s War in the Donbass

His latest work is a topic we’ve long covered at The Interpreter in our daily reports on the battles — military and political — in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has been overshadowed by the war in Syria, where there are considerably more victims and destruction, but where Russia has also played a profoundly negative role in joining the brutal Assad regime in making attacks on civilians, but has failed to address the threat of ISIS. When Ukraine does get attention, it can be for an uptick in the fighting along the front line, the interminable peace talks in Minsk that have brought little results except the release of some — but far from all — POWs, and the need for Ukraine to reform.

Everyone knows that Russia’s war is “hybrid” — by which is meant that both covert and overt means are used, and military as well as political methods such as disinformation are utilized. Ukraine has been the victim of Russian hacking attacks as much or more than the US, and fake stories about Ukraine — such as the false story that Eurovision plans to snatch away the Ukraine’s hosting and give it to Russia — continue relentlessly.

There’s a tendency to think that once some of the main stories are debunked, we’ve cleared up the problem of perception of Ukraine. No, there never was any crucifixion of a toddler, the story was made up for Russian state TV; no, the Ukrainian military didn’t shoot down MH17, Russia-backed separatists did; no, there are no huge mass graves of victims of Ukrainian forces; and no, they are not selling their victims’ selling organs on the black market.

Yet the propaganda deluge against Ukraine is enormous, as we know from reading Russian state and pro-Kremlin media daily. Inevitably, this takes its toll. Sometimes the outrageous nature of the stories — like the headline that there are 400 American mercenaries fighting in the Donbass and many black soldiers’ bodies have been scattered over the battlefield — means that people don’t take seriously just how Russia can undermine people and politics in Ukraine to get its way with a drum-beat of less sensational, often partly-true stories.

It’s also common to think that Putin is “improvising” on Ukraine or busy with domestic problems and the challenges of the war in Syria, or that the conflict is “frozen” with Putin not really needing to orchestrate much activity. All of this is misleading. 

First, Yashin points out that Putin needed the war on Ukraine to transition from a leader up to his neck in allegations of corruption to one seen as the “ingatherer of the Russian lands”. As Shakespear’s dying Henry IV told his son to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” so Putin has succeeded in getting Russians people to look outward from their economic crisis that preceded the annexation of the Crimea and Western sanctions and rally for an ostensibly patriotic cause.

The war has enabled Putin to destroy a considerable part of Ukraine’s industrial capital and even literally carry out whole factories to Russia — Yashin says 20 businesses have been exported whole from Ukraine, from machine-building to ammunition plants. Putin has also successfully weakened Ukraine, which has significant deposits of shale gas, as a competitor to Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly. 

Putin’s investment in the now-deposed president Viktor Yanukovych came even with his first term when Russia sent in to Ukraine legions of specialists and consultants and even musicians to promote the pro-Moscow line; Putin himself traveled to Ukraine to meet Yanukovych seven times, says Yashin. The issue long before Crimea and the Donbass was whether Ukraine would follow Yanukovych’s (Moscow’s) program of integration into the Unified Economic Space (the precursor of the Eurasian Customs Union dominated by Russia) or Viktor Yushchenko’s turn toward European integration of Ukraine.

Of course the Maidan demonstrations brought this issue to a head and ultimately after he ordered police to fire on demonstrations, killing some 100 people, Yanukovych was forced to flee in the face of a popular democratic uprising that was uncovering his regime’s corruption along with bolstering the people’s will to become part of Europe.

Corruption That Predates Euromaidan

Yashin recalls the “Kharkiv Accords” signed in 2010 where essentially Kiev made a deal to allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain on Ukrainian territory for another 25 years in exchange for a discount of $100 per 1000 cubic meters of gas. At that time, Boris Nemtsov characterized the deal as a “disgusting precedent” because it essentially bought the Ukrainian military’s political loyalty and constituted a “national humiliation”. Few have remembered a quote from then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 in which he said the Black Sea Fleet would never be used to attack adjacent states. Yet not only did the Black Sea Fleet serve as a staging ground to take over the Crimea by force, it is now a launching pad for the war in Syria.

Faced with the growing Maidan protest, Putin tried to use Ukraine’s need for gas as a bargaining tool and met with Yanukovych on December 17, 2013, offering a 30% discount on gas and a $15 billion loan. Yanukovych managed to get only the first tranche — $3 billion — before fleeing. At that time Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the deal “a political bribe”. The crude bribe attempt didn’t work, however, as Yanukovych’s harsh new laws drew half a million protesters to downtown Kiev. Yashin points out that the Ukrainian Security Service has said that Russian intelligence developed the plan to suppress demonstrators and FSB agents were directly involved in implementing it. Russia’s granting of asylum to Berkut officers further confirms its role.

Boris Nemtsov’s perception in March 2014 when Putin forcibly annexed the Crimea, and covertly aided separatists taking over hundreds of administrative buildings in the Donbass, that above all, he feared that the Maidan would spread to Russia.

All or at least some of these factors have been known, if forgotten, but it’s important to see not only how they persist, but how Putin is persisting today. 

While Russians both in and out of power tend to explain everything in their region by the Kremlin’s own machinations, Yashin explains that Putin had reason to harshly punish Ukraine’s turn to the West for its own sake, as it represented a potential loss of business, a spread of further disloyalty in the region, and a model of a non-corrupt regime that naturally would challenge his own.

Tools of War

For both internal and external reasons, Putin has used three tools in the war on Ukraine: 

1) Hate language — calling the government in Kiev “the junta” to delegitimize it, and making references to “fascists” and “Banderites” — as if the one thousand ultranationalists who marched this year and in past years in support of the controversial Ukrainian war hero Stepan Bandera represent all of Ukraine.

2) Disinformation — the constant manipulation of the MH17 story with dozens of different implausible versions floated, sometimes simultaneously, is the classic example of this; the supposed satellite image shown on Russian TV by experts, where the plane was all out of proportion to the Donetsk airport and was obviously photo-shopped, was an example.

3) Provocative Lies — these Yashin distinguishes from “disinformation,” which usually has some truth in it. Lies are blatantly deceptive stories, such as the “crucified toddler,” or the “Spanish dispatcher” who claimed to have information about a Ukrainian plane that shot down MH17.
Unlike various critiques of the US intelligence report on Russia’s influence operation against the US (which downplay the influence of RT because it has relatively few TV viewers in the West), Yashin believes it does have an impact at home and abroad. Its budget in 2017 is $300 million — not much by American standards but enough in Russia to do a lot of damage, especially as it is replayed by other media with separate budgets.
Yashin also mentions the “black ledgers” where former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort was reported to be listed as receiving payments from Yanukovych, and where payments of $200,000 were also said to be made to Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian MP who leads the nationalist party Svoboda, which in the past had financing from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Svoboda’s radical actions have done a lot to turn Russians against Ukraine, such as an incident where Svoboda activists beat up a Russian voter in front of the Russian Embassy on September 18, 2016, the day of parliamentary elections. Both Ukrainian TV 112 and Russian state TV gave the incident full rotation. It was a radical from Svoboda who threw a grenade that killed four policemen in 2015.

Yashin does not hesitate to call out the forces in Ukraine that tilt toward the Kremlin and which the Kremlin uses to influence politics in Ukraine — a practice that journalists in both Ukraine and the West dislike as they fear it can lead to suppression of freedom of the media and witch-hunts.

But steeped in a world where Kremlin manipulation is not only a fact of life but more visible, Yashin writes confidently of Putin’s game plan for the pro-Russian space in Ukraine:

The face-off to occupy this niche in 2014 was between the Strong Ukraine party created by Serhiy Tihipko who had served as Vice Premier-Minister in Yanukovych’s government, and the Opposition Bloc which former Party of Regions veterans built on the crumbles of the old party’s structure.

In the end, the Kremlin bet on the Opposition Bloc and appointed Vladislav Surkov, Aide to the Russian President, as its Moscow handler. The cause for this most likely lay in the fact that the Bloc leaders were dependent on the Kremlin and thus were easily controlled. As a result of the elections the Bloc received 9.43% of the vote and formed a 27-member parliamentary party.

Vladimir Landik, former Party of Regions associate of the so-called «Oppositionists,» frankly speaks about the Bloc defending the interests of Vladimir Putin. «If they say one word unfavorable to the Kremlin, they will immediately lose their assets in Russia. They transferred everything there. The Bloc leaders’ billions are safe kept by their best friend Putin. Moscow keeps the former ‘Regionals’ on the hook with money and blackmail.»

«Putin gave to the Party of Regions money, let them structure shady gas and oil schemes, but demanded that they keep their assets in Russia. And now what? ‘Yours yesterday is ours today.’ The Opposition Bloc won’t make a sound against the Kremlin because it’s got all of their capitals. Putin has long been keeping Ukrainian politicians on the money hook,» says Landik.

Emails leaked by hackers of the email of Vladislav Surkov, the aide referenced known as the “Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin,” revealed that bills proposed by the Opposition Bloc in parliament were first cleared by the Russian presidential administration.
Yashin also notes that Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who opposed Ukraine’s joining Europe, is “the person often named as one of the key ideologists” representing Russian interests in Ukraine; Putin is his son’s godfather. Andriy Parubiy, head of the National Security and Defense Council, said it was through Medvedchuk that the separatists were financed.

The company Naftogaz, a Ukrainian state-owned monopoly often criticized for corruption, is “the primary lever of the Kremlin’s pressure on Ukraine,” says Yashin, and despite the war, Naftogaz “actively cooperates with Gazprom,” the Russian state-owned energy giant. Another figure Yashin highlights is Oleksandr Onyshchenko, an oligarch and former member of the Party of Regions, long connected to Yanukovych through various business schemes through shell companies in the gas extraction field. Last summer, the Ukrainian prosecutor named Onyshchenko in a case involving the illegal sale of gas that cost the state 3 billion hryvnia (US $100 million).

Yatsenyuk said Onyshchenko was spending $3 million a month in an anti-government campaign precisely because his gas  schemes were hampered. In December 2016, Onyshenko fled Ukraine, claiming he had secret recordings of President Petro Poroshenko that would discredit him. But an off-mic recording of Onyshchenko getting instructions from Viktor Zubritsky, founder of Ukraine’s Channel 112, before appearing on Russian state TV was then broadcast to show Onyshchenko’s true alliances. 

The Independent reported that it was unable to verify Onyshchenko’s claims; Yashin’s story of Onyshchenko’s coaching isn’t as well known in the West. Yashin believes Onyshchenko is particularly the one to watch in the coming months to see how Putin will attempt to manipulate politics in Ukraine.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick