East Stratcom, Or How The EU Failed To “Get Local” in Ukraine

This article is an excerpt from the policy paper prepared by the author for the PADEMIA Conference. In the ‘Action Plan to Improve Communicating Europe by the Commission,’ adopted by the Commission of the European Communities on 20.7.2005, the so-called New Approach of the EU communication Policy is formulated as a combination of three key strategic principles:

– Listening: communication is a dialogue, not a one-way street. It is not just about EU institutions informing EU citizens but also about citizens expressing their opinions so that the Commission can understand their perceptions and concerns. Europe’s citizens want to make their voices in Europe heard and their democratic participation should have a direct bearing on EU policy formulation and output.

– Communicating: EU policies and activities, as well as their impact on everyday lives, have to be communicated and advocated in a manner that people can understand and relate to if citizens are to follow political developments at European level.

– Connecting with citizens by “going local”: Good communication requires excellent understanding of local audiences. The Commission’s communication activities must be resourced and organized in such a way as to address matching demographic and national and local concerns, and to convey information through the channels citizens prefer in the language they can understand.”

While the primary target audiences of the above-mentioned document are thought to be EU citizens, one cannot help but wonder whether it is also an ideal set of tools to engage into a dialogue with societies that are, arguably, bound to be citizens of Europe sooner or later in the foreseeable future. Thus, it makes for a quite fascinating if lamentable discovery that the European Union has largely failed to build a successful communication policy towards Ukraine based on aforementioned principles. And while the government of Ukraine is also to blame to some extent, there are glaring issues that the European Union, at least in the post-Maidan era, could have addressed with more finesse. Issues such as these are having a lasting impact on all Eastern Partnership countries, as Ukraine is serving as a kind of Litmus test of EU resilience and reputation as a dependable partner as opposed to Russia.

The AA/DCTA between Ukraine and the European Union is ratified. It cannot be reversed. Equally irreversible is the fact that Russia perceives it as a threat to its interests. And the hybrid warfare that the Kremlin launched to assert its geopolitical interests has swept away anything Ukraine and the EU could muster together. The recent visa liberalization approval received by Ukraine and Georgia, (and by Moldova earlier), as well as both countries’ reluctance to play a part in Russia’s ambitious Eurasian Union project is only going to increase the pressure put on these countries by the Kremlin.

One larger-than-life aspect of that undeclared hybrid war has been multidimensional media propaganda so steadily produced by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media outlets. Alongside Russian-language TV channels that serve as main sources of information to the majority of the Russian-speaking population in post-Soviet space, the arsenal of Kremlin propaganda is bolstered by outlets such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, both of which enjoy a luxurious opportunity to also impose their views on the English-speaking audience. In perfect English, they portray the developments in Ukraine as though the West has sabotaged the country’s peaceful development and as if the pro-Russian insurrection movements in the Eastern part of the country are nothing but a spontaneous reaction to the nationalistic stance of Kiev.

While the Ukrainian response to this threat has been a mixed blessing – along with projects such as Stopfake.org, which acts as a media watchdog dedicated to exposing lies spoon-fed to the viewer’s/readers by Russian media, there have been incidents of Ukrainian media themselves engaging in information warfare, using methods not quite different from those used by their Russian opponents. Recently, the government has also tried to address the issue through institutionalization, introducing a brand new government body – Ministry of Information Policy. It remains to be seen whether this new agency is going to play a significant and constructive role in confronting Russian propaganda, but so far it is looking like anything but a game-changer.

Unlike Ukraine, the EU has offered what can only be termed as barely a modicum of service in this regard: reluctant to engage in counter-propaganda measures, Brussels aims to tackle the issue by creating “a tiny task force”, in no way feasible or sufficient to right the ship even in the wildest of political scenarios. With an extremely narrow mandate and insufficient funds to mount any substantial challenge, the rapid-response team, dubbed ‘East Stratcom,’ has largely flown under the radar. Despite adopting an ambitious action plan focused on building a network of like-minded groups and institutions, the negligible effect East Stratcom is having is best measured by looking at its twitter account, which appears to be the group’s favored platform for mass communication – 5872 followers is far from even a semblance of the impact required to counter the Russian propaganda machine, especially considering Twitter’s relatively low popularity among the Russian-language speaking population. Finally, it needs to be said that the EU has “got wrong” even the very basic concept of effective mass communication- strewn among the ambitious buzzwords is the hard truth revealing that this makeshift EU task force appears to be dedicated to providing information to the groups of people who are already aware there is a hybrid warfare going on. The rest of the Russian speaking audience, i.e. an absolute majority, that constitutes public opinion about Brussels in Ukraine’s Eastern regions and in Russia itself, is oblivious to the issue itself and views Russian Outlets not as a state-directed propaganda machine disseminating lies and biased information, but rather as legitimate source of newsmanship. These are the very people that should constitute the EU’s primary target audience if the issue is ever seriously addressed. But underlining this hardly emphasizes how fatally unproductive the EU initiative has been in this regard.

In all fairness, overtures in this regard have already been made, albeit without much success. Earlier initiatives on creating a more robust EU response in the form of Russian-language TV station, coming from Latvia, and later Poland and the Netherlands, have so far been rejected as “too risky” and potentially culpable in further antagonizing the Russian government.

While further antagonizing Russia might not be on the agenda of some of the EU’s biggest players, it remains painfully clear that unless all this aptly named disinformation campaign is properly exposed, the bulk of the Western audience will still have a hard time comprehending what exactly is going in Ukraine and who is to blame for it. There is no point denying that a large part of EU citizenship is blissfully unaware of the complex nature of this Russo-Ukrainian conflict and often views it as a black and white picture, with President Putin often perceived as more of an anti-hero than a villain. The average Western citizen is either unfamiliar with Ukraine’s profile as an independent country or is being spoon-fed by English-language Russian propaganda channels. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, when Pew Research Center conducted a NATO-wide survey, there was a diminishing percentage of public who were in favor of NATO sending arms to the beleaguered nation, and only about half of them considered Ukraine becoming an EU/NATO member a positive development (see graph below). Raising awareness of the Ukraine issue among the EU citizenship not as a backwater struggle between a wannabe European periphery vs. Russia, but as a conflict that poses an existential threat to European security should be on the EU’s agenda, but it is apparently a part of EU communication policy that the “going local” doctrine doesn’t entail.

Vazha Tavberidze

18 March 2016 12:15