Ilya Yashin’s new report, The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggression, reminds 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
“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
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?
Conflict in the Ukrainian Parliament
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.
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.”
“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.
Internal Opposition Turmoil
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
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.
“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
“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