Expert interviews, Facebook and network analysis of mainstream, fringe far-right and pro-Kremlin sources demonstrated that the issues of historical and territorial revisionism remain high on the agenda in Ukraine.
They are overwhelmingly connected to the ongoing Russian aggression that has resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of several regions in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the south-eastern part of the country.
However, the specificity of territorial narratives and information campaigns in Ukraine concern two main aspects: Ukraine in itself is the target of these narratives linked to ongoing military operations and a “frozen conflict” in the East, while the country also serves as a launching point for the Kremlin’s wider geopolitical ambitions aimed at subverting its European and Euroatlantic integration, as well as the international community to legitimize the Russian aggression.
The territorial destabilization narratives are concerned mainly with historical revisionism, especially on the topic of World War II, as well as the deconstruction of the Ukrainian national identity based on societal (linguistic, religious etc.) divisions and the historical „justification” of aggressive Russian foreign politics towards Ukraine to control it through territorial disintegration.
Experience suggests that Central and, especially, Western Ukraine have their hotspots of potential tensions, which are unlikely to turn into a large-scale conflict but could substantially sour relations between Kyiv and its European partners, especially in the CEE region.
The success or failure of revisionist narratives depends on three key aspects: the societal polarisation present in Ukrainian society; the institutional setting of the media space; and the disinformation strategies applied by pro-Kremlin media outlets. In terms of existing societal divisions, the Kremlin’s communications approach targets members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate based on religion, Russian speakers based on language and ethnic Russians based on national identity, the latter geographically located in the Eastern regions of the country. Beyond these, societal groups vulnerable to Russian disinformation campaigns include older generations socialized in Soviet times, young people consuming Russian entertainment through new/social media and low-paid workers from the Eastern and Southern regions.
The structure of the Ukrainian media space also contributes to the spread of territorial narratives due to media owned by oligarchs, the presence of “junk websites” serving business and other interests without adhering to journalistic standards, and the “closing of the digital divide” by websites linked to television channels. The vulnerability of the Ukrainian media to Russian influence is further exacerbated by the lack of media literacy and digital security in society and significant infiltration of the pro-Kremlin agenda into the Ukrainian media landscape.
Media strategies applied by pro-Kremlin media and actors utilize narratives that either question Ukraine as a sovereign, territorially unified state or legitimize Ukrainians’ and Ukrainian territories’ historical association with Russia.
The narratives’ dissemination strategy depends on both media present in the Ukrainian media space, as well as media banned by the Ukrainian authorities and migrating to alternative media platforms, and on the bot and troll armies on social media in Ukraine.
Therefore, Facebook is not the primary channel of communication for pro-Kremlin media. They typically prefer websites and use Facebook only as a supplementary means to reach the audience that does not have access to banned websites in Ukraine. Altogether, our network analysis revealed that pro-Kremlin sites primarily rely on a tight dissemination network of webpages that allows them to conduct coordinated campaigns in and outside of Ukraine.
Based on a representative sampling of articles, we were able to identify 14 revisionist narratives that rely on a single meta-narrative or dichotomy about the West, as opposed to the East as more pro-Russian, which areirreconcilable in terms of religion, culture, societal habits, values etc. The narratives’ terminology presents a “war of discourses”, which addresses and frames the Russian aggression on both sides. While the Russian narratives argue that “separatism” was a natural result of the “unconstitutional coup,” followed by the political emancipation of the local citizens in the Eastern territories, Ukraine makes it clear the Kremlin’s conduct is an act of aggression trying to subdue Ukrainian sovereignty, the Revolution of Dignity and a war against the West.