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Author: Simon Jacob
Place: Germany, Ukraine
Text duration: 8 minutes
Title: Hybrid warfare - Ukraine: "A threat to democracy"
(Yuriy Yarmilko, image source: Consulate of Ukraine in Munich)
Hybrid warfare - Ukraine: "A threat to democracy"
Hybrid warfare - as a combination of modern conflict scenarios, traditional military operations, economic pressure, cyber-attacks and, especially in the case of Russia's current attack in Ukraine, in violation of international law and dominated by misleading propaganda - is confusing many people in Europe, as well as in the Middle East. Portals such as Russia Today, which are intensively involved in the Arabic-speaking world and spread their narrative freely, are having an impact on Arab-Oriental societies, which are also being manipulated through social media to portray themselves as opponents of democracy and Western values. The danger of hybrid warfare has long been underestimated by European governments, notably by the Federal Republic of Germany. It took years of preparations by the Russian side for the war in Ukraine to make many in society, politics and institutions realize the power that fake news and disinformation can hold. The situation in the Middle East, where I spent a lot of time as an author and journalist in Iraq and Syria, was already very present for years.
For years, the ZOCD has reported how dangerous it is to deliberately spread false news, and how it frightens precisely those people who live in the anticipation of being protected by an autocratic "leader" after they have left the Middle East and sought refuge in Europe. And in the case of Germany's Oriental Christians, it is Islamic extremism, for example, which is overdramatized as a permanent threat and which falls on fertile ground in Europe. As a result, Russia, embedded in a religious doctrine, is portrayed as the savior of all Christendom and expects absolute obedience. Similarly, Russian propaganda spreads a narrative of the "Nazi regime" and the "genocide" of the Russian-speaking population in order to justify a brutal invasion of a sovereign state in violation of international law. Faith, in this case Christianity, is instrumentalized and transformed into a metaphysical-media weapon in order to justify the "killing, murdering and raping" and to elevate the warmongering "ruler" to a supposedly sacred throne where the actions are legitimized by God. Islamist jihadist groups operate in a similar way. Social media plays a crucial role in the dissemination of these narratives.
(Lecture series: "The Digital Goebbels", September 2020, image source: Simon Jacob, Oannes Consulting)
We had the opportunity to talk about these connections with Yarmilko Yuriy, the Ukrainian Consul General in Munich.
Yuriy Yarmilko was born in 1958 in the Cherkassy region. He studied international relations at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv and started his career in the diplomatic service in 1990. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he worked in the press office and headed the personnel department. Abroad he worked at the Embassy in Austria and consulates in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. He speaks English and German, is married and has one daughter.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about such an important issue that affects the whole of society. Russia has been using media means to unsettle society for years. Especially in connection with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which violates international law, we would like to ask you the following questions.
- Was the Western world, especially Germany, well-prepared for this hybrid warfare?
One thing that is important to clarify first is that although this interview focuses primarily on the information-related aspect, hybrid warfare encompasses a broad range of different elements, such as economic influence, manipulation via energy and resources, the efforts to exacerbate already existing social tensions, and many others as well. Each of these elements is interconnected, and the success of one often depends on the success of the other, so they need to be examined together.
Despite of Russia's aggressive policies, which have a long history dating back to events such as the 1990 Transnistrian conflict in Moldova or the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Western countries failed to take this threat seriously enough. Furthermore, disinformation played a significant role; state-controlled Russian media outlets such as Russia Today were crucial in disseminating propaganda that was pro-Russian and portrayed Moldova and Georgia as oppressors of ethnic minorities.
The West, however, treated these conflicts as exclusively regional, with no direct influence on the West itself. An illustrative example of this is the Nord Stream 2 project. Concerns by Eastern European countries that it might be used by Russia as a means to exert further pressure were simply dismissed by Germany as exaggerated. However, shortly after construction was completed, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
- If not, what were the reasons?
The current state of inadequate preparation among Western democracies, including Germany, for hybrid warfare can be attributed to several reasons.
First, after the “bloodless§ dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of socialism in 1991, there was a sense of triumph; in fact, the event was seen as the final victory of democracy, “the end of history.”
Second, people lacked understanding of fundamental differences between the West and Russia. For many, it was assumed that Russia could be an ally of the West and that the focus should be on gradual democratic transformation in Russia through economic integration, the concept of “change through trade.” While the fact that Russia had geopolitical interests was never questioned, it was at least assumed that those would be limited to countries previously in the Soviet sphere of influence and a full-scale war simply was not a real prospect. We must remember how Barack Obama joked about his presidential election opponent, Mitt Romney, for calling Russia the biggest U.S. geopolitical enemy in 2012.
Some systemic issues also need to be considered. Compared to authoritarian regimes, for example, democracies often have slower decision-making processes because decision-making requires discussion and consensus among many actors. Consequently, they may simply be slower to adapt to shifting threats. Furthermore, Western democracies face legal and ethical constraints in their actions that limit their ability to respond to hybrid warfare tactics because they often remain formally within the legal realm.
- What should have been done to respond to the current Russian propaganda?
First, the difficulty is that the West has no unified response. Moreover, while the most pressing problem at present is undoubtedly Russian propaganda, the world also has other autocracies. Typically, the number of autocracies significantly exceeds the number of democracies and includes 70% of the world's population. To guarantee an effective resistance, international cooperation is essential.
Effective defense, however, requires close cooperation not only at the foreign policy level, but also between various government structures as well as companies, the media and non-commercial organizations on a domestic level.
A certain degree of media regulation is also needed. Here is a particularly difficult point, as it could easily bring us into conflict with one of the main principles of liberalism - freedom of expression. Nevertheless, it has to be considered through the lens of Karl Popper's so-called “paradox of tolerance” to which he drew attention in his work “The Open Society and its Enemies”: Unrestricted tolerance will result in the disappearance of tolerance, as tolerance towards intolerance will result in the proliferation of the latter. In this respect, democracies could adopt policies and laws to curb the spread of disinformation and fake news. These practices also existed during the Cold War, for example, in the United States. However, these measures should be applied cautiously and combined with the promotion of independent, objective media sources and research institutions such as Freedom House to protect freedom of expression and not suppress it instead.
Social networks are an entirely new challenge of our time, and the mechanisms needed to engage with them are not yet entirely clear. However, platforms like Facebook or Twitter facing disinformation should at least take greater responsibility for spreading disinformation, which would include, for example, identifying bot networks and removing fake profiles.
- In your opinion, what mistakes have been made by the West?
The main mistake is the fact that the West has failed to see and acknowledge the threat posed by Russia early on. Hybrid warfare is not a new phenomenon in Russian politics; rather, it has been a consistent and integral part of its strategy for decades. To underestimate Russia's ambitions also allowed extensive information networks to be built up in the West. Russian state-owned companies, oligarchs, and cultural foundations have made significant financial contributions to European universities and have also established Russian Cultural Centers at some of them, which have been used for soft power projection and to promote positive narratives about Russia. This also includes financial support or favorable coverage from certain media companies, journalists, or political commentators.
Western countries have also struggled to find a unified and coordinated response to Russian aggression. Without Western countries creating a unified front, their response to a hybrid war campaign by Russia potentially becomes fragmented and less effective.
While Eastern European countries may have considered Russia a greater threat, Western European countries might have prioritized economic cooperation with Russia.
This would include certain failures to provide sufficient information sharing. Disagreements or hesitations in information sharing among Western partners have sometimes hampered early warning and response efforts.
- How is an open and liberal society able to effectively deal with the massive spread of “fake news” in this situation?
According to W. Merkel's theory, a liberal society is one of the prerequisites for the existence of an embedded democracy; hence it is important for society today to be able to deal with information overload. To achieve this, society needs a high degree of media literacy and shall be trained to check sources and critically question news.
On its part, it may also develop counter-narratives. Most of all, this is the task of civil society organizations to develop convincing counterarguments and refute the misinformation.
Citizens might also make an important contribution at their level by reporting fake news, sharing accurate information and participating in public discussions.
- What changes would be needed in the medium term to protect society from manipulative reporting by authoritarian states?
While the variety of Russian information warfare strategies requires detailed study, one particular feature is striking: Russia is often not so much promoting itself as discrediting the West. The topics of its information campaigns include decay, hypocrisy, and expansion of the West and arguments that democracy in Western countries is threatened or does not exist at all. Alas, a favorable basis for the spread of such theses is the trend of recent decades: the decline of citizens' trust in the state, its institutions and politics in general.
There are complex roots behind this loss of trust, but it is based on problems that actually exist and the necessity of finding a better way to overcome them.
A major contributor to the declining trust in Western democracies is political polarization. Splits between political ideologies and parties have increased, leading to a lack of consensus and undermining confidence in politicians' ability to govern effectively.
Political scandals, cases of corruption and ethical lapses among politicians have further eroded public trust. Economic inequalities and the perceptions of inequality can also lead to frustration with the political establishment.
It is therefore necessary to identify existing problems and look for ways to address them effectively.
- What is a long-term strategy?
First, there is a greater need to explore the phenomenon of hybrid warfare at the academic level. The phenomenon of warfare that extends beyond the battlefield is not new, but in today's rapidly changing world, more and more sophisticated methods are available to inflict harm on the adversary, thereby making it difficult to accurately operationalize the definition of hybrid warfare.
Moreover, the lessons learned must be put into a form sufficiently accessible to citizens to educate them about the problem in general and about even the most pressing risks.
On a global scale, this implies a change in security strategy.
A long-term strategy to address the challenges associated within an open and liberal society around the spread of "fake news" and disinformation practices should address different levels - both at the foreign policy level and at the domestic level.
In terms of foreign policy, this means strengthening coordination among Western countries and concerted efforts in developing technologies to combat disinformation, information sharing, etc.
Domestically, it is a matter of revising existing legal regulations, looking for effective solutions to current social and economic problems, and increasing the media literacy of citizens. Significantly, propaganda addresses specific problems and feelings in society, so attention should be paid to them as well.
We should note that in this context, it is also extremely important to ensure Ukraine's victory in the war unleashed by Russia. This would obviously expose the many clichés of Russian propaganda about the weakness of the West and, most importantly, it would also be a devastating blow to its nuclear blackmail.
Ukraine's victory will therefore be globally significant when it comes to the confrontation between democracies and autocracies.
- How can associations such as the Central Council of Oriental Christians, which is heavily involved in media coverage, help?
The role of organizations like the Central Council of Oriental Christians is very important given their ability to target specific groups of people and articulate very specific, localized messages. This is a pluralistic world we live in, and such organizations are addressing specific audiences within their level.
No universal message or strategy exists that will persuade absolutely everyone. Instead, these organizations, knowing the interests of their target audience, can find the most persuasive words just for them.
At the same time, they are critical to establishing citizen communication with the state by acting as representatives of that audience and reducing citizen distrust of state institutions.
Dear Consul General, thank you for taking the time for this interview.
The Central Council of Oriental Christians in Germany wishes all Ukrainians an early peace.
Ambassador ZOCD e.V.