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Sun 8 December 2019
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A new report, co-authored by a Conservative MP, sheds more light on Vladimir Putin’s sinister hybrid war, which – tested in Ukraine in 2014 – was then brought to Britain, the EU and the US.

14 April 2015. Many of the demonstrators outside the US Embassy in Kyiv had taped their mouths shut. They had all been issued with leaflets demanding that the US withdraw its “puppet government” from Ukraine. Every detail of the protest, down to the chants used by the demonstrators, was planned by the Kremlin.

The demonstration was orchestrated by Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin aide who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”. It was just one episode in an undeclared war which Russia has been waging against Ukraine and the West since 2014.

The war began when Russian special forces pretending to be local militants seized public buildings in some Ukrainian regions in March 2014. Russia hoped to trigger a wave of popular uprisings across south-east Ukraine, but only succeeded in occupying the Donbas and Crimea. However, Putin’s regime then launched a mass of subversion operations against Ukraine and ultimately the US and the European Union.

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The publication of a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) report yesterday provides new insights into Russia’s reinvention of warfare. Produced by the founder of the Euromaidan Press in Ukraine, Alya Shandra, and the Conservative MP Robert Seely, it analyses a cache of materials known as the ‘Surkov Leaks’.

In 2016 and 2017, the Ukrainian hacktivist collective, the Cyber Alliance, cracked several email accounts linked to Surkov and the emails were analysed by a Ukrainian investigative journalist group InformNapalm. Unfortunately, coverage in the western press was patchy and no detailed analysis was undertaken outside of Ukraine. But, as the authors note, Russia’s subversion of the West means that a detailed analysis of the material is in the public interest. 


Journalistic Subversion

Surkov is widely seen as a leading theorist of Russian ‘hybrid war’, but the report clarifies that many figures in the Russian elite have similar views.

His hybrid warfare is, in fact, an invention of older Soviet political subversion techniques and “draws on all the levers of the state, not just political ones”. The new subversive tools identified in the report range from culture to economic tools, paramilitary groups and media outlets. 

Seely and Shandra examine how Russian subversion exploited Ukraine’s particular vulnerabilities. The former president Viktor Yanukovych had weakened state institutions, tying them to his corrupt clique and the criminal underworld. Some Ukrainians were sympathetic to the idea of a Russian World, which was opposed to a supposedly sexually decadent West. However, many local collaborators were in it for the money. The emails detail payments to fake protestors and thugs used to protect Russian propaganda events. These staged happenings helped create the illusion of support for Russia in the Donbas.

The report also describes how Russia created two phoney states in the Donbas: the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). These fake countries were controlled by Surkov and he appointed their leaders.

Surkov and his colleagues also flipped local Ukrainian politicians and meddled in elections across Ukraine. They infiltrated Ukrainian media outlets and bribed journalists to spread Kremlin narratives aimed at demoralising Ukrainians. It will be obvious that the West is experiencing now the techniques trialled in Ukraine, which target the vulnerabilities of western states. French assets, groomed by Russia in the Donbas, for example, were involved in the Yellow Vest protests. A close aide to the Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini solicited Kremlin funding last October.

Putin’s regime launched a mass of subversion operations against Ukraine and ultimately the US and the European Union.

Most journalists reporting on the war in Donbas maintain Russia’s pretence that the DNR and LNR are real entities. Seely and Shandra have previously analysed how Seumas Milne, the UK Labour Party’s Director of Communications and a close aide of Jeremy Corbyn, has echoed Kremlin narratives in his journalism.

Since 2014, Russia has manipulated elections and referendums across the US and Europe, playing on fault lines in western countries. However, Seely, a Brexit supporter, does not properly address the Kremlin’s subversion of the 2016 EU Referendum. The fact that one of the UK’s leading experts on Russian subversion is himself a member of a party that is being subverted ironically proves the urgency of his own report. Read it.

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