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How to fight Russian propaganda, from a Ukrainian who’s been battling the post-truth era for years

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
There’s a lot of it out there.
By Heather Timmons
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As the US Congress and intelligence agencies investigate Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, there are some people visiting Washington, DC with a lot of experience of fighting that kind of thing.

Since its 2014 revolution, Ukraine has experienced a wave of “fake news” and media manipulation that its government traces back to Russia. While battling that as well as heavily armed, Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, the fledgling democracy is trying to boost its moribund economy.

This week Dmytro Shymkiv, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, led a delegation to DC to try ascertain what his country can expect of US president Donald Trump’s administration, which pledged to have closer ties with Russia and lost its first national security adviser over his contacts with Russian officials. Shymkiv, who is the former head of Microsoft in the country, spoke with Quartz about his government’s economic reforms, its fight against Russia, and his steadfast belief that Russian president Vladimir Putin has one goal: to destabilize democracies around the world, especially the US and the European Union.
Dmytro Shymkiv believes Putin will do anything to undermine the US and EU.

Quartz: Before Trump took office one analyst wrote: “The greatest threat to Ukraine’s immediate future is US president-elect Donald Trump.” Do you agree? Has the state of US-Ukraine relations shifted in recent months?

Shymkiv: No, we work with any political leadership after transparent elections in the US, and this administration has made a lot of statements about protecting the integrity of Ukraine—not just the RNC [Republican National Committee] but Trump himself. They have not lifted the sanctions related to Crimea, they are focusing on the Minsk memorandum [to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine].

[Ukraine president Petro] Poroshenko and Trump have had several phone calls, and this connectivity continues to take place. We have not seen any indication that the policy towards Ukraine securing the territorial integrity of Ukraine will change.

The Defense Department appropriations bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives appears to cut US lethal military aid to Ukraine in half.

As far as I know it is not slashing, it is splitting; one part is conditional and one part is unconditional. What is important is that there is support [from the US], and the concept of the lethal weapon support is in the air.

We are fighting against a Russia that has very advanced technology and equipment. We are the only state in the world that is fighting with Russia. That’s a great experience for the Western countries to learn from. Theoretically fighting with Russia is one thing and practically is another.

This post-truth era? We have been living in the post-truth era for the past three years.

This post-truth era? We have been living in the post-truth era for the past three years. Our teams know how to dismantle fake news and how to identify it. We know how to fight it, not internationally but locally. We had an initiative called “Stop Fake” that found how Russia hides fake news among regular news.

We know how things get rigged. Russia is trying to use a story and propaganda machine to distort and misconstrue the democratic institutions that exist in the world. It is the same as military [attacks]. We have experience in how the equipment is used.

What’s your advice to Western governments fighting against Russian propaganda?

Stay united. I think being united is a very important message to all governments. Russia has one simple strategy—dismantle Europe and dismantle the West. They want to bring back Russia again.

Putin will do anything to undermine the US and the EU.

Putin has one mantra and one mission—he doesn’t want to see a powerful US, he doesn’t want to see a powerful EU. He will do anything to undermine these.

Look what they are trying to do in France as well, with the election, how they are supporting different groups.

What steps has Ukraine taken aside from “Stop Fake”?

The Ukrainian government has blocked all Russian state-funded media in Ukrainian cable networks, and declared persona non-grata major Russian anchors and journalists involved in spreading propaganda and/or entering the occupied territories and violating Ukrainian legislation.

Donald Trump has said he’d like to “work with” Russia rather than consider Putin an enemy. Is that logical?

I don’t want to comment on president Trump, but I think that in the big global world we should not be misled by the size of certain countries. Being united, based on values, is more important. When you go into the battle, you want to know this person is fighting this battle with you because of principles.

I understand there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed by engaging Russia, and that Russia has influence in the Middle East. This ability to influence governments there makes it important to engage. But engagement in an attempt to find a solution is not equal to trust.

“Russia wants to confront, provoke and undermine, and the world should not be misled.”

Russia is looking for a way to look good, to look nice. But look at what they’re doing in Crimea, to the Crimean Tartars. They’re arresting them, and not allowing them to practice their religion. That’s unacceptable. Look at how they’re sending troops into eastern Ukraine, more than 400 tanks…These are not coming from nowhere. They are coordinating these efforts.

What’s the real strategy? Russia wants to confront, provoke and undermine, and the world should not be misled.

Do you believe Russia was trying to undermine the US government or the recent election?

The checks and balances in the US are very strong. Would Russia try to influence or project its agenda through media, though misinformation and organizing differences? They would, that’s their strategy.

The point is because of the democracy and transparency of the US, because of transparent institutions, that is very difficult. They do not understand that. They look at things as they are in Russia. The values of the American people, and democracy, that’s a core that Russia cannot penetrate. That’s something that makes Russia very angry, and makes the United States enemy number one for Russia.

There was so much work being done by the US to embrace Russia when it seemed headed to democracy. How many people back in history were looking at Putin as a democratic leader?

Now, though the situation is similar to Hitler. Would you trade with Hitler knowing he is going to be killing an additional 1,000 Jews? At some point you say “No, that’s an enemy.” There was a lot of cooperation between the US and the German government [ahead of World War Two], and then at a certain time the US made a full stop and started taking in people fleeing Nazi Germany.

These people want you dead.

We have seen the same thing in Russia.

Russia doesn’t want anyone to be successful. That is their strength. If [Putin] does not project a masculine strength, it is considered a weakness. The US has always projected freedom and liberty, and is more open and embracing. [Putin’s supporters] are suddenly waking up next to a monster. These people want you dead.

What role is there for US companies and investors to play in supporting Ukraine?

Investments continued to come in during the conflict, and our object is to bring more investments and opportunities. GE is looking at Ukraine railways, DP World is talking about river infrastructure and ports, many companies are looking into the Ukraine high-tech industry. Cargill continues to scale up their operations.

We’ve embarked on judicial reform, deregulation, and tax reforms, we’ve slashed tax for payroll twice…We are removing the things that are barriers to business development.

Do you get any sense that this US presidential administration is discouraging investment to Ukraine because it favors close ties to Russia?

No, no, my dialogue with government officials here has not indicated this. We’re negotiating with Westinghouse about a supply of nuclear rods for Ukraine power plants, and do you know who we are kicking out? The Russians. This is actually in line with the Trump strategy to give more opportunity for US business internationally.

Russia is always jeopardizing their relationship with everyone, internationally.

They annexed Crimea and opened the shafts to house rockets, and now they are already placing rockets in Crimea with nuclear weapons targeting the US.

The Russian government has nuclear weapons in Crimea pointed at the US?

In [the Crimean port town of] Feodosia, there were military shafts where the rockets were allocated. The Ukraine government closed them and removed everything from there, Russia is now bringing them back, and this was the place where the rockets were targeting the US. [Editor’s note: Quartz has not been able to find public information on the presence of such weapons. The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.]

This whole discussion about making peace with Russia is like talking about peace with a bear that is angry and wants you dead. How are you going to shake his hand?

This interview was conducted in person, condensed and edited for length and clarity, and contains information from a follow-up email conversation. 

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