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13 December, 2019  ▪  Yuriy Lapayev

Paper wars

Who conducts lawfare against Ukraine, and why?

Hybrid war is comprised of more than special units from a neighbor state clad as tractor drivers or miners, and of more than a powerful propaganda machine with the annual budget worth billions of dollars that works against Ukraine across the world. Sometimes, it is comprised of steps, barely visible at first sight, aimed at creating favorable conditions for the aggressor to legitimize its actions. Experts categorize it as lawfare, a separate component of hybrid war. 

There have been plenty examples of such activities since 2014. The known ones include the capture of Ukrainian ships with their crews by the Russians almost a year ago. The key idea Russia was then pedaling in the world was that the Kerch Strait was Russian, so it is Moscow that can decide who and how will cross it. According to the aggressor, the conflict broke out in Russia’s territorial water as Russian laws treat the Crimea as its territory. While unrecognized by anyone apart from the Kremlin, this creates specific legal wrap that looks credible for the people who know little about details of the case.

The notorious Steinmeier formula is, too, a certain element of lawfare as it entails changes in Ukraine’s legislation. Similar examples have taken place before when the conflict between Ukraine and Russia began around Tuzla Island or when the Kremlin kept hampering the demarcation of the state border between the two states. Russia’s activity on this front is not limited to Ukraine: Moscow’s desire to take the Arctic under control is also backed by “evidence” and presented as a “lawful right”. 

Different tools are used for this purpose, from economic to military pressure as in Belarus, Syria, Venezuela or Central African Republic. More sophisticated operations include bribery of useful idiots, including politicians, experts and journalists who then, for the Kremlin’s money, sing along Putin’s lines about the oppression of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine or unprecedented corruption and fascists. If these statements remained lone voices, it would not be too dangerous. But these voices are sometimes responsible for important decisions that will have serious impact on Ukraine. 

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Quite recently, Ukrainians across the world signed the petition asking the German Bundestag to recognize the 1932-1933 Holodomor in Ukraine as genocide. The petition accumulated over 56,000 signatures, or 6,000 above the necessary 50,000, by the deadline. This seemed to have opened a path towards a decision by the German parliament that is a neutral observer in such circumstances. But problems emerged. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed turning down the petition for two reasons: non-existence of the notion “genocide” until 1951 and the fact that it was not just Ukrainians, but representatives of other nations that also fell victim to the famine. The first statement runs counter to sound reason. If that logic is used, the Holocaust or any other crimes can be denied too. No definition — no problem. The second statement is partly correct in terms of facts, but it does not reflect reality: the number of Ukrainians affected by the famine was far higher compared to the number of victims among other nations.

While controversial, the MFA’s position should be taken into account, so the appeal of Ukrainians could be overturned. It is wrong to state that all representatives of the German MFA are the Kremlin’s agents, but they play on Moscow’s side — willingly or not. In the context of the thaw in the relations between Germany and Russia, especially through representatives of Die Linke and AfD, this behavior no longer seems surprising.

Similar efforts are taking place across the Atlantic. The Ukrainian Week previously reported about Dana Rohrabacher, Putin’s “favorite congressman”. This American politician went all the way from being a Reagan-type hawk to becoming a mouthpiece for the Russian propaganda in Congress. Apparently, he had his financial reasons for this. But others may be doing so unwillingly.

On October 16, Congressman Max Rose posted a copy of an appeal for State Secretary Mike Pompeo on Twitter where 40 signatories demanded an explanation from the Department of State about why it failed to add some “violent white supremacist groups” to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations even though they meet all of the State Department criteria. This was followed by an extensive explanation where the authors easily linked the attack on a synagogue in Halle, a town in Germany, and the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. According to the congressmen, this points to a global terrorist network. It was later stated that a few other foreign organizations of white nationalists fit the criteria necessary for being put on the FTO list. Instead of naming these several organizations, everything is blamed on the Azov battalion from Ukraine. According to the signatories of the statement, Ukrainians are to be blamed for the violation of human rights and tortures, while the Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant allegedly received training at Azov. 

In reality, the only think that the Ukrainian battalion and Tarrant have in common is the Black Sun symbol, which he had in his manifesto, and a mention of his visit to several countries, including Ukraine. What actually inspired the shooter, according to his own testimony, was the crime committed by Anders Breivik and the Balkan wars. According to Rose, however, the evidence provided in the appeal for the State Department is enough to link international terrorism to the Ukrainian battalion. The appeal also mentioned the efforts taken by the US and its allies to stop neo-Nazi groups, yet it did not mention a single organization to be put on the FTO list. Instead, it suggested creating a list of groups of white extremist suprematists to add it to the current FTO list. In this logic, Azov would end up on one list with Boko Haram, Al Qaedaand ISIS.   

Congressman Rose is one of the youngest members of Congress, soon turning 33, a Democrat representing New York’s 11th congressional district. In Congress, Rose is member of committees for veterans’ affairs and homeland security, and chairs the subcommittee for intelligence and counterterrorism. His Jewish grandfather left Odesa for the US, and Rose is Jewish too. From 2010 to 2014, the future congressman served in the US Army 1st Armored Division; he fought in Afghanistan where he was wounded. Rose was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Once elected to Congress, Rose put forward a number of initiatives, from a ban on assault weapons to   an effort against Legionella bacteria in the water supply system, from the collection of unused medicines to the ban of HAMAS and Hezbollah accounts on Twitter.

American press has criticized him for ambiguity on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump: Rose officially refused to support the initiative of his Democratic colleagues initially, but insisted on impeaching Trump in a meeting with his voters. Eventually, he agreed to support the impeachment procedure after much criticism. Almost nothing links him to Russia. Quite on the contrary, Rose demanded that Russia was recognized as “a hostile foreign power” and the Kremlin was held “accountable for its attempts to undermine the sovereignty and democratic values of other nations”.  At the same time, his platform emphasized support to Israel. It looks like the struggle against anti-semitism pushed him to write the appeal to the State Department. There is no clear proof of cooperation with Moscow from other signatories. On the contrary, many of them are quite open about their negative attitude towards Russia. It may well be that, in their struggle for “all things good and against all things bad”, they failed to distinguish the real situation from hidden Russian disinformation at one point in time. This points to success of the Kremlin’s special operations and inconsistent work of Ukrainian diplomats. 

The congressmen demanded a reply to their appeal by November 4, but there was no official response from the US State Department by that date. But there was reaction from the Ukrainian side. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin describe the possible recognition of Azov as a terrorist organization as “near knockout for the volunteer movement”, admitting that this was the issue of national security. In his view, this could have been an attempt to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, especially in the context of the scandal around the way President Zelensky spoke to volunteers in Zolote around the same time.

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Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to whom the Azov special battalion, military unit № 3057, reports, described the appeal as a shameful information campaign, an attempt to discredit Azov and the whole of the National Guard. He believes that the high level of battle readiness in Azov caused “hybrid methods” to stop it. Bohdan Yaremenko, Chair of the Verkhovna Rada Foreign Policy Committee until recently and Servant of the People MP, initiated a collection of signatures to appeal to the Congress House of Representatives. In order to prevent extremely negative consequences for the National Guard, the Interior Ministry and other law enforcement agencies, Ukraine’s MFA should reinforce its communication abroad.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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