Oleksandr Turchynov: “On issues in defense of Ukrainian identity, we can’t back down”

22 October 2019, 08:47

What do you think of the recent exchange of prisoners in terms of state interests? How likely are swaps to continue in the near future?

— The lives of its citizens are the greatest value for a state. The prisoner swap was a very important event. Preparations lasted for over a year and it would not have happened without massive support from the international community, which put serious pressure on Russia. 

Russia wanted to cut deals with the lives of people and linked its criminal interests, including the return of Volodymyr Tsemakh, who was involved in the downing of MH17, to this swap. Rather than fulfilling the verdict of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Moscow also added the exchange of the 24 sailors, after taking them hostage like pirates.

Vladimir Putin’s behavior is difficult to predict. Still, we must try to understand what motivates him. He can advance his imperial interests by aggravating the situation in Ukraine or by pushing for “peace on our terms,” which would mean a halt to European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations for Ukraine and would destabilize the country from within. Putin will not quit his efforts at an imperial comeback, no matter what. That means he won’t give up on his intentions to subordinate Ukraine, as our independence is a threat to his imperial project. Also, we should not exclude the possibility that a conflict provoked by Moscow might expand into a full-scale war. Any dialogue with Putin, including on prisoner exchanges, should be looked at from this perspective. Russia only understands force, and Ukraine’s only chance to defend its interests is to be strong, with a strong army and modern equipment.

How likely is the Normandy Four meeting to enforce peace on Russia’s terms?

— This dangeris very real. It is quite unfortunate that our Western partners no longer see the Ukraine issue as their priority. For them, Russia’s war against Ukraine is something they want to remove from the agenda on any terms, including sacrificing Ukraine’s interests. Proposals to restore economic cooperation with Russia are growing louder. Yet, it is only shortsighted politicians who are trying to sideline Ukraine. They don’t understand the threat of this situation for their own countries. Order in Europe and the world cannot be restored as long as aggression and force define reality rather than laws, rights and human interests. It can’t be restored without understanding what Ukraine is going through. 

Russia has ruined the international order established in Europe after World War II. Ukrainians have not just been defending their country since 2014 – they’ve been containing Russia’s aggressive advance into Europe. Ukraine has become an outpost, the eastern frontier of European civilization. We need to understand that the danger of a greater military conflict with an unpredictable totalitarian government in Russia is the reality now. Those who think about the future of Europe should care about Ukraine’s survival and victory, because this is a chance to restore a world order based on rights, freedom and the inviolability of borders. If Russia breaks things to its own advantage, we’ll be back to the medieval principle of might makes right. And that is the path towards a new global war.

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Ukrainians have grown used to a kind of trench war in the Donbas and have developed many mechanisms that work in this situation. How prepared are we for a sharp change in the nature of the war?

— Russia wanted to establish control over Ukraine from the beginning of the conflict. Clearly, the whole country was its goal, not just Crimea or the Donbas. Moscow planned to complete the Crimean operation by March 1, 2014, and launch a continental assault. That’s why it needed the approval of the Federation Council to use its army abroad. Thanks to those servicemen who were not prepared to betray the country and helped slow the occupation of Crimea, Ukraine gained itself a month in which it was somehow able restore some fighting capacity in its Armed Forces, move them to the eastern frontier and prepare for defense. At that point, Moscow’s plan was to bring its military into Ukraine without any resistance as the country plunged into chaos, torn into pieces by separatist riots, and to restore the “legitimate” Viktor Yanukovych in power, delivering him to Kyiv in a military convoy. What stopped Moscow? The Russians lost time and suddenly any further advance into Ukraine meant huge losses for them. Ukraine quickly restored its government institutions and quashed separatist riots, from Kharkiv to Odesa. It was showing its capacity to resist.

All this demonstrated that strengthening Ukraine’s defensive capabilities is a guarantee that Russia’s losses will incomparably exceed any gains in a full-scale war. Understanding this has been the only deterrent for Russia. Yes, Russia’s air force, with its experience from the war in Syria, remains a threat for Ukraine. Our air defense system has been ruined for years and is being restored very gradually, but we still have a long way to go. I have proposed to our NATO partners to set up a joint air defense system from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Unfortunately, that initiative did not find the necessary support. But western countries bordering on Russia really do need a unified defense frontier.

How clearly does Ukraine’s current government see this threat and the need to counter it?

— I’m not in contactwith the current administration, so it’s hard for me to say much. We need to judge them by their actions and their strategic decisions, not their words. For example, I have not seen a single official decision by the National Security Council yet. There may be some secret documents, but nothing is publicly available, so there is nothing to analyze. It’s hard to draw conclusions on the basis of PR events alone.

How vulnerable is Ukraine to information warfare right now? 

— Informationis a critical component in a hybrid war. The Russians have been paying a great deal of attention to this. I would say they have even perfected some techniques, so that Russian TV comes first, and Russian tanks follow. What’s more, you don’t always need tanks: military intervention is not necessary if you bring a controlled government to power through propaganda. Information war allows Russia to break the people’s will to resist, spreading despair and mistrust in the state. We saw this in Crimea, where locals poisoned by Russian propaganda believed that thugs would be instructed by the “junta” in Kyiv to come and kill them because they were Russian-speaking, so they supported Russia’s takeover.

It would be wrong to think that we are now safe from Russia’s information warfare, but we’ve come a long way since 2014. We’ve banned the publication of Russian press and the broadcasting of Russian television. But there’s been a worrying development lately: they are popping up among cable and internet operators lately. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is working tirelessly and Ukraine remains a priority for it. There is even a clear pattern that whenever Russian TV ramps up its rhetoric against Ukraine, things on the frontline start to heat up, too.

At one point, we also banned access to some Russian websites and social media. It wasn’t an easy move, but we had two challenges in the early days following the victory of the Revolution of Dignity: to protect the country and to move ahead on European integration. Our EU partners were critical of our plans regarding restrictions on social media. We had to explain to them why we were doing this. Only NATO leadership supported us: they understood that this was about information security, not about freedom of speech. Similarly, there’s been a lot of criticism from the West over shutting down TV channels inside Ukraine – even when it’s absolutely clear that these media are working for Russia’s interests. Freedom of speech cannot be used as a cover-up for information attacks on Ukraine.

Cyber security is equally important and Ukraine has made serious progress. There have been many serious attacks against key infrastructure objects, public institutions and so on in Ukraine. We’ve learned our lessons. We set up the National Cyber security Coordination Center to bring the efforts of all entities involved in this under one umbrella. Also, we developed a unified protocol for localizing cyber incidents, we established information sharing with our Western partners, and we started building a protective barrier for public electronic resources. I should note that all the systems protected by this barrier have survived strong cyber attacks over the past two years. We covered presidential and parliamentary elections, but nobody heard about any serious cyber attacks during this time because they were effectively checked.

Ukraine needs modern technology that can track and block any hostile activity to defend itself in the information and cyber domains. Advanced countries have such systems. Ukraine needs to pass the necessary laws to institute them. We tried several times to submit a bill to strengthen cyber security to the Rada, but the populists started screaming that this was an assault on freedom of speech on the internet. So far, that initiative has been blocked. 

But an information war can’t be fought with restrictions alone while Russia spends massive amounts of money on active propaganda – money that Ukraine simply doesn’t have. American security experts say that NATO countries can’t always counter ISIS propaganda effectively, even with their big defense budgets. What capacity does Ukraine have to counterattack Russia? How effective do you think a Russian-language TV channel in Ukraine, as proposed by President Zelenskiy might be?

— Ukraine must be ableto act asymmetrically against aggression. Cyber weapons are compared to weapons of mass destruction for a reason. We need to defend ourselves proactively, but I don’t think that we should disclose our tools. When it comes to the information component, campaigns on social media could well be enough as guerilla efforts to undermine the enemy. But they aren’t enough in the conflict with Russia. Here’s a simple example: many people go on vacations abroad and are offered a package of TV channels to view in hotels there. Those packages typically include several Russian channels and not a single one from Ukraine. We need quality information products and resources to promote our own channels. Ukrainian diplomats need to work in the information domain, too. Counterpropaganda by diplomats is very important. Ukrainian ambassadors abroad don’t always provide information about Russia’s aggressive plans or take the trouble to quickly debunk its misleading messages. Ukraine needs a channel in English, not in Russian, in the first place, to communicate its message to the entire world. 

Ukraine is often criticized for violating the rights of national minorities, including in its laws on language. How can we persuade our partners that, as a post-colonial state, we have every reason to promote strong policies to protect our identity?

— This is an extremely important issue. Let me give you my personal example. I was born and raised in Dnipro. I graduated from school and university there. In all of that time, I never met a single person speaking Ukrainian in daily life, and I never thought this would change. When I moved to Kyiv to work as advisor to the PM in the early 1990s, I had to write speeches with a dictionary until I learned the language. The colonial legacy was evident in the shameful fact that people did not know their own language! I believe that many steps have been taken to change this situation since independence, especially in the last five years. Quotas on radio and television and the language law are important accomplishments and we should not reverse them. We should not question what has become a norm for Ukrainian society. National identity is a very important element of national security. The war has united Ukrainians, regardless of what language they speak in everyday life. That’s why all the measures to restore national identity within Ukraine have been implemented relatively calmly, despite Russia’s hysterical propaganda.

Some in the Zelenskiy team say that language policy should be reconsidered and even suggest different tax rates for programming in Ukrainian and in Russian. They don’t seem to understand that Moscow will spend whatever it takes to ensure its presence in Ukraine.

— Firstly, it’s a very positive thing that Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been speaking Ukrainian at official appearances ever since he won the presidency. Secondly, he hasn’t questioned the constitutional status of the language. But yes, some people on his team have been suggesting such initiatives. I think civil society needs to take a clear position on this and defend the accomplishments of the Revolution of Dignity. When it comes to issues in defense of Ukrainian identity, we can’t back down. Any attempt to walk our progress back will result in strengthened influence from Russia and a domestic political crisis in Ukraine. 

Few predicted Brexit, Donald Trump’s election in the US, or Volodymyr Zelenskiy becoming president of Ukraine. How would you interpret this speed of change in public opinion?

— We live in an information society where different mechanisms are working, the function of the state is changing and its influence waning catastrophically. When it comes to Ukraine, the role of parties has shrunk dramatically. Until this recent set of elections, parties succeeded on the basis of their networks, their grassroots activists and the penetration of local branches. What we see today is a clash of information resources, not parties. Information resources have become key. With Zelenskiy, I could see the prospect of his becoming president as soon as I saw how many Ukrainians reacted to his then-new series, Servant of the People. People were looking for new faces and quick solutions to complicated problems, even if they were not always effective. These two expectations met at one point, and that was effectively highlighted in many episodes of the series and in popular information resources. Of course, the mistakes of the previous administration didn’t help: very poor communication, ineffective efforts against corruption, and poor resistance to Russian information aggression all contributed to this. It was Russian propaganda that hammered into the minds of many Ukrainians the idea that the Poroshenko government didn’t want to end the war because it was profiteering.

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A certain kind of conservatism is on the rise today. The US, Poland and Denmark are just three examples. In Ukraine, however, the liberal path is being promoted as the only viable one, often by leftish-liberal functionaries at NGOs. Whatever does not fit this model is dismissed as outdated, soviet or unpatriotic. How do you explain this phenomenon?

— I wrote about this in an article en titled “Neo-Marxism or a Trip into the Abyss.” I tried to explain that Christian and conservative trends are not a Russian monopoly or a product of the soviet system. They are the key to successful state-building and have nothing in common with Russia’s imperial fascism. All successful modern western states, including the US, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, South Korea, and more, were built on evangelical foundations. Many downplay the importance of this foundation. If it is destroyed, the modern world will be destroyed, too. When morals, faith and responsibility are destroyed, that’s when the Apocalypse of the Scriptures will arrive.

How can Ukraine join the new conservative trend when this flank of European politics sees Russia a kind of defender of spiritual values?

— Where’s Russia and where are Christian morals? They are completely incompatible. Russia’s attempts to disguise its amoral aggressiveness as a neo-conservative doctrine are doomed to fail. Still, Moscow is clearly flirting with rightwing trends in Europe today, while masking its violent intent. That’s a real challenge for us. We need to show that conservative Christian ideology is actually the norm among Ukrainians. That Ukraine is a Christian country that can become the David vs Goliath model of success and victory. The crisis of the left-liberal world has led to harmful centrifugal trends in the EU, the growth of populism and the weakening of collective security. I’m certain that a great, strong and independent Ukraine can only be built on the unbreakable foundation of eternal Christian values.



Born in Dnipro in 1964, Oleksandr Turchynov graduated from the Dnipropetrovsk Metallurgy Institute in 1986. He holds a PhD and is a professor of economics. An MP in six convocations of the Verkhovna Rada, he headed the Security Bureau of Ukraine in 2005 and was First Deputy Premier in the Tymoshenko Government from 2007 to 2010. He was elected Verkhovna Rada speaker on February 22, 2014, and was acting president until June 2014. Turchynov was secretary of the NSC from 2014 to 2019.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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