Russian Disinformation Distorted Reality in Ukraine. Americans Should Take Note10.11.2019
Putin’s propaganda portrayed Ukraine as a fascist state ﬁlled with anti-Semites. Despite Ukrainians’ election of a Jewish president, the image has stuck.
As the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, pundits in the United States are naturally looking back to 2016 in an eﬀort to predict just what form Russian interference will take this time around—especially after former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill last month, during which he warned, “They’re doing it as we sit here.” To understand the threat, Americans would do well to look at previous Russian disinformation campaigns. To gain a fuller picture of just what Russian interference could look like in 2020, it is necessary to look back at the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Ukraine from 2014 to 2016.
Following the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, which saw Ukraine’s pro-Russian president deposed and the former Soviet republic beginning to tilt toward the West, Russia initiated a concerted eﬀort —consisting of outright military aggression, proxy war, and disinformation—to delegitimize the new government in Kiev
Branding the post-revolutionary government a “fascist junta,” the Russians took every opportunity to portray it and the Ukrainian state as purveyors of xenophobia, racism, and, especially, anti-Semitism. While the Jewish issue wasn’t one of particular concern to most Russians or Ukrainians, by identifying his enemies as Jew haters, Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to portray Ukrainian leaders as German-style fascists. In the post-Soviet sphere, where the memory of World War II is still a potent political force, this was a savvy, if immoral, move.
Or, in the words of the historian Nikolay Koposov, “the politics of memory that was based on the cult of the war had managed to produce a worldview within which new acts of war could be justified” and had “created a language of political mobilization against the external enemy, which the regime needed in order to marginalize the in-country opposition.”
And while the Ukrainians, in their search for heroes to serve as examples to their service members fighting against Russian revanchism, did indeed begin to rehabilitate nationalist leaders who had collaborated with the Nazis, there was little truth to the Kremlin’s claims that Ukrainian Jews were in danger from state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Starting with the passage of the so-called Decommunization Laws of 2015, the Ukrainians began a process of separating themselves from any remaining vestiges of Soviet historiography, elevating fascist and anti-Semitic figures like Stepan Bandera to the level of national heroes. (Bandera’s followers killed tens of thousands of people in a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to “liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites, and Jews.”) Starting in 2015, streets across the country were named after such anti-Semites, and the surviving members of these wartime ultranationalist movements were recognized as veterans.
The government-funded Institute of National Memory, run by the historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, produced a steady output of revisionism, obscuring the racism and anti-Semitism of Ukraine’s wartime ultranationalists and falsely recasting them as democratic partisans who rescued Jews.
Russia initiated provocations intended to create the impression that Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leadership was continuing in the violent and racist footsteps of the Bandera movement at the very first stages of the conflict, almost immediately after unmarked Russian troops began their conquest of the Crimean peninsula in early 2014.