Kochevenko: It Is Enough for Lithuania Just to Hint – And Ukrainian Volunteers Will Come To Your Aid20.09.2021
Recently, Ukraine celebrated 30 years of independence. The country, which has relatively recently embarked on far-reaching reforms, still has many unresolved issues and entails remnants of the Soviet mentality like an anchor. However, according to Yuri Kochevenko, changes are taking place and are supported by many countries, including Lithuania. Ukrainians are very grateful for such help and call Lithuania “a small country with a big heart”.
Yuriy Kochevenko is a political technology specialist, a reserve officer in the Ukrainian army, a participant in the Russian-Ukrainian war, and currently heads the International Center for Countering Russian Propaganda. Alfa.lt talked with him about what Ukraine looks like after 30 years of independence and about the importance of Lithuania’s assistance.
– Ukraine is 30 years old, but I have heard many times that your country really ‘woke up’ only in 2014.
– I would not say so, but I agree that 2014 was one of the defining periods in our history. After all, by and large, our entire history, and especially our contemporary one, is a struggle against the empire. The current Russian leaders are unable to imagine Russia other than an imperial state, which means that they absolutely need Ukraine. In 2014, they dropped their masks, and if some Ukrainians at that time still had illusions about Russia, now such illusions no longer exist. In a sense, that made us free and greatly accelerated the formation of our own political identity. We finally severed the ties that had still connected us to the empire and the Soviet past.
– In recent years, Lithuania has been one of the most active supporters of Ukraine. What kind of help was the most useful? Political support, military aid or something else?
– We understand perfectly well that Lithuania does not have the opportunity to provide the same material support as the major powers. However, in public opinion, in this regard, Lithuania is probably on the same level as the United States. This is because Lithuania has been supporting us uncompromisingly and stably in all formats. This is the most important thing for us. Every Ukrainian, not even related to the government or the armed forces, knows very well that Lithuania is one of our most reliable allies.
President Dalia Grybauskaite is still so popular in Ukraine today that she could run in the presidential election and have every chance of winning, but of course, it’s a joke.
And seriously, it is worth mentioning the training missions of the Lithuanian military, which include various training forms and methods. In 2019, we developed a series of such training programs with Lithuanians. Having gained valuable experience as a NATO member, Lithuania now shares it with us very generously. We have also got a joint Ukrainian-Polish-Lithuanian brigade named after our shared hero Konstyantyn Ostrozkyi. Of course, we remember Lithuania’s assistance in the treatment and rehabilitation of injured Maidan participants and our soldiers wounded in the war.
– Paradoxically, it was the aggressive neighbour who brought us closer.
– It is a pity that the war brought us closer, but Lithuania indeed became much closer to us. I hope we do not offend you when we call you ‘a small country with a big heart’. When I communicate at work with colleagues from other countries, I constantly find myself in situations where there is always a “but” in the discussion, even with Moldovans or Georgians who have got the first-hand experience of Russian aggression. There is never a “but” with Lithuanians – our thoughts and opinions always match.
Often we use the term ‘allies’, although I would use the word ‘partners’ for many countries. But not for Lithuania. Lithuania is a real ally. That’s why we immediately responded to the events on your border with Belarus. You know that Ukrainian student volunteers went to help defend the parliament during the events of January 13. Today, I do not doubt that our volunteers will help you resist innovative hybrid attacks. Lithuania only needs to hint about the need for such assistance, and we will do everything possible.
– This year, we have heard many times that over the last 7 years the Ukrainian armed forces have completely changed. On the other hand, there was criticism that many reforms were just a show-off. Which statement is true?
– Both are. In 2014, our army was a tiny Soviet army in a non-Soviet country. There was absolutely no connection between society and the army. We changed the flags, we changed the shape, and yet a lot of Soviet DNA remained. But we are no longer what we were 7 years ago. The Ukrainian army is somewhere between the Soviet army and the army we want to have.
I must admit that we could have done more in these years if not for the lack of political will, corruption, the outdated mentality of some army commanders. However, changes are happening, and are happening, perhaps, faster than in any other structure in Ukraine. War makes us learn quickly. It is good that NATO military countries, including Lithuania, are helping us. It is essential that this training changes our military attitude and way of thinking.
The problem of old mentalities is not exclusively Ukrainian. Probably in every post-Soviet country, officers who have served for decades think only of pensions and resist any change, even if it is just a “facade”.
– It also took more than a year for the Lithuanian army to be built.
– You have an advantage: from the first day of your independence there were no questions about who you are and where you are going. You have a living memory of statehood, and you used it. There are no living witnesses left in Ukraine who would remember how things were before the Soviet occupation. We diligently searched for our state identity. We declared that we were the heirs of the Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1918, but at the same time, we were the heirs of the Ukrainian SSR, and we wandered from one side to the other. I order for us to finally realize, generations of people had to change, and the aggressor had to show their true face.
At the moment, more than two-thirds of Ukrainians do not doubt that the country should move away from Russia. I admit that, despite the war, there are about 15% of pro-Russian people, but their number is steadily declining. However, the danger is that a very small part of the population is enough for Russia’s information and propaganda operations to destabilize the situation in the country.
– Where is Russia’s information policy harming Ukraine the most?
– In this respect, the information operations methodology is very similar to military tactics – one identifies the weakest points in the enemy’s defence and attacks them with all the might. Russian propaganda uses any problematic issue that provokes discussions in Ukraine. The goal is to undermine citizens’ trust in the government, the army and the state itself. We have to admit that their efforts are not in vain. Another problem is that Russian propaganda comes not only from Russia but also from the media and politicians perceived as Ukrainian. Which is a serious problem.
It is difficult to resist that because we will never have the resources that Russia has. However, we note with relief that the Russian propaganda machine is far from perfect. For example, analyzing the actions of our opponents, we realized that about two-thirds of the money allocated by the Kremlin for this purpose is simply stolen and not even used in the information war. But in any case, we do not underestimate Russia’s capabilities and are looking for ways to counter them. The Russian propaganda mechanism works very ingeniously, stereotypically: the same methods, and often the same narratives are used from Ukraine and Lithuania to Germany. By working with professionals in other countries, we can anticipate and prepare for operations.
It is also very important that anti-propaganda activities are carried out not only by state institutions but also that the public, independent media and non-governmental organizations take a more active part in them. Russia cannot do that because everything in its mechanism is based on a rigid power vertical and money. As soon as their propagandist does not receive a salary, let alone order, he will quit.
It is difficult for Russians to build effective cooperation in the international scene. And we are able, and must do it. As we can see from the painful Russian reaction, the Crimean Platform was a good example of such cooperation.
Finally, we strive to develop information literacy in society, and we do so by targeting key groups. It’s a bit like tactics against coronavirus – there are also priority groups in the information war, such as the military or teachers. Of course, the most important goal is to increase the general information literacy of the whole society. The more people do not succumb to the manipulation of propagandists, the less harmful will be the activities of our enemies. As soon as someone realizes about being manipulated, they become immune to such things.