Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine, with Liubov Tsybulska

Sep 22, 2022 34 min listen

In this Global Ethics Review podcast, Liubov Tsybulska, a hybrid warfare expert and advisor to the government of Ukraine, discusses Russian disinformation efforts and how the conflict has changed on the cyber front over the last eight years. Tsybulska and host Alex Woodson also touch on how Ukraine's social media strategy is designed to engage with Western allies, the role of the United Nations, and the brutality of the Russian military.

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Review. I am Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, the world's catalyst for ethical action. In this episode I am speaking with Liubov Tsybulska, a hybrid warfare expert and advisor to the government of Ukraine. She is the founder of the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine.

Tsybulska and I spoke about what hybrid war looks like in Ukraine from the start of the war in 2014 to the full-scale Russian invasion earlier in 2022. We spoke about Russian disinformation strategies throughout the world and ways to counter them. As she is currently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly we also discussed what more the United States and other allies can do to support Ukraine. For much more on the war in Ukraine, please go to carnegiecouncil.org. For now, here is my talk with Liubov Tsybulska.

Liubov Tsybulska, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: Thank you for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: I know it has been a very busy week for you with the UN General Assembly, so I appreciate you taking your time to speak with us.

I would like to start by getting everyone who is listening on the same page. You are a hybrid warfare expert. What does that look like in Ukraine in 2022?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: In 2022 it is slightly different. I am looking at it forthrightly, but in an ironic way it is vitally different from what it was starting from 2014 because we have very hot, very active combat on the ground, but still Russia uses disinformation, misinformation, cyber interference, economical pressure, political blackmail, and political corruption to reach their purposes. I would not say disinformation is as effective as it used to be a few years ago, just because when you are killed, tortured, and raped you know where it is coming from, you are alert, and you are not sleeping, because hybrid is most effective when the victim is asleep.

My colleagues from my community usually do not like the word "disinformation." It would be much more appropriate to call it "malign information" because it is not necessarily about spreading lies. Sometimes it is manipulation and speculation. Sometimes it is just spreading fatigue, dividing neighbors, allies, and partners, and Russia is still doing this of course.

ALEX WOODSON: When you say it has changed since 2014, that is a great point, that this war has been going on for eight years in a lot of different ways. If you could provide a specific example maybe, what was Russia doing in 2014 that they are not doing today, or is just the scale different? I am looking to see what has exactly changed over the years.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: In 2015 I joined the General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces as an advisor on strategic communications, and I remember that we as a country were not prepared for that scale of information attacks and information interference, and we did not understand what was happening. Why was our society so divided? Why did our army leadership not have more support? Then we realized what was going on. Russia was trying to divide, for instance, army leadership from the rest of the armed forces, from our own soldiers.

Russia was spreading this fatigue and disbelief among the families of our soldiers, sending messages sometimes to them to "take your son or husband back home because it is not his war," "army leadership is just trying to get some benefits," and many other things. Our soldiers, when they had very active combat on the ground, used to get messages like: "It's not your war. Your enemy is not in Russia. Your enemy is in Kyiv. It is your president and generals," and stuff like that. So basically the idea was to polarize society, to do everything possible so that society does not support the government's actions.

Then we saw the same during the American elections. When society is polarized it is much easier to impose your narratives because society is distracted with internal problems, and it is not very cautious as to what is going on. Obviously Russia is trying to do the same right now, trying to show that our soldiers and their families are not happy with actions that our military leadership are taking and many other things.

A very important point I would like to make is that it is absolutely crucial to be united when there is an external threat because if you start fighting with each other, then obviously your enemy can take advantage of this. I remember very vividly how the Russians were trying to break Ukrainian government institutions, how they were trying to sow this division among them.

All these things matter, and now we see the same with our partners. They are trying to divide our partners and show, for instance, that Ukraine is not using the weapons we get from the West properly, which is not true and we can prove it, but they want to show Western societies that, "Your money goes to something that is not needed because Ukraine might sell these weapons," something like this, and then they expect society's populations to go to their governments and say, "We don't want you to spend so much money on Ukraine."

ALEX WOODSON: It's very interesting that you brought up how Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Looking at all this from the United States, I didn't make that connection between the war in Ukraine and the 2016 election, but probably the same tactics.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: Look at Brexit as well. They generally weaponize referendums, and now they are trying to hold referendums and occupy territories. Referendums are just a brilliant, absolutely great tool for Russia because it is very easy to spread panic, disorientation, and demoralization through social media and different other means to get what you want.

ALEX WOODSON: There is a story that came out this week about how Russia used disinformation to try to affect the Women's March in 2017, right after Trump got elected. It is interesting to see this happening in Ukraine, the United States, Britain, and wherever else.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: I would just add that Russia is deploying tactics that feed internal vulnerability. Every mistake you make, every gap you have becomes an opportunity to interfere. This is very important to understand. For instance, the way the world was handling the COVID-19 situation. It was the perfect ground for Russia to use it to spread this demoralization among societies and to distract them from other threats.

ALEX WOODSON: As you said, it is important to stay united in the face of this disinformation and these other threats. What are the strategies specifically that you can use to stay united to fight these threats? What have you been doing? What has Ukraine been doing in this war and these efforts?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: A lot of people keep saying that Ukraine is so good at strategic communication that you managed to show the fight with so much there and so many interesting stories using humor and using tragedy. You give pain, of course, you show the pain, but also you give so much love to the world, and to some extent I would say that the world sees this war as a fairy tale at some point because there is good and there is absolute evil, and there is this underdog, Ukraine, the character who is obviously weaker but he or she is very good, and this underdog has to fight against evil.

Not accidentally many people call Russians Orcs, especially in Ukraine, comparing them to the Hobbits, which are forces of good, and there are Orcs. I would say it is not the centralized strategic communication systems we have that reach this success. I would say that this is the society and specifically our armed forces who give us so much energy and who give so much in telling interesting stories on this, and not forgetting that this war is the most documented, most filmed and photographed wherever, so basically everybody watched this in real time.

Of course, to some extent for some people it is like a reality show, but for Ukraine it's genocide. For us obviously it is very important to show what they are doing and how they are doing it. We didn't expect Russians to be that cruel because they do not follow any rules of war at all. You don't expect it from your neighbor, especially if you understand the language of this neighbor, you grew up with the same culture, watched the same movies in the past, read the same books, and now they come and kill us with extreme cruelty. I think the success of our communications which we keep hearing about is because the society provides so much content, it is very convincing, and it is very sincere.

I would also say that it is not everywhere. This success is seen not everywhere. For instance, Asia and the Global South, these parts of the world do not see the successful stories. The Russian narratives unfortunately are pretty strong there.

ALEX WOODSON: You are saying that other parts of the world don't have the same access to Ukrainian sources of information but have more access to Russian sources of information, or not Ukrainian necessarily but Western—American, British?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: I would say that Ukraine's presence there is not that strong and vivid, and Russia has much more success, and Russia has much more access to these countries because from the very beginning of the full-scale invasion we were trying to focus our intentions, to focus all our efforts on our allies, our partners—the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union—those who share our values and who can provide us weapons because for us the most important part is to get information support of course but material as well, meaning weapons and sanctions. You cannot fight with just information when they come and kill and rape you. I keep hearing a lot of talk about peace negotiations, especially here at the General Assembly, but for us peace on Russian terms is not acceptable at all because it would mean just freezing the conflict to let them strengthen their army and attack us again.

Speaking of propaganda I would say that the scale of atrocities Russians commit in Ukraine, all these war crimes, they became possible because of constant systematic propaganda and specifically dehumanization of Ukrainians through propaganda. Today it is the Ukrainian nation, and tomorrow it might be someone else.

I would strongly recommend that people in the West sometimes watch Russian TV, which is fully orchestrated and financed, and you will see how they speak about your countries as well, specifically the United States. Basically for Russia the United States is the main enemy. They call Ukraine just a puppet of America, and they say to their domestic audience that they are fighting against the United States of America.

This is very dangerous. We know from recent history that you do not necessarily have to have physical borders with Russia to be attacked, so it is very important not to be asleep and to be cautious and to study what your enemy or adversary is saying about you. In this case they are spreading dehumanization not just about Ukrainians but other nations as well, and it might have very, very serious consequences if we let the Russians freeze this conflict and rebuild/regroup their army and attack us again.

ALEX WOODSON: I do want to speak about what Americans can do and the United Nations can do. Just a couple more questions, though, about the cyber element of the war. I saw a very interesting tweet a couple of weeks ago I think from the Ukrainian Department of Defense, where they actually quoted an American rapper, Pusha T. I don't know if you're familiar with this tweet. The tweet said: "I put numbers on the boards," and then it did a rundown of casualties military equipment that Ukraine had seized from Russia. I am a fan of Pusha T as a rapper. I think he responded positively to the tweet as well. I just thought that was a very different way to discuss a war on social media.

In light of what you just said about how you are trying to get the attention of the West and get the attention of America and people who can provide weapons, it puts that tweet into a different context for me. I thought that was very interesting.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: We help our Ministry of Defense with content, and if you follow them maybe you have seen videos on HIMARS or Crimea. We are trying to do it in a very cool, understandable-for-Western-audiences way.

Information they mention is very important because if we win informationally then we will have more support in other dimensions. We will get more weapons. We will get more sanctions for Russia. Now we are advocating for a tribunal, we are advocating for general accountability because obviously Russia has to be punished for all these crimes because we know from history very well that unpunished evil returns. We didn't punish Russia after Chechnya, after Georgia, after Crimea, Syria, Donbas, and now we finally have to do it.

The scale of atrocities is just enormous, especially for Ukrainians because they see it with their own eyes. We understand that a lot of countries got fatigued, they are not following Ukrainian news that much, but for us we live constantly with the sounds of air raid sirens, we get news every day about killed and tortured civilians.

As I said, Russia does not follow the rules of war. Their army troops are pretty weak—it is definitely not the second strongest army in the world—on the battlefield so that is why they apply tactics of targeting civilians. Basically it is terrorism. They kill civilians, they target civilian infrastructure, and try to intimidate us and force us to these peace negotiations, which are absolutely harmful for us.

ALEX WOODSON: Everything you are saying now is something that we can see in the West, we can see in the United States, most parts of Europe, and a lot of other places. Do you have any sense that this is getting through to Russians at all, what is happening? Maybe it has shifted. I talked a little bit about this back in the spring. Now that the war has entered a new phase, and especially with Putin's speech a couple of nights ago about this mobilization of reservists and others, do you get the sense that this is getting through to Russians, maybe through the work that Ukraine is doing through social media or other digital realms?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: A lot of people think that Russians are victims of this war as well. We think it is not right to think this way because Russians definitely support the war in Ukraine. We know with the fighting, we know different pollings that show that they actually think it was the right step of their government to attack Ukraine.

A lot of people think that Russians just do not have access to information and that is why they are not aware of what is happening. This is totally not true. It was true during Soviet times. Yes, indeed, there was an Iron Curtain, and people didn't have access to information. But now it is a totally different time, and they can watch whatever they want, so in the end they can read whatever they want.

When the full invasion broke out we as Ukrainians started sending them messages, videos, and photos showing what their troops were doing in Ukraine. They were killing civilians. We were shocked because their reaction was like, "It's not true," "It's staged," or, "Ah, we deserve it." I do remember a lot of messages when our people were sending them some pictures of killed Ukrainian kids on Russian social media. They responded that, "Of course these kids deserve to be killed because they are all so naughty."

I wouldn't say that propaganda in Russia works in the way that they were totally unaware of what was going on. No, they give them pieces of information, not facts, but they give already shaped, already prepared opinions. Now we see that Putin announced partial mobilization, and Russians are not happy with it. Russians are disappointed because it is very easy to sit on the couch, watch TV, and support the war, but it is totally different to be deployed and to be killed in winter in Ukraine. They don't have enough motivation to do it.

So we expect Russians to do their homework, to protest because obviously Russian civil society—let's admit it—totally failed. Their fight was very weak all these years, and now they move to the European Union, they move to other Western countries, and they fight, for instance, with the visa ban, which is very weird because you have to fight against the dictator you have, against the regime, and now you are deciding to fight against your [inaudible] and visa ban. I don't think it is the right fight. I was very much surprised by how Russian intellectuals and the Russian elite responded to the war.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to talk a little bit about the work that you are doing now. You are in New York now for the UN General Assembly. What has the reception been like among the people you have been talking to, and what specifically are you looking for from the United Nations? What more could they be doing?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: First of all, the United Nations is a great platform to communicate your messages, to communicate what Ukrainian civil society thinks about the war. We talk to different ministries, we have a lot of bilateral meetings, we talk to national missions to the United Nations. I would say that we see some difference between what our like-minded fighters and allies think, especially those who are critical to Ukraine, and also the United States, which is the greatest friend to Ukraine and supporter of Ukraine, and what for instance the countries of the Global South think.

It is different, and we clearly see that some countries do not understand what is going on on the ground in Ukraine. They sometimes see the conflict through I would say Russian lenses because Russia is trying to impose this narrative that this is a war between the West and Russia, a new version of the Cold War, which is not true. It is a conflict between a totalitarian regime, fascism, and democracy and liberal values that we all share.

Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom and independence, and they have been fighting for years. We have historically a very intense relationship with Russia because for all these years Russia was planning to occupy us, colonize us, to erase basically our history, our culture, our identity, and our language, and now we see that when they come and occupy our cities they immediately try to get rid of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian education.

For instance, they forbid speaking Ukrainian language in schools. They bring Russian teachers. They destroy libraries and theaters. This is an indication of genocide. We see that some countries unfortunately still do not understand this, and we are trying to bring this knowledge to them.

ALEX WOODSON: The full-scale Russian invasion started in February. We have been living in this situation for a while now. I am just wondering, looking back, is there anything that has happened that you didn't expect, anything that surprised you as this war has gone on?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: We always knew that Russia was our enemy, but I will say that a lot of Ukrainians didn't expect them to be so cruel, and we did not expect to see such a level of inhumanity. What they are doing on the battlefield, how they treat our people, how they deport our people to Russia, rape our women and children, how they castrate Ukrainian soldiers, generally this behavior is something beyond what you could imagine. Those who survived the Second World War in Ukraine very often say that they did not see such atrocities back then.

As I said, it is especially shocking because a lot of people in Ukraine speak the same Russian language. We have the same religion. We read the same books and watch the same movies. This is surprising in a very bad way that this country has turned out to be so chauvinistic, so racist. We were trying to draw attention to these questions for the past eight years, especially the attention of the Western community, and unfortunately they thought it was just culture, propaganda, or something, and what Russia was saying about it was just very weird freedom of speech, but it was systematic and consistent dehumanization. Now we see the consequences of this dehumanization.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to point out that one of our senior fellows, Nikolas Gvosdev, [an expert in] Russian history, gave an interview with The Atlantic where he was talking about the same thing and how the atrocities have come from this propaganda, this dehumanization language from Putin, talking about how Ukrainians are Nazis.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: I think a lot of people try to separate the Russian regime and all these atrocities from Russian culture and Russian language and try to say that you shouldn't cancel Russian ballets, for instance, or Russian writers, but I would be very cautious about that because if you read and if you read in [inaudible] we know Russian literature and we read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and all other Russian writers—if you read attentively you will see a lot of ideas, a lot of thoughts which show that Russians are dominant, basically a fascist idea. It is very important to understand that these are not separate things, the Putin regime and Russian culture. Sometimes what we see on the ground is a continuation of what ideas they were exposed to.

This is very important to understand. If you read Dostoyevsky, you will see that he was absolutely a racist. He was actually getting this thought in his works that Russian should dominate, that Russian people are special, that the West is absolute evil. Russians grew up with this. They grew up with the thought that they are special and that they have a right to bring order to Europe and to the West. This is very dangerous.

ALEX WOODSON: Last question. As we get into the fall and winter, as the war goes on, what specifically—it might be tough for you to plan because I know things change every day—are you going to be looking for? I know you said, and we have seen, Russians are protesting against the mobilization. I think 1,300 were arrested yesterday. I am wondering if that informs your strategy at all, or are there any other things that you are looking for over the next few months that maybe we can look for as well?

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: First of all, regarding our allies and partners in other countries, we expect them to avoid fatigue. We expect them to understand that Russia is weaponizing some questions, for instance, port security in the Global South. In the United States it is energy security. We understand very well that for many people the energy bills they will get will be very expensive, but we want to bring to their attention that we cannot choose between prices of gas and oil and freedom and democracy.

We have to end this war, and we can end this war only if we win, if Ukrainians win. We cannot freeze it, we cannot continue to trade with Russia. We cannot close our eyes and not see all these atrocities. It is very important to understand that Ukraine is capable of winning, and other countries—yes, they obviously are tired. Believe me, Ukraine is also tired, but we just do not have another choice except fighting because this is a matter of our survival. We understand that we cannot live under Russian rule. We want to end this war and we are able to do it. We are not asking you to fight for us. We just ask you to be supportive, to give us more weapons and sanctions, and we will end this war as soon as possible.

Regarding Russians, of course we expect them to see that the regime in Russia is absolutely cruel toward them as well, we expect them to protest, and we expect them to avoid mobilization but not silently. This is very important. You cannot be silent to the regime because the regime is provoked by weakness and silence. If you show strength—and we see it clearly on the battlefield—to the Russians, they step back.

ALEX WOODSON: Liubov Tsybulska, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

LIUBOV TSYBULSKA: Thank you.

ALEX WOODSON: That was Liubov Tsybulska, a hybrid warfare expert and advisor to the government of Ukraine.

I'm Alex Woodson. Thanks for listening to Global Ethics Review. Stay safe and healthy.


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