Russia’s Propaganda War Against Ukraine: Interview with Russian Opposition Activist Ilya Yashin

January 31, 2017
Screen grab from video interview of Ilya Yashin by Wall Street Journal, January 2017.

Russia’s Propaganda War Against Ukraine: Interview with Russian Opposition Activist Ilya Yashin

Ilya Yashin’s new report, The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggressionreminds us that the Kremlin has a concerted anti-Ukrainian campaign under way, involving not just disinformation but the use of agents of influence and active measures. (See our summary).

The challenge in running them to ground is a climate where Ukrainian political figures and journalists are mindful that legitimate criticism of the administration of Petro Poroshenko should not be seen as pro-Russian treachery, and that while there is a war with Russia to be fought, the battles against corruption and for reform of institutions are also important.

We caught up with Yashin earlier this month as he was finishing a brief trip to the US to release his report in English translation, where he met with Congressional staff, think tanks and NGOs. He was also interviewed by Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal, and Politico covered his trip.

Threats by Email 

First, we asked him how he was getting on since some of his last reports, including a very critical expose of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen’s leader.

“I have only to open up email and social media every day and there are loads of threats, psychological pressure, every day,” he said. But he ignores this and continues with his work.

Russia Propaganda Strategy on Ukraine Changing 

He selected Russia’s propaganda warfare on Ukraine as his next topic because he wanted people to know that the Kremlin is changing its strategy regarding Ukraine.
All last year, Russian state-organized provocateurs tried to undermine Ukraine by promoting the views of figures like Oleh Lyashko, head of the Radical Party and a strident critic of the government of Petro Poroshenko. Russian media also emphasized topics that were genuine issues — rising prices of food and utilities — but solely blamed President Poroshenko and the government for this, predicting that Ukrainians would “have to go out on the street” and would “need to have a new Maidan”.
We’ve seen Russian propagandists try to claim that “a new Maidan” was underway every time a few hundred Ukrainian citizens get together to complain about a construction site or soldiers take their housing grievances to Kiev.
But as Yashin points out, this strategy failed, because there never was any “new Maidan,” and even the pro-Bandera march which Russian TV loves to feature every year with its dramatic flaming torches wielded by ultra-nationalists, only had 1,000 marchers — guarded by 3,000 police.
“When Ukrainians went out on Maidan originally, they knew that they’d have to wait for many year, and would have to suffer” for reforms, says Yashin. That means Ukrainians are patient up to a point, and the tactic of emphasizing price hikes or currency devaluation doesn’t work on them, he said.
Deposed president Viktor Yanukovych originally tried to buy off his opponents, including with gas deals, says Yashin, to try to avoid mass protests but this doesn’t work.
But while Ukrainians may endure social problems, what Ukrainians won’t tolerate, says Yashin, is disrespect from their own government. Maidan is usually referred to in Ukrainian as “the Revolution of Dignity” — as in human dignity in the face of repression. Knowing how dear this concept is to Ukrainians, Russian propagandists now try to play up the idea that Ukrainians have been “insulted” by their government for trusting in Maidan’s promise of reforms.

This explains why propagandists have tried to dig up and distort quotes and videotapes that will create this impression, i.e. one in which Poroshenko is portrayed as speaking disparagingly of the Ukrainian nation. Yashin is not sure these alleged videotapes referenced even exist, it may all be a bluff, but it’s a carefully-conceived one.

“Try to convince Ukrainians that the government disrespects them, and they may go out on the street,” he says.

“They try to use the oligarchs in their interests — their interests coincide,” says Yashin of some prominent Ukrainian business people who play an ambiguous role regarding Russia.

Onyshchenko – Whistleblower or Fleeing Fugitive? 

One such figure around whom a “key project” has been made by the Kremlin, says Yashin, is Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a former MP in the Ukrainian parliament who has now fled abroad.
“He’s on all the Kremlin TV channels, he’s a very convenient agent,” says Yashin. “He has his own money, so he has only to be supported” morally,” — an important plus in cash-strapped Moscow.
From the Ukrainian government’s perspective, Onyshchenko escaped to Austria a week before he was due to lose his parliamentary immunity after discovery of his involvement in a fraudulent gas scheme. Onyshchenko himself and RT describe his status as a whistle-blower calling out what he claims are mismanagement of IMF funds by Poroshenko — a claim Kiev calls “expedient fictions.”

Conflict in the Ukrainian Parliament

Odessa blogger Nikolai Kholmov points out that the Ukrainian parliament took its time voting to remove Onyshchenko’s parliamentary immunity — “he could have walked to Austria,” he noted dryly. Ultimately, the vote was 273 MPS in favor of allowing the prosecution of Onyshchenko out of 450 (265 for his detention, 263 for his arrest) — which means it took just 3 votes to allow authorities to move forward on Oyishchenko. Kholmov indicates that this may be related to rumors that Onyshchenko helps fund the Batkivshchyna party led by Yulia Tymoshenko.

This might be business-as-usual were it not for another parliamentary maneuver that occurred in conjunction with the vote on Onyshchenko, as Kholmov points out: Batkivshchyna joined Lyashko’s Radical Party in blocking the functioning of parliament in general to try to force the creation of a parliamentary commission of inquiry on “offshore entities and tax avoidance” believed to be targeted primarily at Poroshenko’s businesses that came to light in the Panama Papers. The commission didn’t previously gather enough votes; now it may, although Tymoshenko herself may have reason not to have this commission go looking for her own companies abroad.

Another cause of this uneasy coalition between Batkivshchyna and the Radical Party is lobbying to reduce the gas tariff, although the IMF has urged that it be raised — a policy Tymoshenko agreed to back when she was prime minister.

One thing is clear about this situation in the Ukrainian parliament: it is open for Russian manipulation.

Opportune Moment for Putin to Move on Ukraine

The coming year is key in Moscow’s plans for influencing Ukraine, says Yashin. The US will be “preoccupied” under the new presidency of Donald Trump. Europe will be “enervated by Brexit”, he says. “This gives time to Putin to blow up the situation in Ukraine.”

As for the war in Ukraine, “it’s good for Putin when it goes on in a sluggish form because it helps him as a lever he can use to convince Kiev” to make concessions.
“Russian tanks aren’t going to go to Kiev,” says Yashin, “but he will try to return [Ukraine] to Russian control. He will try to bring more loyal and compliant figures to power.”

“Wherever there is oligarchy, Putin has a chance to bring people to power,” commented Yashin  — an insight that applies to the US as well as Ukraine. Along with the oligarchs, there are “reliable journalists, corrupt journalists” who can help this agenda along, he noted.

Annexation of Crimea

Ukrainians and others who have sought to resist Russian aggression often comment that the Russian liberal opposition’s dissent only goes as far as the Russian border, that they can hold the same nationalist vision of their country that authoritarian leaders such as Putin do. 

Asked about his attitude toward the annexation of Crimea, Yashin commented that now was not the time to resolve this issue; “Crimea cannot be resolved under Putin; debating it only plays into Putin’s hands”.

So when Russia changes — in an era where Putin would step down or be forced out of office — this issue could be resolved, and a solution could be found “in the interests of all parties”. This is a formulation likely unacceptable to Ukrainian nationalists, who view the surrender of Crimea to be unconditional, and not the view even of the UN General Assembly, which voted in favor of recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russia’s aggression.

How Can the West Help Russian Opposition? Help Ukraine 

Westerners often ask Yashin “how can we help,” when he travels abroad to make known the concerns of the Russian opposition. And these days, it is dangerous to attempt to fund even non-governmental groups in Russia, let alone organized opposition parties, due to the “foreign agents” law and a surge in “treason” cases.

So Yashin replies these days with the best recipe for helping the Russian opposition: “Help Ukraine”. If the West will keep Putin from Ukraine, this indirectly helps the opposition cause. 

“If Putin swallows Ukraine, it’s a blow not only to democracy in Europe but inside Russia; it demoralizes an enormous number of people. If Ukraine becomes a success, it will be an inspiring example. So defend Ukraine,” says Yashin.
Yashin does not believe that Putin will hold early elections in 2017, a fear expressed by Russian bloggers as well as Western analysts. But 2017 is a key year leading up to the 2018 presidential elections where he will consolidate his position.

Internal Opposition Turmoil

Recently Yashin himself quit the Parnas opposition party where he had been on the board for a number of years because of major disagreements with Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader. Basically, the younger activists in the party such as Yashin himself and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, another member, felt that after state-run NTV ran an expose of Kasyanov’s extra-marital affair with a Parnas member in order to discredit him before the September parliamentary elections, he should step down. They also disagreed with some of the positions he took on various issues, including his failure to remove a notorious anti-Semite from the top of the party’s list. 

Now Yashin is confining his activism to Russia’s Solidarity movement, founded in 2008 by chess grand-master Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, Yashin’s close friend and associate who was assassinated in 2015. Asked if he believed movement work might be more effective now that party politics given the lack of access to the electoral process, Yashin said he thought this was the case, but he was going to support opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s run for president — assuming he can can run for president, given the revival of the Kirovles case.

Navalny’s Party of Progress was never registered, but he runs an NGO, the Anti-Corruption Foundation which has spearheaded some of the major exposures of corruption among Kremlin leadership in recent years. Parnas, Yashin’s former party and Navalny’s groups had cooperated for many years despite emphasizing different agendas and would go on doing so. In 2013, Navalny took nearly 30% of the votes in the Moscow mayoral election, i.e. he was close to forcing a second round.

RT Propaganda Does Have an Impact 

In his report, Yashin takes seriously the ability of Russian media, both at home and abroad, to influence domestic opinion in other countries.
While there has lately been a great deal of debate about Russia’s RT, the lead propaganda organ, and the point made that it does not have the audiences claimed, Yashin believes it does have an impact. A budget of $300 million might seem small in an American understanding, but it goes far in Russia.
“Russia had two tasks with the recent actions against the US, one, to show that they can influence public opinion, through RT, through hacking, through criminal actions, and two, just to demonstrate force, period.”
Russia wants us to understand that “they are a force to conjure with,” he said. They also want to discredit US institutions of democracy as they are a threat to Putin’s power as a model just as much as a reforming Ukraine.

Yashin believes the Kremlin was actually prepared for a victory by Hillary Clinton, and had on tap a propaganda campaign to show that US elections in that case were “fraudulent” and “Trump should have won” and discredit the institutions that way.

Trump Dossier 

Asked about his opinion on allegations in the dossier leaked about Trump’s connections to Russia, Yashin says that it is unlikely there was anything dramatic.
“Probably there is kompromat, he had some kind of business. If he were in a hotel deal, that’s possible. Business is impossible in Russia without any corrupt schemes,” said Yashin, echoing the belief of most Russians regarding the need to pay bribes and to bend or even break the law to get things done in Russia.

“I don’t think it’s a critical thing that would be devastating,” said Yashin, however, about any possible kompromat the Kremlin might have on Trump. As he noted, the effort of Russia’s manipulators isn’t so much aimed at the specific figure they are “compromising,” but about his followers and the public.

“People voted for epatage,” said Yashin, using a Russian term actually taken from the French used about Trump in Russian discussions to mean his show-boat, non-establishment persona. For Trump’s followers, however, “even sex tapes won’t work on them.”

Kremlin’s Grey Cardinal 

Meanwhile, we should keep an eye on figures like Onyshchenko where dependency on Putin, either morally or financially, may be better documented. And who stands behind Onyshchenko?

“Surkov,” said Yashin, indicating Vladislav Surkov, known as the “grey cardinal of the Kremlin,” an aide to Putin in charge of the “near abroad,” which has included South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Ukraine. Yashin noted that another official, Oleg Govorun, mentioned in the Trump dossier in fact, used to work on Ukraine issues but now he’s been moved to the Duma — as was Vladislav Volodin, Putin’s former top aide who is now the chief of staff of the Duma — a position that is designed to enable him to win the elections for Putin.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick