Strategic Response to Russian Interference in Ukraine: Information Defense Hub Newsletter

Strategic Response to Russian Interference in Ukraine: Information Defense Hub Newsletter

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / timwege
25 July 2023
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This newsletter provides a summary of the latest updates in Ukraine as it defends its territory against Russian aggression. Drawing from expert sources, the analysis aims to offer readers a well-founded overview of the important developments. The following report covers events from July 1 to July 15, 2023. In this issue, you can read about NATO Summit in Vilnius; Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant; Ukraine Recovery Conference; forced displacement abroad; the unified register for missing persons, and Russia’s environmental crimes in Ukraine.

This newsletter was prepared by the Information Defense Hub. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers.

NATO Summit in Vilnius

On July 11-12, 2023, the NATO summit was held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The main topics of the meeting of the leaders of NATO member states were the adaptation of the Alliance to modern security realities in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the strengthening of NATO itself and its eastern flank, as well as the continuation of support for Ukraine and the prospects of Ukraine to join the organization. Ukraine regarded this year’s summit as a milestone for future membership and, while having an understanding that NATO membership during the war would not happen, had high expectations for political invitation in clear-cut language, as well as an agreed roadmap towards this goal, including the package of security guarantees for the period ahead the accession. Summit was marked by heated discussions and political blackmailing from Ukrainian politicians threatening not to show up at the summit. Hours before the Summit, President Zelenskyi emotionally assessed the ongoing diplomatic play: “Unprecedented and absurd – when there is no time frame for both the invitation (!) and Ukraine’s membership; and when, instead, some strange wording is added about “conditions” even for inviting Ukraine…”. Taking into account the position of some allies, allegedly the US and Germany, the final Communiqué offered the following compromise algorithm: NATO “will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree, and conditions are met.” Unlike the 2008 Bucharest formula, Membership Action Plan (MAP) is not mentioned for Ukraine, but at the same time, the member states of the Alliance recommend Ukraine to continue the path towards membership within the framework of the adapted Annual National Program (ANP) and, mainly, to focus on further reforms in the security and defense sector. Following the release of the Communique, President Zelenskyi participated in the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, which was established instead of the NATO-Ukraine Commission to highlight the equal stand of Ukraine and the Allies.

Also, on July 12, the Group of Seven countries announced the start of bilateral negotiations with Ukraine regarding the formalization of support for the country. The G7 countries also announced a joint declaration of support for Ukraine to make it clear that support will continue for a long time in the future. This would be a part of the process of providing Ukraine with a package of bilateral security guarantees. Ten more countries announced their intent to join the initiative the following day.

Analysis

Despite some progress towards recognizing Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, the watered-down invitation was largely met with disappointment in Ukraine, as it does not offer any concrete timeframe or specify any road map for membership, as boldly expected in Kyiv. In fact, it is not even clear what the exact conditions mentioned in the statement are. There is no joint understanding of what the adapted ANP will look like, which implies different assessments and expectations. Vilnius Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) is a further step forward, extending financial resources available for Ukraine over a longer period. Although the budget for CAP is not specified in the final Communiqué, it transitions to a multi-year program with sustained and predictable funding. CAP 2.0 can significantly contribute to bridging the gaps in other vital areas, like logistics, energy security, and hybrid threats. In the long run, this instrument should help to transition Ukraine towards full interoperability with NATO. The Terms of Reference for the newly established NATO-Ukraine Council are yet to be developed. However, it is not clear if it will help to ensure that high-level meetings with Ukraine are not blocked by one nation’s veto, as it was with the Ukraine-NATO Commission due to Hungary’s veto since 2017. To sum up, experts consider that the decisions of the NATO summit regarding Ukraine are interim, and the success or failure of the proposed political framework will largely depend on the operationalization of the decisions at the working level.

ZNPP: How to avoid a nuclear disaster 

The situation surrounding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) has escalated over the past month and remains tense. US President Joe Baden said that he believed Putin’s “nuclear” threats were not just a bluff and an attempt to intimidate but a real threat. In addition, a few weeks ago, the chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, Kyrylo Budanov, said, “The plan to blow up the ZNPP has been approved; the situation has never been so serious.” On July 2, Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of the temporarily occupied Enerhodar where ZNPP is located, said that some Rosatom employees and collaborators who had signed a contract with the company had left ZNPP. At the same time, Russian propagandists were spreading disinformation that Ukraine was allegedly planning to shell ZNPP on July 5. On the same day, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) reported that the Russians might start preparing a “false-flag” attack on the plant to blame Ukraine. On July 8, the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine released a map of the minefields at ZNPP that had been placed there by the Russian invaders. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi said no signs of mining were found at ZNPP. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities continue nuclear blackmail. Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitry Medvedev threatened to blow up three Ukrainian nuclear power plants and nuclear facilities in Eastern Europe.

Analysis

Russians occupied the Zaporizhzhia NPP in March 2022. Since then, the Russian invaders and their equipment have been permanently deployed there. After the Russians blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP), additional facilities at the ZNPP plant were mined. ZNPP is perhaps the last trump card in Putin’s hands against both Ukraine and the West. The Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail has significantly intensified before the NATO summit in Vilnius and the Ukrainian army’s advance on the frontline. The goals of this information and military terror are not new: to intimidate Ukraine’s partners, reduce the supply of weapons to the Ukrainian army, prevent a Ukrainian counteroffensive, force Kyiv to sit down at the negotiating table with the aggressor, sow panic among Ukrainians and their neighbors, and cause massive economic damage (a terrorist attack on the plant would reduce Ukraine’s energy generating capacity by 25%). Moscow also uses this rhetoric on its domestic audience to keep Putin’s regime in power.

Kyiv’s significant media publicity about potential threats at ZNPP has slightly reduced the risk of a terrorist attack by the Russians. In addition, tension was eased through the work of Ukrainian diplomacy and intelligence services with international partners. The positions of the United States and China were important in this context, as they signaled to Moscow the possible consequences of a nuclear attack. Despite a temporary de-escalation of the situation, the threat remains. Currently, ZNPP is controlled by more than five hundred occupants. According to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, Russian troops install landmines in the plant’s technical facilities and machine rooms. The only way to avoid a catastrophe at ZNPP is to withdraw Russian troops and equipment from the nuclear object completely. International pressure and successful counteroffensive operations by the AFU will speed up this process.

Considering the Kakhovka dam blast and the potential threat of an explosion at the ZNPP, the imposition of sanctions on Rosatom and the Russian nuclear industry, an issue that has been stagnant within the EU for months, is of particular importance now. Western democracies should exhibit leadership and act from a position of strength towards the aggressor without being overly concerned about the Kremlin’s reaction. It is crucial to move beyond political statements and take concrete steps to hold those responsible for aggression accountable for their actions and prevent possible future catastrophic developments, such as a possible blowup of the ZNPP. The critical aspect of implementing these measures is time. While allies seek compromise solutions, lives are being lost daily in Ukraine, and the state itself, representing an outpost of democracy and liberal values of the West, is being attacked night and day.

Ukraine Recovery Conference: €50 billion in exchange for reforms and reconstruction

On June 21-22, London hosted the annual high-level Ukraine Recovery Conference (URC), where the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a significant support package for Ukraine, amounting to €50 billion. This announcement marked the largest and most visionary support package unveiled at the URC this year. The EU’s Ukraine Facility, a new and ambitious initiative, is set to allocate funds for Ukraine between 2024 and 2027. It is expected that this funding will cover 45% of Ukraine’s survival and recovery needs until 2027 and will be structured around three key pillars:

  • Pillar I: grants and loans for the government, which will be allocated based on an approved plan and the achievement of reform and recovery milestones outlined in the plan,
  • Pillar II: public and private investments, accompanied by EU guarantees and blended support,
  • Pillar III: technical assistance will be provided to the government and local stakeholders responsible for implementing the plan.

Ursula von der Leyen emphasized that implementing reforms and conditions outlined in Pillar I will send a positive message to international private investors, indicating Ukraine’s readiness for their investments.

At the heart of this initiative is the idea that funding disbursement will be contingent upon conditionality and Ukraine’s vision of its transformation. As a result, Ukraine must develop a plan for its recovery, modernization, and EU integration reforms for the next four years. The plan should be implemented within the agreed timeline, and funding will be disbursed quarterly upon achievement of the milestones set out in the plan. Rigorous oversight and audit mechanisms will enable the EU to track spending and identify any potential misuse of funds, which could lead to the program’s suspension. Additionally, the EU allows for a certain level of flexibility in updating the plan, considering the current uncertainties, or even rewriting it under reasonable circumstances.

Analysis

Some experts have labeled this plan “the last chance for Ukraine.” As evidenced by last year’s Lugano Ukraine Recovery Conference and this year’s conference in London, realistic planning has proven to be a challenge for the Ukrainian government. While a recovery plan was presented in Lugano last year, it faced criticism, and this year, no plan was put forward. Statements made by government officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Yuliia Svyrydenko’s assertion that Ukraine’s GDP will reach $1 trillion, raise doubts about how Ukraine can achieve such growth following a 30% GDP decline in 2022 and an ongoing war. The proposed ideas to develop the extraction industry and support economic freedom do not provide a clear roadmap for accomplishing such a significant leap.

Ukraine has a substantial task ahead in formulating, approving, and implementing the plan. In June, the latest oral progress assessment of the implementation of seven EU recommendations for Ukraine’s EU candidacy revealed that the EU recognizes two recommendations as fully implemented out of the seven provided last year. Implementing these recommendations is crucial for opening accession negotiations with Ukraine, which Ukraine expects to take place by the end of this year. Developing a plan under the guidance of the EU presents an opportunity to chart a course for steady and anticipated progress in Ukraine’s reforms and recovery, even in the face of uncertainty.

Forced migration abroad: economic impact and whether Ukrainians will return home

As of the beginning of July, only in Europe, the number of displaced Ukrainians is about 6 million. Although 65% are ready to return home one day, only 12% of them plan to do so shortly. The vast majority of Ukrainians abroad have not yet decided on the date of their return. Another study indicates that the displaced people’s decision not to come back from abroad may cost Ukraine $113 billion in GDP loss over ten years.

Analysis

The primary factor that influences the return of Ukrainians to Ukraine is the security situation, as currently, safety is not guaranteed in any part of the country. The recent missile attack on Lviv proves that even in cities far from the combat zone, people face the tragic consequences of war. In addition, returning displaced people need functioning infrastructure, access to work, and basic living standards. A full-scale war, constant shelling, and significant defense budget expenditures limit the state’s ability to provide all these conditions for returning people. It is worth noting that reconstruction programs are already being implemented in Ukraine, but in a limited format and relatively safe areas, such as the Kyiv region.

Ukrainians displaced abroad continue adaptation in their host countries. In the long run, those who do this the best may change their minds about returning home. However, despite the support of Western governments, simplification of residence procedures, and simplified access to the labor market, displaced people face many obstacles abroad. Employment status and conditions have a significant impact on life quality. For example, there are over a million Ukrainians under temporary protection in Germany, but according to official data, only 17% of them found a job. 72% of externally displaced Ukrainians have a higher or technical education and would qualify as high-skilled workers, but only 23% of those employed got a job corresponding to their education level. Approximately the same number do manual labor, such as cleaning or sorting goods. A similar situation can be seen in other European countries. For example, in Poland, the level of employment of Ukrainians is higher, but only 17% of highly qualified Ukrainians have found a job that corresponds to their degree and professional experience. Therefore, the employment statistics of Ukrainians displaced abroad cannot substantially demonstrate Ukrainians’ level of adaptation. After all, these figures often do not present the actual situation. Many people have only part-time or temporary employment and are often forced to work outside their fields for lower salaries.

While millions of Ukrainians are forced to stay abroad, this mass migration has a negative impact on the country’s economy. This slows down Ukraine’s attempts to provide people with decent living conditions. External displacement caused a large-scale outflow of currency from the country as a result of the usage of Ukrainian bank cards abroad. In 2022, this was stabilized due to certain restrictions by the National Bank’s restrictions and donor funds. However, this situation still affects the currency market of Ukraine because Ukrainians spend about $1 billion a month abroad. In addition, domestic consumer demand is decreasing, harming the development of the country’s production and business potential. Ukraine’s budget receives even fewer funds under such conditions. The more displaced people decide to stay abroad permanently, the longer Ukraine’s economic recovery will last. Therefore, state policy on this issue should be one of Ukraine’s priorities already today. Researchers from the NGO EasyBusines and the Center for Economic Recovery recommend establishing cooperation with the relevant authorities of other countries, developing joint plans for the voluntary return of Ukrainians, holding communication companies, and forming options for potential additional incentives for Ukrainians who will return home.

Unified register for missing persons established 

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, tens of thousands of people have been reported missing. At the beginning of May 2023, the Unified Register of Missing Persons was launched in Ukraine. The register was developed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs together with the Commissioner for Missing Persons and other agencies. The Commissioner for Persons Missing in Special Circumstances, Oleh Kotenko, reported that currently, the Register counts more than 23 000 people.

Analysis

There are more than 23 thousand names in the Register of Missing Persons under Special Circumstances, 90% of which are military personnel. The fate of more than a third of the disappeared is unknown. Along with military personnel who went missing since February 2022, the search continues for about seventy people whose fate is unknown after 2014. The Commissioner states there is a chance to find them alive.

The status of over 8000 people was verified in the last year since the appointment of the Commissioner. 60% of them are alive people who were in captivity. At the same time, Ukraine returned more than 1500 bodies.

However, the only official source is the confirmation of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Russian side does not provide any official information on the whereabouts of the captured service members or their medical conditions. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, indicated in his statement that “Ukraine – to its credit – provided unfettered and confidential access to places of internment. The Russian Federation, however, gave us no access, despite multiple requests”. In June 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a declaration calling on the ICRC and the international community to demand from the Russian Federation full compliance with the norms of international humanitarian law regarding Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs).

Another obstacle to the search is the movement of a captured military person on the territory of the Russian Federation or in the occupied Ukrainian territories from one facility to another.

In the case of the military, units have official lists of missing persons, but the situation with missing civilian persons is far more complicated. On 23 June, at the meeting organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Hague, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Erin M. Barkley, noted that “families of detainees are often unable to contact or track the whereabouts of their loved ones because Russia prohibits family members, lawyers, and international monitoring groups from meeting those it holds in custody.”

ICMP has been providing assistance to the authorities in Ukraine since 2014. Immediately after the full-scale invasion, the authorities in Kyiv asked the ICMP to expand its activities. As part of its program in Ukraine, ICMP will launch an information campaign to encourage families to report missing relatives; and a data collection campaign to facilitate DNA-based identification and support investigations.

Russia’s environmental crimes in Ukraine 

Before the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukraine was home to 35% of Europe’s biodiversity. It is also still one of the key actors in global agricultural production, exporting crops that grow on vast fields. Russian aggression caused significant damage to the environment in Ukraine, harming biodiversity, natural resources, human and animal health, as well as the economic and social situation. Attacks on port infrastructure result in oil spills, polluting the sea, leading to the death of fish, seabirds, and microorganisms. Destruction of oil depots and gas stations pollutes the air. As of the end of 2022, more than 3 million hectares of forests, mainly in the northern regions, have been damaged. Ecologists believe restoring damaged forests will take at least 20 years. According to the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine, mines, enemy shelling, and deliberate arson have been the leading causes of forest fires. And the environmental damage on the occupied territories can’t be fully assessed.

By blowing up the Kakhovka HPP, Russian forces created a massive flood in the surrounding areas. Among the consequences are: temporary desalination of water, growth of algae, drop in oxygen level, and therefore fish plague; pollution of water and land with oil products, metals, and waste; destruction of habitats. Many wild animals, including rare species, were killed. Since the dam’s construction, a new ecosystem has formed in the surrounding area that cannot exist without water. That ecosystem will disappear gradually. As the reservoir dried, all aquatic organisms suddenly died, and there is no terrestrial life yet. It is currently difficult to estimate this war crime’s medium and long-term consequences.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, thousands of dolphins were killed by Russian warship sonars, explosions, and pollution in the Black and Azov Seas. Scientists estimate the number to be more than 50 thousand. According to the Ukrainian government, more than 6 million domestic animals were killed as of November 2022.

Analysis

“Russia’s war against Ukraine affects climate security and climate action worldwide. Democracies are investing millions of dollars in achieving climate neutrality. Russia, with its missiles and ammunition, cancels the efforts of all those for whom the fight against climate change is a priority.” – said Ruslan Strilets, Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian government launched several tools to document the environmental damage and is proactively registering the instances in preparation for legal proceedings in the future. For example, EcoZagroza platform has 2317 verified reports of ecological crimes by occupants.

Currently, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) briefly mentions environmental damage. Introducing ecocide as a new severe crime requires widespread global support, but it would transform how environmental harm is perceived and prosecuted. 

The European Economic and Social Committee and European Parliament (EP) call for the recognition of ecocide as a criminal offense under EU law. During the first meeting of the International Working Group on the Environmental Consequences of War in Kyiv last month, the Vice-President of the EP, Heidi Hautala, said that Russian crimes against the environment must be addressed both at the national and international levels. Ukraine’s criminal code includes provisions related to ecocide, and 14 cases are under investigation, all related to attacks on oil depots, actions threatening nuclear facilities, the mass death of dolphins, and the blowing up of the Kakhovka Dam.

Russia has persistently pursued its objective of inflicting significant harm upon Ukraine, evident in its recent terror attack on Kakhovka HPP. As Moscow understands the language of power, and the global response to the attack has been inadequate, the threat of an environmental crime of such scale remains. This would impact the lives and lands of Ukrainian citizens even beyond the duration of the war.

Attention

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations