Russian Disinformation Distorted Reality in Ukraine. Americans Should Take Note.

Putin’s propaganda portrayed Ukraine as a fascist state filled with anti-Semites. Despite Ukrainians’ election of a Jewish president, the image has stuck.

Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kiev, walks inside a synagogue in central Kiev on Apr. 22.
Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kiev, walks inside a synagogue in central Kiev on Apr. 22. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

As the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, pundits in the United States are naturally looking back to 2016 in an effort to predict just what form Russian interference will take this time around—especially after former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill last month, during which he warned, “They’re doing it as we sit here.” To understand the threat, Americans would do well to look at previous Russian disinformation campaigns. To gain a fuller picture of just what Russian interference could look like in 2020, it is necessary to look back at the Kremlin’s hybrid war in Ukraine from 2014 to 2016.

Following the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, which saw Ukraine’s pro-Russian president deposed and the former Soviet republic beginning to tilt toward the West, Russia initiated a concerted effort—consisting of outright military aggression, proxy war, and disinformation—to delegitimize the new government in Kiev.

Branding the post-revolutionary government a “fascist junta,” the Russians took every opportunity to portray it and the Ukrainian state as purveyors of xenophobia, racism, and, especially, anti-Semitism. While the Jewish issue wasn’t one of particular concern to most Russians or Ukrainians, by identifying his enemies as Jew haters, Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to portray Ukrainian leaders as German-style fascists. In the post-Soviet sphere, where the memory of World War II is still a potent political force, this was a savvy, if immoral, move.

Or, in the words of the historian Nikolay Koposov, “the politics of memory that was based on the cult of the war had managed to produce a worldview within which new acts of war could be justified” and had “created a language of political mobilization against the external enemy, which the regime needed in order to marginalize the in-country opposition.”

And while the Ukrainians, in their search for heroes to serve as examples to their service members fighting against Russian revanchism, did indeed begin to rehabilitate nationalist leaders who had collaborated with the Nazis, there was little truth to the Kremlin’s claims that Ukrainian Jews were in danger from state-sponsored anti-Semitism. 

Starting with the passage of the so-called Decommunization Laws of 2015, the Ukrainians began a process of separating themselves from any remaining vestiges of Soviet historiography, elevating fascist and anti-Semitic figures like Stepan Bandera to the level of national heroes. (Bandera’s followers killed tens of thousands of people in a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to “liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites, and Jews.”) Starting in 2015, streets across the country were named after such anti-Semites, and the surviving members of these wartime ultranationalist movements were recognized as veterans. 

Russian initiated provocations intended to create the impression that Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leadership was continuing in the violent and racist footsteps of the Bandera movement

The government-funded Institute of National Memory, run by the historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, produced a steady output of revisionism, obscuring the racism and anti-Semitism of Ukraine’s wartime ultranationalists and falsely recasting them as democratic partisans who rescued Jews.

Russia initiated provocations intended to create the impression that Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leadership was continuing in the violent and racist footsteps of the Bandera movement at the very first stages of the conflict, almost immediately after unmarked Russian troops began their conquest of the Crimean peninsula in early 2014.

A group of Russian supporters gather in front of parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, after two different groups of around 60 armed men raided and occupied the regional government buildings on Feb. 27, 2014. Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On a cold and overcast morning in February 2014, Misha Kapustin stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the defaced facade of the Ner Tamid Synagogue in Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital. With mounting horror, he read the simple slogan, flanked by two swastikas and a Wolfsangel, another Nazi symbol, scrawled in black paint across the door: “Death to the Jews.” 

The rabbi, who was then 34 years old, had grown up the son of a Soviet naval officer and was once again getting a taste of life under Russian rule. Only two days before, things had seemed relatively normal. He had been on a business trip to Kerch, a small city on the far eastern coast of the Crimean peninsula, when he heard the news: The opposition had established an interim government. and clashes had erupted between pro- and anti-Russia demonstrators in Simferopol. Driving down the highway on his way home, Kapustin pulled out his cell phone and called his wife, instructing her to prepare for a possible evacuation.

By the next morning, soldiers in unmarked uniforms had taken the Crimean parliament and raised the Russian flag. Throughout the day, the little green men—as the irregular Russian soldiers came to be known—fanned out across the city, capturing government buildings. Soon, behind closed doors and under Russian guns, the autonomous region’s parliament voted to request Russian security assistance. Walking around his adopted city, Kapustin was enraged. He asked himself, could this really happen in 21st-century Europe? 

As he stood before the peeling paint of the synagogue’s gray double doors surrounded by journalists and police, Kapustin couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of unease. Something about the graffiti just wasn’t right.

Around 4 a.m., as the Russians went about their ostensibly covert operations, the synagogue’s video camera captured footage of a solitary man removing a can of spray paint from his rucksack and going to work on the door. Several hours later, Kapustin received a call from Anatoly Gendin, the older, staunchly pro-Russian chairman of the local Jewish community, instructing him to come as fast as he could. As they stood before the peeling paint of the building’s gray double doors, surrounded by journalists and police, Kapustin couldn’t help but feel a nagging sense of unease. Something about the graffiti just wasn’t right.

“I saw an interesting symbol I [had] never seen … before,” he later recalled. “I checked it out and I realized it was a mirror projection of the symbol of the Right Sector,” a far-right group. The graffiti error struck him as strange. “If somebody is a Nazi, he knows how to draw a swastika. … If someone belongs to Right Sector, he knows how to draw his symbol,” he said.

The Wolfsangel, adopted as the symbol of the Social-National Assembly, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi group whose members were among the founders of Right Sector, was indeed scribbled on the wall. However, as Kapustin had noticed, it was backward from the way the Social-National Assembly normally renders it. If it had been painted by a member of that group, it most likely would have been painted correctly—facing the opposite direction. Kapustin was also surprised that such an incident had occurred in Simferopol, where both the Right Sector and ultranationalism in general had a marginal presence, leading him to suspect that maybe the anti-Semitic vandalism wasn’t motivated by racism at all.

Shortly thereafter, Kapustin, who had announced that was leaving because he refused to live under Russian occupation, received a call from the Kremlin-controlled network RT requesting an interview. When it aired, he began receiving shocked phone calls from friends.

The segment juxtaposed his story with that of a Jew who had been beaten in Kiev during the period of the Euromaidan, when there had indeed been a spate of violent anti-Semitic incidents. The RT clip led viewers to believe that that he was fleeing Crimea out of fear of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.

As he finished watching the video, Kapustin was rocked by a feeling of betrayal. “I felt terrible … I thought that I was set up,” he told me in 2015. “They just perverted my words. In fact it was me, my voice, my words, it was me all the time there, and I must admit they did it professionally, they professionally changed the context so nicely.”

Like all good propaganda, RT had taken real events and re-contextualized them, twisted the truth so as to portray a narrative far removed from reality. The network summed up the message that the Kremlin wanted its viewers to walk away with when it wrote, in an article accompanying the segment, that “many from the Jewish minority [have said that] they feel they will be forced to leave the country.” 

In the end, more than 32,000 people did indeed leave Ukraine for Israel according to statistics from the Israeli interior ministry, although this exodus was overwhelmingly motivated by the instability and danger caused by Russian aggression rather than anti-Semitic attacks. It was part of a larger exodus that saw nearly 2 million non-Jewish Ukrainians seek sanctuary in Poland. 

In the course of interviewing dozens of Jewish internally displaced people and refugees for my recent book Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews, I did not meet even one who said that their departure was motivated by experiencing racism. However, the Kremlin did not allow reality to get in the way of a good story, and anti-Semitism continued to be a leitmotif of Russian propaganda.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the government-funded Institute of National Memory, stands in front of a map of Ukraine in his office in Kiev on Nov. 9, 2018. This map, he said, still has the old names of the cities, towns, and villages that were renamed under the decommunization laws that Viatrovych helped to write and implement. Oksana Parafeniuk for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Of course, the Russian propaganda wasn’t a total fabrication without any basis in reality. Often, effective disinformation is based on a core of truth that is then distorted and exaggerated beyond recognition. There had, in fact, been a post-Maidan bump in anti-Semitic activity, primarily manifested through graffiti, vandalism, and the attempted arson of synagogues as well as the desecration of graveyards and Holocaust memorials. In 2015, following the sixth attack against a memorial at the Babi Yar massacre site in Kiev, then-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk wrote to Robert Singer, the Ukrainian-born CEO of the World Jewish Congress, and artfully shifted the focus from Ukraine’s inability to prevent anti-Semitic violence and placed all of the blame on outside, presumably Russian, actors. 

“We are facing well-planned and thoroughly prepared provocations,” he wrote. “The purpose of these provocations is twofold—to throw discredit upon Ukrainian authorities and to destabilize the internal political situation in Ukraine.”

Anxiety over such incidents, the Ukrainian government’s unwillingness to acknowledge that any of its citizens were capable of engaging in xenophobic behavior, and Kiev’s tolerance for far-right groups such as Right Sector and the Azov Battalion—an independent militia-turned-national guard unit with a reputation for welcoming far-right and neo-Nazi volunteers—provided the Kremlin with significant ammunition in its propaganda war.

Aside from its alleged provocations, the Russians also fabricated incidents out of whole cloth and launched a campaign of fake news involving purported anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine.

In October 2014, a few weeks shy of the 109th anniversary of the 1905 Odessa pogrom, the Russian newspapers Pravda and Izvestia wrote that members of Right Sector were terrorizing the Jewish community of Odessa in Ukraine and had beaten more than 20 people. 

Local Jewish leaders were reported to be in the process of preparing an appeal to the World Jewish Congress, asking the international Jewish organization to intercede on their behalf. “[Right Sector] is just destroying us, it is pure militant Nazism,” Mikhail Maiman, described by Izvestia as the leader of Odessa’s Jewish community, was quoted as saying. “We will not allow our people to be beaten, to be robbed of our future. … We must disarm and disperse the ‘right wingers!’”

This story, however, was a complete fabrication. Its veracity was vociferously challenged by local Jewish leaders, all of whom denied any knowledge of the fictional Maiman. They all stated that there had not been one incident of violence directed against their community.

Ironically, it is in the post-Maidan period that Jews have seen some of their greatest successes in Ukraine. In 2016, Volodymyr Groysman, a Jewish loyalist to then-President Petro Poroshenko who had served as parliament speaker during the passage of the Decommunization Laws, was appointed as prime minister. More recently, this year, Volodymyr Zelensky—a television comedian best known for playing a history teacher-turned-accidental president in the sitcom Servant of the People—was elected in real life with more than 73 percent of the vote. His political party, also named Servant of the People, swept last month’s parliamentary elections, walking away with more than 43 percent of the vote.

The fact that Zelensky’s Jewish identity wasn’t an issue during his presidential campaign was seen as highly significant by many pundits, who view it as an indicator of just how accepted Jews have become in Ukraine since the country achieved independence in the early 1990s. But there are still detractors who are not afraid to make anti-Semitic comments.

Immediately after Zelensky’s win, Viatrovych, the head of the Institute of National Memory, tweeted a famous photograph of a man folding his arms and refusing to join in with a surrounding crowd of people performing the Nazi salute together. “The majority is not a proof of righteousness,” he commented in what appeared to be an implicit comparison between the incoming Jewish president and Adolf Hitler. More recently, the Ukrainian news outlet Vgolos ran an article in which the economist Oleg Soskin asserted that Ukrainian Jews are “representatives of a foreign state—Israel” and that “the president of Ukraine should be an ethnic Ukrainian, not a representative of any minority.”

Although he is widely known to be Jewish, Zelensky made no mention of his religion or ethnicity during the campaign, and, for most Ukrainians, a politician’s ethnic background appears to be less important than his positions on issues such as corruption, the economy, and the conflict with Russia. Zelensky’s election largely disproves the Russian narrative of Ukrainian anti-Semitism even if some individual Jew-haters remain.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the story of the Jews of Ukraine, it is that outside actors can exploit racial tensions for hostile purposes. As Americans grapple with a shocking rise in anti-Semitism and politicians on both sides of the political divide are seemingly attempting to use the issue for the purposes of partisan point-scoring, it is important to look at how such efforts to politicize—and in some cases fabricate—racism have played out in other countries. 

The Russians have already shown they are willing to try to widen U.S. social cleavages based around race and identity, and recent spikes in anti-Semitism could provide Putin’s propagandists with another societal rift that they can exploit through the use of disinformation.

After all, they did it in Ukraine.

This article is adapted from Sam Sokol’s recently released book, Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry.


Sam Sokol is a freelance correspondent in Jerusalem and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. He was previously an international and Jewish affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a reporter for the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Twitter: @SamuelSokol

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