Russia’s Hybrid War in Ukraine: Historical Revisionism and “Twiplomacy”
By Madison L. Sargeant
The rise of digital diplomacy has provided state actors new venues to promote their national interests. Twitter specifically has emerged as a “megaphone and substantive communications medium” for heads of state, governmental institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and scholars. The Russian Federation has exploited the growing importance of social media platforms to diplomacy in order to seek legitimization and normalization of its 2014 annexation of Crimea, which is recognized almost universally as Ukrainian territory. Despite a robust digital campaign, the percentage of Ukrainians that believe Crimea is Russian territory has actually decreased since 2014. Furthermore, Russia’s social media activity has not strengthened its claim to Crimea, but it does provide insight into how the state uses emerging technologies below the threshold of war to meet strategic objectives.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine found itself in possession of the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Encouraged by both the United States and Russia, Ukraine forewent the arsenal for international security guarantees protecting its independence and territorial sovereignty, as outlined in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In 2014, Russia breached these security guarantees by invading and annexing the Crimean Peninsula after the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the Revolution of Dignity (known internationally as the Euromaidan Revolution). The annexation was swiftly condemned, with world leaders pointing to international law as the foundation of their argument against a perceived act of aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded that the security guarantees made in the early 1990s were only valid with the pre-revolution Ukrainian government, insinuating that the post-Euromaidan government was leading a “new” state, and that the Russian military had an obligation to protect ethnic Russians from the “nationalist junta” in Kyiv. With most of the international community rejecting these justifications, Russia launched a revisionist information campaign to legitimize occupation of the peninsula.
Increased use of social media has led to a proliferation of historical revisionism and reframing of current events, though the Kremlin is not a rookie when it comes to contorting the narrative around its behavior. For example, Moscow has long attempted to erase the Red Army’s mass murder of nearly 22,000 Polish soldiers in 1943 in Katyn, Russia by focusing conversations on the destruction of the Belorussian village, Khatyn, by occupying Nazi forces. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Soviets admitted the Red Army was “responsible for the murders,” despite Kremlin-sponsored social media accounts, such as the Russian Mission to the EU account (@RusMission_EU) denying this fact as recently as May 2020. Russia utilizes internet trolls, bots, and state-affiliated social media accounts to shape narratives by targeting naïve social media users who either inadvertently perpetuate falsehoods or rely on an extreme form of confirmation bias in which they only receive and re-share content they agree with.
Russia’s Digital Activity
In recent years, Russia has honed its social media tactics alongside a contingency of its other information warfare practices. Russia’s information warfare against Ukraine was described in 2014 by U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove as the “most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg.” Social media plays a significant role in the Russian information warfare strategy as it provides “cheap, efficient, and highly effective access” to audiences while maintaining plausible deniability for the Kremlin. The conditions of the social media environment—sense of anonymity, reach, and speed—provide unique challenges to combating information campaigns on such platforms. Social media platforms allow trolls and bots to congregate with real individuals that can be separated into three categories: (1) “useful idiots,” who unknowingly give credibility to Russian propaganda and objectives; (2) “fellow travelers,” who are Russian and Kremlin sympathizers, and; (3) “agent provocateurs,” who are actively being manipulated by the Russian government. Collectively, these individuals and accounts provide ample ground for the Kremlin to engage in narrative-shaping and other disinformation campaigns.
Twitter and other social media present opportunities to the Russian government to export its historical and political narratives to both foreign governments and private citizens in every corner of the world. Those not privy to Ukrainian-Russian relations, international law, or the underlying forces of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity may be more susceptible to Russian propaganda that “Crimea is Russia” and that Russia invaded to “protect Crimea” from the “nationalist junta” that is the post-Euromaidan government. These individuals may promote these views, providing attention to Russia’s stance, further legitimizing and normalizing it. Furthermore, such attention confirms the biases of pro-Russia activists who seek validation of their views online. Political pundits may also accidentally or purposefully contribute to this bias. A November 2019 clip of American political commentator Tucker Carlson asking, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? And I am,” regarding the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine went viral and was largely met with condemnation from a variety of Twitter users. Carlson in this instance was a “useful idiot,” and the confidence his comment might provide to pro-Russia activists, while difficult to quantify, should be considered.
The Russian government employs multiple official Twitter accounts to frame its Crimea narrative. Some of the more visible state-affiliated accounts are that of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (@MFA_Russia), the Government of Russia account (@GovernmentRF), and Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Crimea account (@PMSimferopol). These accounts release tweets on Crimea in two distinct ways: 1) some posts comment on the sovereignty of the peninsula, typically arguing Russia’s historical right to it, and 2) other posts attempt to normalize Crimea as a Russian territory by emphasizing its beauty and industry, subverting attention from the controversy surrounding its status. On June 25, 2020, @MFA_Russia tweeted a picture of the World War II Victory Day Parade in Crimea, captioned “#Zakharova: #Kiev continues to make statements fueled by its distorted sense of reality. @MFA_Ukraine ‘protested’ against the #Victory75 Parade in Crimea without seeking some kind of Kiev’s ‘approval.’ As a reminder, #Crimea is an integral part of #Russia. #RealityCheck.” Such posts are a clear-cut attempt to delegitimize Ukraine’s claim to Crimea. Less aggressive tweets have included pictures of the moon over the Kerch Strait bridge, murals by “painters from Moscow and Krasnodar Krai” , and reports of economic development and improved quality of life in Crimea. Tweets such as these, that depict Crimea as a blooming society and tourist destination, aim to normalize the situation on the peninsula. If one took these posts at face value, they wouldn’t even guess the region was at the center of an international crisis. State-affiliated accounts, such as those mentioned, are “white outlets” because their affiliations and allegiance are obvious, making it easier to attribute them to the state.
More nefarious are social media accounts whose Kremlin affiliation is not so obvious. These include “gray outlets”—conspiracy websites and data dumpsites—and “black outlets”—private user-accounts. A relevant example of a black outlet is the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), a “troll farm” led by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin. The IRA ran Project Lakhta, an information influence operation aimed at sowing division amongst Americans regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Entities such as the IRA are not necessarily controlled by the Kremlin, but do amplify the Russian government’s narratives by replying to, retweeting, and liking official posts. These users may also generate their own posts and links that are considered pro-Russia activism, whether it be because they are sympathetic to the Russian regime, have anti-Western sentiments, or are posting only with the intention of upsetting other users. Not every gray or black outlet is a malicious actor, either—some may think that they are sharing credible information and do not recognize the larger role they are playing in the information domain. Nevertheless, gray and black accounts, due to their relative anonymity and number when compared to white accounts, contribute most to the circulation of disinformation and do most of the legwork for the Kremlin, usually without ever being told to do so.
Data collected from white and black outlets may end up in gray outlets, which then bleed back into white and black outlets as users move between them. Internet trolls are a large subset of users in the white and black outlets. According to a 2018 RAND Corporation study, the largest set of Twitter trolls in Eastern Europe are pro-Russia activist accounts, with 40,942 users active May to July 2016. These accounts mostly retweeted pro-Russia media accounts such as Zvezda News (@zvezdanews) and state-affiliated RT (@rt_russian) and most often attached hashtags such as #RussianWorld and #CrimeaIsOurs to the content they shared. The impact these accounts have in furthering the narrative of the Russian government is invaluable. Troll accounts are more likely to be the ones that engage with real Twitter users, other trolls, and bots, relative to Russian state-affiliated accounts. A pro-Russia troll account can engage a private citizen in a “two-way dialogical form of engagement” to influence that user’s perspective on the Crimean situation, whereas the Ministry of Foreign Affairs might be perceived as acting inappropriately to do so. Bots and trolls exist in large quantities and can be persistent in their tweeting, exercising desperation for interaction that would be lost political capital for an official account. Most critically, bots, using their large numbers to manipulate social media algorithms that determine what to put in front of users partially through engagement level, and trolls can manufacture the “appearance of genuine engagement” and conversation about the legitimacy of Russia’s claim to Crimea, creating a fictional acceptance of the 2014 annexation.
Russia’s attempts to reshape historical narratives both online and offline have also resulted in clashes with foreign governments on Twitter, the most relevant being Ukraine’s main government-ran account @Ukraine. On May 30, 2017, Russia’s main government-ran account tweeted a picture of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, with the caption “We are proud of our common history. Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus share the same historical heritage which should unite our nations, not divide us.” @Ukraine replied with a gif from the television show The Simpsons with the caption “You really don’t change, do you?” The exchange followed a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Putin claimed the French-Russian friendship began in the 11th century when Anne of Kyiv became a French queen.
The comment was deemed offensive by Ukrainians who recognize Anne of Kyiv as part of their national history, given that the current capital of Ukraine is Kyiv. @Ukraine promptly tweeted an infographic explaining that Anne is not a link in the French-Russian relationship, given that the Russian state did not exist at the time. While @Russia’s tweet gained 3000 retweets and 3000 likes, @Ukraine’s reply managed almost 39,000 retweets and 55,000 thousand likes, indicating an overwhelming amount of support for Ukraine’s message despite the account having 140,000 less Twitter followers than the Russian state account. At the very least, this indicates a strong preference for Ukraine’s message and a rejection of Russian narrative-shaping efforts on the platform.
The Russian Federation’s digital reach appears to be limited despite a robust information campaign. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Twitter account receives most of its attention from other state-affiliated accounts, such as Russian Mission in Geneva (@mission_Russian) and Russian Mission to the UN (@RussiaUN), bots, and trolls. Other state-affiliated accounts appear to be in the same predicament. These findings point to the conclusion that the Russian government’s Twitter accounts more often than not operate in digital echo chambers, hardly effecting change in non-Russian populations. Russian state-affiliated accounts are capable of garnering attention from beyond their echo chambers, however usually because they have attracted negative attention from other international actors. While digital diplomacy is a tool of public diplomacy, it does not currently have the capability to reverse international opinion. This perspective is confirmed by a 2018 public opinion poll conducted by Razumkov Centre, a Ukrainian NGO, which asked Ukrainians whether or not they believed Crimea should belong to Ukraine. According to the poll, 69% of Ukrainians believed Crimea was part of Ukraine, with an absolute minority in both the south and the east—the parts of Ukraine with the largest ethnically Russian population—believing it should belong to Russia. There was actually decreased support for a Russia-controlled Crimea from 2016 to 2018 (7.2% to 4.4%), indicating that amongst other efforts, Russia’s social media campaigns have not contributed to an increase in support for the annexation within Ukraine.
Notably, the generally unsuccessful attempt by Russia to change foreign perception of the annexation of Crimea is in sharp contrast to arguably more successful information campaigns, such as Russian interference in American politics and society. Russia pursued a sweeping information warfare campaign which targeted the 2016 presidential elections and sought to tip the election in favor of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. The campaign sought to sow distrust in media outlets, exploit existing societal divisions, and blur the lines between truth and deception. The relative success of Russia’s America campaign can be attributed to many external factors, such as the general tolerance of influence campaigns and disinformation in American politics and the lack of a unified American identity, among others. Ukrainians, given their historical relations with Russia, might also have a heightened sensitivity to the behavior of the Russian government, and while Americans generally view Russia as unfriendly or an enemy of the United States, they are not universally aware of the ways the Kremlin operates. The effectiveness of Russian information campaigns is therefore largely dependent on the vulnerabilities of the target population, as seen in the comparison between the Ukrainian and American populations.
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, Russia launched an information campaign to shape the narrative around the historical and current status of the territory. This information campaign deployed various methods of influence on Twitter, including state-sponsored messaging, trolls, and bots. While some accounts are directly connected to the Russian government, many operate independently and their operators are naïve or ambivalent to their role in Russia’s information campaigns. These efforts have cemented the Russian government’s presence in the digital domain and have created a lot of “noise,” both online and offline, but ultimately have done little to change the narrative of Crimea’s status in Ukraine and the international community. However, the openness with which this strategy has been pursued is telling of how Moscow seeks to leverage social media platforms to the benefit of Russian foreign policy generally. An acute awareness of Russia’s preferred methodologies is critical to responsible national security in the information age.
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 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/RusMission_EU/status/1256186036532719617
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 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/PMSimferopol/status/1305754682032369664?s=20
 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/PMSimferopol/status/1306582566909214722?s=20
 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/GovernmentRF/status/610480816498548736?s=20
 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/GovernmentRF/status/540155502739865600?s=20
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 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/Ukraine/status/869532150760165377?s=20.
 See tweet here: https://twitter.com/Ukraine/status/869433723867062272?s=20.
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