UkraineAlert

The war in eastern Ukraine is a Kremlin-manufactured conflict. The arrival of "little green men" in Crimea in February 2014 transformed the conflict from a domestic altercation between citizens and their government to an international crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly acknowledged in a government-sponsored documentary that he carefully planned and orchestrated the military takeover of the Crimean peninsula. No such admissions have been made about the war in the Donbas. From the outbreak of fighting in the east, the official Kremlin narrative has framed the Ukrainian crisis as a civil war between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists. In reality, for the first six months of the conflict, from March to August 2014, the Ukrainian civil war was a myth concocted by Russian state-sponsored media, reiterated by Russian officials, and then picked up by Western media outlets eager for objectivity and balance. But with the continued influx of Russian weapons, soldiers, and Russian recruitment and training of local Ukrainian forces, that myth is swiftly becoming a reality.

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After US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Sochi on May 12, a barrage of articles urged Western leaders to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with an off-ramp for his various Ukrainian adventures. Even more disheartening than the volume was the growing diversity of reasons for giving Putin a pass. At least three arguments were made.

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Amid multiple signs of an impending battle in Ukraine, NATO and Ukraine have stepped up their response. But so has Russia. Ukrainian officials claim to have 60,000 troops in the field against an estimated 54,000 Russian forces in the Donbas. A large-scale conventional theater in the Donbas is a real danger this summer. But Moscow is not merely focused on Ukraine. Russia has made numerous nuclear threats, buzzed US and NATO ships in the Black Sea, moved Iskander missiles to Crimea and Kaliningrad, built up a formidable anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) force along the Russian border, conducted major Arctic exercises, and continued its probes against northern European and US targets.

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Listen to the proclamations of Ukraine's political leaders and you might think the country is in the midst of rapid change. On June 4, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared that "reforms are the key word...The countdown of the period of reforms has started."

There is much talk of reform, but the reality is less impressive. No one doubts that the country's institutions desperately need restructuring. Even before Russian forces annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas, the country stood on the brink of bankruptcy. After a painful currency devaluation, it is now the poorest in Europe. It is also the most corrupt. The parliament is controlled by oligarchs, and the police are as crooked as the mafia.

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Editor's note: Ambassador John B. Emerson gave the opening remarks at "Exposing Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century," a conference sponsored by the Atlantic Council, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Heinrich Böll Foundation on June 25, 2015 in Berlin. Emerson's remarks have been shortened below. The full version is available here.

Guten Morgen. It's a pleasure to be here and see so many familiar faces in the audience. Today's conference in many respects represents the essence of the democratic process. Today we want to discuss a problem that we have been struggling to resolve ever since the "little green men" showed up in February 2014 to invade Crimea: countering Kremlin disinformation. I will offer a few thoughts that I hope will stimulate discussion and lead to some specific ideas about how we can expand our network and work together to keep the information space free; and to ensure that our public has the facts and not propaganda.

All of us are here today because we are champions of free speech – one of the core values of the transatlantic relationship. We are here because the Russian government, and the media that it controls, are trying to prevent the publication of information that doesn't conform to Russia's aims, and are manipulating the presentation of information to cloak Russia's actions. The Kremlin's disinformation campaign goes far beyond controlling its own media. It is aimed at nothing less than presenting a parallel version of reality and disseminating it as if it were news. The Kremlin's goal is to make people question the value of media at all; to reject the idea of an absolute truth; and to persuade the public that "reality" is relative.

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"We brought down some Lenins in people's heads," says organizer Yuriy Didula

Days after Ukrainian forces retook the city of Kramatorsk on July 5, 2014, Yuriy Didula and two colleagues from western Ukraine piled into a car and drove building materials into the city.

"People in the east felt abandoned by the state," Didula said in a June 25 interview. The 25-year-old manages the Lviv Education Foundation's eastern Ukraine portfolio.

As a student at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Didula and his colleagues developed an exchange program that brought young people from eastern to western Ukraine for Christmas and Easter. Later, as part of Lviv Education Foundation, they organized a summer leadership camp for Kramatorsk youth. Having established long-lasting friendships with students in eastern Ukraine, Kramatorsk was a natural place to pitch in.

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Late June in Kyiv can be beautiful. With clear skies, temperatures peaking in the high 70s, the natural beauty of the city and its citizens, it can be easy to forget that the country is at war. In part that is a result of the country's success. A year ago, few would have predicted that the country's armed forces would fight the Kremlin and its separatist proxies to a standstill. Yes, Russian-backed separatists and Russian soldiers continue to press forward in the east, but their progress is measured in tens of meters and paid for in Russian and separatist blood. Despite a disinformation campaign that would make Joseph Goebbels, President Vladimir Putin's favorite propagandist, red with envy, the Russian people still oppose the use of Russian soldiers in a war that Moscow started.

A few months ago, few would have predicted that Europe would renew its hard-hitting sectoral sanctions this week. None of this means that Ukraine is out of danger. On the economic side, most reformers are waiting to see if the government implements the legislation that Ukraine's parliament passed in March at the insistence of the IMF as part of the process of securing a $17 billion loan. Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is in a pitched battle with Franklin Templeton on the issue of restructuring Ukraine's debt, with a moratorium on payments a likely result if the creditors continue to insist that they should be exempt from any penalty for lending to the corrupt government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

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The Transatlantic Alliance is in Trouble 

"We lived next to Russia for 500 years—listen to what we have to say," Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said at the Bratislava Global Security Forum on June 20. He's right. The West needs to pay attention and achieve strategic clarity in Europe and beyond before it's too late.

There are no shortage of crises and challenges—ISIS, the refugee crisis involving state failure in North Africa, Syria and Iraq, the rise of China, and Greece's potential exit from the European Union to name a few—facing the United States and its allies, but Ukraine and Russia are among the key tests to the transatlantic relationship.

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Russia's Foreign Ministry has banned US investigative journalist Simon Ostrovsky from working in Russia. On June 4, it denied a press visa for Ostrovsky, an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist best known for his coverage of the Ukraine crisis for VICE News.

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On a scorching Saturday afternoon in the Pechersk district of Kyiv, a group of five young people take refuge in a cool alcove hidden at the back of the Ivan Honchar Museum for a free Ukrainian class. Together, for ninety minutes, they discuss that week's subject, studentstvo ("student life"), learning new Ukrainian words to describe lectures, dormitories, and professors. Three of the group members—the instructor and two others—are native speakers. The other two are foreigners trying to master spoken and written Ukrainian.

It may not seem like much right now, but the organizers of this initiative are sure that it is part of something much bigger. Germany promotes its culture abroad through the Goethe-Institut. China has the Confucius Institute. Now Ukraine has the Skovoroda Institute, a small, youth-driven organization named for the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoryi Skovoroda. It strives to introduce foreigners to Ukrainian culture through the study of the language.

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