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The Kremlin was at work to undermine and subvert Ukraine using the “sharp power” of exploiting identity for years before the full-scale invasion. Russia used language, religion, and ideology to cultivate sympathizers, vilify opponents, and generally foment unrest in tactics that are a template for influence operations in elsewhere in Russia’s periphery.
Hindsight is 20/20 or so the saying goes. A year has passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Right up until the day Russian columns moved across the border, an invasion seemed unthinkable. In part, this may have been because many in the West had taken their eyes off this region, despite some stark warning signs. In retrospect, not enough heed was paid to Crimea in 2014, and to the conflict that continued in the years following in the eastern parts of Ukraine.
At a distance, it might have seemed that Ukraine could operate and govern as an independent, sovereign nation. What AidData discovered over the course of a three-year (2019-2022) research project was evidence of the Kremlin’s multi-faceted influence campaign to soften the ground well before February 2022. There was a continuum of Russian aggression against and within Ukraine that took several forms and played out over several years. The conventional military invasion that began one year ago was an extension or culmination of this campaign.
We carried out quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis to unearth new findings which spotlight how, between 2015 and 2022, the Kremlin deployed enormous resources in state-run broadcasting, in-kind support, and financing to stoke internal discontent within Ukraine and promote greater unity with Russia as a more attractive alternative to the government in Kyiv. We tracked how the Kremlin focused on three key areas to exploit fault lines of religion, language, and ideology.
AidData’s broader research encompassed 17 countries in Europe and Eurasia, that happen to find themselves within Russia’s orbit, of which Ukraine was just one. We aimed to explore how resilient or vulnerable countries’ civil societies are to Russia. We discovered there are common elements and patterns to the Kremlin’s influence playbook, meaning that some of the research described here about Ukraine will also resonate with other societies that neighbor Russia. They are and may be subjected to similar tactics and strategies.
Undoubtedly since February 2022, those countries have become more vigilant. We hope that our research, the full extent of which will be put in the public domain in the coming weeks, will help them in some small way, as well as stakeholders elsewhere, to know what to look out for
Kremlin’s “sharp power” exploits issues of identity
The Kremlin sees a lot of evil in the world, with threats and villains everywhere. According to this view, the West seeks to eradicate traditional conservative values. The West’s “puppets” in Kyiv are more interested in pleasing their US and EU overlords than protecting the rights of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minorities.
We saw how the Kremlin advanced “us” versus “them” identity-based narratives and positioned itself as the natural defender of the Eastern Orthodox church (religion), Russian speaking minorities (language), and oblasts seeking greater autonomy (ideology).
Moreover, the Kremlin leaned in to presenting itself as the bulwark against the exaggerated bogeyman of neo-Nazism.
“Soft power” is usually more about honey than vinegar. Countries like the US hope their institutions and values will win them friends and goodwill. They sponsor exchanges, visits, educational opportunities, and share views.
By contrast, there is a hard edge to the Kremlin’s soft power that is not content with merely attracting foreign publics to its culture but conveys the message “Join with us, or else.”
The Kremlin’s use of traditional tools of culture, education, and information is said to be indicative of power that is more “sharp” than soft in piercing the openness of democratic societies to sow seeds of discord and doubt. In Ukraine and elsewhere across Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Moscow employs a double-edged playbook: cultivating sympathizers while vilifying opponents to foment unrest and consolidate power.
Faultline 1: religion
Religion plays an important role in the daily life of many Ukrainians, most of whom have traditionally identified as Orthodox Christians. Yet, participation in churches and other religious institutions still noticeably jumped by 27 points between 2010 and 2020, to levels far exceeding other nations in the region. Some view this growing prominence of religion as a reaction to a period of political and social upheaval as Ukrainians sought support from communities of fellow believers amid the tumult of conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
However, in the hands of the Kremlin, religion became a weapon to exert control and exploit identity-based cleavages within Ukraine.
Independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine
Russian state-run media painted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, newly created in 2018, as inherently villainous. Why?
Backed by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the rise of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was a bid for cultural independence from the long-reach of Moscow’s monopoly on religious life via the Russian Orthodox Church.
In effect, the arrival of a competitor denied the Kremlin a powerful lever of its traditional influence. Russian state media took the offensive, positioning the newly minted Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an attempt by the authorities in Kyiv, at the behest of the United States, to fan the flames of Russophobia in the country. The Ukrainian government became the ultimate villain, as Russian state media argued that it was abetting the “violent redistribution of church property” and sought the “elimination” of the true Orthodox Church affiliated with Moscow.
Crimean Tatar Muslims
Civil society organizations associated with the predominantly Muslim Crimean Tatar ethnic minority were another villain in Moscow’s “us” versus “them” narratives.
The Kremlin has long viewed the Crimean Tatar people as a threat to Russian control over the peninsula. This dates back decades to the Soviet Union. In 1944, Stalin deported 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan and eastern Russia, thereby inverting the demographics of Crimea.
Moscow’s campaign to marginalize the Crimean Tatars has not abated in recent years.
- In 2016, Russia outlawed the Mejlis (a Crimean Tatar representative body), confiscating its building on grounds that the group incited extremism and nationalism.
- Crimean Tatars were among the most frequently targeted groups in instances of harassment and violence towards civic actors by occupying authorities in Crimea, much of this dating from an April 2017 Russian law restricting “missionary activity” in the peninsula.
- Kremlin-affiliated media reserved some of their most negative coverage for three Crimean Tatar organizations: the media outlet ATR TV Channel, the Crimean Tatar National Movement (NDKT) and the Mejlis. Claiming that these organizations do not represent the interests of “real” Crimean Tatars, Russian state media denigrated their activism against the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Faultline 2: language
Language, like religion, is another powerful aspect of identity that the Kremlin sought to exploit for geopolitical advantage.
Wary of the Kremlin’s influence operations, the Ukrainian government pursued measures to curb the use of Russian language in media and regulate its use in schools. In parallel, authorities advanced efforts to deter disinformation, as well as block, monitor, and remove online content it deemed threatening to the state.
Kremlin-affiliated media sought to portray these efforts as “Russophobic” and evidence of the Ukrainian government’s illegitimacy and disregard for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority communities. Similarly, media coverage focused extensively on stories to reinforce the narrative that ethnic Russian individuals and businesses in Ukraine were under attack, such as highlighting the banning of certain Russian social media sites, protests against Russian banks, legal charges and bans against Russian journalists, etc.
Faultline 3: ideology
Ideology is a third aspect of identity-based narratives that Russia used to create an “us” versus “them” dynamic to advance its national interests. Kremlin-affiliated media coverage promoted a narrative of Ukrainian ultranationalism run amok while pursuing educational programming with local civic groups to emphasize Russia’s role in defeating the Nazis in what it calls “the Great Patriotic War.”
The Kremlin framed the fight in the Donbas as an effort to protect citizens from Ukrainian fascists, painting the so-called separatist struggle as a crusade against fascism.
In January 2023 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists were “under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation” by May of 2014, while Moscow continued to officially deny any direct involvement in eastern Ukraine until the launch of the main invasion on 24 February 2022. “The Court held that Russia had had effective control over all areas in the hands of separatists from 11 May 2014 on account of its military presence in eastern Ukraine and the decisive degree of influence it enjoyed over these areas as a result of its military, political and economic support to the “DPR” and the “LPR.”
We documented ongoing Russian-hosted youth camps and conferences with representatives from Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics,” and Belarus to stoke the false narrative that an ambiguous far-right threat unchecked by authorities in Kyiv gave Moscow the right to meddle in a sovereign nation and justified the war in the Donbas, as Ukraine fought to reclaim sovereignty.
Although far-right militias were indeed active in eastern Ukraine at the time, they were born in opposition to the Russian takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk. These militias stood between the Kremlin and its plans for Ukraine’s eastern oblasts, so Russian state media labeled them neo-Nazis to excuse and legitimize Russia’s military attacks.
Subversion of democratic processes
To say that Moscow is flexible in its rhetoric regarding democracy is an understatement, in the least.
The Kremlin funded petitions in public councils pushing for decentralized authorities for local governments, particularly in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts, to operate independently of Kyiv’s oversight as being consistent with the democratic principles of self-determination.
This manipulation was one aspect of the Kremlin’s public disinformation activities, along with election interference, a widespread effort for “soft federalization” of the country and changes to Ukraine’s constitution.
We found that Russian state-run media sought to expose the hypocrisy of the West for its unwillingness to accept Crimea’s referendum as a means of legitimizing the Kremlin’s annexation of the peninsula. Yet, Moscow has proven to be quite willing to use its media as a bully pulpit to discredit democratic voices in Ukraine that it argued were co-opted by the West.
Less publicly visible, but still consequential, the Kremlin was quite willing to subvert democratic processes by hiring and paying protesters to foment the appearance of public pressure to end the conflict in the Donbas. In a related incident, the Socialist Party of Ukraine reportedly expelled several party members in 2018 for attempting to solicit campaign funding for local elections from the Russian government.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see with greater clarity how the Kremlin weaponized multiple identity-based false narratives—on religion, language, ideology—to cultivate sympathizers, vilify opponents, and generally foment unrest.
It is also apparent that the Kremlin’s influence operations in Ukraine were varied and long-standing well before the full-scale invasion in 2022. Yet, importantly, the Kremlin’s use of these civilian influence tactics was not limited to Ukraine and we have seen evidence of similar approaches elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
This raises critical questions about how countries in Russia’s periphery can reduce their vulnerabilities and increase their resilience in the face of the Kremlin’s influence operations. Of course, this story also underscores that translating identity-based narratives into the sustained influence that undermines the resolve of a sovereign nation is easier said than done but still requires continued vigilance on the part of those that find themselves on the receiving end of the Kremlin’s territorial ambitions and attention.
Samantha Custer is Director of AidData’s (aiddata.org) Policy Analysis Unit, Alexander Wooley heads AidData’s Partnerships and Communications and also writes on national security issues.