Reporting from Donetsk – Day 1: The Taxi Drive to the DNR.

Crossed the border to the Donetsk Peoples Republic today. After a few months of intense planning, today independent journalist Michel Spekkers and me have crossed the border to the DNR . We are planning to cover the stories of people living here for the next two weeks.

With a smile on his face, our taxi driver explained to us the financial situation with which many people living in Donetsk were confronted with. ‘Before the war started many people of course had taken out loans. But after the war started many banks closed.’ A smile appeared on his face when he said ‘I wanted to pay back my debts, but couldnSo one day the bank called me and said that we had to pay back our dept. I explained we couldn’t, the bank in turn told us they would send someone to my place if I would not pay. I gave my address in Donetsk and said they were welcome at my house.’ After having been given the address, the employee was quiet for a while, reconsidered and said they would not send someone after all.

The above situation is very exemplary of the situation many people in Donetsk are in. People here constantly fall between two stools. The rules of one country do not fully apply to them, but they are affected by them.

On the world alone

Another such situation are the issues with passports. In principle, the citizens of the Donetsk Peoples Republic are on the same level as stateless people: no country in the world (Russia included) recognizes the DNR and LNR as countries. Hence no one in the world recognizes their passports. To travel abroad people are forced to use their Ukrainian passports handed out to them before the war started in Donbass. For a whole new generation of people that did not own a Ukrainian passport before the war and that do not own Ukrainian passports, it has become impossible to travel abroad for their passports are not accepted anywhere.

‘In the Soviet Union it was easy to travel’, a woman we were traveling with told us, ‘There were no border controls and we could travel wherever we liked.’ She stressed that they ‘did not see ourselves as Russians, Ukrainians or whatever we were all part of one big country, the Soviet Union.’ This image persists to this day for she stressed her relatives lived everywhere, in Ukraine in Russia, Belarus, showing how important it is to be able to travel abroad.


Broken families

One of the people traveling with us, was a man that visited his family living in Donetsk for the first time in several years. Due to the situation in the region it was very difficult visiting his family. It shows that was many people tend to forget; war is not only about people dying, it is also about ties to friends and family that are forcefully severed.

But already during this taxi ride, the first stories of people having been killed came to us as well. The woman traveling with us to the DNR told us that one of her brothers died due to the lack of medical help. “The only thing doctors could do is to extend his life, not save it” and hence she was forced to bury her brother.

Later she’d show us pictures of her grandchildren, asking us “How could anyone bomb these children?”. She went on to explain that many schools in Donetsk have pictures hanging in their schools of the students that have died in the conflict.

Divided by languages

Even on this first day of our trip, already some of the underlying problems that led to the conflict became apparent. Even before the Maidan many schools enforced a, what one of our fellow passengers called, ‘Ukrainization.’ Students in high school were forced to follow all their courses in the Ukrainian language, even before the Maidan broke out. “Even physics and mathematics for example”, I asked, ‘Yes, she added, physics mathematics, etc.’ This made it almost impossible for students from Russian families to study. Often there were not even sufficient dictionaries available to translate from.


Arriving in the DNR

After a long journey towards and an equally long wait at the border crossing (very busy because of the New Yeareventually managed to cross the border and enter the DNR. We were greeted by snow, gentle traffic and eventually Donetsk itself. A lot more things have been discussed during the trip and deserve mentioning, but more about that soon.


Alarm Bells ring over Russian propaganda

Education, awareness, and funding journalism are to counter Russian propaganda, so say the Members of European Parliament in a resolution adopted on Wednesday. The Foreign Affairs Committee stresses that countering propaganda with propaganda is counterproductive.

“We are not to use any Russian material for our research!”, a Russian friend recently complained to me. Recently she started a study at a European University. For any of the research she was to do, it was forbidden to use any Russian sources (even academic books), for they were deemed to be unreliable, biased, etc. The student was shocked, not so much because of the prohibition to use Russian material, but way more by the reasoning that all information coming out of Russia was deemed to be propaganda.

The resolution adopted on Wednesday uses a similar reasoning. Though the ideas forwarded in the resolution are not new, the strong condemnation by an important political body in Europe is. This article will be the first of many to focus on information warfare. We will kick of the series by this recent development in Europe concerning Information Warfare.

Alarm Bells ring over Russian propaganda

With a vote of 304 for, 179 voting against and 208 members abstaining, the European parliament adopted a resolution which strongly condemns, amongst others, Russia for making anti-EU propaganda. According to the foreign affairs committee press statement, Russia “seeks to distort the truth, provoke doubt, divide the EU and its North American partners, paralyse the decision-making process, discredit the EU institutions and incite fear and uncertainty among EU citizens.”

The press-statement continues to say that:

MEPs warn that the Kremlin has stepped up its propaganda against EU since annexing Crimea and waging hybrid war in the Donbass. They note that ”the Russian government is employing a wide range of tools and instruments, such as think tanks […], multilingual TV stations (e.g. Russia Today), pseudo-news agencies and multimedia services (e.g. Sputnik) […], social media and internet trolls, to challenge democratic values, divide Europe, gather domestic support and create the perception of failed states in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.”

What is striking in the above quote is the sharp tone of the statement; not only does it mention the country at which the measure is taken against. It even explicitly mentions the names of TV stations and multimedia services to be tools of Russian propaganda. The latter is striking, for the European Union officially steps down from the concept that all news-channels should be seen as news channels, rather the MEP convict some channels to be propaganda.

To take the example of Russia today. Indeed it can be argued that the channel voices a Russian oriented view of the world. The channel has a stronger view on US and EU foreign and internal policy, than do domestic news channels. Nevertheless, the channel gives a platform to alternative views which is voiced rather timidly in Europe itself.

A very strong example of this is the attention RT has spent on covering the revelations made by Wikileaks and Eduard Snowden. Where western channels often focussed on the allegations on the legitimacy of spreading this information made by senior public officials, Russian today delved more into the content of the material released by these whistle-blowers.

Indeed, spending much time on publishing the information can be deemed as to “provoke doubt, divide the EU and its North American partners, paralyse the decision-making process, discredit the EU institutions and incite fear and uncertainty among EU citizens.” It can just as well be seen as a different point of view on actual affairs which is just as legitimate as RT’s European and US peers.

Counterpropaganda and free world

The resolution proposes the following measures to counter the influence of what is seen as Russian propaganda by the following ways.

“To counteract anti-EU campaigns, MEPs suggest investing in awareness raising, education, online and local media, investigative journalism and information literacy, which would empower citizens to analyse media content critically.  It is equally important to adapt communication to specific regions, including access to information in local languages, says the text.

Hence, the MEP urge for the more effectively pushing of their message to the public. The measures all have been spinned to put a positive vibe to them: ‘education’, ‘awareness’, ‘information literacy’ and investing in online, local and investigative journalism. Indeed, it is a form of communication with which the European Union tries to gain supporters for her ideology by playing the public opinion. Which is by way also the definition used to define propaganda on the Dutch Wikipedia page.

Even more starteling is the philosophy behind the measure; western democracies typically hold the freedom of speech and press to be fundamental importance for the functioning of their democracy: only an informed public can make an adequate decision in elections. However, the philosophy of the resolution is different; because Europe is being paralyzed, distorted and destabilized, it needs to act. Though the committee has not gone as far as to bad certain information channels it does see them as a threat and not like another perspective in public debate. Though one might agree with the former or the latter perspective, the resolutions signals an important ideological shift in European parliament.

The war in our living rooms

When discussing the First World War, one cannot but wonder how the biased reporting of those days came to be. Nevertheless, we see a similar pattern unfolding today. Examples are many fold The resolution passed by the European Parliament is one example, the recent closing of the RT’s bank account in Britain is another. But also the trails facing people like Julian Assange and Eduard Snowden further support this pattern. Nevertheless, this is not just a western phenomenon, similar policy can be seen all across the world. We are living in a world where information is increasingly being used to influence minds not only at home, but also abroad. We are also living in a world in which it is becoming more accepted to condemn other information as incredible and, even more worrying, to counter the spread of this information. In view of the current power balance in the world and subsequent tensions, it is to be expected that this trend will intensify.

In future articles in the series ‘The War on Informationwe will look at by what means informational warfare is being fought, What the role is of informational warfare in regular warfare and many other aspects.

A small update for loyal readers: I am currently planning my most ambitious journey of my life. And of course, I will be covering the journey here. Though little can be said about it at this stage, but it takes up a lot of time and I cannot spend the amount of time writing articles as I would like to. This is not expected to change until the middle of January.

A Viable Kurdistan

With Ankara’s invasion of Northern Syria and the recent threatening remarks against Syrian President Assad, it might well have provoked just that I tried to avoid: a viable Kurdistan.

In the wake of the recent Turkish coup attempt, Turkey quickly launched a military intervention into Northern Syria. Officially the intervention was aimed to reduce the amount of terrorist attacks in Turkey made by ISIS and Kurdish rebel groups. The creating of a buffer zone in the North of Syria would supposedly deny access to Turkey of ISIS linked groups.

However, unofficially the goal of the Turkish intervention is just as well, to prevent the Kurd in North eastern Syria and North-Western Syria to link their territories. By seizing the land in between of these two Kurdish-controlled areas, such linking of the two parts of Kurdish controlled territory would be rendered impossible by the Turkey-oriented forces. This objective became especially clear when the US called on the Kurdish rebels to retreat over the Euphrates river such to give full control of the area to Turkey.

The Kurdish troops have, however, not been standing still of their own. After initial setbacks in the north-western Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria, the Kurdish troops were able to halt the advance of the Turkish forces. Furthermore, both troops in the North eastern as the north western Kurdish controlled parts of Syria, have hastened their advance to link up in the area of Al-bab.


Turkey’s intervention int eh North of Syria. The invasion of Turkish forces near the Kurdish controlled areas in the North of Syria indicate how strongly the offensive is aimed at the Kurds.
Picture via: Global Research

Both Turkish as Kurdish forces are now hurling forward in order to get control of the city of Al-bab. For the Kurds, the capture of the city would signal an important step in linking the two parts of Kurdistan. If, however, Al-Bab falls into Turkish hands a strong blow would be dealt to the unification of two Kurdish controlled parts of Syria.

The Syrian government initially responded rather mildly to the Turkish intervention. Even though it condemned the invasion, a military response was rather passive. Not surprisingly, since the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has its hands full with the fight against ISIS and other rebel troops as it is. However, the situation might force Syria to change its stance towards Turkey.

Recent remarks made by Erdogan that Turkish troops will advance to the north of Syria such to include Aleppo and even that Aleppo (and Mosul) belong to Turkey, promise little good for Syria. A confrontation between the SAA and the Turkish army therefore seems eminent.

But such a confrontation is to be avoided by the SAA because of two reasons. Firstly, despite that the SAA has made significant advances recently across Syria, its position is still rather weak. Furthermore, a direct confrontation between the Syrian and the Turkish army might be used to justify an intervention of western states.

However, the SAA seems to have a trump card up their sleeves in the form of the Kurdish troops in Northern Syria. If both parts of Kurdish controlled area were to link up, a buffer would be created between the Syrian and the Turkish army. Such a move would allow the Syrian army to avoid a confrontation between the Turks and the Syrians prevention politically difficult diplomatic situations and save military resources for deployment elsewhere.


Situation in Northern Syria as of December 1 2016. Both pro-Turey forces as the Kurds and SAA are seen hurrying towards Al-bab. Image via Southfront

Syria has currently even gone so far as to launch a joint SAA-Kurdish offensive from the north-western part of Syria, to link the Kurds their compatriots to the east. This situation would be a game changer for the Kurds, for the first time a major power would be interested in the existence of a Kurdish state.

Hence, The Turkish operation Euphrates Shield might very well lead to exactly that it tried to prevent: a viable Kurdistan in the North of Syria.