Ukrainians decisively reject Russian narratives of internal divisions

Here’s some context in a new Carnegie Europe report for the recent Russian Telegram star assassination.

Established within the National Security Council in 2021, the Center on Countering Disinformation debunks Russia’s manipulative and misleading narratives, including through social media platforms. This is a formidable task as many of these platforms, especially Telegram, have become a safe haven for disinformation due to lack of scrutiny and proper moderation policies.

Especially Telegram.

The tone of this report emphasizes how Ukraine easily regulates and rebuffs disinformation using curated sources of trusted information.

Investigative journalists and civil society organizations, such as StopFake and Detector Media, complement governmental efforts in checking facts and providing accurate information. A December opinion poll found that Ukrainians, including in the most vulnerable southern and eastern regions, decisively reject Russian narratives of internal divisions and Western betrayal of the country.

We see Ukraine described in terms of protecting the most vulnerable and preventing harms.

The report continues to say heavy regulation, including forced breakup of oligarchial control over media, is Ukraine’s charted path for freedom of speech.

Ukraine’s resilience in the information war has created momentum for deepening reforms to preserve media freedom and pluralism of views. As a part of the conditionality for membership, the EU called for introducing legislative norms that would regulate the media sector in accordance with its directives in this field. In December 2022, the parliament passed the required law. If properly implemented, the law would not only strengthen the instruments to counter Russian disinformation but also develop norms to ensure transparency and the independence of media from undue political influence.

All of this points towards Russia being the most likely motivated assassin of its own journalists.

First, it’s the common tool of Putin. Second, the Russian victim early could have stepped over a line that triggered the dictator’s press-killing secret police. Third, internal divisions in Russia are growing severely over bungling mismanagement of war with Ukraine.

The question about the assassination is really how could it not be Russians killing each other? Ukraine hasn’t needed to resort to such tactics, given its commanding control over the information domain.

While Ukrainians show steady resistance to narratives of internal division, Russia (like a Tesla factory) viciously attacks its own top performers to kill speech about obvious internal fragmentation.

That being said, an explosion is uncommon and unusual for Russian state assassins. It’s somewhat significant for being in a Russian city lounge being “guarded” by far-right miltants.

The attack carries hallmarks of Russian domestic anti-war extremists.

The primary target wasn’t a journalist or reporter in the usual sense. He had been a coal miner and jailed in Ukraine for bank robbery. In 2014 he “escaped” with Russian help to become a militant separatist within Ukraine. His Telegram role essentially was Russian puppet coddled by military handlers inserting him into high-risk war zones to generate disinformation. You can see why he thought he was safe and where.

Obviously the victim being targeted while in a plainly vulnerable Petersburg cafe, surrounded by at least two dozen of his fans (13% of Russian Telegram users are in that city, second only to Moscow), sends a strong message of resistance to Russians.

Or as Ukrainians have expertly explained:

“Spiders are eating each other in a jar,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote in English…. “Question of when domestic terrorism would become an instrument of internal political fight was a matter of time.”

A Ukrainian pro-Russian militant extremist propaganda leader, who promoted killing civilians (“we will kill everyone, we will rob everyone”), seems to have been killed in a civilian setting by Russian anti-war militant extremists.

An assassination doesn’t fit within increasing Ukrainian success in disarming disinformation at every level. I mean they wouldn’t have any real need to expend the kind of heavy effort to physically target such a mediocre blogger from Moscow visiting his Petersburg fans.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t Ukraine, just that it has stronger hallmarks of local action. And if Russian authorities crack down even harder on expression now, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue any increase in incidents inside Russia isn’t inevitable domestic resistance.

I’ve been asked about the explosive, and it seems far too early to make that kind of call. I’m reminded of giving a talk at a mystery writer’s conference about how to hack into computers, where the distinguished speaker immediately before me was an explosives expert describing how to assassinate people (mostly with cars). Apparently there’s some kind of shared theme here? My, how times change.

We certainly know the target was killed with 30 people around him injured, suggesting very high precision planning. Since the statue was unexpected as a shiny gift in a box, and in the image of the target himself, it seems an obvious play on a Telegram star’s glaring insecurity — curated, not just plain explosives. And there does seem to be a thread that suggests the statue was part of a compound attack, somehow causing the target highest proximity harm from an earlier planted incendiary.

But what do I know about those things, I’m just the computer guy who studies information integrity.

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