How can you personally thwart Putin’s most insidious plan? | By Otar Dovzhenko

The Russians cannot misinform or intimidate us but they will win if they quarrel with Ukrainians and incite each other. 

The informational and psychological component of full-scale Russian aggression in the early days was built around one thesis: “Do not twitch if you do not want us to hurt you”. Russia hoped that Ukrainian society and government would be paralyzed by fear, resistance would be sluggish and chaotic, and in a few days Ukraine would be under the full control of the Russians — in fact, this is exactly the result described in the article “RIA Novosti”, accidentally published on February 26. In the first weeks of Russian propaganda, there was rhetoric about a “microsurgical operation” in which the “liberation army” allegedly separated the “militaristic Nazi regime” from the fraternal people.  Kremlin hoped that civilians and most of the military would not even think of resisting, because, as it turned out, the agency fed Putin lies about the loyalty of Ukrainian society to Russia. In fact, pro-Russian politicians and public figures immediately picked up propaganda rhetoric , arguing that Ukraine “ran into itself” and must now capitulate and accept the new reality. Fortunately, it didn’t work out that way: the army restrained the offensive, repulsed, the state resisted, and society, moving away from the initial shock, demonstrated unprecedented unity.  

What is this unity? First of all, this is the same vision of what is happening to Ukraine and how it should act in this situation. Prior to the conquest of Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, our society was divided 60/40 on key issues (NATO, EU, state language), then — 70/30. Three years ago, a third of Ukrainians considered Ukrainians and Russians to be fraternal peoples .  98% of respondents now consider Russia a hostile country 98% . And 93% believe that Ukraine can withstand the Russian invasion. Clearly not what Putin was hoping for in preparing the attack.

Another phenomenon is the reconciliation that has taken place between Ukrainian politicians. They were able to put aside their ambitions and mutual claims. Peace also prevailed between the conditional political camps in society. Reconciliation is also facilitated by the merging of central TV and radio stations into a single marathon which broadcasts a unified vision of the situation, albeit with different accents and individual touches of political PR. Surprisingly, people really realized that they are in the same boat which should not be shaken, and ideally — even rowing synchronously.

The support of the majority of the world (not just the United States and the European Union, to which Putin’s propaganda attributed “external governance” to Ukraine), united politicians, a cohesive society and a relatively healthy information space are additional factors that help Ukraine survive. The main thing, of course, is a motivated, strong and professional army.

Meanwhile, Russia’s information and psychological operations have gradually changed their main purpose and direction. They are no longer trying to put us in a state where people care only about their safety and are ready to do anything to survive. The propagandists also stopped throwing content addressed to alleged Russian supporters into the Ukrainian information space, as they realized that there were too few such people to influence the situation. There have been some attempts to “disappoint” Ukrainians in NATO which allegedly does not want to protect us. However, the main efforts are aimed at what the Russians have used so many times in the history of Ukrainian-Russian relations: the split.

The split between the regions of Ukraine. Russian political technologists began to oppose Western Ukrainians to Eastern Ukrainians in 2004, and returned to this technology more than once, in particular to promote the idea of “federalization”. In 2014, Russian bot-farms distributed stories about ungrateful and uneducated migrants from the Crimea and eastern regions. Some of these stories reached the local media; some may have been based on real facts. After all, different people live in all regions, and the uneducated, ungrateful, marginalized also sometimes have to flee the war.

The flow of migrants in 2022 is stronger than eight years ago; large western and central Ukrainian cities have received many people from the northern, eastern and southern regions, and their presence has greatly affected the lives of relatively quiet rear regions.  The amount of aid — housing, food, clothing, transports is also huge. Hundreds of thousands of people are volunteering, making donations, offering shelter … But in social networks and Viber-chats stories are spread about brazen and top Easterners who demand oysters and comfortable apartments. Calls to immediately send displaced men to the front or simply drive them away. Hostility against immigrants is often packaged in “monuments to polite migrants” or ultimatum leaflets which can be found printed on paper in the streets.

Mutually “hospitable hosts” are accused of looting, posting screenshots or not known as the statistics of prices for renting apartments and hotel rooms. Although it is clear that in a situation where the demand for housing is many times greater than supply, speculators will inevitably appear — and local authorities are trying to fight them. And most migrants generally settle for free. And, by the way, housing speculators occur even in Donetsk region. Without this context, reports of “apartments for thousands of dollars per night”, of course, can turn ignorant readers against all Lviv, Vinnytsia or Luhansk residents.

Of course, not all of these reports are written by Russian agents — some or most of them are the work of people who simply do not understand the seriousness of the situation in which we all find ourselves, or incorrectly prioritize the war. But the likes, dissemination and numerous comments that support the essence of the post and call, for example, to drive migrants away — this is the work of Russian bot-farms.

The split between Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking. Another topic that Russia has been exploiting for decades. Putin motivated the invasion, in particular, by the fact that Ukrainians are Russians, and many people in protest are switching to Ukrainian in everyday life or in the public sphere. Meanwhile, posts appear on social networks from time to time, the authors of which ultimately demand that all Russian-speakers switch to Ukrainian, equating the use of Russian with support for Russia. At the same time, residents of western Ukrainian cities express dissatisfaction with the fact that a lot of Russian is heard on their streets and in shops and cafes there are ads demanding to speak Ukrainian. I will not now explain why people who have lost their homes should not be required to immediately switch to another language; I just state that this tool of inciting conflict in Ukrainian society, which hits our real sore spot, works again.

Split on national grounds. As Ukrainians are “Nazis” in the Kremlin’s propaganda reality, it is very important for Russians to demonstrate that national minorities are discriminated against in Ukraine. Hence the fictional news about the oppression of Jews, messages calling for, “Hungarians on a knife” in the Transcarpathian region, false reports of abuse of Roma which are based on, unfortunately, real photos of the “people’s” massacre of thieves in Lviv.

The split between those who are “there” and those who are “safe”. Many reassuring psychological posts have been written about this but there are still disputes and quarrels on social networks between those who are at the front or in the cities that are firing and bombing, and people who live in relatively safe rear cities or have gone abroad. Of course, these disputes mostly start naturally — due to stress, nervousness or stupidity of individuals. But their result is even more stress and less ability for Ukrainians to work together to defend and preserve the country.

Political split. The politician demonstrates unprecedented unity: representatives of opposition (non-pro-Russian) political forces shake hands with government officials and vote together in parliament. Even those who did not support and dislike the President Zelenskyi and his team understand the importance of not interfering with and assisting the authorities in a situation where Ukraine’s survival depends on joint coordination. Suddenly — a barrage of comments that seem to come from reality until February 24: “green mold”, “gray-haired hetman”, “merge us” and other vocabulary and rhetoric of our pre-war internal strife. This is especially true after any news of talks between Russia and Ukraine which are in fact still far from a fruitful conclusion.

Large-scale internal confrontation, mass riots, coup d’etat or civil war in Ukraine – all it is Putin’s sweetest dream. Then Ukraine will simply not be able to repel the Russian offensive. Russia will no longer be able to spend resources and suffer from sanctions but will wait until the world itself asks it to “introduce peacekeepers” and bring order to Ukrainian soil.

No wonder in the fall of 2020 one of the most common narratives of pro-Russian propaganda in the Ukrainian media was a “coup d’etat”. Like, Zelenskyi will certainly be “swept away” or dissatisfied with high tariffs, or “nationalists”, which he fears, or supporters of Petro Poroshenko. When Poroshenko was a president, propagandists predicted the same fate for him. During the full-scale war, Russian media and political commentators have repeatedly announced that Zelenskyi is about to be overthrown — whether the mythical “Nazis”, or the military, or someone else. And on February 25, at a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, Putin addressed the Ukrainian military: “Take power into your own hands! It seems that it will be easier for us to reach an agreement with you than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis which settled in Kiev and took all Ukrainian people hostage”. (The Ukrainian military did not give a specific answer to this call but in this situation the well-known phrase about a warship is well suited).

Of course, one post on Facebook or Telegram, a dozen comments, likes or retweets do not destabilize Ukraine. Our current unity is due to the instinct of self-preservation because scattered forces, competing and conflicting with each other, we certainly cannot resist Russia. Anyone who remembers the history of the Ruins of the seventeenth century or the liberation struggles of the twentieth can draw historical parallels on their own.

But every virtual or real conflict between Ukrainians, every destructive phrase, every attempt to find the culprits or settle scores potentially reduces Ukraine’s resistance. And Russia is aware of our Achilles heel and is trying to hit it, highlighting painful conflict issues, fueling every controversy with its virtual armies and agents. 

So, each of us can thwart Putin’s most insidious plan. This requires little — just forbid yourself to start, support or spread any conflicts between Ukrainians, any destructive statements addressed to their. Do not waste time, nerves and efforts on what is not close to victory. Do not look for enemies where there are none but instead remember who the enemy really is.

The material was published in cooperation with NGO “Lviv Media Forum” with the support of the Ministry of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

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