Reporting on ‘hybrid war’ in Ukraine

Photograph: Christian Davies

Kiev – In August 2014, six months after the departure of former President Viktor Yanukovych and the initiation of Russian military operations in Crimea, shrines to the fallen and barricades that had long taken on a commemorative quality vied for space on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti with encampments inhabited by protestor-fighters who either refused to abandon a revolution they regarded as incomplete, or had nowhere else to go.

Slightly less shabby – in most cases – were the foreign correspondents frequenting the bars and cafes around the Maidan’s periphery and its surrounding streets. They gather to socialise, compare notes and conduct interviews, moving back and forth between their temporary bases in the capital and the numerous fronts in the east of Ukraine. Their experiences, and those of many of their colleagues, help us to understand not only the challenges of reporting on the Ukraine crisis, but also how both warfare and journalism have undergone similar processes of fragmentation and change.

They have been reporting on a conflict that has been characterised by Russia’s use of ‘asymmetric’ warfare techniques such as the deployment of military personnel without insignia, the mobilisation of local political and paramilitary forces, and aggressive disinformation campaigns at home and abroad. Gathered enigmatically under the word maskirovka, or ‘camouflage’, this emphasis on political warfare and the maintenance of near-plausible deniability of direct military engagement amounts to an inversion of Clausewitz’s famous dictum: politics as war by other means.

The use of maskirovka techniques serves Russia’s interests in confronting – to adopt the vocabulary of Al Qaeda – what might be described as the ‘near enemy’ (Ukraine), whilst minimising confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ (NATO). The Ukrainian armed forces are extremely weak in comparison with the elite units of the Russian army. Not only can they be intimidated by shows of strength, they know that they cannot afford to be seen to make the first move, thereby legitimising a hostile Russian response.

However the Russian domestic audience would not welcome the use of overwhelming force, and such an action might well provoke a severe (political, if not military) response from the West generally and the conventionally far superior NATO alliance in particular. Maintaining a semblance of plausibility about their denials of military deployment in Ukraine allows Russia to stay below NATO’s Article 5 threshold (were Ukraine a NATO member state), to sow doubt and therefore hesitation in the West, weakening their resolve and demoralising their Ukrainian opponents. As Chris Donnelly, Director of the Institute for Statecraft, has observed:

The Russians are demonstrating that they now have the capacity to unfreeze the frozen conflicts, move the situation in their favour and freeze them again. We are seeing a concept of war that is not only as I have described, but that is constantly increasing the level of activity and getting us used to accepting it, so that we become like the frog in a bucket of water, warming up slowly and not realising that we are accepting more and more that we should not be.

In short, why fight a traditional war when you can start an insurgency? The result is a conflict in which both parties to the Ukraine conflict have professional soldiers and security officials working alongside – and at cross-purposes with – volunteers and paramilitaries. Russia does so out of choice, Ukraine out of necessity: their relatively ramshackle armed forces are not only under-funded and poorly-equipped, but also riddled with Russian defectors and informants, and so Ukraine’s conventional military structure is supplemented by ‘volunteer battalions’ of questionable calibre.

The consequent proliferation of combatants – including criminal gangs, citizen defence forces and foreign extremists – operating without clear political or military chains of command means that crimes such as siege tactics targeted against civilians and the showering of ill-targeted grad rockets into civilian areas are more readily committed and calamitous mistakes are more easily made.  It was almost certainly this lack of professionalism, training and proper co-ordination that led to the downing of the Malaysian airliner in Donetsk Oblast, and its chaotic aftermath. 

However, this same chaos engendered by a proliferation of actors working at cross-purposes in pursuit of overlapping agendas has also made it difficult for the authorities to control access to information. This has provided reporters on the ground with some extraordinary opportunities.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a case in point. Russian state media outlets mobilised existing and hastily-established pro-Russian civilian groups and militias, who were supported by the ‘little green men’ – Russian special forces personnel operating without insignia, securing key positions and surrounding Ukrainian army and navy bases. Attempting to access a Ukrainian naval vessel for a pre-arranged interview, Simon Ostrovsky from Vice News is stopped by a calm masked soldier in an unmarked uniform:

  • Little Green Man 1 (LGM1): “No photo, no video”
  • Simon Ostrovsky (SO): “Why can’t we film, just because you don’t want us to?”
  • LGM: “It’s not allowed.”
  • SO: “By whom? Introduce yourself at least, who are you? Who do you represent?”
  • LGM: “The Crimea self-defence force.”
  • SO: “And why does the Crimea self-defence force have the right to stop me from filming? Show me a document. Your only document is your gun. Are you going to shoot me with it or just beat me up?”

The soldier doesn’t reply, and Ostrovsky continues on his way. After another exchange, he finds another way towards the ship, climbing down a steep grassy bank. At the water’s edge, hoping to board the Ukrainian naval vessel, he speaks to another soldier, with the same equipment and in the same unmarked uniform:

  • Little Green Man 2 (LGM2): “Do you have a pass to be here?”
  • SO: “Yes, we have a pass from the captain.”
  • LGM2: “Journalists are not allowed here.”
  • SO: “Says who?”
  • LGM2: “You’re not allowed here.”
  • SO: “Who says that we’re not allowed here?”
  • LGM2: “The Ministry of Defense.”
  • SO: “Of what country?”
  • LGM2: “Ukraine.”
  • SO: “Ok show me that you’re a Ukrainian soldier”
  • LGM2: “Let’s go over there and I’ll show you.”
  • SO: “No, show me right here.”
  • LGM2: “I can’t but my supervisor will. Let’s go and I’ll show you.”
  • SO: “So call your supervisor” – the soldier protests – “You are asking me to leave so I want to make sure that you have the right to do so.” [Pointing at the ship] “He is also representing the Ukrainian ministry like you. If you say that you’re representing Ukraine…” The soldier backs down, turning and walking back towards his supervisor.

The Russian soldiers deny their identity and reasons for being there, but their explanations are contradictory and laughably unconvincing, their attempts to stop Ostrovsky going about his business seemingly half-hearted. He knows they are Russian soldiers, and they are well aware of this. But convincing Ostrovsky, or any other Western journalist, was never their objective. As Mark Galeotti of New York University has noted:

The deception may have been pretty transparent, as they all wore the latest Russian kit and drove military vehicles with official license plates, but the ruse gave them the crucial hours they needed for their mission, especially as alongside them were genuine volunteers and paramilitaries. Were they mercenaries? Local activists? Acting without orders? Unsure what was happening, reluctant to appear the aggressor, Kiev was paralysed for long enough that it didn’t matter what it decided, the Russians were in charge.

From the perspective of those waging information warfare for tactical purposes, making it difficult to understand who is doing what, and for what reason, serves to secure domestic support, disorientate the enemy and make it easier to cast doubt on any hostile political narrative, securing freedom for political and military manoeuvre. The purpose is not to convince those on the ground who can see the truth for themselves, but to sow doubts in the minds of those who struggle to identify lies from afar. The little green men achieved their objectives in Crimea, and Ostrovsky his objective of showing how they did it.

The volunteers and amateurs operating in the military and civilian structures of the pro-Russian rebel republics have also proved invaluable sources. Their candour and their keenness to justify their decisions and behaviour illustrate the fundamentally ideological nature of the war, both in terms of why it began, and how it has been prosecuted.

Those unfamiliar with Ukraine do not always appreciate the virtual non-existence of a cleavage in society between Ukrainian and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine before the crisis. Soviet-born British writer Peter Pomerantsev has argued that those from monolingual societies find it hard to comprehend that Ukraine is a multilingual country, where most people speak both languages, often at once. Those on the Maidan protesting Russian influence in Ukraine would often use Ukrainian in their political speeches, but converse amongst themselves in Russian. Therefore whether one supports ‘pro-Russian rebels’ or not has very little to do with the language you speak, and much to do with your world-view, your interpretation of Ukrainian or Soviet history, or your susceptibility to state-mandated propaganda.

As Tim Judah noted in an article for the New York Review of Books, the statelets established by pro-Russian rebels can be seen as ‘the Republic of Random Dudes’. Many are down-and-outs who have suffered from post-Soviet transition and developed extreme or bizarre views on the margins of already marginalised societies:

Finding competent, charismatic leaders for the separatist forces and governments has always been hard. At various times, senior positions have been held by the owner of a dog behavior school, a man who performed as Santa Claus, the operator of a Ponzi scheme and a reputed organized crime boss.

Through the lean years of market-oriented and pro-democratic overhauls, Boris O. Litvinov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet [of the Donetsk People’s Republic and a self-described “committed Communist,” made a living with odd jobs unrelated to his university degree in Marxist Leninism. He played bass guitar in a cafe, hawked goods as a salesman and taught at a community college until, improbably, his hour finally arrived.

For those promoting the rebel cause, one could not therefore simply rely on a straightforward ethno-sectarian rallying call, as may have been the case for example during the wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Because Russia has been trying to limit its conventional military involvement, its state media outlets have used inflammatory propaganda to help secure for the rebels the support of as much of the local population as possible, with the rebels forced to explain, convince, sermonise and propagate as much as they have had to fight or to administrate, and their pro-Kiev opponents having to do the same in response. It is not simply ‘groups’ that are to be convinced – individuals on the ground need to be won over one-by-one.

As arbiters of what may or may not be true, this puts reporters on the front line in more ways than one. Intimidation and kidnappings of journalists, and especially of Ukrainian journalists, are common. Max Seddon, a correspondent for Buzzfeed based in Kiev, has observed that ‘beyond the information war, journalists increasingly find themselves treated as foot soldiers in the armed conflict’, and reported in April 2014 that ‘So far this week, militant leaders [in Slovyansk] have captured nine reporters, including Simon Ostrovsky, who was detained under the “laws of war” for what a separatist told The Daily Beast was “not reporting in a correct way.”’

Ostrovsky’s own narration of his abduction begins with footage of a bizarre press conference in which the separatist mayor of Slovyansk’s representatives address a bemused press pack:

  • Press Secretary: “I want to warn the journalists that we’ve collected your data to monitor what kind of information you spread.”
  • Spokeswoman: Many of you here are telling lies to the world. Today we’ve kept a record of all of you on the list. And if we spot anything, you will be denied your right to stay in the town at all. We don’t need traitors here.
  • Journalist: “Are you threatening us?”
  • Press Secretary: “No”
  • Spokeswoman: “We’re just warning you.”

It is not only pro-Russian authorities that have identified journalists they regard as hostile as a potential threat to their war effort. Nor is it the case that all Western reporters are deemed hostile to or unwelcome by the rebel administrations. Seddon points out that ‘Kiev’s interim government has been working to remove Russian TV from the country entirely and increasingly treats Russian state journalists as enemy combatants’, and cites the apparent detention by Ukrainian authorities of Graham Phillips, a British blogger with little journalistic experience who has become a cult hero amongst rebel sympathisers:

To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: When the going gets weird, the weird turn to Russia Today. Phillips’ kamikaze nose for danger and vocal support for the rebel cause have made him a cause célèbre in the pro-Putin media and a star on YouTube … He says that he has no particular connection to or affinity for Russia, though he uses language of “fascists” and the “Kiev junta” that often matches Russian talking points word for word.

The nervousness of both pro-Kiev and pro-Russia administrations about journalists operating in their territory reflects the centrality of information warfare to what has become a very real, and bloody, conflict. Just as maskirovka is designed to confound both the near and the far enemy, so a successful insurgency depends on convincing not only local people but also global audiences of the legitimacy of your actions. Emile Simpson, a former British army officer, has argued in his assessment of the failings of Western military deployments in Afghanistan that the consequences of the trend toward such conflicts have been exacerbated by the ‘information revolution’, which

connects new audiences to contemporary conflicts, accelerating the proliferation of potential strategic audiences beyond the enemy and beyond the state… Those ‘non-state audiences’ … are more likely than citizens of a state party to be persuaded through their emotional and moral responses, given that the state rationales of national interest may have less or no purchase on them.

As Western governments become increasingly sensitive to what their domestic populations make of the justifiability of military action, the rise of social media and activist reporters means that in journalism as well as warfare there has been a proliferation of actors and greater emphasis on subjectivity. The resulting dilemma for those reporting on unconventional war in Ukraine and elsewhere is that the line between observation and participation is increasingly blurred. As ‘foot soldiers in the armed conflict’, many will struggle to walk it.

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