« Ukraine: 4 fronts of war »

Report on the conference held at the École Militaire on December 8, 2023, Paris.

Organized by Eastern Circles and IHEDN, in partnership with Diplomatie magazine.

Opening remarks:
  • General Benoit Durieux (President of Académie de défense and Director of IHEDN, French Armed Forces) and Anastasiya Shapochkina (Eastern Circles)
  • Michael Druckman (International Republican Institute, Kyiv office), Ivana Stradner (Foundation for Defense of Democracies, USA), Ganna Maliar (former Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine), Pauline Maufrais (Reporters without Borders, Paris)
  • Stephane Audrand (defense and security consultant), Artem Shevalev (EBRD, London), Oleksandr Musienko (Center for Defense Strategies, Kyiv)
  • Swasti Rao (Manohar Parikkar Institute for Defence Studies, New Dehli), Niegale Bagayoko (African Security Sector Network), Hennadiy Maksak (Ukrainian Prism), Velina Tchakarova (FACE, Vienna)
  • General Vincent Breton (French Armed Forces), Olena Tregub (NAKO, Anti-corruption Commission of Ukraine)

Closing remarks: Oleksandra Matviichuk (Head of Center for Civil Liberties, Nobel Peace Prize laureat 2022)

  • Jonathan Fink (Silicon Curtain Podcast)
  • Guillaume Lasconjarias (IHEDN)
  • Anastasiya Shapochkina (Eastern Circles)

Information Wars
1.Mechanisms of Russian disinformation systems

Russian propaganda follows a variety of information models, the narrative of which has two distinct national and international aims: in Ukraine, to alter the national mobilization effort; abroad, to discredit the Ukrainian partner as a recipient of military and humanitarian aid.

Russian institutions handle information like an industrial factory, with prolific daily activity relayed mainly via social media and messenger channels as "Telegram Messenger" or YouTube. The techniques and mechanisms used to spread disinformation outside Russia's borders have been developed within the federation itself. There, Russian propaganda establishes its discourse oriented by the demands and grievances of its population, which it seeks to satisfy. Abroad, these maneuvers are exposed and magnified during election periods (cf. "Russian troll farms" in the 2020 US elections). The examples of the most popular Russian propaganda narratives since 2014 are that NATO provoked Russia’s invasion, that Nazis lead Ukraine, that Ukraine has NATO biolabs preparing to produce biological weapons, and that Soros and the IMF are running Ukraine.

Unlike the West, Russia understands information war as an integral part of military strategy in two spheres: information security and cybersecurity. Russia operates through paid social media influencers and “useful idiots.” There are challenges of winning information wars in democratic countries, unlike the advantages for autocratic countries like Russia. One example of combatting this disinformation is the North Atlantic Fellow Organization (NAFO), an online mechanism to combat Russian propaganda. But the reach of this and other Western initiatives remains limited, as Russia pours tens of billions of dollars into the information war, a bar the West falls far short of, due to the strategic underestimation of info wars.

2.A tactical priority integrated into the national strategy

The Russian Federation continues to increase the doctrinal place of its information security within its foreign policy, as is evidenced in its National Security Strategy Review 2021. Russia's combined approach to operational ballistic and cyber-security offensives multiplies the fields of conflict, placing information manipulation at the heart of its strategy to destabilize its adversaries. Indeed, these disinformation campaigns aim to exploit the political and socio-economic vulnerabilities of these opponents for internal self-interest.

For example, the information network and language of the Kremlin's vision seem to be echoed in the accusatory discourse of Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who denounces the "decadence of the West" and wishes to move towards more "traditional" values. Moreover, taking advantage of the latent tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, which were rekindled in September 2023, the promotion of a Russian discourse inviting consideration of the cultural and historical similarities between these regions and Russia, to the detriment of rapprochement, or even integration with Europe, must be viewed with gravity by the European powers.

3.The emerging dialectic of training & repression: how Russia is training tomorrow's propagators in Ukraine

The Malkevich Network in Ukraine created a Russian propaganda network and a school for aspiring “journalists” in Kherson. This and other schools like it have close ties with Russian media and are focusing on young teenagers who want to become future journalists. They are trained by the hundred in propaganda method, with the goal for them to join the Russian propaganda machine as students and young professionals. As Ukrainian journalists in the occupied territories are refusing to cooperate with the occupiers, the Russians are betting on the future generations of propagandists, molded from the local youth.

A similar example is the opening of a journalistic training center in Melitopol, in the occupied territories of Zaporijia region. Mirroring the incorporation of young people into Russia's Young Army program, the center aims to train the younger generation of Ukrainians living in the occupied zone in the Russian propaganda machine from the age of 14. Faced with Russia's shortage of personnel in this field, training and recruitment resources are multiplying. What's more, entrepreneur Alexander Malkevich continues to set up various local propaganda outlets such as ZAMedia, new editorial offices and new local channels such as Tavria TV in Kherson. The creation of Mariupol 24 is supported by the resources generated by the Sankt-Peterburg channel, systematically structuring, and planning an interconnected network of pro-Russian information outlets.

4.A multi-scale and pervasive instrumentalization with international repercussions

Russian disinformation strategy is branching out, extending its influence into linguistic and cultural areas, where stricter forms of regulation and condemnation are more difficult to establish. Navigating through the ambiguity of a historical narrative reshaped in favor of the Soviet Union, Moscow targets Russian-speaking Ukrainian audience.

Indeed, the population of some fifteen regions of Ukraine use the Russian language daily, without this linguistic diversity affecting the indivisibility of Ukraine, or the feeling of Ukraine’s national identity, especially since the full-scale invasion. Neglecting the existence of a fully-fledged Ukrainian linguistic and cultural identity, Russia exploits these divergences by proposing a subtle and insidious two-speed propaganda technique: 1) shaping a Russian narrative in the form of a popular cultural medium that can be consumed on a daily basis by all social strata (songs, movies, etc), 2) initiating, through repetition and over time, a process of psychological proximity between communities sharing the same cultural and popular references such as songs, literature, cinema, etc. As one speaker put it, “You cannot hate a nation whose culture you love.”

Church: (the distinction with the Moscow Patriarchate supporting the Ukrainian invasion does not call into question the practices of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church created in 2018).

In the West, Moscow promotes "the spiritual and moral values at the foundation of Russian society" that target the social groups with conservative systems of thought and belief. Among them, evangelical groups in the USA and Orthodox branches of the Church of Russia were particularly expressive. As for the mainstream media, they fail to highlight the proximity of certain protest groups in Europe with Russia, as in the case of the figureheads of the blockade of road crossings on the Ukrainian-Polish border, whose influence now extends as far as Slovakia. The latter are said to be affiliated with extreme right-wing political movements in their countries, and most of them have expressed their support for the occupation of the Lugansk and Donetsk territories since 2014. By instrumentalising the European far right, Russia is exploiting the negative economic consequences of the war for Western countries to fuelling internal divisions among Ukraine's partners in the EU. Isolated, anecdotal analysis of these protest events in Europe, without putting them into perspective within an extended spatial and temporal framework by the media, risks nurturing national vulnerabilities that benefit Russia. The growing dual polarization in the United States between the Democratic and Republican parties is just one example of an opportunity cultivated by Russia.

5.How can these threats be countered, and what measures can be taken to hinder short- and long-term destabilization methods?

There’s a need for greater efforts in "interpersonal diplomacy”: person-to-person information diplomacy. To counter current disinformation processes, reliance on social networking platforms such as "X" is no longer enough. Instead, Ukrainian diplomacy should focus on creating international links and live contacts to strengthen the roots of accurate informational narratives with the target audience through personal contact and trust.

In addition, the spontaneous coordination of digital collectives from civil society, such as the NAFO (North Atlantic Fellas Organization) initiative, are examples of how to counter propaganda efforts targeting the war by ridiculing vindictive Russian rhetoric. Although these have a significant symbolic impact and raise funds for the International Legions for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, their influence remains limited in the face of the long-term broadcasting of Russian channels.

Finally, the publication of proven facts and targeted pinpointing the official Russian propaganda should be used more often by Western media. It could for example highlight the inconsistencies of the contemporary Russian national narrative, particularly concerning the reality of the puritanical and conservative nature of its society.

Today, Europe and the US are not investing nearly enough money and brainpower to counter Russian disinformation.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted an urgent need for better international media literacy training, as is done on the state level in Estonia, for example. These best practices aim to enable everyone, from the earliest age, to tell information from disinformation in their daily lives. Spreading and institutionalising these practices are the surest way to undermine the Russian bet on the fragility of contemporary democratic systems in the face of the rise of autocratic regimes.

Economic Wars
1.Implications for global food security, resource management, and maritime law: the case of grain production in Ukraine

For the 7th consecutive year in a row, the world consumedmore grain than it produced, a worrisome trend (International Grain Council). Sea transport is the main corridor for exporting around 90% of cereal production destined for foreign markets. These include 51% corn, 27% wheat, 11% sunflower-based products and 10% third-party production. Between 50% and 60% of wheat and corn exports were destined for developing countries, including Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

In April 2022, a Bloomberg study indicated that shipowners' insurers could require up to 10% of the cargo hull price (the value of the ship as capital) in insurance due to the risk of Russian attacks on commercial vessels in the Black Sea. Finally, Russian aggression targeted the destruction of grain depots and terminals, impacting the structures that ensure their long-term trade.

Against this backdrop, the effects of Russian aggression in Ukraine are having consequences that go far beyond the military, and will ultimately restructure the Ukrainian economic growth model.

In response, the European Commission has set up an action plan for 2022 to create "solidarity corridors" to maintain and facilitate export routes for Ukrainian stocks. Added to this is the agreement signed between Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the UN for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, aimed at securing the export of Ukrainian resources from three ports facilitated by a joint coordination center based in Istanbul. In July 2023, Russia unilaterally withdrew its commitment to the agreement. In particular, the agreement enabled the return of nitrogen (fertilizer) to Ukraine. Two fundamental and urgent issues emerge: how can agricultural production be secured, in the face of the war, global consumption trends, and global warming? How can we defend and ensure free access to maritime areas for legitimate players?

2."Supply, protect and secure": the Black Sea corridor using a legal-military approach

Faced with deliberate Russian obstruction of Ukrainian free access to the Black Sea and the proven presence in February and March 2022 of artillery-laden cruisers and frigates close to its coast, Ukraine has carried out symbolic, high-profile operations. For example, the sinking of the Russian cruiser "Moskva" highlighted the use of Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles. The development and use of naval drones in this context has given new visibility to the rising Ukrainian drones industry, and fostered the multiplication of partnerships between private and public companies for the benefit of the war effort. By making the maritime front one of the most accomplished and successful operations for the Ukrainian army, internal competition between national services in the race for technological innovation is further encouraged.

3.Anticipating the cost of reconstruction by maintaining investment in Ukraine's wartime welfare state

The World Bank estimated in 2023 that Ukraine reconstruction costs will amount to $411 billion. Ukraine currently relies on three main sources of international financial aid: the IMF program, the EPFF (European Peace Facility Fund) and the US bilateral aid fund for Ukraine. Consequently, to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, economic experts suggest reorienting the country towards greater economic autonomy. However, revitalizing the Ukrainian economy requires higher return from taxes, redynamising the labor market which suffered from population loss, and substantial investment. Ukrainian government ministries, such as the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, is at the forefront of deepening cooperation and investment in profitable industries connected to the war effort, but sustainable in peacetime.

The other two alternatives of increasing financial support for Ukraine are widely used crowdfunding platforms to raise funds for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, and a potential use of Russian frozen assets for reconstruction. Right now, investment in social spending is what keeps the economy afloat.

5.Are the sanctions on Russia working?

If there is any effect of Russia sanctions, it is a probabilistic long-term one. We can now measure the effect of sanctions one year after they were introduced on Russian oil and petroleum products: the state revenue from the sale of hydrocarbons by Russia in the first 9 months of 2023 exceeded €50 billion. Trade patterns are changing, with countries from Turkey to Central Asia states tripling their exports to Russia since 2022. There are about €300 billion in Russian central bank assets in Europe, and the potential “confiscation” of these assets remains undecided, with no decision in sight.

Diplomatic wars, or how to win new allies and preserve old ones
  1. India's evolving complex position on the war in Ukraine

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has global implications, particularly in the field of diplomacy. In particular, the outbreak of the war has transformed the long-term foreign policy of the United States and the countries of the European Union in relation to the Global South.

India sees its role in the Global South as work in progress, which leads to Indian conversations on Ukraine being shaped by three points:
First, New Dehli’s neutral position on the war in Ukraine has been controversial and not understood among Western allies. The longer the war goes on, the more this upends India’s strategic calculus, where it has two unsettled problems:
(a) Chinese border clashes, the latest confrontation of which with India was in 2020, and
(b) influence in larger Asia, where India is competing against Chinese domination of the region.
2023 marked a new peak in India’s ‘intersectional global moment’, withG20 and SCO presidency, unprecedented economic growth and defense and technology ties to Western players. Simultaneously, India continued to engage with Russia, which raises a question whether its neutrality in the war may be paying off.

Second, the interpretation and practice of India’s strategic autonomy, assuming an active multi-aligning role compared to its passive stance in the Cold War, explains its current rise as a global geopolitical player. However, India is rethinking its Russia strategy following a rapprochement between Russia and China, which concerns India. This will impact India-Russia engagement going forward.

Third, India’s response to the 3 crises: fuel, food and fertilizer. 1) India has increased its purchase of Russian oil (‘fuel’) since the start of the war to 40% of its total oil imports, leading to a great trade deficit with Russia. This has impeded India from trading directly in Rupee-Ruble, as Russia does not buy nearly as much from India as India does now from Russia. As a result, trillions of Rupees are stuck in Russian accounts in Indian (and other countries’) banks. In order to continue its growth trajectory, India needs a stable world order, which explains its multi-alignment strategy, as well as a stronger alliance with Western partners, especially on the Indo-Pacific.

2.What does China want?

China holds a peculiar position since the start of the war as a dominant partner of Russia, maintaining a push-pull relation with the West, while adapting to the changing international landscape. The West tries to de-couple from China but is simultaneously attempting to court it as broker in the Russia-Ukraine war. For China, Russia is a first-tier strategic player. China’s worst fear is a three-front competition: with the US globally, with India regionally, and a systemic competition with Russia. Russian bilateral relations with China and multilateral relations with the Global South are used to subjugate Ukraine (for Russia) but also to achieve other strategic goals, among which getting a third world power position after the US and China, aligning with China through the war in Ukraine in an alternative way to Western treaty-based system of alliances. This strategic calculus helps understand steps taken by China regarding its support for Russia in the war. North Korea has been established as a lifeline to provide military aid from China to Russia, preventing accountability for China.

The importance of Russia for China in the new geopolitical context is three-fold:
First, the Contrarian framework. China is a unique Asian player that compared to other recent empires uses a hybrid strategy to become a global land and maritime hegemon. Russia gives way for Chinese strategic control over the Arctic and Eurasian landmass, it is not just a smaller partner to China.
Second, regarding Russia-China cooperation in the defence and space-industrial complex.

Third, forming an alternative to Anglo-American international narratives, rules, norms and socio-economic network structures, involving the Global South.
Inversely, China is also a crucial source of long-term continuous support to Russia in 4 domains: a) political economy – the Chinese-Russian exchange in commodities, b) technological advancement, c) setting new rules of the game in global governance and diplomacy, d) which all impact the ways in which China and Russia forge new partnerships and alliances.

3.Africa: a player, not a stage

The war in Ukraine has shown that African countries are not a stage, but geopolitical actors evolving diplomatic relations, asserting their choices and interests. Indeed, the war has accelerated the diversification of the continent's partnerships. While Europe and France had assumed an omnipotent role in certain regions, such as the Sahel, the difficulties of resolving the security issues there made it possible for Russia to emerge as a military partner. Russia's presence in Africa is not entirely new, dating back to the USSR and independence. Today, however, it claims to offer new methods to the African elites of combating rebellions and jihadism.

Russia's success in Africa is not a foregone conclusion. The disappearance of the Wagner militia boss has made the operations of mercenaries in Africa more complex. Nevertheless, the capture of Kidal in Mali in November 2023 was a significant victory. Added to this was Russia's superiority in the informational battle. All in all, Russia has succeeded in understanding and adapting to the multiple local contexts, relying in particular on the rise of nationalism and conservatism in certain countries on the continent.

However, faced with the war in Ukraine, African countries want to preserve their independence from Russia and refuse to alienate themselves from the West. Indeed, the continent's main concern remains economic development.

4.Europe and Ukraine

From the perspective of European allies, Ukraine is faced with potential new allies and is adapting to the situation posed by the War in Gaza. For Ukraine, the meaning of alliance is established through wartime diplomacy, via a multi-layered approach. Multi-alignment for Ukraine builds on the following 10 components.

1)Coalition with International Organisations – trying to adopt binding resolutions and showcase Russian aggression placement and its effects, underscored by global partnerships and vocality on Ukrainian issues.

2) Sanctions against the Russian resources to fight the war. Currently comprised of 11 packages, with package 12 under negotiation, which is an incomparable feat compared to the period 2014-2021.

3) Securing undeliverables. Developing coalitions, such as meetings in the Ramstein format, to communicate the needs for tactical weaponry and the aims for these tools in the Ukraine context, diversifying also beyond EU and US partners.

4) Financial support from external partners, especially in the defence sector, is crucial to keep Ukraine economically afloat.

5) Justice – the modalities and formation of a special tribunal for war-crimes and crimes against humanity, documentation of which is already being collected by activists.

6) Reconstruction – platforms to formulate plans, raise resources and money for infrastructure reconstruction. A big challenge to freeze Russian assets and repurpose them for Ukrainian aid, as well as finding effective legal mechanisms for reconstruction.

7) Exchange of prisoners of War. Helped through intelligence communication and collaboration. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are key partners in negotiating exchanges, but more assistance from global partners is needed.

8) Ukrainian post-war security architecture proposals formulate 10 points going gradually from war to regulation.

9) Territorial initiatives. For example, regarding grain and evacuations.

10) Different cooperation for different partner coalitions are needed to further engage more partners. Successes include the Grain for Ukraine Initiative among 38 countries, the Ramstein format engaging 50+ partners, Peace forum engaging 80+ partners.

5.Ukraine: a tumultuous 2024

Ukraine deepened its "war diplomacy" in 2023. It continues to forge coalitions within international organizations to adopt resolutions pointing to Russia's responsibility as the aggressor. Similarly, Ukraine continues to advocate the adoption of new sanctions packages and the delivery of military equipment. At the same time, financial assistance is just as crucial, given that the country needs between 3 and 5 billion euros a month to keep its economy afloat. Nevertheless, the year 2024 looks uncertain, and Ukraine will have to contend with an American electoral deadline capable of jeopardizing structural US support.

Military strategy and practical application
  1. French military assistance to Ukraine is crucial

France believes that it is impossible for Russia to control the whole of Ukraine, because from the French military perspective Russia has well-established capabilities to defend, but not to attack. Thus, the most likely scenario for the evolution of the war at this point from the French perspective is a frozen conflict, even given the stalled military aid from the US and mobilizeable population shortage in Ukraine. At the same time, France’s help is based on the strategic calculation that it is better to help Ukraine in order to avoid confronting Russia in Europe.

1) France is dedicated to help Ukraine through diplomatic support to speed up Ukraine’s accession process to the EU and NATO and through supporting sanctions packages directed at Russia, to break the willingness of Russia to wage war, and increase the war impact on Russia itself.

2) France also provides military assistance to Ukraine: 3.5 billion euros worth of military support, ranging from military equipment, to CAESAR canons, to missile systems, light tanks, maintenance of equipment, ammunition, cruise missiles, and training of 8,000 military personnel.

3) There are numerous initiatives to develop Ukraine-France military partnerships, in the drones, radars, artillery, demining and maintenance robots, and Artificial Intelligence. Support will last as long as it takes for Russia to lose the decisive battle in Ukraine. From the French perspective, Russia has sustained losses in this war in many aspects, but it did not succeed in dividing Ukraine, it damaged its own international image, and did not prevent other countries from joining NATO. Russia’s hybrid strategy seeks to destabilize the adversary while keeping the aggression below the threshold of war, so that a unified military response will be difficult. Efforts to combat this also are evident in the restructuring of NATO Northern, Baltic and Central European forces, and the war against Russia in the information domain on the African continent.

However, there is an urgent time aspect to the need for more assistance to Ukraine, since Russia’s troops greatly outnumber the Ukrainians eligible to fight. A scenario in which Ukraine were to lose spells dangerous scenarios for the whole of Europe, which will depend on what Russia wants to re-establish. There is a risk to underestimate Russian threat to the stability of Euro-Atlantic alliances, unity and peace in Europe.

2.Fighting corruption in Ukraine’s military sector
After the invasion, Ukraine has increased the efforts to reduce corruption in the military sector:
  • A Minister of Defense was removed following a corruption scandal.

  • All heads of military recruitment offices were replaced across the country following a mobilisation corruption scandal.

  • Corporate reform started in the summer 2023 has transformed the structures, management and accountability of Ukroboronprom (UOP), the umbrella organization for the Ukrainian military industry comprising 100+ state-owned defense companies, to align its practices with the OECD corporate governance standards. As a result of the reform, UOP was transformed into a joint stock holding company with different clusters split by domain (e.g. ammunition, aviation), with an overseeing supervisory board comprising 6 members – both Ukrainians and partner country nationals. The corporate reform resulted in creating a risk management compliance mechanisms, whistleblowing policy, and an anti-corruption hotline.
  • Competition was reintroduced into army procurement.

  • Civil society actors are more listened to and governmental officials are more responsive to criticism of transparency by society, which has made the system less susceptible to bribery, particularly regarding arms procurement. The latest example of this is the creation of the Anti-corruption Committee to monitor the Ministry of Defense spending and procurement processes. The committee consists entirely of civil society members.

France’s and Ukraine’s defense industries have great potential for future cooperation and joint production, and the aim of these reforms is to make these industries more compatible for cooperation through compliance with G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance. Implementing these reforms, Ukraine seeks to become a reliable defense partner for countries such as France.

3.Strategic Lessons for France from the War in Ukraine

France has learned 5 main lessons from the war in Ukraine:
1) It is a total war, which is taking place on land, in the air, at sea, in cyber, electromagnetic, and information domains. Russians are effective especially in the latter two domains, which require more attention of Western allied forces.

2) Stealth is difficult in the battlefield because of the current level of electronic intelligence and REB, which dispel the Fog of War.

3) In this war, it is difficult to understand the intentions of the adversary (Russia and its partners), as their restrictive and opaque circular worldview escapes Western rational calculus.

4)Strong morale of the armed forces is the most important factor to succeed in a long war scenario, even more important than having the latest armament technology.

5) It takes strategic debt to last in such a war. Ukraine has made massive mobilization efforts and is dependent on partners that provided key resources to keep fighting, while Russia had the benefit of holding stockpiles from the Cold War, which reduced its dependencies.

Agility, innovation, and adaptability are crucial. Needs to be particularly quick for innovations in drones, as it takes approximately 6 months for belligerents to adapt to innovations in enemy drones. Ukraine has shown to be the more agile warring party, but Russia has also adapted in crucial ways that should not be underestimated.