Anti-Western Rhetoric in Information War. Who is Turning Ukrainians against the West?
"Soros piglets are advancing", "Ukrainians are slaves", "Ukraine is a prostitute". No, these are not comments left by Internet trolls on Facebook. These rants can nowadays be heard on national talk shows, seen on websites of popular online media, and even on the Telegram channels of MPs. We have conducted an analysis of the most popular narratives of anti-Western and anti-democratic propaganda, traced its sources, and identified the people behind its systematic spreading.
This kind of rhetoric is often labeled as "anti-Western" or "anti-democratic." Those who employ it seek to discredit the West, i.e., Europe, the United States, NATO, and the entire democratic world by saying that "Ukrainians will do better without the West or democracy." The narrative goes on to emphasize that Ukrainians need to apply their own minds and that any help or support from the outside is an attempt of those in the West to "use" Ukraine for their own purposes. The language of these statements may be rather obscene and rude: Ukraine is sometimes referred to as a "colony" or even a "prostitute" of the West. Oftentimes these anti-Western and anti-democratic disinformation efforts are closely intertwined with conspiracy theories.
In order to find out who is spreading these messages in Ukraine, our team at Detector Media has been analyzing talk shows on national TV channels, regional media in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, as well as public channels on Telegram. Monitoring of the national television’s content covered the period from January 1, 2020, to April 9, 2021; that of regional television’s content – from September 9, 2020, to October 25, 2020; finally, monitoring of Telegram channels covered one week of each quarter between March 2020 and May 2021 (March 16-22, 2020; May 14-20, 2020; September 4–10, 2020; November 2–8, 2020; January 4–10, 2021, and April 1–7, 2021).
What are the most common messages of anti-Western and anti-democratic disinformation?
"The West is in control of Ukraine"
The central pillar of anti-Western rhetoric is the narrative of the so-called "external governance," according to which Ukraine is "governed" by the West, the United States, the International Monetary Fund, or even reptilians. Stories might be different because their authors often have to adapt their theories to particular situations to make the message seem consistent and truthful. As the narrative goes, the West holds absolute control over Ukraine’s government, starting from the issue of natural gas pricing and all the way to the strategic development of the country. Disinformation of this kind had already been in use since the early 2000s, even though it is after the Revolution of Dignity that it saw its most extensive use. Nowadays propaganda is focused on discrediting reformers and activists by labeling them as agents of Western influence. It can go as far as to say that Ukraine has been invaded not by Russia, but by the EU and the United States.
"Soros's minions took hold of Ukraine"
The topic of "external governance" is usually accompanied by stories about "George Soros and his minions in Ukraine." As purveyors of these stories say, the people of Soros, a billionaire, and philanthropist, include Ukrainians who do not feel any remorse over betraying Ukraine and its interests for the sake of "foreign" money. The so-called "Soros piglets" mean those who have or had some connection to international organizations. The term saw little use until the fall of 2019, at which time it started being applied to the team of the then-Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. The anti-American sentiment is particularly fueled when it comes to NGOs, which are claimed to be "networks of foreign agents" (thus echoing the Kremlin’s policy). Soros piglets are blamed for virtually all Ukraine’s problems, from the economy to culture and history.
"The West is trying to harm Russia and post-Soviet states"
The idea of this type of manipulation is to convince the public that any cooperation with Western countries has only negative consequences. Western alliances, institutions and individual states only seek to take hold of Ukraine's resources or to use Ukraine as leverage against Russia. In these statements, the West is branded as an instigator of conflicts, while the Kremlin is the one who is forced to defend itself and sober up its neighbors. As for Ukraine, it does not have any freedom of decision-making in this narrative.
"The war in Ukraine has been incited by the West"
This narrative has seen yet another resurgence after Russia began amassing its troops along Ukraine’s border in spring 2021. The main idea is that no other party but Europe and the United States will benefit from this war. They are allegedly trying to spark aggression in order to impose further sanctions on Russia. Pro-Russian media claim that the "masters" are literally forcing Ukraine’s government to start the war. At the same time, these media present no evidence that Ukraine has indeed amassed its troops along the border and is planning an attack on its occupied territories (or even on the territory of Russia), which is not surprising since such evidence does not exist.
"NATO is a threat to Russia, i.e., Ukraine's getting closer to NATO means an escalation of the conflict"
Preventing Ukraine's membership in NATO and the EU is among the ultimate goals of Russian propaganda and possibly one of the reasons of Russia's aggression in 2014. During the escalation of the conflict in spring 2021, pro-Russian media and Russian leadership resorted to what essentially is blackmail, demanding that Ukraine abandon its membership plans if the country wants to preserve its sovereignty. Pro-Russian politicians and pseudo-experts in Ukrainian media uphold this idea, arguing that Russia "should not be made angry", while the Kremlin's pursuit of its geopolitical interests is entirely justified.
Who is spreading anti-Western and anti-democratic messages in Ukraine?
Pershyi Nezalezhnyi (First Independent) YouTube channel
Prior to being banned in February 2021, NewsOne, ZIK and 112 (the so-called "channels of Viktor Medvedchuk", formally owned by MP Taras Kozak) were the main platforms where anti-Western and pro-Russian narratives were generated and disseminated. After their broadcasting stopped, their teams bought Pershyi Nezalezhnyi satellite channel, a purportedly new media outlet, which nevertheless continued the same line of pro-Russian rhetoric (the channel was soon closed and now streams on YouTube). These developments did not result in any significant decrease in the scope of disinformation. Instead, most legal restrictions binding purveyors of propaganda are no longer holding them back. Consequently, the degree of manipulation in their messages has seen a substantial increase, and now they can speak Russian on air. On the other hand, their coverage has fallen in tens or hundreds of times, meaning that even more toxic disinformation now has much less noticeable impact.
Among materials broadcasted on the platform, we found footage featuring MP Renat Kuzmin from the Opposition Platform – For Life (OPFL) political party claiming that NABU (National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine) was spying on behalf of foreign intelligence services (July 16, 2020). His colleague Ilya Kiva also told stories about "America’s skanks", "Soros’s scum", and "burial teams" (March 31, 2020). Anti-Western disinformation is spread both by guests invited and hosts. For example, on January 20, 2021, Vyacheslav Pikhovshek asked his guest the following question: "Will Ukraine be lower on its knees before the US under Biden than it was under Trump?"
We also detected some homophobic language on the channel. On May 9, 2020, MP Vadym Rabinovich, OPFL, said he was outraged by "same-sex beings" and did not understand why the issue of same-sex marriage was discussed in a Christian state as such, while in March 2021 Ilya Kiva made a statement that Ukraine was "tainted with homosexuality."
Most anti-Western narratives on the channel were disseminated by the following individuals:
Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, host on Pershyi Nezalezhnyi, executive producer of the former NewsOne channel; Diana Panchenko, host on Pershyi Nezalezhnyi; Renat Kuzmin, MP, OPFL; Oleg Voloshin, MP, OPFL; Ilya Kiva, MP, OPFL; Vadym Rabinovich, MP, OPFL; Olena Lukash, Minister of Justice during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych; Mykhailo Chaplyha, political commentator.
Nash (Ours) TV Channel
Most of the above-mentioned narratives of anti-Western disinformation are regularly broadcasted on Nash TV Channel. At the time being the latter is the second most popular news channel in Ukraine. Its official owner is Yevhen Muraev, but it has been linked to Vadym Novynsky, an ally of Rinat Akhmetov, and to the entourage of Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. After the channels of Viktor Medvedchuk were banned, Nash transformed into the primary source of pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives on Ukrainian television. For example, during one of the talk shows on the channel, Olena Lukash called Ukraine a "colony that feeds its governors," and Yevhen Muraev stated that the war in Ukraine benefited only the United States (April 9, 2021). Moreover, Muraev also called NATO and the EU Nazis: "Who are the members of NATO and the European Union? I'll tell you who they are. Most European countries that fought on the side of Hitler and killed 8 million Ukrainians […] Are they our brothers?"
Most often, anti-Western narratives on the channel are spread by Yevhen Muraev, the channel's owner; Maks Nazarov, news presenter; Olena Bondarenko, MP of the former Party of Regions; Olena Lukash, Minister of Justice under President Yanukovych; Mykhailo Chaplyha, political commentator.
Telegram messaging platform turned out to be a rather well-suited environment for spreading anti-Western messages, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Public channels on Telegram can be divided into anonymous and non-anonymous, i.e., those having an indicated author. Quite often the same people who systematically broadcast anti-Western and anti-democratic disinformation on television also spread such messages on Telegram. For example, "Naglyi (Insolent)" (55,351 subscribers) is the channel owned by Maks Nazarov, a news presenter on Nash Channel. In his posts on Telegram Nazarov does not hold back anything. On average, Nazarov publishes two such posts a week. The author’s style is usually quite succinct, e.g., in March of 2020, Nazarov wrote: "Truth be told, no coronavirus will fuck Ukraine as much as these damn Soros piglets." He also made the following comment on the storming of the US Capitol: "Yeah, go teach the world more democracy, you damn democrats."
Olena Lukash, former Minister of Justice during the president Viktor Yanukovych, has her own channel "Elena Lukash" (54,549 subscribers), where she often shares videos from the talk shows she participated in. She regularly shares posts of her partners in the dissemination of anti-Western disinformation, while sometimes also authoring her own posts using such expressions as "our dear bidened in the head", "the response of those rascal Soros piglets", "porohkobots and Soros piglets are squalling out loud seeing the new Prosecutor General appointed".
For her 10,000 subscribers Olena Bondarenko, a former Party of Regions MP posts the same messages that she spreads on TV channels, although the language is unsurprisingly more direct. Here is an example of her post of March 2020: "I suggest G7 countries stop being shy and send us our Gauleiter, and then recognize Ukraine as their colony, why all this charade? You can put down your orders directly and then give them to local "lackeys", it is already clear that you decide more than the president and the Verkhovna Rada!"
The channel owned by Yevhen Muraev, the owner of the Nash Channel and the leader of the Nashi (Ours) Party, and also a former Party of Regions MP, is relatively new compared to others. Muraev created it in March 2020 and has since gained more than 8,000 subscribers. He posts his messages less frequently than others, mostly one post a day, although sometimes the channel may see no new posts for a few days. Muraev writes long-read stories, so often a single post can have the full spectrum of anti-Western and anti-democratic rhetoric. It is worth noting that his writing is free of obscene language. Instead, Muraev's posts seem to resemble op-ed pieces.
Another famous purveyor of anti-Western narratives is the pro-Russian blogger and politician Anatoliy Shariy, who, compared to others, has the largest audience on Telegram with more than 269,000 subscribers. His wife, Olga Shariy, is also rather active on Telegram (65,000 subscribers). For example, in one of her posts about the tapes released by Andrii Derkach she wrote the following: "However, an obvious question arises: how all these scumbags, sponsored by foreign states, all these media, politicians, parties, and activists who carry out direct US orders, how dare they call someone unpatriotic? These crooked whores keep telling us what a real party is, what a real journalist looks like."
"Andrei Portnov" Telegram channel has more than 182,000 subscribers. The channel is owned by the former first deputy head of President Yanukovych’s Administration and is often used as a platform for criticizing the United States and discrediting Euromaidan as well as for calls for "purging" Ukraine of "parasitic non-governmental organizations." Quite similar to Portnov’s posts is also the writing of his colleague Mykhailo Dobkin on the latter’s own Telegram channel (33,238 subscribers). Dobkin is a former MP from the Opposition Bloc party and former head of Kharkiv Regional State Administration under President Yanukovych. Dobkin's style is quite unreserved, he often uses obscene language or insults: "The entire fifth column of Soros, all that external government and the IMF debts are welcome to go fuck themselves."
"Maks Buzhansky" (41,164 subscribers) is the personal channel of MP Maksym Buzhansky from the Servant of the People party. Although his party holds the most seats in the Parliament, it does not restrain him from spreading pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives. Buzhansky, despite himself being "in power", often writes about "external governance". He labeled certain laws as "produced by Soros piglets" and urged his colleagues to refrain from voting for them. The MP dedicated significant attention to the storming of the Capitol: in two days, he published 5 posts about the attack, garnishing them with anti-Western language.
Yet another channel on Telegram boasting considerable activity in spreading disinformation on external governance belongs to a journalist at the pro-Russian Strana.ua website, Olesya Medvedeva. Her "Lesya iz STRANY (Lesya from STRANA)" channel (25,272 subscribers) often shares posts from the Telegram channel of the said website, which regularly spreads pro-Russian and anti-Western messages. She also authors her own posts, frequently touching upon the anti-Western mantra, as in the following example: "here’s president standing at the podium, being told off by henchmen of Western embassies and grant organizations, which imagine themselves civil society, as some sucker who failed to follow the general line of the State Department. Makes me sick. "
In terms of quantity, the most prolific with regard to anti-Western messages among non-anonymous channels is "KlymenkoTime" (54,673 subscribers), owned by Oleksandr Klymenko, Minister of Revenues and Duties during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia alongside his former boss. The channel posts an average of 35 publications a day, which is a lot compared to the rest of the Ukrainian segment of Telegram. Anti-Western messages were published almost every day during the monitoring period.
Anonymous Telegram channels
The policy and functions of Telegram provide its users with an option to remain anonymous, allowing them to spread disinformation, manipulation, private information leaks or manipulative "insider information". Anti-Western and anti-democratic messages disseminated through these channels often abound in such words as "plot", "rumor" or "insider information". This has an impact on the readers' perception of information, increasing the effectiveness of disinformation and fueling the spread of conspiracy theories. The messages are quite often reinforced by hate speech and swearing.
A colorful example is "Soros piglets" Telegram anonymous channel, which publishes manipulative and fake news about politicians, public officials, and civil activists on a daily basis. The channel has an audience of 17,000 subscribers with an average coverage of more than 20,000 users. Much of the growth of its popularity can be attributed to crossposting since channels of this kind regularly share each other's posts. Such connection was observed among "Legitimnyi (Legimitate one)", "Rezident (Resident)", "Temnyi Rytsar (Dark Knight)", and "Shepton (Whisperer)" channels which were in the focus of Detector Media’s previous investigation.
Local media in south eastern regions of Ukraine
"Kherson Life". As we found out during the monitoring, it was among the most frequently appearing sources of pro-Russian and anti-Western disinformation. According to SimilarWeb website analytics platform, the average monthly coverage of Kherson Life since the beginning of 2021 equals almost 13 thousand views. The most popular narratives include "external governance", "Medvedchuk is the hope of Ukraine", "the government does not want peace" and "Ukraine is a Nazi state". Viktor Medvedchuk and several other representatives of OPFL (Marchevsky, Kuzmin, Kiva and Rabinovych) were among the most frequently quoted politicians. Additionally, the editors of the website regularly cross-posted messages of Klymenko Time and Strana.UA.
"Novostnoie Agenstvo Kharkov (Kharkiv News Agency)". The Agency is an openly propagandist Russian website targeting the Russian-speaking segment of the Ukrainian audience. Currently, the website is banned in Ukraine. According to the website’s information section, it has editorial offices in St. Petersburg and Kharkiv and is open to cooperation with Ukrainian authors. Phone numbers listed in the contacts sections are also Russian. Most messages published revolve around pro-Russian narratives referring to politicians from OPFL: Medvedchuk, Rabinovich, and Lesyk as proponents of pro-Russian messages; political commentators from the pool of Viktor Medvedchuk’s channels: Mykhailo Chaplyha, Andriy Zolotarev, Ruslan Bortnyk, and Mykhailo Pohrebynsky; Rostislav Ishchenko, a representative of Russia Today; and representatives of the occupational authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk Rodion Miroshnyk and Vladislav Deineho. According to SimilarWeb, the average monthly coverage of the website since the beginning of 2021 reached approximately 408 thousand views.
"Timer" Odesa website. Andriy Derkach and Andriy Portnov are often cited as sources of news, mostly with reference to the narrative of external governance. During the monitoring, we found a non-recurrent reference to statements by Putin and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov, as well as by the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service Sergei Naryshkin. There were also non-recurrent references to Yevhen Chervonenko, Viktor Medvedchuk, Mykola Skoryk, and David Zhvania. According to SimilarWeb, the average monthly coverage of the website since the beginning of 2021 is approximately 287 thousand views. The favorite narrative discussed in this media is the oppression of Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine and rampant radicalism. It is followed by the usual “external governance” and the idea of Ukraine as a failed state. Interestingly, at the same time, the editors of the website keenly promote friendly relations with Russia. Also, as compared to most regional sites, there is a visible emphasis on the narrative of the alleged civil war in Ukraine.
"Novosti Khersonshchiny (Kherson Region News)" website. The most frequently quoted politicians include representatives of OPFL Yurii Zadorozhny, Renat Kuzmin, Ilya Kiva, Viktor Medvedchuk, and Yuri Stelmashenko, as well as statements from the party itself. We also found non-recurrent references to blogger Anatoliy Shariy, Klymenko Time, and vesti.ua (pro-) Russian news resources, as well as a single republication of an article by Oleksandr Zubchenko, which was also cross-posted on Kherson Life. SimilarWeb rated the website coverage as rather minor, estimating the maximum at 5,000 views per month. The most popular narrative is external governance, while significantly less attention is given to radicalism, usurpation of power, and persecution of Orthodox Christians. The website has many publications which are identical to those of Kherson Life.
"Naddnepryanka" Kherson website. The platform is often used to republish propagandist journalism: Novosti Khersonshchiny was repeatedly referenced as a source of many publications with pro-Russian narratives. We also found articles by Alexander Zubchenko, who regularly writes for the website of "Regnum" Russian agency and for fake news websites. The most frequently employed narrative is Ukraine being a Nazi state, accompanied by several publications mentioning external governance.
Odesa 7 Kanal (Channel 7). Officially, the owner of the channel is Adnan Kivan, a businessman and founder of Kadorr Group. The most frequent guests on the channel were Mykola Skoryk and Yevhen Chervonenko, i.e., the narratives are spread through the platform with the help of pro-Russian politicians. The latter include Andriy Palchevsky and Yuriy Boyko. Most frequently broadcasted were the narratives of external governance and friendly relations with Russia.
S-Plus Television of Slovyansk. Despite the requirements of the Law on Television and Radio Broadcasting, the management of the channel failed to publish any documents specifying the ownership structure on its website. According to state registers, "Teleradiokompaniya SAT-Plus" TOV is owned by Anatoliy Levit, a businessman and former mayor of Slovyansk (2002-2006). The materials published featured only representatives of OPFL Natalia Korolevska, Yuriy Boyko, Nestor Shufrych, and Pavlo Prydvorov. In most cases, these politicians appeared in "HARD z Popovoyu (HARD with Popova)" TV program hosted by the director of the channel Nataliya Popova.
Political trust, be it trust in public institutions at the national, local, or global level, is critical for a society if it wants to be capable of withstanding the threats it faces. Disinformation in the form of anti-Western rhetoric has the potential to undermine this trust. Messages of this kind coupled with conspiracy theories and reinforced by harsh economic conditions may seem logical as they supposedly point to the wrongdoer and the source of all our troubles. Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine exploit this and incorporate Russian messages into anti-Western narratives. They are often combined into an attractive theory and handed to Ukrainians looking for prospects of a better life. It can provide a simple and quick solution: it is the greedy West who is to blame for everything. But then there is another side to this question, with damaging consequences of emerging uncertainty about democracy, EU and NATO membership, and the Euro-Atlantic vector of development of Ukraine as such.