War By Other (Ineffective) Means

I don’t normally do two posts in one day, but since I learned about the Ukrainian government’s recent decision to block Yandex, VKontakte (VK), and certain other Russian social networking sites, I can’t keep silent. I don’t really use VK or Yandex anymore, but for other reasons I won’t get into, this really struck a personal chord with me.

Suffice it to say that I have, in recent times, become intimately acquainted with Ukraine’s still Soviet Union-like bureaucracy. At times it has proven even more backward than that of Russia. I will also state that this kind bureaucracy exists in a sphere that is vital to Ukraine’s national security and its ability to defend itself against a certain foreign invasion and occupation (none of this knowledge is even remotely secret or even obscure, just so you know). Without going into detail I will say that Ukraine’s war effort is concretely hindered by such backwardness, just as it is hindered by endemic corruption. So imagine my rage when the latest “patriotic” outburst from the authorities is not in fact a sweeping reform meant to clean up this clusterfuck or any major corruption issues, but rather a very Kremlin-like decision to ban several social networks, including ones people use for their email.

First let me smack down a few arguments I’ve heard in favor of the ban.

Yes, VK and the other social network are potential security risks (at the user level) and yes, they can be a vector for Russian propaganda. On the other hand, both of these work both ways. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) investigators have used sites like VK to determine the location of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory, along with other vital pieces of information. VK is still being used by OSINT gatherers because even now it seems the Russian military has not yet developed the concept of OPSEC. And as for the propaganda and Kremlin-linked pages, these also provided crucial information to Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian activists and investigators, who not surprisingly often do a far better job than the governments’ organs. That’s basically over now.

And speaking of propaganda, the Russian press is having a field day with the news. While Russia has banned thousands of sites, they’ve only banned one social network so far, and it’s the one everyone hates- LinkedIn. But this recent move must have Russia’s state media bosses popping champagne, because this fits their narrative perfectly.

Remember the main message of Kremlin propaganda. It isn’t that Russia is so great or better than the West. Rather it is that everywhere else is just as bad, and that trying to make improvements will just destabilize your already-bad situation and make it worse. Moreover, the Russian state media insists that things like freedom of press and freedom of speech are just illusions. This is why one favorite trope of Russian propaganda is to publish videos which were supposedly “banned in the US!” The bottom line of almost everything they put out is that everybody’s bad, so why bother striving for something that’s just a mirage? The Ukrainian government has pulled some pretty Kremlin-like moves before, but nothing like this to date, and this can’t even really be called Kremlin-like since the Russian government hasn’t even reached that point yet.

Another argument is that this is justified because there is a war. Very well- fight the war then. Launch an offensive, shore up positions, and/or reach out to the population to mobilize them for defense. Do something other than piddly bullshit that just makes you look worse and doesn’t actually hurt Russia in any way. This is what Ukrainian politicians are doing in order to avoid actually fighting the war. Doing that might force them to curtail or *gasp!* cease their own personal enrichment. Thousands of ordinary Ukrainians have made sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice in this war, but the leadership sure as hell doesn’t want to sacrifice anything.

I might also add that VK and other Russian social networks haven’t been doing anything now that they weren’t already doing since the war began in the spring of 2014. If it’s right to ban them now and this banning is necessary for the war effort, why wasn’t this done back in 2014, 2015, or even 2016? Why hasn’t all trade with Russia been subject to sanctions since 2014? I’ll tell you why- because this excuse is bullshit.

Having got those objections out of the way, let me say that while my loyalty to Ukraine’s cause is unshaken, I am now more convinced than ever that Ukraine’s “leadership” is in no way serious about fighting this war. They’d rather go to the West with their hand out in hopes that if they look pitiful enough big-brother NATO will step in and solve the situation somehow. I say “solve” because what I think they’d much rather see Russia just go back to the status quo border-wise so they can continue making lucrative deals with their Russian counterparts while simultaneously reaping the benefits of European Union integration. I don’t trust any of these people any further than I could throw them.

Am I shouting “ZRADA!!!” (Treason!)?  No. To accuse them of treason is to suggest that you had some faith in them in the beginning. I don’t put any faith in politicians or governments; I’ve put my faith in the Ukrainian people and their repeatedly-demonstrated abilities for self-organization. I can only hope more will realize their own powers and abilities and reject the narrow range of views proffered by these clowns who call themselves leaders.

I think this just shows how precarious the situation is for those inside and outside of Ukraine who truly want the country to succeed. It is a constant struggle against foreign aggression in front and mind-numbing incompetence and corruption in the rear. For my part I’ll keep fighting the good fight, but I won’t be doing it on VKontakte, that’s for sure.



21 thoughts on “War By Other (Ineffective) Means

  1. AndyT

    If Ukraine’s govt hopes the West will help them, well – No.

    Many people here won’t even be able to locate the Country on a map, let alone remember there’s an ongoing war.

    Also, this VK block reminds me of a conversation I’ve had on Quora with some Chinese users (it looks like their government isn’t interested in banning that site): they said the Great Firewall is bullshit, because while it’s raison d’être is preventing an unlikely Revolution, it has actually curtailed foreigner users’ opportunities to know more about China and interact with her people – a great opportunity for anyone spreading fake news and anti-Chinese sentiment all over the world.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      While I didn’t want to get into it in the post, one reason these “patriots” can’t imagine the propaganda value of VK is because they are ultimately passive. Russia can influence Ukrainians of various political stripes, but even now Ukraine has no way to exert influence on Russians and most of the “patriots” don’t see why they should even consider this.

      In their fantasy world, Ukraine’s sole hope rests on escaping Russia’s orbit and somehow hiding from Russia. Offense is not even on their mind.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I’m looking at some Ukrainian reactions to this and it’s disturbing how vatniy they sound.

      See in Russia vatniks don’t typically call for any of the bans the government puts on a myriad of things. You don’t see grass roots movements to ban Pornhub or food imports. What happens is the government announces that it’s banning something, and then suddenly the vatniks chime in with what a good idea this is, and how it’s “about time!” Some may be comment trolls, but most are people who simply know that they have no choice.

      Till today, a few hours after the announcement of the ban on VK, OK, etc., I’ve never heard any serious call for blocking these sites in Ukraine. But past that point- the “patriots” are suddenly coming out of the woodwork saying how “it’s about time!”

      Well if this was so necessary why weren’t these people calling for the ban before now?

    3. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Also worth keeping in mind that the Ukrainian military still depends on the work of volunteers to provide even basic equipment. This in spite of the fact that Ukraine is a major arms producer and exporter with a highly advanced arms industry. But doing something to rectify that might mean someone doesn’t get a Mercedes C-class.

      1. wildthang

        A C-class is really not that fancy though, I’m pretty sure this ilk goes after the G- or S-Class

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        You see how stuck in the past I am with certain things. If I were a corrupt oligarch I’d probably be laughed at for my choices of vehicle. Except maybe the Aston Martin.

  2. What do I know

    I see the points you are trying to make and there is logic on them.

    But then the questions that rises is: So what would you suggest to do to fight against propaganda? I can agree banning any media is rarely a good answer and definitively borders the dictatorship, but of course Ukraine (or for the matter any other nation) must do something to defend itself against direct attempts to spread lies and disinformation against many of its citizens with the clear object to turn them into some sort of fifth column.

    An If you claim that the answer is to let them discredit themselves so people would learn to not trust in what they say you are so much of a naive liberal than one could have thought.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Well first of all if they were blocking say, Russian news sites (which as far as I know they haven’t), I wouldn’t be against it.

      Personally I’ve never liked these Russian social networks but they have been used to good effect by Ukrainian activists for a number crucial purposes. For example, the group Avdiivka Moya Rodina is used by the civil/military administration to keep citizens informed and distracted from the horror show that is life there (especially in more recent times).

      But one thing I haven’t seemed able to hammer on hard enough is that my anger isn’t about the ban, but that they did this instead of many far less controversial reforms that would literally and concretely help the war effort.

      It’s that, and some of the reactions I’ve seen from some Ukrainians responding to criticism from Westerners. In one case, someone referred to Western critics as “useful idiots.”

      This kind of two-faced behavior is incredibly vatniy.

      I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that a country that is constantly proclaiming itself to be “part of the West” and claiming to uphold Western values should actually live up to those values, or at least not start insulting its own supporters when they criticize the actions of its not too competent government.

      I mean suppose I demanded that people recognize me as an “MMA fighter” just because I had some training off and on, years apart. I don’t fight, I don’t even train now, and I never actually trained for MMA itself, but you’ve got to consider me an MMA fighter because I say that I am, and if you don’t well- you’re an agent of the Kremlin or a useful idiot! (I’m sorry there’s just no proper analogy for that aspect)

      There are indeed some ultra-liberals in Ukraine or on the Ukrainian side who act like the war should have absolutely no bearing on Ukrainian policies. I totally disagree with them. Ukraine is fighting what I consider to be an existential war and there are a LOT of actions I’d wholeheartedly defend, a good deal of which go far beyond the imagination or courage of folks like Poroshenko or even some nationalists. But I would argue that they are justified because they would concretely aid the war effort.

      Anyway, I’m pretty much done preaching about this topic. Even if you’re convinced you’re right, nobody likes a self-righteous preacher. I’ve got to pay my dues for the right to speak and I’m more than willing to do so.

      Here’s a rather good article showing points for and against the ban: http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1494963451

      Meanwhile I’ll go back to debunking Russian fake news and figuratively eating popcorn as I watch the White House implode.

  3. What do I know

    But you have to admit that “if they were blocking say, Russian news sites” then anybody could argue that those very same Kremlin propagandists would be “popping champagne, because that would fit their narrative perfectly”

    And I am not trying to refute your main point, because I think you are right about your criticism, it seems this move is a mistake because as you said yourself there are plenty less controversial reforms that would literally and concretely help the war effort. To start with effectively fighting against corruption.

    The only point that I’m perhaps trying to make is that when you are facing somebody who want to destroy you (or at the very least to harm you severely and subjugate you) often is better to do something and err than not doing anything at all.

    And that doesn’t mean at all that “end justifies means” or any other nihilistic crap. If they are making mistakes while trying to stand for what is right they should be justly criticized, at the end of the day that (the ability to distinguish right from wrong) is the main thing that separates the so called “West” from the likes of Putin, Trump or Erdogan.

    PS. If it helps I don’t think you could be called at all a self-righteous preacher. As skeptic as I am about the real good that anybody can do using a blog, social media, etc to defend Truth, I think the simple fact that you try to reverse the tide it’s a noble enterprise.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I think the Kremlin press’ reaction to blocking their sites would be similar, but the difference is that it doesn’t create the same level of inconvenience for millions of Ukrainians. I don’t really believe many Ukrainians regularly read many of those sites anyway. If they see something from them, it’s probably something they run across on social media. The truth is that even in Russia few people actively believe the Russian media. It’s just that a lot of people have nothing else to watch.

      Imagine blocking CNN.com versus blocking Facebook, where you have your photos, memories, contacts with friends and family members. In the first case I’d probably just go to some other news site rather than even bothering with a VPN. The latter is kind of a disaster for some people.

      I agree that this is basically an attempt to “do something,” but there are a lot of other things that would do a lot more. For example, establishing a MEPS-like system for contract soldiers to get them into training and to the front faster. Speaking of which, a LOT needs to be done to attract more recruits. I grew up in the States where the military is basically on your ass from the middle of high school. Here it’s just some brochures, posters in the metro. We had WAY more recruitment propaganda in the US long before 9/11 even happened.

      These are concrete steps that would have a far greater effect.

  4. What do I know

    I can´t comment about how it is for Ukranians, of course, but what I see in my country is that actually the Russia narrative is very successful. I hear constantly people who don’t particularly like Putin regime and who ideologically stand against everything that it represent buying many of it’s fabrications or at the very least falling into that gray area where they accept that “they probably lie, but our media lie just the same, so who can really know” and eventually facts are irrelevant because everything become just a biased opinion.

    I think the reasons because this is happening are different and you have addressed many of them on your blog, so I don´t need to develop it much. In a way I just get depressed that is working and that all you hear is that nothing can be done, because if you fight back then “you are playing into their narrative” and if you do nothing then you are allowing this to happen.

    Of course, I´m just complaining, you are right about the point that “doing something wrong” can´t be even remotely justified under the premise of “something must be done”

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      It’s a very big problem here, much more than some would like to admit, I’m afraid. I’ve often met people in Kyiv espousing such pro-Kremlin cynicism. In the east it’s much worse. I’ve met a person in Avdiivka, getting shelled every night at the time, who blames Ukraine for the war because “they sent tanks.” Yeah countries tend to do that when armed men from another country invade, occupy buildings, and simultaneously declare their willingness to be independent and also be annexed by the invading country.

      In Donetsk oblast I’ve only met one person who sounded supportive of the DNR (though she didn’t want to live there, apparently), but there are a LOT of people who have no love for Kyiv and and either act like the war is Kyiv’s fault or both sides are equal.

      This is extremely dangerous because if Putin were feeling adventurous (not too hard to imagine given President Hamburglar’s White House meltdown), he could seize more territory and have a passive population willing to collaborate. And of course we’ve never really seen much in the way of active resistance under Russian occupation, beyond maybe sharing some intel (often via VK).

      These kinds of things need to be rectified, and unlike some of the other reforms I mentioned I acknowledge that they’re far more difficult. Well they’d be less difficult if the country weren’t still suffering from so much corruption.

      Luckily there have been some concrete improvements that show Maidan was right- visa free travel to the EU, for example. There’s also been a good reform of the police service, the military, for all its problems, is probably the best it’s ever been, and I believe there’s been some major progress on the healthcare front, which is vital.

      1. What do I know

        “Luckily there have been some concrete improvements that show Maidan was right (…)”

        Let hope that it is so and somethings go better for ukranians, because it is for all our sakes, Russians included.

  5. Writing on blogs

    Anyone else here who hates everyone (in the US)?

    It’s pretty obvious that the dems are dense – Hillary’s only claim was basically “I am a woman” that’s it. I don’t believe for a second “Russian meddling” had anything to do with her defeat. No one cared much about the emails on wikileaks.

    Trump at least adressed the woes the working class is facing in the US, while the dems played stupid identity politics.

    And the “The Donald” crowd – there’s one trait I really hate about them: Their total lack of knowledge about Russia, yet their fanboyism of it. Especially the “they are capitalist now!”-line.

    I love the cognitive dissonance going on regarding the Soviet Union with the MAGAs. As you all know here, the nostalgia for the Soviet Union is huge in Russia, and that card is being played regulary by Putin too. Yet the MAGAs can’t admit this (socialism!) so they always completely gloss over the Soviet nostalgia in Russia, declaring it non-existent.

    That’s really bugging me, because it’s such a huge part of identity in Russia, yet this crowd just pretends it doesn’t exist, purely of out ideological reasons.

    1. What do I know

      No offense meant to anybody, but if you are willing to support Donald Trump it is rather obvious that you don´t particularly care that your opinions and reality inhabit the same realm.

  6. Autumn Cote

    Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. Thjere is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


  7. Maria

    “Having got those objections out of the way, let me say that while my loyalty to Ukraine’s cause is unshaken, I am now more convinced than ever that Ukraine’s “leadership” is in no way serious about fighting this war. They’d rather go to the West with their hand out in hopes that if they look pitiful enough big-brother NATO will step in and solve the situation somehow. I say “solve” because what I think they’d much rather see Russia just go back to the status quo border-wise so they can continue making lucrative deals with their Russian counterparts while simultaneously reaping the benefits of European Union integration. I don’t trust any of these people any further than I could throw them.”

    THIS! Completely and totally this!


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