Discussion with James Sherr "Russian disinformation in Ukraine"

On November 15th, Eastern Europe Studies Center welcomed James Sherr, a Senior Fellow of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defense and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn. Mr. Sherr shared his thoughts on Russia, Ukraine and the ongoing disinformation struggle between the two countries in the wider international context.

James Sherr said that one of the main foundations of disinformation is ignorance. The fundamental problem is that Europe devotes many resources to understanding Russia, but far fewer people understand Ukraine. People often think that Russia is a peculiar epicenter of all events and conflicts and therefore takes Russia's approach and applies it to Ukraine, which is not right. It is also important to understand that the West is still suffering from an oversimplification problem, especially concerning Ukraine. The current war in Ukraine can be called narrative and identity war, the Russian narrative of New Russia would be a perfect example here. Looking at the Ukrainian state and territory historically, up to the 17th century Russia did not make any territorial claims to the statehood of Ukraine, but since the time of Ivan III, this narrative has changed since from this period the main goal of Ivan and Russia as a state became the conquest of territory.

Continuing the topic of disinformation, the speaker highlighted that there are three fundamental levels to this phenomenon: partial truth, falsehood, and selective truth. It is easy to recognize lies, but it is difficult to recognize the truth in a false context. An example is a developing narrative that Ukraine is a divided state. That is true, but at the same time, we must not forget that there are many other divided states in the world, such as Italy. This is a normal reality, but other European countries do not have a neighboring revisionist state, so these perspectives are not always understood. Another narrative spread is that local rebels are fighting in the Donbas region. This is true, but they make up about 30-35% of all fighting troops, so that's not the majority. Besides, even the leaders of separatist regions themselves do not always receive the support of the local population for their military actions. There is also a lot of talk about Ukraine being a corrupt state, but it has to be understood that Russia itself is also a corrupt state, just a different type of corrupt. Russian corruption is predictable and has a clear hierarchical structure, while Ukraine's corruption links are highly decentralized. The last widespread narrative is that the West has failed to live up to its promise not to expand NATO, which is likely to threaten Russia. This is the kind of pressure that is only increasing, preventing Russia from operating freely.

To summarize the situation in Ukraine, it should be noted that the situation in Ukraine is changing, as we can now interpret it as a clear ally of the West. However, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the future of this country, as there is still a problem of mutual trust in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the West cannot change Russia as a state and external factor at the moment, so it is very important to maintain the institutions and structures that we have created ourselves.