Reporting from Donbass: We still need to get you to the airport

This was the same street I had seen on a video just a few days ago. One cannot help but wonder what makes that street so ghastly. Maybe even more then the destroyed houses was the ground. Only months and months later you realize what my subconscious had already long since figured out; a normal street has grass. But this one, deserted, allowed only for weed to grow wild in summer, leaving a comfortless picture of mud for winter and fall.

As far as trees were left, they were being cut. Where once the ground was flat, it now was heaped up in piles of dirt as long as the road stretched. This was the area around the Donetsk Sergej Prokovjev airport. The place where fighting was going on literally from the start of the civil war in Ukraine till the present day.

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Nothing could speak to the conscious mind of this more, then the constant stream of destroyed houses. Some had a just few tiles of the roof blown off, others, less lucky, lost their entire roofs. Some had no more need for doors as the whole front of the house was blown up.

“This used to be a very popular place to live”, Graham Phillips explained. A lot of people build their houses here. Now, only some people could be seen here and there, some stray dogs, that was it. Sometimes one could see the writing “ЗДЕСЬ ЖИВУТ ЛЮДИ” – “Here live people”, which was a starch reminder of the time that the fighting was going on, while people were still in their houses. In rare cases, one could see that the writing was changed to say: “Here live people with guns.” More ironic still, was that on some places, one could see the writing, probably from before the war: “For sale.”

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“Are there still people living here”, I asked Phillips. “Yeah, yeah”, he replied. “Can we visit some of them?” and after a pause, thinking, he responded, “ Probably yes”, and while driving to the house to visit, there was the strange sight of a man, building a snow man amidst the ruins, together with his daughter. They still lived here, but this despite their situation, the man waved at us and greeted us with a smile.

The family we visited, consisting of a pensioned miner and his mother, farther up on the road, was located at the edge of the village at the airport. One of their houses, seemingly, without too much damage, the other had an improvised roof made from United Nations relieve packages. Just a few weeks ago, this was one of the places where Patrick Lancaster delivered aid with his fund: aid packages, some food, including a chicken.

After having been shown the house, we were invited for tea. “Yes”, I said, just a quick cup of tea and on our way again. But this wasn’t The Netherlands, where one is lucky when one is offered a cookie to go with your coffee, this is the Russian world. While just having been explained that they need to come by from about 30 euro’s a month, we were served a dish called ‘Golodetsk.’ We silently knew that it was made from the same chicken Patrick brought these people just days before.

“There”, the pension’s mother pointed to area not under DNR control, “There are the fascists! The bandarites!” Without other income, the two were forced to keep living in their damaged house as moving was impossible. Only a month ago, their side house’s roof was blown off by a mortar, while it was just was repaired by another mortar strike some more time ago. It was the third time a mortar hit their residence. For the first one landed right in their kitchen, with the pensioned mineworker being right in the next room. The shell failed to explode.

A few days later, having just finished an interview, we were on our way back to our hotel. While all of a sudden, we heard a bolt of lightning. Yet there was no flash. The sound came from the airport, and all of the sudden, realizing what is was, the taste of Golodets was back in my mouth.

Disinformation as a Weapon in Hybrid Warfare

A recently held talk given in The Hague gives insight in the way Russian media, press statements and other forms of information, are perceived in the west. Among the speakers part of the conference was Mark Laity, Chief Strategic Communications (1) at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). His talk gives insight in how Russian’s press statements and media strategy are perceived in NATO.

‘Disinformation is launched for a reason, it has a goal’, says Marc Laity, Chief Strategic Communications at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) at NATO. ‘Hence, publishing of a certain piece of information is linked to a certain event and made to influence certain players.’

To explain the Russian view of information warfare, Mister Laity refers to a well-known article written by General of the (Russian) army, Valery Gerasimov. Laity places stress on the fact that ‘Information Conflict’ is placed in between the non-military and military measures and stretches from the beginning of a conflict to its end. Hence the ‘information conflict’ is being fought if only a potential military threat is present. “We needs to stop thinking that there is war and there is peace.”, Laity concludes from this. “Informational confrontation does not a ‘pre’ to an invasion, but is a permanent state.”

As an example of the working of Russian disinformation Laity uses the recent publishing of radar data by the Russian government. While the Dutch Joint Investigation Team (JIT) just published its report claiming the responsibility of a separatist operated BUK-system. The Russian released radar images allegedly shows that the missile could not have been fired from the site indicated by the JIT. The result is that anyone viewing the events at home is puzzled what account to believe.

A similar example is giving about Crimea. Initially president Putin said that the soldiers appearing from nowhere all over Crimea were not Russian. However, at a later moment in time he would admit that, indeed these men were Russian soldiers. The result of initial denial is that western powers, not knowing who these soldiers are. Because western countries do not possess a picture of what exactly is happening, they are to postpone their reaction until it is too late.

The above cases are used by Laity to demonstrate that parties are paralyzed by the multitude of information. For example, governments do not know what is going on and therefore incapable of taking serious measures. While at home, using the mistrust in governments, one might lead to discredit the fact in total, not being able to know what is true and what is not. Resulting in a reaction, as Laity put it, “God, I do not know! Stuff it!”

‘So what is NATO doing?’ was a reaction from the audience. ‘Does NATO have a counter strategy?’ Laity responds by saying that there are insufficient resources at a tactical level. To demonstrate this Laity refers to supposedly Russian ‘troll farms’, organizations in Russia solely dedicated to making comments on forums and spreading pro-Russian information. ‘Russia has a clear idea what to do, but in the West we do not’. Laity adds that before NATO formulates any strategy, NATO should have a clear idea what the Russian strategy actually is.

The moderator of the conference adds an interesting remark to Laity’s strategy. He states that Russia’s attempt to influence public opinion is a 24h industry and that the West is insufficient in combatting this. Adding that ‘We in the west only come up with propaganda on a project basis like in Iraq.’ This last remark put into perspective some of Laity’s words. Indeed, the west also makes use of propaganda and while discussing Russia’s attempt of ‘disinformation’ this is often forgotten. When certain information of Russian origin is referred to as disinformation does not automatically make it as such. Indeed the Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE, might well have his own reason to spin certain information in a certain way. While discussing Russia’s information strategy, Laity suggested that much Russian information is incorrect. While in fact (if not the vast majority), a significant part of information of Russian origin is different information (but true), and from a different perspective.

1 – https://nl.linkedin.com/in/mark-laity-b6b86b6

https://twitter.com/marklaity