This past fall, Ukraine came under a media influence campaign that agitated for reinstating economic ties with Russia. Over the course of September–December 2016, several Ukrainian websites published a series of news stories detailing calls by various domestic enterprises and regional and municipal communities to resume trade with the country’s eastern neighbor. For instance, an article on the website Antikor cited a petition purportedly signed by over 2,000 residents of Kropynnytskiy that called for the establishment of a Ukraine-Russia intergovernmental working group to reinstate ties with Russia. The petition allegedly also questioned the benefits of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement, advocating instead for a “national interest-based” approach. In addition, the article mentioned similar petitions by the residents of Poltava, Dnipro and Chernihiv. The piece boldly declares: “Notably, Ukraine’s residents massively stand for the reinstatement of ties with Russia” (Antikor, December 13, 2016). As early as 2014, Ukrainian media analysts specifically identified Antikor as an outlet that regularly publishes influence-type articles disguised as regular news coverage (Media Sapiens, September 17, 2014).
A similar agitation story from late last year describes worker protests and related statements by Ukrainian companies whose employees demanded a resumption of exports to Russia. Such companies are typically small- or medium-sized: for example, a fitness gym equipment maker from Dnipropetrovsk (YouTube, November 17, 2016) or an agribusiness company from Kherson (Ukraina.ru, December 14, 2016).
The media watchdog group Detector Media has been openly critical of these apparent agenda-driven articles: “Propagandists’ new invention is to create information triggers with the help of internet technologies so that this information could then be used by the Russian media.” Analysts at Detector Media have not explicitly attributed these “news” stories to the Kremlin. However, their findings point to a planned influence campaign: the interviewed parliamentarians reportedly calling for a reinstatement of economic ties with Russia represent various political parties and factions; reporting of their statements comes in a clear series, for example six stories were published from August 31 to September 21, and the majority of the published videos were recorded by people carrying microphones with no media insignia; the videos and texts were uploaded to YouTube channels and websites often identified as “fake,” i.e. created only to host those materials (Detector Media, December 23, 2016).
Detector Media asked three of the companies specifically named in these reports—Karpatnaftokhim, Stepnoy Breeding Plant and Likhachovsky Bakery Plant—to comment on the stories and all three denied signing any petitions regarding trade with Russia. In addition, Detector Media cited a source at the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) that confirmed this information campaign only started in fall 2016. Furthermore, news about the above petitions was reposted by Russian TASS, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Vzgliad and Lenta.ru. Detector Media also cited Stopfake.org, which concluded the alleged petitions by residents of Poltava, Dnipro and Chernihiv oblasts appeared not to have been created by local residents and that “the vote results [were] falsified.” One VPN server used in the process was notably from Russian-occupied Luhansk (Detector Media, December 23, 2016).
Yet another investigative report, this one by Liga.net, revealed that a journalist on its staff was approached with a request to organize similar petitions at companies of at least 300 employees. According to Liga.net, such agitators do not use hierarchical methods of recruiting their “agents,” but approach along multiple paths, working mostly through personal contacts. Notably, local experts knowledgeable about pro-Russian movements in Ukraine characterized the aforementioned influence campaign as ultimately ineffective and suggested it was more an excuse to use up a “budget” rather than serious work (Liga.net, December 26, 2016). On the other hand, the campaign may be the tip of something bigger, with higher stakes in play.
Besides fringe reporting on low-grade engineered “petitions,” the Ukrainian media sphere was also inundated with experts’ calls to mend bilateral economic ties. Among those, Ukrainian think tank expert, former diplomat and EuroMaidan activist Vasyl Filipchuk published an op-ed calling for reopening access to Russian investment. He summarized the current situation: Russia’s share in Ukrainian exports decreased from 24 percent in 2013 down to 10 percent in October of 2016, and the share of imports from Russia fell from 30.5 percent to 13.1 percent, respectively, citing also Ukraine’s trade reduction with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and other member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He proposed a plan for Ukraine to attract Russian capital based on “full economic freedom” and to pursue a goal of an all-European free trade area “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” He even suggested that Kyiv sell or lease to Russia Ukrainian defense industry companies and resume the work on champion projects in transport aircraft, shipbuilding and infrastructure projects (Apostrophe.ua, January 2017). Additionally, in Russia, authoritative expert Veleriy Solovey speculated that if “Moscow is given the signal ‘Ukraine is in your sphere of influence’ […] we could try to allow Kyiv to understand that we are interested in a reinstatement of economic relations, but they would be based on pragmatism and not on stories about ‘brotherly people’ ” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 28, 2016).
But while the unresolved crises in Crimea and Donbas continue to simmer away, hard-line patriotic Ukrainian elites still oppose any talk of “trade with the enemy.” Thus, last fall’s apparent campaign of calls to reinstate economic relations with Russia—which in reality, had not been entirely broken despite the war in the east—may well serve to add to Ukraine’s political destabilization. Notably, in discussing the agitation campaign, a recent piece in Lenta.ru ominously suggested: “A coup of sorts is brewing in this country, and this is definitely bad news for [President Petro] Poroshenko’s camp” (Lenta.ru, January 13). Thus, despite the supposedly limited effectiveness of such influence campaigns in the media, the Ukrainian government can expect more such challenges to the country’s internal political stability.