Since December 29th, an organized campaign has been aimed at Ukrainian Twitter users, hitting them with a wave of bans and suspensions. Its targets are accounts that actively oppose the Russian regime and its aggression. Many of these accounts have thousands of followers. By now, more than 30 prominent accounts (some with hundreds of thousands of readers) have been blocked.
Twitter has recently updated its Rules in response to intense pressure from several governments. (For example, Germany has criticized Twitter for inaction on hate speech in the aftermath of mass influx of North African and Middle Eastern refugees.) The updated rules, which further restrict inflammatory images and calls for violence directed at members of particular ethnic or religious groups, are being applied retroactively to tweets that predate the changes, in some cases by as much as a year ago. In doing so, Twitter has gone against a fundamental legal principle, accepted by most of the civilized world and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Constitution, and elsewhere – that ex post facto punishment is unjust.
All this users (without 2: @xyevii_kharkov and @spina_putina) were blocked for last 2 weeks. It is not a full list.
A similar, though less intense campaign has targeted Facebook as well, affecting, among others, “Maidan Monitoring Information Center”. Nataliia Zubar’s Facebook profile has been suspended for a week, also for a post written long ago.
But this massive purge of Ukrainian accounts in Twitter and elsewhere is only the TOP of the iceberg that is the Russian spec-op we may call “Operation Brotherly Peoples”.
Recall that in November of last year the rhetoric of the Kremlin changed suddenly and drastically. Once more “brotherly peoples” and “Russo-Ukrainian friendship” became the dominant slogans. Beginning in the fall, certain Ukrainian journalists (Andrii Kulykov, Nastia Stanko, and many others), began hinting to their audiences at the option of “understanding and forgiving” the pro-Russian separatists and terrorists back into the Ukraininan society, explaining away separatism as a mere error of judgment rather than a viewpoint that is fundamentally unacceptable both politically and legally.
These journalists were joined by a group of Ukrainian media platforms, all of which owe their existence primarily to grants from Western governments and NGOs: Hromadske, Hromadske Radio, Ukrainska Pravda, Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), and Voice of America. These were followed by many other, lesser media organizations, as well as a number of freelance journalists and social activists. (Coincidentally, many of the same persons and organizations tend to act as a broken telephone for western criticisms of the Ukrainian government, which occasionally had to subsequently be officially denied by the US Embassy in Ukraine and the representatives of the EU.)
Recall, moreover, that these members of the Ukrainian media were joined by many of those Russian citizens, who had emigrated to Ukraine and have already begun instructing Ukrainians in the proper ways to reform their government, respect for their Russian-speaking countrymen, and rebuild Ukraine’s damaged ties with Russia.
Operation Brotherly Peoples, so far, is one of the final, desperate attempts by the Russian rulers to save themselves and their country from further collapse. The state of the Russian economy is terrible. Low and continually falling price of oil is making it impossible to fund basic social services. Local governments, have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Burning through its reserve funds during the course of 2016 in order to stave off the inevitable collapse of the ruble, could leave Russia bankrupt by the end of this year. The Putin regime, therefore, has less than a year to save itself.
The Operation itself would take six to nine months, depending on degree of success of its several constituent stages. It has been deliberately put in action before the Christmas and New Year holidays in order to coincide with reduced activity of social networks so as to make it less noticeable and more efficient. It can be broken into the following five major stages. Stage One (information cleanup) involves:
- botnets and their coordinators, who send Twitter automated mass complaints against Ukrainian users (bot accounts typically have random names and handles, and incomplete profiles);
- a segment of Twitter management, who are aware of the situation but have received substantial rewards from Russia for ignoring it; major grant-dependent Ukrainian media services (Hromadske, Hromadske Radio, Ukrainska Pravda, Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), other grant-dependent media/journalists/activists, the Ukrainian Voice of America (led by Myroslava Gongadze, who has been known to “like” posts of pro-Russian separatists and terrorists), and so on – all of them conspicuously turning a blind eye to internet attacks against Ukrainians;
Myroslava Gonganze retweeted account of pro-Russian separatists and terrorists, in which Putin named as a School Chairman, Hollande as a father, Merkel as a mother and Poroshenko as a son being scolded as a poor student for his low grades.
- some individual Ukrainian users, including those who are actual Russian agents or bots, as well as those who become involved in order to settle personal scores (these tend to show support for the Right Sector and other nationalists, call for military assault on the Donbass, and place blame for all the problems under the sun at Obama, Poroshenko and pro-government Ukrainians);
- Russian “refugees” in Ukraine, who have been embedded to help identify the dangerous shapers of public opinion.
Both the dismissive coverage of the story by Hromadske, as well as the silence of Ukrainska Pravda and Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), suggest their approval of the situation and constitute at least passive collaboration with its perpetrators. This may have to do with high prevalence on their staff of Russian expats, latent separatists and far leftists (the latter, incidentally, are particularly susceptible to all calls for reconciliation and fraternization). They are complemented by large numbers of ordinary empty-headed “useful idiots”. It often seems like the staff of these media consists exclusively of the above… Note that these media services react instantly to any bit of news that allows for criticism of the Ukrainian government, but in this case it took them all day (at best!) to react after the attacks had gone public. And even then, the position expressed by these publications amounts to placing the blame on Twitter’s new rules and, indeed, on the victims themselves, instead of placing it on the perpetrator. (Sure! The victims are blameworthy for breaking rules with tweets posted prior to the rules’ enactment! Nothing wrong with such reasoning at all!)
The mechanism of the Twitter attacks can apparently be reduced to scanning posts of the targeted users for certain code words (e.g., “death to Russia”, “burn”, “smoke”, “kill”), after which the bontets automatically file mass complaints with Twitter. Since these bot nets can consist of hundreds of thousands of accounts, their complaints lead to suspension of targeted accounts, with their subsequent ban or restoration at the discretion of Twitter’s moderators. The number of those who have been at least temporarily suspended in this way is currently on track to reach 100 (if it hasn’t surpassed this number already).
It is worth noting that Russian-language accounts are blocked more frequently, since the xenophobic supporters of the Kremlin generally lack sufficient knowledge of Ukrainian even to understand what is being discussed. Not even Google Translate can help them there. The linguistic barrier has turned out to be a decent defence against the Russian coordinators of attacks, though it does not fully guarantee safety from being blocked by it.
The goal of the first stage of Operation Brotherly Peoples, then, is to purge from the information field those Ukrainian patriots who apply fact-checking and critical thinking to the content of the Ukrainian mass media, and who try to convey their conclusion to those spreading and affected by panic on Facebook and Twitter.
Unless appropriate steps are taken to respond to the attacks, they are likely to succeed in isolating and silencing discussion of critical evaluation of the above-mentioned Ukrainian mass media. The silencing of these voices, as well as the redaction of what they have already said is the practical consequence of the operation’s goal: to damage the respectability and reduce the influence of the most prominent pro-Ukrainian commentators of the affected social networks. This, first step of the operation is to conclude in about a month from now.
Stage Two (reconciliation, “fraternization”, “understanding and reconciliation”) is to last from the end of January through March. Its purpose is to pound into the heads of Ukrainians the idea that the terrorists operating in and out of the occupied “Novorossia” are really brothers to them, and that the former are to blame for all the woes of the latter. This coincides with the latest stated intentions of the Russian puppets concerning the timeframe for holding “elections”. During the same period we can also expect various “fraternal” actions to occur throughout the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, along the ATO frontline in particular. Such “fraternization” is likely to be forced onto the civilians under the occupation. Certain Ukrainian journalists and Russian “emigres” (hand-picked by the FSB and acting with its approval) can be expected to take part in such “reconciliation” initiatives.
Russia is likely to remain able to perform several such local actions simultaneously – at least until April. After that, Russia’s deteriorating economy, combined with the increasing pressure from our Western allies, is likely to close the window of opportunity.
Stage Three (“Down with the Government!”) is to last from April to May, reaching crescendo during the May holidays (Russian Victory Day in particular). We are going to witness sudden and drastic changes of emphasis (analogous to Russian media’s reorientation from Ukraine onto Syria), along with the standard slogans of “treason everywhere!”, “we’ve been sold out!”, “it’s all the government’s fault!”, “nothing’s changed!”, “down with the government!”… Under such slogans various organizations will spring into organized action (including the Right Sector, which is at present largely managed by the “refugee” Artem Skoropadsky). We can expect attempts to provoke serious civil unrest, along with complete elimination from the public sphere of all the voices critical of the dominant viewpoint promoted by the operation.
Stage Four is further agitation, with the goal of transforming unrest into a revolutionary situation. Assuming success of Stage Three, as well as commitment of significant financial resources, the gamble would be worthwhile.
The final Stage (planned roughly for the end of September or the beginning of October) is Maidan 3.0, which would be a “regime change” at the hands of putatively Ukrainian groups, which in reality are mere fronts for the FSB. The government is handed over to the Party of Regions fugitives, who are currently hiding in Russia. After that Russia would demand – successfully – that sanctions against it be revoked. This would save Putin’s regime and the Russian state, notwithstanding heavy losses and great difficulties that would still need to be overcome.
Can such an Operation succeed? It cannot. But the effectiveness of its preliminary stages is alarming and the idea of reconciliation is indeed being heavily promoted. Since time is running out for them, Russia and its agents are resorting to increasingly direct acts in order to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. Such is the sabotage of a vulnerable Carpathian section of Ukraine’s network of natural gas pipelines, as well as the hacker attack on the Ukrainian energy grid. We can add simultaneous efforts to provoke inter-ethnic conflict in the areas adjacent to the occupied Crimea (in the first place, directed at the Crimean Tatars and the Meskhetian Turks, who actively participated in the blockade of Crimea). The city and region of Odessa (its southern parts in particular) are once again major targets of such rabble-rousing.
Rather than surrender, Russia is persistently trying to destabilize Ukraine by all means still available to the Kremlin. An operation such as the one I’ve described is too unrealistic to succeed. However, in order to prevent the damage it would do by succeeding even in a part, we ought to do all we can to stop it from silencing the pro-Ukrainian voices on Twitter and to compel Twitter to restore those who have already been banned or suspended. We should also make sure that nothing like it is allowed to happen on Facebook and elsewhere.
Serhii Petrov, Maidan Monitoring Information Center, analyst