Russia’s Deputy Permanent Delegate of the Russian Federation to UNESCO Mrs. Tatiana Dovgalenko comments on the rejection of the proposal to hold Day of the #RussianLanguage by the UNESCO.
This move not to adopt the decision on a language is unprecedented for the UNESCO. It undermines the very basis of the organisation. Multilingualism is recognised as a fundamental value of the United Nations.
Our Western colleagues confess between themselves that they don’t care about the UNESCO mandate. What they do care, is using the UNESCO platform to punish and harm Russia.
- Neil Bermel
Professor of Russian and Slavonic Studies, University of Sheffield
Neil Bermel receives funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and has in the past received funding from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. Neil wishes to gratefully acknowledge the use of the Araneum Russicum Russicum Maius corpus and the Czech National Corpus infrastructure.
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The bloody and terrible war in Ukraine has been accompanied by a war of words. One of the more frequent words heard in the Russian media is vranyo, which means a “lie”. The Russian government and media have hurled it at Ukraine and its allies, accusing them of exaggerating the devastating effects of its “special military operation” while Ukraine’s Russian speakers have used it to describe Russia’s apparently ad-libbed alternative explanations for the destruction wrought in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere. Vranyo, though, is not as simple as just a “lie” – it means more than that.
Russian has two words for truth, istina and pravda, and it also has two words for lies: lozh (ложь) and vranyo (враньё). Look them up in a dictionary, and you’ll find them cross-referencing each other, which isn’t much help. The English press has sometimes translated the former just as a “lie” and the latter as a “bald-faced lie”. That starts to get at the difference but isn’t quite there.
Lozh originates with the verb lgat’, the act of lying – the noun describes an untruth. Lozh is the word the US government used to translate Biden’s inaugural pronouncement that: “There is truth and there are lies,” and to connect it to the “stream of lies” coming out of Russia about Ukraine.
Vranyo is a noun formed from a different verb, vrat’. That verb also means “to lie”, but it has a more colloquial, pejorative flavour. Vranyo has a dismissive feel: it is a lie that no one would take seriously, an excuse or a ducking of responsibility. It can be a mindless fib, like the story of how the dog ate your homework, or a tall tale.
So vranyo starts with lozh, the negation of truth, and goes from there. Vranyo is not about the proposition itself – it focuses attention on the lie-tellers and why they are lying. As one wag put it on Reddit, vranyo means:
You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes.
The word has spewed consistently from the Russian side in this meaning. Following the lead of Russia’s foreign and defence ministries, Russian media have united to pooh-pooh almost anything in Ukrainian and western sources as blatant invention, whether that’s estimates of Russian losses (“propagandistic vranyo”) or details of how the Russian army levelled the Kievan suburb of Bucha (“the amount of vranyo from Kiev”) and bombed the train station in Kramatorsk (“they’re steeped in vranyo”), among the many atrocities already documented.
But when a government does vranyo, the nature of the fabrication can change. We may well be talking about “the big lie”, and the reason for vranyo might not be evasiveness, but contempt. Western and liberal Russian sources have called vranyo a characteristic tactic of the Russian state, even coining a new compound gosvranyo, literally “government-vranyo”.
Ukraine certainly uses it this way about Russia. The Russian-language Ukrainian media have hit back, implying that Russia is formulating an alternative reality in which they do no wrong (“a war based on a great vranyo”, as one commentator saw it, or “straightforward vranyo dressed up as propagandistic cliches”, in the words of another).
Vranyo in the cathedral
Encounters with a high-profile word, though, don’t just connect with abstract meanings and uses; they also evoke associations and echoes of other places we’ve heard and seen them. And vranyo has been a constant in recent years with Russia in the news.
For example, when UK police fingered two foreigners as FSB (Russian state security) agents who they said had carried out the novichok poisonings in Salisbury in 2018, the pair were interviewed on Russian state television. They explained that, quite to the contrary, they were simple tourists who had made a special trip to Salisbury to see the fabled cathedral with its 123-metre-high spire.
The explanation was so far-fetched that it seemed they had barely put any effort into making it sound credible – liberal Russian commentators said the British were letting the Kremlin “drown itself in vranyo”. The government’s stance itself – denial without plausibility – can be seen as a display of strength, an indifference to the conventions of explanation.
But try to look up vranyo and mentions of the Skripal poisoning in Russian, and most of what jumps out is Russian media accounts dismissing the UK government’s accusations. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova immediately fired back about “London’s vranyo”, which was widely reported across the Russian web. The same has now happened with the invasion of Ukraine.
Vranyo is thus both more specific and more multifaceted than “lying”. It’s a technique of the current Russian regime, and a trope the regime uses against its enemies. Vranyo is not of course unique to Russia; to take just one example, Trump employed the same tactics in the US election with his “big steal” claims. But vranyo does neatly encapsulate, in a single word, the paradox of truth-telling in the current conflict.
Ukraine: Lies, propaganda and the West’s agenda
Is the Western narrative obscuring what’s really going on in Ukraine?
Alastair Sloan covers international affairs, politics and human rights for British newspapers and magazines.
Published On 4 May 20144 May 2014
Washington and Brussels are the heroes of the Ukrainian saga, if you believe the Western media. Russian President Vladimir Putin is cast as the Big Bad Russian Bear, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are the Democratic A-Team. Russia is supposedly using dirty KGB-inspired tactics: secret agitators backed by masked paratroopers. The West makes the same tired claims to back democracy and freedom and denounces Putin’s foul play.
The hyperbole is extraordinary. Is it really appropriate to invoke the memory of Anschluss, or compare Putin to Saddam Hussein? Kerry has called Ukraine an “incredible act of aggression”, conveniently ignoring drone strikes, the Iraq War, and the numerous illegal coups the US has pulled off since World War II.
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the argument in March that Putin is “trying to re-establish Russian influence and a measure of control over the former states of the Soviet Union”. All this deceitful moralising, as well as attempts to classify Putin’s putsch in Crimea as some grandiose geopolitical strategy, ignores two crucial realities about this crisis.
The first is that Putin is acting out of political desperation. The second is that the West has been no saint in this crisis, and it may even have caused it.
Putin’s first two terms saw widespread political support built primarily on healthy economic growth, mainly thanks to booming oil prices. An avalanche of foreign investment allowed businesses and infrastructure to grow at pace. Everyone was employed, the middle class was growing and Putin of course claimed the credit.
Then came the financial crisis of 2008. A sovereign debt crisis in Europe left Russia exposed. Prices rose and profit margins for businesses grew unhealthy. Many who had made it into the middle classes found themselves back in the working poor.
For a while, Putin blamed the mess on European financiers. But this tale was discarded in December, when he admitted that most of Russia’s economic problems were homegrown; born out of broken promises he made to reform the economy and rout out systemic corruption.
And Russia’s economic misfortunes are not set to end soon – economists forecast growth rates averaging 2.5 percent, far behind most developing economies, and emergency cash reserves will reportedly run out in three years.
Alexei Krudin, an ex-finance minister, has blamed Putin for the economic crisis. He says more should have been done sooner. In December, the polling agency Levada put Putin’s approval rating at its lowest in 10 years. The boom years of his first two terms are a distant memory.
Putin, therefore, enjoyed his Kremlin Christmas overshadowed by the imminent prospect of political failure. Admittedly, the opposition movement in Russia is disorganised, underfunded or behind bars. But the memories of mass street protests in 2011 and 2012 are still fresh. Victimisation of the print press has grown more violent, control of TV stations has expanded and suppression of dissent has become ever more cruel. As Putin’s popularity falls, he must tell more lies to his people, shut up his critics – or simply distract the Russian public with military expeditions abroad.
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Crimea as distraction
Crimea has been this distraction. There is no grand plan, Putin is not being a “playground bully” nor is he seeking to “re-establish Russian influence and a measure of control over the former states of the Soviet Union”. Crimea was simply an opportunity which Putin saw, a land grab which Putin knew would play well at home and, at least in the short term, save his political skin.
The second criticism of the standing Western narrative is that Putin is playing dirty. Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton have been at pains to call him out on this. But has the West not been doing the same? It all depends on the timeframe you use to judge the Ukraine crisis.
In 1990, the final leader of the dying Soviet Union was explicitly promised by then US Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not take advantage of Russia’s weakness and expand their influence eastward. In a speech which he gave in the Kremlin, Baker confirmed that there would be “no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east”.
In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, Mikhail Gorbachev was gutted: The promise he had been made that day by Baker had proved a hollow deceit.
“One cannot depend on American politicians,” he said.
He was joined by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who confirmed the West’s duplicity.
“None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards, and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration,” had happened.
Gorbachev and Medvedev were right to be angry. Despite Baker’s promise, NATO had expanded into Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. All of these countries were formerly within Russia’s sphere of influence. And all of these countries were significantly more than “an inch to the east”.
On top of NATO’s rapid expansion, the West added to Russian trauma by trying to position missile defence systems in both Poland and the Czech Republic. The plan was eventually scrapped after Russian opposition was made clear. While Washington claimed the missile bases protected Europe from Iranian missiles (despite Tehran not owning any missiles with sufficient range), Russians believed they presented a clear security threat. Imagine if Putin had announced he was building missile bases in Mexico.
Finally, fast-paced but accurate investigative journalism by the American writer Steve Weissman has revealed how in the months and even years running up to Euromaidan, US money had been vociferously funding anti-Yanukovich political activities in Ukraine. Shadowy think-tanks linked to the US State Department have funded over 80 “pro-democracy” projects in Ukraine, as well as almost completely funding an opposition TV station.
As Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich fell, Putin took his opportunity in Crimea. In press conferences, he has laid out the historical events above. He credibly claimed Russia had been the victim of a Western plot to surround and contain Russia. He also pointed to wilder theories about the CIA’s involvement and neo-Nazi gangs roaming Kiev.
The West has concentrated on mocking the latter while conveniently ignoring the legitimate gripes Putin raises – the possibility that the West, through meddling and provoking incessantly, may have caused this crisis.
In the face of clearly hypocritical Western lecturing – Putin’s ratings at home have soared. And the people of Ukraine have also been betrayed – their push for democracy co-opted by US interests, and their economy having lost up to $80bn, according to latest reports. Will Western leaders be held to account? Probably not if this thundering and incorrect narrative continues to play out across the media. This is why Western leaders are so keen to demonise Putin – it gets them off the hook.
Alastair Sloan is a London-based journalist. He focuses on injustice and human rights in the UK, and international affairs including human rights, the arms trade, censorship, political unrest and dictatorships.
Alastair Sloan covers international affairs, politics and human rights for British newspapers and magazines.
Alastair Sloan covers international affairs, politics and human rights for a variety of British newspapers and magazines.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Rossiya television network, Moscow, April 11, 2022
Question: I would like to ask you about “strange” statements by European diplomats on the course of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell said it must be won on the battlefield. This doesn’t really jibe with the EU’s status as a primarily political and economic organisation. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed regret over his earlier stance on the possibility of normal dialogue with Russia. So now he doesn’t think it’s possible. How is one supposed to talk with these people? How is one supposed to come to terms with them?
Sergey Lavrov: This is a major shift in the policy of the EU and the entire West under the leadership of the US (there is no doubt about that) that occurred after the start of our special military operation. Their current policy is rooted in bitterness and derangement (excuse the non-diplomatic word choice), though it’s not all about Ukraine but rather turning that country into a bridgehead from which Russia can finally be subjugated and subordinated to the global system built by the West even though the Cold War ended and the USSR and Warsaw Treaty disappeared. The West was moving closer to our borders all the time despite its promises not to expand NATO, statements to the effect that we were no longer adversaries and many other things. Our special military operation is designed to put an end to NATO’s unlimited expansion and to keep the US and other NATO countries from achieving total domination in the world arena. They are building this system based on “rules” which they just now started going on about, despite violating international law in the crudest manner in the process. They devise these rules on a case-by-case basis. It is fine to recognise independence in Kosovo without a referendum but not in Crimea even after a referendum that was monitored by hundreds of unbiased foreigners.
A threat to US security was detected in Iraq (10,000 km away from the US). They bombed it but didn’t locate the threat and didn’t even apologise. They are cultivating neo-Nazis and ultra-radicals on our borders. The Pentagon is setting up dozens of laboratories conducting experiments to develop biological weapons. The documents found there leave no doubt about this. But we are not allowed to respond to a threat on our borders, as opposed to across the ocean. That’s the message.
President Vladimir Putin explained in detail the reasons for the decision on the special military operation. These include eight years of sabotage of the Minsk agreements accompanied by the daily bombing of Donbass; the flooding of Ukraine with Western weapons; and the sending of instructors that trained the most extremist units that were later sent to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They formed the backbone of the groups that are now resisting our operation to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine. Western propaganda immediately used all this to portray Russia as pure evil and themselves, consequently, as purely good. The current Ukrainian regime is described as a model of democracy, justice, freedom and European aspirations in all things, including the values that Europe has supposedly always preached. The response that followed shows that they understand very well that Ukraine isn’t really the point. The point is their own dominance, which far from all countries are willing to accept. Russia, with its history and traditions, is one of those countries that will never accept a subordinate status. We can be members of the international community only on equal terms, on conditions of indivisible security. We wanted to reach some accommodation but were ignored by our Western colleagues.
But what Mr Borrell said – even by the standards of the unprecedented, aggressive level things have reached – marks a serious change in the rules of the game. Until now the EU has never acted as a military organisation. Yes, now they are discussing their “strategic compass.” For the first time in history, Germany allocated an additional 100 billion euros to exercise its military muscles, which represents a qualitative change. This “strategic compass” includes a tangible increase in military spending and the formation of a certain collective structure for defence against potential aggressors. But the upshot of all this independence is zero because the United States is controlling everything that is being done. The EU has not been given any independent role, even internally. Its efforts are being skillfully controlled by the Baltic states, Denmark and Poland, which will not allow any kind of separation between the EU and NATO. Quite the contrary, they will be pushing it back into NATO’s web.
Question: A NATO branch?
Sergey Lavrov: So it seems. Whenever the chief diplomat of a country or an organisation (in this case, head of EU diplomacy Josep Borrell) says that a particular conflict can be resolved exclusively by military means, that is how such a statement is construed. This means that either he has a personal grudge, or it was a slip of the tongue, or he got ahead of his orders. This statement is out of line. We will cover this in more detail in our official documents. I hope we will be able to analyse all this within the next couple of days.
You also mentioned Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom I know well back from his days as Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is now the President of Germany. In an interview that he gave several days ago, he was asked whether an international tribunal was needed to try representatives of the Russian leadership, starting with President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Minister, as war criminals. He agreed, saying that everyone who is responsible for the military operation and the political decisions should be held accountable. I leave this to his conscience. I think that the facts will become known in Germany, and the perpetrators of war crimes will become known. This will be determined not on the basis of fakes (such as Bucha or Kramatorsk), but on the basis of the deadly evidence that we present, and that our military discover during the special military operation and on the basis of the testimony of the people who have lived in the divided Donbass under the yoke of these neo-Nazis for many years, cut off from their sons who stayed on the eastern side of the line of contact. As these people are being liberated now, it is impossible to fake the feelings that they have or to make up the hardships they went through living under the control of neo-Nazi and other “territorial” battalions.
Steinmeier said another interesting thing about Ukraine. He said that, as a diplomat, he had never dedicated as much time to any other country as he did to Ukraine. He recalled that when Germany chaired the EU in 2007, he was the one to initiate the talks on preparing an Association Agreement with the EU. In 2013, when the riot began on the Maidan, he brokered the talks between Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. That’s how it was, indeed. Importantly, a half-truth is worse than a lie. In fact, Mr Steinmeier left out some important episodes and turning points in the events that he mentioned. First, the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU provided for the transition to zero tariffs for the vast majority of goods. By the time this Agreement had already been in the works in 2013, we reminded our Ukrainian colleagues that we also have a free trade area with them as part of the CIS. We introduced significant protections against European goods when we joined the WTO. So, if they have zero tariffs with Europe, and we have long had zero tariffs for most goods with Ukraine, then goods from the EU will pour into our country freely contrary to the agreements that we reached when joining the WTO. We told them we need to sit down and decide on this issue so that we are not impacted by their relations with the EU. However, the EU, which (as Steinmeier says) started the talks on the Association Agreement on his initiative, told us that this was not our business and that they would reach an agreement with Ukraine as they see fit. After that, Yanukovych realised that this would be a problem and Russia would be forced to build a barrier on the border with Ukraine against Ukrainian-made goods. The President of Ukraine asked to postpone the signing for several months so that we could resolve these problems taking into account the interests of Ukraine, Russia and the EU.
It was after this that Europe, which Mr Steinmeier was so proud of when he said that Ukraine aspired to European values, provoked the Maidan. They rallied the people under the banner of fighting Yanukovych who allegedly wasn’t letting Ukraine join the EU.
Mr Steinmeier did not mention that he did not just broker the talks between Yanukovych and the opposition, but also took part in concluding them by signing a settlement agreement. On behalf of Germany and the EU, Steinmeier signed this agreement as a guarantor alongside the foreign ministers of Poland and France. The next morning, they spat on his signature. The opposition tore up the agreement and, from day one, advocated the abolition of the special status of the Russian language (contrary to the Constitution of Ukraine), called for Russians to “get out” of Crimea, sent “friendship trains” there with armed thugs who wanted to storm the Supreme Soviet. After that there was a referendum. Eastern Ukraine completely refused to recognise the coup. They did not attack anyone, but they were declared terrorists and an anti-terrorist operation was announced.
Mr Steinmeier forgot to say that Germany, France, Poland and the entire European Union showed total helplessness and lack of self-respect. Their signatures were trampled on. Tacitly, they even began to encourage this whole thing when they realised that the thugs who came to power would help the West in every possible way and manipulate it. They remained silent when these people burned dozens of innocent people in Odessa’s House of Trade Unions and when, on June 2, 2014, Ukrainian Air Force bombed central Lugansk. They just remained silent. Later, during the attempts to resolve the situation months and years later, we asked them how they allowed a coup to happen. They told us it was “not quite a coup.” Then what? “The costs of the democratic process.” How can you say that with a straight face?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier forgot to mention February 2015, when, alongside the Normandy format leaders, he co-authored the Minsk agreements. Soon after the signing, actually the next day, Petr Poroshenko and his team, speaking in the Verkhovna Rada, refused to act on them. They called the Minsk agreements a “political declaration” which allegedly was not binding. Then we unanimously approved the Package of Measures at the UN Security Council. It has become part of international law and thus binding. They ignored it and in every possible way encouraged the Ukrainian regime as it continued to sabotage its obligations.
We continued our efforts to find compromises, and were ready to make additional concessions and encourage the republics with which Kiev refused to talk to directly to do so as well. At some point during the talks we supported what was called the “Steinmeier formula” as a sign of our flexible approach. When we had to decide what should be done first – granting a special status or holding elections – he came up with a solution that suited everyone and became known as the “Steinmeier formula.” A couple of weeks after the “formula” had been approved and everyone welcomed it, it was consigned to oblivion as well. Petr Poroshenko and Vladimir Zelensky after him were vehemently opposed to following it.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier has to live down a diplomatic disgrace for the second time in several years if he considers himself the initiator (as he proudly stated in that interview) of many things related to the state of Ukrainian society.
Question: Is it possible to speak about a change in the positions of the sides at the Russia-Ukraine talks after the provocations in Bucha and Kramatorsk and considering the collective West, primarily the US, is doing all it can to prolong hostilities?
Sergey Lavrov: President of Russia Vladimir Putin emphasised more than once that we prefer talks. During the very first round of talks when Ukraine suggested contacts and we agreed to arrange them, President Vladimir Putin ordered a pause in the special military operation. When we realised that the Ukrainians were not going to reciprocate, we decided not to make any pauses for subsequent rounds of talks until the final agreement was reached and signed.
The provocations are outrageous. Our military personnel provided chronological arguments and videos made in Bucha (excuse me for going into details but they depicted the positions of corpses and how they looked). They presented all the evidence they could. I don’t understand how adults who consider themselves politicians and diplomats can try to say otherwise without any support.
It is revealing that they tried to keep Bucha going as a story for several weeks but quickly stopped talking about Kramatorsk. Evidence was presented on the same day, including ballistic trajectories, the absence of Tochka-U systems in our forces and the like. More provocations will follow.
Recently, the Defence Ministry and the National Defence Management Centre of Russia submitted intelligence data revealing the plans of the Ukrainian regime to stage new provocations with direct support of Western intelligence services, for instance, involving the use of toxic chemicals, mass executions and burials. There will be more provocations. We must respond to them with facts. Our main argument is what is taking place on the ground.
I don’t see reasons that could prevent us from continuing the talks even though Ukrainians keep making an about face and rejecting what they have just suggested.
We are patient and persistent.
Question: What are conditions like for our diplomats working now in unfriendly countries and the UN Headquarters? We are seeing a worrying surge in Russophobic attitudes. Families with children abroad are receiving threats. Did you have to harden security for the employees? How can the interests of our compatriots be protected against the backdrop of mounting Russophobia?
Sergey Lavrov: Diplomats live and work in difficult conditions. There are attacks, actually terrorist acts against our offices and their physical security but our diplomats are more or less protected by their status. We often do not advise people to go out alone.
We are most of all concerned over the situation of our compatriots, citizens, simply Russians living abroad. They are subjected to regular physical attacks. I know that Western capitals and Western embassies in Moscow are discussing this issue. EU ambassadors hold meetings from time to time for this purpose. Some of our good acquaintances said that EU ambassadors in Moscow are expressing serious concern over examples of Russophobia in Europe. They think this is wrong because it spoils the EU’s image. I wouldn’t say spoil but rather further reveals it for what it is now.
The speed with which the Russophobic wave was set in motion shows (as a US scholar put it) that “latent racism” is alive and well in Europe. At one time, Adolf Hitler mobilised his own society and other European countries against the Jews (and Slavs, for that matter). Now the command to attack is against Russians. The gloves have come off, the pretense and political correctness are gone. Nothing remains.
Ukrainian politicians say “a good Russian is a dead Russian.” All other Russians are bad. Ministers are saying that Europe must discriminate against all Russians without distinction. They want them ostracised whether or not they support Putin because there is no time to determine that. They are openly saying this.
These are serious things. We will use all legal channels at our disposal to protect our citizens. There is the Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad. For the most part, it helps hire attorneys for people abroad. We are substantially increasing its financing.
This is a huge problem. We will discuss it.
We have been saying for the past eight years that the West is training Ukrainian nationalists. The “exceptional” and “civilised” countries refused to listen, but we continued to make our point with facts in hand. That was easy: you only had to go to Ukraine to see the regular events involving SS Waffen veterans, torchlight marches and the huge portraits of Nazi accomplices on buildings in Ivano-Frankovsk, Lvov and Ternopol.
This week, Canadian correspondent Simon Coutu published the results of a simple investigation (https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1873461/canada-regiment-ukrainien-lie-extreme-droite-azov) on his page at Radio Canada. He studied the pictures posted to social media by the National Guard of Ukraine and compared them to the training programmes conducted for the Ukrainian military by the Canadian Department of National Defence. What did he see?
He writes that many photographs made at the Canada-sponsored training centre in Zolochyov show men in fatigues with the symbols of SS divisions Das Reich and Galizien on their sleeve patches. The experts Coutu contacted have confirmed that these men are neo-Nazis, most probably from the Azov regiment. Moreover, Coutu writes that the Azov Regiment has been incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard as “a special detachment of Military Unit 3057.” He also found out that Canada has spent nearly a $1 billion on training the Ukrainian military since 2014. How much of these funds went to train neo-Nazis? It’s anybody’s guess.
As I have said, the Canadian journalist has simply looked at the pictures and has seen what we have been talking about for years. He just looked at the photographs. We call for this every day.
Do you understand now why Russian film director Elem Klimov named his film about Nazism “Come and See”? Sometimes that is all that is needed. But it turns out that even this takes a great deal of courage.
Le Canada a formé des éléments d’un régiment ukrainien lié à l’extrême droite
Les FAC n’ont jamais donné quelque formation que ce soit aux membres d’Azov, maintient la Défense nationale.
Information is a powerful weapon. In the Russia-Ukraine war, as in many conflicts today, truth has become an easier target than ever thanks to digital technologies. Peacebuilding experts explain to SWI swissinfo.ch what lies behind the information chaos and how to reclaim the facts.
This content was published on March 18, 2022 – 09:00
Weeks before the first Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities, the Kremlin made a series of claims about the government in Kyiv. Ukrainian forces, Russian state-sponsored television said, were committing genocide in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk along the Russian border. To help paint Ukraine as the aggressor, doctored videos of alleged victims landed on social media.
Once the invasion began, the disinformation offensive kicked into high gear. Pro-Russian accounts on closed messaging app Telegram spread false reportsExternal link that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled the country. Then, ten days into the war, Russian legislators approved a “fake news” law that compelled independent media and foreign journalists in Russia not following the Kremlin’s narratives to suspend their work.
“This is the playbook – to come at it from different angles [and] create an atmosphere of chaos and confusion,” said Emma Baumhofer, digital expert at the peacebuilding institute swisspeaceExternal link.
Propaganda has long been a feature of warfare, as adversaries try to win hearts and minds as well as battles. But with social media, the internet and smartphones, warring sides can now weaponise information with relative ease, speed and reach. As misinformation spreads online and then makes its way offline, a “complex information environment”, as Baumhofer calls it, takes hold, making it difficult to tell fact from fiction.
Accentuating crisis from Ukraine to Africa
Like the Russians, the Ukrainian side has contributed to the information war with its own propaganda campaign. Officials have claimed, for instance, that the number of fatalities among Russian soldiers is much higher than United States intelligence estimates or figures released by the Kremlin. They’ve even paraded alleged prisoners of war before the pressExternal link.
An actor in any war would want to emphasise its successes to motivate troops, as Julia Hofstetter of Swiss think tank forausExternal link points out.
“In many conflicts, digital disinformation is used to mobilise support within your own population, destabilise the enemy or spoil a peace process,” said Hofstetter, who specialises in the cyber dimension of conflict and digital peacebuilding.
In some cases, civilians, non-state actors and even other governments join the information war. In Ukraine, ordinary citizens have posted videos on social media that are difficult to verify and purport to show captured Russian soldiers. Volunteer hackers have attacked Russian government websites and state media in an effort to hurt the country’s propaganda machine. Strikingly, said Baumhofer, the US published some of its own intelligence to undermine Russia’s pre-invasion narratives.
Swiss businessman helps Ukrainian refugees
This content was published on Mar 16, 2022 Swiss entrepreneur Guido Fluri chartered a plane to evacuate Ukrainian refugees.
But interfering in conflicts abroad is nothing new, not least for Russia. For years the country has used many of the same disinformation strategies seen in the current war, said Baumhofer. One example is in the Central African Republic (CAR). Researchers at the United States Institute of Peace foundExternal link that an increase in violence following contested elections in the CAR in late 2020 “coincided with fake news and propaganda thought to originate from Russia and France”.
According to Nicolas Boissez, head of communications at Swiss NGO Fondation Hirondelle, Russia wants to broaden its influence in the African country, where fighting between government forces and non-state armed groups has escalated in the past year. Disinformation has become an important feature in a tense political and security situation, Boissez added.
Fighting back with facts
The impact of disinformation on people in the country is “significant [and] accentuates the security crisis and further weakens the work of actors involved in building peace”, writesExternal link Fondation Hirondelle.
The Lausanne-based NGO has spent more than 25 years supporting independent media and training journalists in countries caught up in crises, with the idea that fact-based journalism can contribute to peace. Its work in the CAR shows some of what can be done to tackle disinformation.
“The core of our response is to provide people with the facts and explain those facts in the simplest way possible [and] in a language they understand,” said Boissez. “We focus on information that’s close to their daily preoccupations and create a bond of trust in that way.”
Two years ago the NGO launched a campaign to fight disinformation together with Radio Ndeke LukaExternal link (RNL), which it founded in 2000. This included creating a fact-checking unit at the station, now the most popular media outlet in the country. The fact-checkers’ work is broadcast on RNL as well as on partner stations, the web and social media, to reach as many people as possible.
Verification has featured prominently in the Ukraine war as well. Before the invasion even began, journalists and civil society organisations like Bellingcat used open-source online intelligence tools (OSINT) to debunk images and videos claiming to show Ukrainian aggression, revealing gaping holes in Russia’s pretext for invasion. Zelensky himself has shared videos filmed on a smartphone in which he refutes Russian claims.
But fact-checking and supporting independent media are not the only ways to fight disinformation.
“Being presented with the facts is not enough to change people’s minds,” said Baumhofer. “We have to address the root causes [that] are fuelling vulnerability to disinformation.”
In the CAR, Fondation Hirondelle has enlisted opinion leaders like artists and musicians to appear at public events designed to raise awareness about “fake news” and how to avoid becoming agents of misinformation.
Misinformation or disinformation?
But both Hofstetter and Baumhofer also see the need for digital literacy, especially to help people stuck in a news blackout. In Russia, where the government has restricted access to Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of thousands of peopleExternal link have reportedly used a VPN (virtual private network) to seek out other news sources. Yet most people are not aware of this option or how it works, said Baumhofer.
Pressure for tech firms to do better
The most critical area for change, however, is social media because of the outsized role it plays in disseminating both “fake news” and verified information.
But it’s a departure from tech companies’ track record. In most conflicts they have not done enough to stop hate speech and disinformation, Hofstetter said, partly because the firms are reluctant to invest resources in monitoring content in local languages in countries that are not considered large target markets.
In the worst cases, the lack of response from big tech has led to deadly violence. An independent reportExternal link found Facebook had created an “enabling environment” for violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar in 2017, as hate speech against the community proliferated unchecked on the site.
“Platforms are really contributing to conflict because of the way they’re built,” Baumhofer said. “They tend to reward outrageous behaviour and anger because that’s what gets the most traction.”
Tech for peace
Baumhofer suggests peacebuilders could work with platforms “to make them more peaceful places for discussion”. Their experience with mediation and finding common ground between divided communities, for example, could be harnessed to help these sites make fundamental changes so they highlight commonalities between users rather than polarise them.
The bottom line is to keep pressure on tech firms to do more in all conflict situations. After all, the war in Ukraine is not their first brush with disinformation in wartime.
“Every conflict presents a new scenario,” said Baumhofer, “but we could have prepared for it better.”