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Thoughts from Kyiv – Filtering Through the Fog of War

[infobox title=’Thoughts from Kyiv’]Thoughts from Kyiv is brought to you by Mychailo WynnyckyjAssociate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Below are his thoughts and writings on the situation in Ukraine. [/infobox]

Today I spent a couple of hours on Maidan; walked up to the front lines on Hrushevskoho St., and strolled around the freshly occupied “Ukrainian House” on European Square; prayed in the tent chapel; spent time trying to keep warm near burning barrels with other protestors. My purpose was to get a sense of the “social mood” – the impression that one gets from TV and Internet often doesn’t reflect reality. What I saw today can be characterized as follows: determined people, working together building barricades, handing out hot drinks and food, talking quietly about the geographic spread of the revolution beyond Kyiv, and about yesterday’s announcement of the interim results of negotiations between Yanukovych and Ukraine’s three political opposition party leaders.

Frankly, I was surprised at the very small number of radicals (“extremists” as PM Azarov and Interior Minister Zakharchenko calls them) in the city center. According to many media reports, I should have seen a great many more young men dressed in helmets, chanting nationalist slogans, walking around with baseball bats. Of course, some such fighters were in evidence – particularly behind the front-line barricade on Hrushevskoho St. (immediately facing the police line), where, apparently for safety reasons, guards make sure only young men with helmets are let through to the front line. But the several thousand others demonstrating their discontent with Ukraine’s regime a mere 100 meters from the Interior Ministry troops, were “normal” citizens – the same people that I had gained immense respect for during the peaceful phase of Ukraine’s revolution in December. Having been away from Kyiv for almost a week, and having gained my impressions of the “new” Maidan almost exclusively from mass and social media, I was expecting a change – it wasn’t there.

This has made me think about a phenomenon that Clausewitz called “the fog of war”. Napoleon is noted to have once said “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” In the context of the past two months in Ukraine, and given that information spreads much faster today than in the days of Bonaparte or Clausewitz, I have no doubt that the ongoing revolution in Ukraine is first and foremost a conflict in which informational messages are more potent weapons than Molotov cocktails, stun grenades, or even massive numbers of picketing demonstrators. My purpose here is to try to wade through the often conflicting media messages, and to try to place very real events into the context of their “optics”. This post is not going to make me popular in Diaspora circles, nor among many in Ukraine. However, after living through what we have lived through in this country during the past 2 months (i.e. disgusting police brutality, deaths, disappearances, and absolutely mindless violence), it’s time to look a little more carefully at events, and (more importantly) at the way that they have been (mis)interpreted.

First of all, the initial Berkut riot police attack on peaceful students camped out on Independence Square during the early hours of Saturday November 30 – why was it ordered? According to the testimony of former Kyiv mayor Oleksander Popov, the instigator of the police brutality against the students was then Security Council Secretary, and now Presidential Administration Head, Andriy Kliuyev. This individual is known to have very close ties both to Viktor Medvedchuk (a very close confidant of Vladimir Putin here in Kyiv), and directly to the Kremlin. It is well known that the students were planning to voluntarily disband their protest camp on Sunday – why order a raid less than 48 hours before? Whose interests did this serve?

On December 1, when outraged crowds gathered in the center of Kyiv to voice their protest against police violence, near the Presidential Administration building, suddenly a tractor (!) with a back-hoe appeared on Bankova Street, and was used to attack a line of Interior Ministry troops (trained to defend – unlike Berkut riot police who are trained to attack and disperse). Video evidence shows that particular event to have been orchestrated by Dmytro Korchynskyj – a supposedly right-wing radical leader of “Bratstsvo”, who is suspected to in fact be on the payroll of Russia’s FSB. The initial attempted storming of the Presidential Administration building was followed by a brutal reaction from Berkut special forces: beatings of journalists, and arrests of heavily wounded spectators.

I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories. While living in Kyiv for the past 12 years this has been a difficult position to maintain because it seems that everyone here believes in conspiracies: if something goes wrong, it is “the Russians” or “Putin” who are behind all of Ukraines’s woes. But in this case, the interests of Russia seem to be self-evident: police brutality was supposed to have pushed Yanukovych irrevocably away from the EU, and increased his dependency on Russia. Furthermore, a successful crackdown on demonstrators in Kyiv (along the lines of the 2011 Bolotnaya Square crackdown in Moscow) would have shown the world, and (more importantly) Putin’s voters at home, that colored revolutions have been definitively replaced with “managed democracy” in a gradually reconstituting greater Russia. Alas, the crackdown was unsuccessful.

The month of December was relatively calm (except for the attempted raid on Maidan on the 11th): people gathered on Independence Square and in its vicinity in massive numbers to demonstrate their protest, and declare their dignity. During this period, I gave several lectures at the Open University of Maidan on “Buzz: Word of Mouth Marketing” (a favorite topic of mine at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School), and specifically on how to spread the values of the Euromaidan eastward – without spending large amounts of money on advertising. During a brainstorming session after one of those lectures the Russian phrase “Poymite nas. Zadolbalo!” was born, and a banner with these words was hoisted onto the barricade facing European Square the next day. Other examples of effective and creatively packaged messages (all based on word play and/or double meanings) that were born spontaneously during this period included: “Ne Zlyj Maidan”, “Yanukovych PidAresht”, “Bimba”, “Putin idy na yukh!” etc…

But clearly, we Euromaidan demonstrators were not the only ones thinking about how to package messages that would be attractive/appropriate for particular audiences, and would spark these audiences to action. During the month of December, the writings of one Alexey Arestovych (a former member of Korchynskyj’s “Bratstvo”) began to gain particular saliency throughout Ukraine. This gentleman was introduced through Facebook and Pravda.com.ua as a “former military officer” and “psychologist”. His idea was called the “Warm Ocean Strategy” – a very practical cookbook for peaceful protest according to which civil disobedience was to conform to 4 principles: 1) mass (strength in large numbers), 2) targettedness (e.g. AutoMaidan visits to key government officials), 3) humor (e.g. large numbers of polite complaints by telephone to local authorities), 4) caring (for each other, fellow citizens, low level government workers). This “strategy” gained huge popularity among Euromaidan protesters, and it would have been harmless enough, except that Mr. Arestovych’s underlying message (repeated often) was that this kind of civil disobedience should be targeted equally towards the regime and the opposition because “they are part of one system”.

Last week Alexey Arestovych suddenly changed his tune. On Monday evening (24 hours after the start of hostilities on Hrushevskoho St.), he gave an interview to ZIK television (a Lviv-based channel) during which he called upon people to take up arms. Today, he officially announced on his Facebook page that he is organizing an “alternative self-defense force” to that headed by Andriy Parubiy – apparently because the Maidan Self-Defense is too passive and peaceful. Embedded in Mr. Arestovych’s posts and interviews one finds phrases like:

  1. “Russian special forces are operating in Ukraine dressed in Berkut uniforms – they speak Russian with a Moscow accent”;
  2. “There are 20-30 FSB death squads from Russia operating in Ukraine”;
  3. “Russian officers are working in Berkut lines as snipers, firing live rounds on Hrushevskoho”

The above “memes” (packaged messages) spread like wildfire during this past week. No evidence has been presented anywhere as to Russian “boots” on the ground in Kyiv (although certainly Russian advisors are operating behind the scenes, but not in frontline roles!). The unfortunate fact that many Ukrainians would rather not accept, is that Berkut is made up of Ukrainians – who speak Ukrainian among themselves, and who perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on their own people. Although it may be uncomfortable to admit, accepting the opposite (i.e. the Russian conspiracy theory) serves to radicalize the revolution – to transform it from a battle for political regime/system change into one of ethnic conflict. Such a transformation would certainly serve to alienate supporters of Ukraine’s protesters in the West, and would clearly be in the interests of Putin’s Russia.

I guess the point that I am trying to make is that sitting in front of a TV and/or computer screen, it is often difficult to understand the reality on the ground in Kyiv (and now in other cities). Clearly, much of what has occurred in Ukraine during the past 2 months, was initially designed with photo-journalists in mind. For example, the fact that violence broke out on Hrushevskoho Street, where ample space is available to set up lighting, and where the entrance to Dynamo stadium provides a recognizable image to most Ukrainians, seems to have not been accidental. If the goal of the demonstrators had really been to storm a government building (e.g. the Cabinet of Ministers, Parliament, or Presidential Administration), more convenient routes could have been found – but these would have been less spectacular from the point of view of a television/internet audience.

However, whatever the goal of the original provocateurs who chose Hrushevskoho St. as the spot for turning the Maidan violent, they seem to have failed. Today, the protesters’ side of the barricades is certainly no longer offensive – with so many barricades now built, even if the protesters do decide to advance up Hrushevskoho St. to Parliament at some point in the future, this will be impossible because only a limited number will be able to get through the gaps in the 5 meter high walls. This fact should offset any attempts to portray the Maidan protesters as aggressive (e.g. as is regularly done by Russian state TV), but neither the demonstrators themselves, nor the political opposition parties, seem to understand the importance of informational warfare. Perhaps this is a reflection of the spontaneous character of the protests, and of the fact that no one really “controls” or “leads” the Maidan, but nevertheless, the lack of media savvy does (at times) hurt the cause…

Case in point: yesterday, at approx. 8pm, Olena Lukash and Andriy Portnov held a press conference at the Presidential Administration to announce that Yanukovych had offered the post of Prime Minister to Arseniy Yatseniuk (opposition Batkivshchyna party leader), and a vice-premiership to Vitaliy Klytschko. The text of their announcement appeared almost simultaneously on the President’s official website, and immediately the Internet filled with of speculation, commentary, discussion, and argument. At around 10:30 that evening, Ukraine’s three opposition party leaders and Petro Poroshenko spoke from the Maidan stage. Their speeches were bizarre: they neither confirmed nor denied having accepted the President’s proposals, and as a result, news channels and social media continued to buzz. The press offices of each party later confirmed that the proposals had in fact been rejected.

In the meantime, protestors on Maidan, apparently disillusioned by the opposition leaders’ speeches, attacked “Ukrainian House” on European Square where several busloads of riot police were seen to have been dropped off during the day. Although this building is in a strategically important position with respect to the Maidan and Hrushevskoho Street “holy lands”, storming it last night (immediately after the opposition’s announcements) seemed odd. Could this have been another constructed image aimed at generating a particular discourse that is in someone’s interest?

After the storming of the building by demonstrators, and soon after the “march out” of 300 Interior Ministry troops, television journalists were invited to tour the rooftop of Ukrainian House. Their guide was a Russian speaking former military officer who demonstrated the obvious strategic importance of the building to demonstrators: from the rooftop cameras filmed the view towards the barricades on Hrushevskoho St. Suddenly during the interview, the guide dropped to his knees and retrieved several rifle bullets (live rounds) from the snow, explaining that these had clearly been left there by a sniper. Please note, the bullets were not on a belt or in a magazine – they were lying loosely in the snow (not even in a box!). On further examination, the rounds were found not to be appropriate for a military sniper rifle, and could in fact have been purchased in a hunting supplies store… But the “meme” about snipers from Russia continues to circulate – though, strangely enough, mostly via social media, and not among protestors on Maidan itself.

I should admit to (perhaps) some guilt with respect to creating “memes” myself. Several days ago I posted an idea on Facebook, the essence of which was to call on Diaspora Ukrainians to pressure the US government to dispatch 2-3 warships into the Black Sea under the pretext of protecting Americans in Sochi during the Olympics, but also as a show of support for Ukraine’s demonstrators. Today, the director of “Akademia” TV channel in Odesa (owned by high ranking PR deputy Serhiy Kivalov) went on air to announce that two ships from the US 6th fleet had entered the Black Sea under the pretext of supposedly protecting US citizens during the Sochi Games (although Russia had not asked them for such support). According to Mr. Selivanov (the channel director), these ships have “psychotropic” weapons onboard aimed at supporting the “berzerkers” of Maidan…

I’ve written a great deal, and I guess I need to get to my point(s). Here’s an attempt at a summary:

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, unless it is from a source you believe to be truly reliable. Better yet, believe video footage only – photos and descriptions are often doctored and/or deliberately planted to misinform. For example, I recommend extreme skepticism when it comes to photos or reports of Russian military transport aircraft landing at Ukrainian airports, and reports of movement by Ukraine’s army towards Kyiv – the Ukrainian Army is demoralized and is NOT going to support the Yanukovych regime (see several of my FB posts for evidence of this, including a video interview with a high ranking Army officer today).
  2. Current events in Ukraine have been clouded by a fog by both sides – although the regime and its (Russian?) advisors seem to be more skilled at generating “buzz” than the demonstrators and/or opposition. Usually, “memes” that call for escalating violence are disseminated because they serve someone’s interests – the protesters on the ground in Kyiv are for the most part in a defensive state of mind (their multiple barricades attest to this fact).
  3. In its final days (and the coming weeks are its final days), the Yanukovych regime will try to misinform and cloud the realities on the ground as much as possible. As the wave of attacks by demonstrators on oblast administration buildings shows, the regime has lost its legitimacy, and has run out of means (manpower) with which to maintain its authority through force. It will therefore try to maintain authority by repackaging the current conflict as one involving “extremists”, “terrorists”, “nationalists” etc. These are the cries of a regime in agony, and should not be believed.

Ukraine’s revolution is not over yet. It is clear that we are witnessing the final days of the Yanukovych regime, but the actual format of the climax of this winter’s events and their denouement is still unknown. Although I have primarily written here about misinformation and negative “memes”, I should note that the video footage of Mykhailo Havryliuk – the Kozak who was stripped naked and abused by Berkut riot police this week – has served to galvanize the Maidan demonstrators, and has spread the protests well beyond Kyiv. Images of Havryliuk’s dignified behavior under extreme stress, and his simple modesty after having been rescued (during and after the press conference) have “gone viral” in Ukraine. They demonstrate the values of Maidan better than any slogan, and I would argue (in addition to the multiple deaths and injuries resulting from police brutality) have served as a catalyst for regional rebellions across the country. His message needed no packaging, nor was there anyone available among the protesters to package it. I guess, that’s both the strength and the weakness of Maidan…

God help us!

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