Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Information Wars: Ukraine and the West vs. Russia and the Rest

Neli Esipova and Julie Ray, hir.harvard.edu

Pro-Russian protesters remove a Ukrainian flag and replace it with a Russian flag in front of the Donetsk Oblast Regional State Administration building in March of 2014 – Andrew Butko – CC BY-SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

In the media battle between the West and Russia over what really has been going on in Ukraine, round one went to Russia — at least among audiences in former Soviet Union republics.

Throughout the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Gallup polls showed nearly all residents of Russia, and majorities of residents in most post-Soviet states, were following the news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea. More often than not, these rapt audiences were getting the story from the Russian narrative, which typically blamed the West for the security crisis and turmoil in Ukraine. Few residents actually were getting the news from the competing Western narrative, but even if they got news from both, they still tended to believe the Russian version of events.

Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Estonia were the only countries out of the 11 that Gallup surveyed in 2014 where sizable portions of the population (including majorities in Georgia and Azerbaijan) said they did not use Russian media for news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea. (It’s important to note that the bulk of these surveys were conducted after the referendum in Crimea.) But even if residents were not getting their news from Russian media, this did not mean that they were getting the competing Western narrative, which has countered all along that the Russian media has been full of “misinformation and propaganda throughout the Ukraine conflict.”

Instead, residents in many of these post-Soviet states were more likely to be getting their news from the media in their own country. Further, residents in most countries were more likely to trust their local coverage and the Russian version of events in Ukraine and Crimea over the Western version. In fact, while it is not surprising that just 5 percent of Russians viewed the Western media coverage as reliable, the highest percentage in the region was only 22 percent in Estonia and Moldova—which have relatively strong ties to the European Union.

But there is more discouraging news for those hoping that the Western media strategy was having some measure of success in countering the Russian information machine. Even if residents used both Russian and Western media, they were typically more likely to find the Russian coverage of the conflict reliable. Georgians—who have tended to detest anything Russian particularly after the South Ossetia war in 2008—were the only exception.

Outside of Russia, an average of 63 percent of residents in post-Soviet states found their local media’s Ukraine coverage in their own language reliable, and majorities said this about local media coverage in Russian (52 percent) and in Russian media (51 percent). Only 13 percent in the region thought the Western media was reliable.

Support Runs High for Crimea Becoming Part of Russia

Majorities in many of the post-Soviet countries supported Crimea becoming part of Russia in mid-March 2014–and continued to do so even into last year. For example, in 2014, 95 percent of Russians supported the move, and in 2015, still-strong majority of Russians (89 percent) supported it. The opposite is true in only Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Azerbaijan, where majorities are still against Crimea becoming part of the Russian Federation. However, in another blow to the Western media, residents in countries who used both Russian and Western media to get information about Ukraine and Crimea were also more likely to support Crimea’s choice than the national average. In fact, the more sources that residents used to get information about the situation, the more positive they were toward Crimea’s move. In this regard, Western media actually helped generate more positive views of the situation.

Fear about Russia’s expansionism after the situation in Crimea has been a key message in the Western narrative but, as of summer 2014, majorities of residents in five countries that share a border with Russia were not worried that what happened in Crimea could happen to them. Only in neighboring Georgia, which considers its territory of South Ossetia as Russian-occupied after the brief war in 2008, did a majority of residents see a situation similar to Crimea as something that was likely to happen in their country. In fact, 8 percent of Georgians say something similar has already happened in their country.

At the same time, this fear existed on some level in all of the countries surveyed, in addition to Georgia. This included at least one in five residents who believe something similar has already happened in NATO and EU-member states Estonia and Latvia, where the United States recently sent tanks and other military equipment to “defend against potential Russian aggression.”


If the West hopes to at least stay in contention in the next information skirmish, it will clearly need to make some changes to its communication strategy. Some of this will need to be content, and some of it will need to be tone. The post-Soviet region still has strong ties to Russia, and the Russian media and local media in these countries know their audiences well. At the same time, residents of several post-Soviet states—even those who use Western media—feel the distance in the Western media’s coverage. Several survey respondents remarked to interviewers that Russian coverage goes much deeper into the issues that they find important and that the Western coverage comes across as disaffected, lacking passion and failing to demonstrate an understanding of the region. Several also took exception with the Western media’s tone, which they said demonized Russia. Even if they did not agree with or like Russia’s policies, they felt that some of the messages insulted their sense of pride, given their past and current ties to the country.

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