Information war under foreign flags

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In the last five years the topic of “information warfare” and information attacks has become quite popular both in the analytical circles and among ordinary citizens. The Belarusian authorities also drew attention to the problem. Aliaksandr Lukashenka speaks on information security topics and even uses the word “fake” (by the way, speaking about Russia as well). The concept of information security of the Republic of Belarus was developed and adopted.

The work goes on, but little attention is paid to the aspect of information attacks, like the attack on the Republic of Belarus interests in neighbouring states. Such operations are often carried out without adequate response of our state. The main reasons or that are the following:

  • at diplomatic offices there is no high quality systems of monitoring the information field, of the analysis of topics and possible attack directions;
  • the state bodies of the country are missing not only skills, but even a simple understanding of the need to respond to the information wave in the neighbouring countries;
  • and, finally, in contrast to the Russian Federation, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus has no rapid response algorithms and experience of tactical information operations.

In order to illustrate theses suggested above, I will use the example of the Ukraine and Belarusian-Ukrainian relations during the 2014-19 period.

Ukraine, as a neighbour state, is one of the main tourist destinations, well known to a significant part of the citizens of Belarus. But 2014 was the indicative, because since April flow of Belarusian tourists in Ukraine went down virtually to zero: since January 2014 on the territory of Belarus was launched rumour that in Ukraine they confiscate cars from Belarusian tourists “for the needs of the Maidan” (later — needs of ATO volunteers). The thesis was launched simultaneously with a large number of sources (mainly people) and social networks. The legend looked like this: “a relative (a good friend or family friends) during a visit to Ukraine was taken the car away by people who said they were “Maidan fighters” and the police refused to do anything. Different locations and time periods were mentioned, but the legend was unchanged. The company reached its peak in April and May 2014 almost completely stopping tourist flows.

Very simple and secondary topic (just rumours) gave a very important result for the organizers of the attack: “public diplomacy” in the form of contacts and visits stopped for nearly a year. This year the average Belarusian could look at developments in Ukraine only in two ways: “negatively-neutral” of the official media or completely negative of the Russian media.

In November 2016, Belarus and Ukraine agreed on the specific changes in the format of cooperation between states. In addition to the ordinary course of trade, the parties began to implement the program of industrial and scientific-technical cooperation. Against the background of growing economic pressure from Moscow, the Ukrainian market has become a certain compensation for Belarusian producers. In addition, for some items Belarus became a country-mediator for Ukrainian manufacturers to enter the Russian market and vice versa.

This state of affairs created certain problems for Russia’s policy of pressure on Belarus and Ukraine. Naturally, Kremlin was interested in slowing down or stopping these processes and making them dependent on Russia’s decisions. But, if the documents were signed at the state level, we need a basis for their revision. These can be a change in public opinion. The Belarusian authorities are less dependent on it, the dependence of the Ukrainian authorities is critical.

Accordingly, since December 2016 in the Ukrainian information space one could often see the thesis of “Russian threat” for Belarus and the Russian threat for Ukraine, which goes … from Belarus. The main topic raised were the following:

  • November-December 2016. There were two topics: Lukashenka playing according to the Russian scenario and the threat of “Crimean scenario” for Belarus. The latter supported by the fact the number of carriages, reserved for Russian equipment and troops at the “West-2017” military exercise;
  • January-February 2017. Since the first message has not received big reaction, the second one — the military threat from the Republic of Belarus, was launched. The number of carriages for the transportation of troops, as well as all contacts between the military departments of Belarus and the Russian Federation were used as information causes;
  • February-March 2017. The topic of Russian military bases was raised once again. Allegedly, there were Russian bases on the territory of Belarus and after exercise there would be new ones. Another topic was describing Russian troops staying in Belarus after the exercises and changing the political leadership of the country.
  • March-April 2017. Belarus allegedly gives its air defence system under the leadership of the Russian Federation. The occasion was the agreed contract changes on the joint grouping of troops of Belarus and Russia.
  • April-May 2017. The troops, which Russia deploys in Smolensk and Klintsy, are “military invasion of Belarus”. Lukashenka will be overthrown, some fake state may appear in Belarus.
  • May-June 2017. Against the background of the publication of the scenario, the thesis of the appearance of “uncontrolled territory”, which will be supported by Russian military was disseminated with renewed vigour. At the same time the questions about the possible size of the Russian military arriving to Belarus for the exercise, was raised once again.
  • June-July 2017. The main theses: the occupation of Belarus, political upheaval, were accompanied by a new message — the poor attitude of the Belarusians to the Ukrainians. The latter included Belarusian customs officers’ bullying over the tourists, the activity of the Belarusian special services, Belarusians’ supporting annexation of Crimea, the Belarus’ trading with Crimea and terrorist organizations in Donbass.
  • July and August 2017. The topic of the Russian occupation of Belarus and Russian special services active in Belarus was continued already on a weekly basis.
  • In August and September 2017 the main thesis was the rumour that not all Russian troops will leave Belarus after the exercises. After the end of the exercise, closer to October – there were just messages that “Russian troops didn’t leave”.

The messages were thrown in using two main algorithms:

  1. “With my own eyes”. A story from personal experience (or experience of friends) with the description of “the problem” and given emotional overtones appeared in social networks. “Third-class” media reposted the information, where the emotional evaluations already served for proven facts. After that this information was disseminated (without reference to the source in the social networks) by 1-2 Internet resources (usually opposite to the Ukrainian authorities) and the experts commented on it on TV. The next stage — the mainstream media started discussion of the message. Moreover, at this stage already they referred to numerous sources “in the media” or to the high importance of the topic. Often, the primary thesis at this point was completely lost.
  2. The interpretation of the facts. Based on real facts or deliberate provocation (as is the case with the tank march to Belarus from Moscow) the topic is raised by some “second-class” media. They ask for comments the “experts” and “leaders of public opinion” that are wary of Belarus. This often happened on a television. Or the TV presenters in the studio offered to discuss the information. After this thesis, having the necessary emotional colouring and accents, was spread by other media.

Naturally, not all messages can be considered as part of the planned information attack. If an overall negative background is present, the topics raised using a different algorithm may occur independently. An artificially created information wave can easily be identified by the specifics of its growth. Main features: the artificiality and the rate of expansion. Abstracts, which can be attributed to information attacks, on average are disseminated much faster than the usual information pieces. Usually, the media tried to keep interest in for such topics for 4-5 days instead of the usual for Ukrainian media 1-2 days + Sunday programs on TV.

For example, if the primary information was posted in social networks, the number of reposts greatly exceeds the number of reactions. The time intervals between the stages of message dissemination are also quite small. For example, it is a little suspicious when the “post of an ordinary citizen” in 3 hours hits the newswires of 3-4 online media and after another hour of gets into some of the top 20 most influential media. The same applies to the messages on the basis of “actual information”. For example, an episode with “signing the agreement on common air defence of Belarus and the Russian Federation”. Ukrainian media wrote about this issue after a week (!) from the moment of the publication of this data on the Kremlin website. But after that the thesis was disseminated in 4-5 hours. The first media to speak on this topic were 112 TV channel (owned by pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Medvedchuk) and Strana.ua website. It is interesting, that some of the theses were actively supported by the Belarusian media. Part of the topics, for example, trade with the Crimea and occupied parts of Donbass later became used for journalist investigations (taking into account the interest in Ukraine). But a large part of the Belarusian media have been involved from the very beginning. For example, by a strange coincidence, the “Charter-97” published materials on all key messages of information attacks without exception (and there were more than 80 of them in 2017). Moreover, it usually happened in the initial stages of the information wave growth.

We should also remember the cases of the kidnapping of Pavel Grib and arrest of Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko. In the first case, everything looks paradoxically: from the details of Grib’s visit to Belarus to his prosecution. But, if you look on the other hand, it is difficult to choose the best candidate:

  • Ukraine is a religious state, Grib is a chaplain’s son.
  • Ukraine is at war, veterans and the military are respected, even tries to talk negatively about them cause outrage. Pavel’s father participated in Anti-terrorist operation in Donbass.
  • Pavel Grib himself is a typical representative of the younger generation of Ukrainian patriots, having bright-cut position.
  • Pavel Grib has health problems. At first the media even reported his being disabled.
  • And finally, the age of the boy and “love story”, his attempt to rescue “ladylove” from the Russian FSB (Federal security service).

Thus, in the eyes of society, the situation looked like this: a young boy with a disability, public-spirited, from the chaplain’s family was trying to help his girlfriend. Russian special services kidnapped him in formally neutral state. A very bad case of Belarus, which has been accompanied by the failed communication from the Belarusian side. Belarusian security forces and government bodies worked on formal procedures, paid no attention to the noise in the media and gave no comments.

The case of Pavel Sharoiko is no less complicated. The journalist was detained after trying to get “documents about the Russian presence in Belarus”. However, his “contact” — the journalist of the Russian NTV remained free. The parties agreed on a “quiet exchange” without publicity. However, the journalists of Russian media suddenly began to ask their Ukrainian colleagues in Minsk on the fate of Sharoiko. As a result, Ukrainian media, as they believed, have begun to raise the issue. The exchange failed. At the same time the Ukrainian media suddenly published “documents”, which Sharoiko got when he was detained. At least, it’s amazing how they could have got to Ukraine.

Both cases are indicative because of another set of circumstances. Two months before the kidnapping of Pavel Grib Ukrainian media have tried to raise the issue of “bad attitude” of Belarusians towards Ukrainians and work of Belarusian special services against the citizens of Ukraine. Two months before Sharoiko’s arrest the thesis about “Russian troops remaining in Belarus” was discussed. In fact both cases can be seen as the final points of specific information attacks.

The objectives of this information operations wave may be called in two interconnected lines:

  1. changes in public opinion about cooperation with neighbouring states, the possible deterioration of relations between people in everyday life;
  2. provocation to worsen relations at the level of state bodies, exchange of notes between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, possible diplomatic conflict.

Results of operations in 2017 can be considered only partially achieved. On one hand, Belarus and Belarusians have lost the first position in the rating of trust of Ukrainians, and (briefly) even were out the top 3 rankings of positive attitude. Part of the joint programs really has been postponed. However, the vast majority of them then were elaborated upon and implemented. Possibly, the key factors here were the lack of alternative offers from third countries in the areas of cooperation, as well as restoration of “grassroots diplomacy” — Belarusians continued to actively go to Ukraine and vice versa.

2018 had its own peculiarities. The actual beginning of the election campaign in Ukraine, Russian pressure on “the development of integration” on Belarus played important role. In addition, after the exercise “West 2017” in Ukraine attacks did not happen, because the thesis of a military invasion was not relevant any more.

Accordingly, the whole 2018, especially its second half, another topic — the imminent political annexation of Belarus by Russia was discussed in the Ukrainian information field. The reason for these discussions were many fruitless talks of Lukashenka with Putin and Medvedev as well as the appointment of Mikhail Babich to the position of the Ambassador of Russia in Belarus. Wave was gone, on the one hand, due to the change of the Russian ambassador in Minsk, on the other hand, due to objective reasons — the unexpected results of the presidential elections in Ukraine and the speed of political process after that.

At the same time, there are positive changes, which it is too early to attribute to the category of “the new information policy”. For example, in June, there was an attempt to throw in the message about the presence of Russian troops in the Chernobyl area in Belarus. However, information wave was destroyed at the beginning by three events:

  • Ukrainian Armed Forces Brigade, which covers this part of the border, has responded to a post on a social network, which has been the source of information attack (it is necessary to underline, that they responded not to media reports, but to the very source), with report on the verification of the facts and a willingness to respond to the threat, if there is any.
  • Two days after the announcement in Kyiv the chiefs of the general staffs of armed forces of Belarus and Ukraine took place.
  • A week later Ukrainian military carried out the inspection of the Belarusian military facilities.

Such a sequence may be an accident, but it gave good result. Therefore, such an algorithm of actions should be, at least, studied and applied if necessary.

Unfortunately, the Belarusian state authorities in general have not yet demonstrated the presence of policy on protecting the interests of the Belarus in the information field of key partner states. Especially in the situation of the rapid deployment of information attacks with changes in key points, like it was in 2017.

Olga Harlamava, Lawyer, Master of Political Science, consultant on sustainable development at the local level, graduate of the Summer University for Democracy of the School of Political Studies at the Council of Europe, deputy of the Svislachsky Settlement Council of the 25th calling

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