Olga Radchenko is an assistant consultant at Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada. Born in Kiev and raised with Russian as her primary language, she has a Masters’ degree in European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
While the world waits to see if a shooting war will break out between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries are already fighting another type of war – and Ukraine is losing where it matters most: its eastern regions.
The ongoing communications war between Russia and Ukraine hasn’t been getting a lot of attention, even within Ukraine’s interim government, faced with such an extensive and time-sensitive to-do list – including managing an acute economic crisis, preparing for the threat of military confrontation and navigating its own internal divisions. Kiev might be forgiven for not considering the development and implementation of a communications strategy a top priority, but that would be a big mistake.
Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea has fuelled fears that the traditionally pro-Russian regions in Ukraine’s east are the next target, and it is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on building his influence there, keeping the door open for another Crimean scenario. Drumming up popular on-the-ground support is an essential component of Mr. Putin’s strategy, which is why Russia has launched a full-scale public relations war against Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government in the eastern regions.
The Ukrainian government is badly outgunned in this fight, even though the battlefield is on its own territory. The effectiveness of Russia’s communications strategy lies both in the content of the message and how it is delivered. Russian television is pervasive in Ukraine and tends to be the main source of information for a majority of residents in eastern regions who share a culture and a language with Russia. Mr. Putin is using a loyal Russian media to present a narrative portraying the interim Ukrainian government as dominated by nationalist radicals and illegally installed by the West. The message has been so convincing because the media serving as Mr. Putin’s mouthpiece lack the objectivity found in independent media, using deliberate misinformation and outright fabrication to support the narrative.
All of this makes it difficult for Ukrainian media, largely free of government control and not accustomed to heavy-handed tactics, to get a competing message through. Despite – indeed, because of – these challenges, Ukraine’s interim government must make a concerted effort to reach out to its disgruntled constituents in the east, through a two-pronged communications strategy aimed at winning over hearts and minds there.
First, Ukraine needs to deploy defensive measures that focus on discrediting pro-Russian media by exposing lies and countering misinformation. This will be far more effective than, as some have urged, imposing limits on Russian-owned media in Ukraine or banning their operation, which would only give credibility to claims that Kiev wants to curb the Russian language and culture in Ukraine.
Second, Ukraine must go on the counteroffensive, formulating an alternative narrative that is tailored to resonate with the eastern audience. Historically, governments have successfully unified their citizens around an external threat, but this will not work in eastern Ukraine where many people are uncomfortable with the notion of Russia as an enemy aggressor. Vilifying Russia would only cause further alienation of a population that feels deep affinity based on history, culture and language. Instead, Kiev’s narrative should focus on presenting its vision of Ukraine as a modern, democratic state rooted in inclusiveness and respect for minorities. Whereas Mr. Putin’s communications strategy is to emphasize divisions, Ukraine’s message must be one of unity while simultaneously signaling Kiev’s recognition of the legitimacy of some of the east’s concerns and its willingness to make policy concessions, including exploring options for greater regional autonomy.
Of course, even the best communications strategy in the world will fail if the authorities in Kiev continue to make policy mistakes that serve as fodder for Mr. Putin’s PR machine and further alienate Ukraine’s Russian-oriented population. The attempt by Ukraine’s parliament in the first days after the fall of the Viktor Yanukovych government to repeal the power of regional governments to set Russian as an official language alongside Ukrainian was a gift to Mr. Putin, bolstering his narrative that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine are under threat. So, too, the failure to include politicians representing the eastern regions into the transitional government, and giving government posts to members of the Pravyi Sector and Svoboda (controversial groups with well-documented ultranationalist leanings) as a reward for their role in the revolution.
Last month, a group of Kiev-based PR professionals formed the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, a voluntary operation aimed at helping to communicate Ukraine’s image and manage its messaging on the global stage. Just as sustained efforts to defend Ukraine’s position abroad are necessary, the same level of PR activity must be directed at an internal audience, too. Ukraine may already be winning the PR battle on the international stage, but crucially it is losing to Russia on the domestic stage.
Unless it acts soon, Ukraine’s interim government may be about to discover that, in a crisis situation, a communications strategy isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.