Hearts and Minds: Moves and Countermoves

Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions


In the world of statecraft, little can be accomplished without popular support. In any geopolitical competition a battle for hearts and minds is essential. The Ukraine Crisis has inspired creative schemes to develop popular support on the part of all sides involved. An examination of these can be highly revealing, especially taken as part of a wider strategy in an information war.

Of particular interest are political youth/student movements, NGOS, and media campaigns designed to garner public support. Tactics involving these entities are employed by Moscow, Kiev, as well as Western interests to work towards their respective objectives. They are essential aspect hybrid warfare in which political and military lines are blurred by unofficial actors and conflicting information.


In Russia

The Russian Federation works all of these with great effectiveness. The country is no stranger to government-sponsored youth movements. During the first Putin administration, the Nashi organization (“Наши” means “ours” in Russian) rose to prominence, offering a state-backed alternative to other political youth groups. Nashi espoused virtues such as patriotism, temperance, work ethic, anti-corruption, and historical consciousness (with pro-United Russia and anti-fascist themes for good measure). At its height, the movement boasted over 120,000 members across the country and acted as a significant force for the United Russia party.  

More recently, Nashi has been overshadowed by a new Kremlin student group. Known as Сеть (“network”), this new group appears to be primarily aimed at the urban middle class, in contrast to its more blue-collar predecessor. As one anonymous member said, the group aspires to create a new intelligentsia for the Putin generation.

Their program includes defending Christian values in Russia (emphasizing the role of the Orthodox Church and traditional family), protecting and promoting the Russian language, and fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and patriotism, in addition to general support for the objectives of Moscow. To help promote their message, the group has produced several murals celebrating Crimea’s return to Russia.     

On the media front as well, Moscow has been working actively to defend Russian interests. Recent legislation states that 80% of media in the country must be owned by Russian citizens and similar steps are being taken with regard to internet companies. It is likely that these are steps to counter both foreign influence in Russian media and anti-Russia biases in Western press.   


In Ukraine

On the opposing side, Western NGOs have been busily at work in Ukraine for over 20 years. Their role became widely known as a result of the Orange Revolution, which in many ways was a precursor to the Maidan riots. Support for pro-Western politicians and press was particularly successful in the west of Ukraine, which has had a very different historical development and where cultural sympathies were already closer to Poland and Lithuania.

More recently, Western NGOs and diaspora populations were involved in supporting the Euromaidan movement. Diaspora volunteers from both Canada and the United States even fought with the Ukrainian Army and nationalist paramilitaries. Though exact details are hard to find, it was confirmed in a speech by Victoria Nuland that the United States has invested over $5 billion in “democracy promotion” in Ukraine.   


In the Baltics

In the Baltic States, the historical narrative serves to distinguish the native population from their Russian cohabitants. In Latvia, nationalists are active in the school system and organize annual parades honoring WWII veterans (including SS members) that fought against the Soviet Union. As in western Ukraine, many in the Baltics view anti-Soviet/pro-German partisans as heroes fighting for national liberation. This is directly contrary to the majority view of the Russian speakers, who view them as collaborators in the fascist occupation.

In a country that is already deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, where most of the ethnic Russians (25% of the population) are not citizens, it is likely that such measures will increase internal tensions. However, key Latvian officials have made steps to moderate the country’s stance towards Russia to mitigate potential internal instability.


In the EU

Even in the European heartland, public opinion is increasingly divided by a changing political landscape. Rallies against the Kiev government and Russian sanctions have been seen in Germany and France, while President Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, and UKIP in the United Kingdom have openly criticized EU policies. On the pro-Kiev side however, protests have been seen in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, and Bulgaria. While most mainstream media in the EU supports the party line from Brussels, Russian media outlets have a significant following, allowing for Moscow to present differing points of view to what would normally be available.


Likely Moves and Countermoves

The information war between the various factions of the EU, Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. is highly likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Each side will take whatever steps possible to promote their point of view and opposing forces will respond in turn. Measures to develop domestic support in the form of student groups is also likely to continue, especially if the crisis does not reach a definitive end.

EU member countries will remain divided over relations with Russia, with some preferring closer ties and others seeking Moscow’s containment or isolation. This division is caused by legitimate divergence of interests and therefore is highly likely to remain unless there is a major change in the geopolitical environment. The United States will continue efforts to limit Russian influence in Europe, but it is unlikely that Washington will hold much influence outside of Poland, Romania, and the Baltics. The mutual benefits of positive relations with Russia are likely too significant for most European capitals to give up. Support from D.C. doesn’t heat European homes in the winter.