European Democracy Hub

The conventional military dimension of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the need for Western defense assistance to Kyiv remain dominant in public and expert debates. Hybrid or “gray zone” operations have received less attention, but they remain an indispensable element of Russia’s warfare in Ukraine. Forced deportations of Ukrainians, “passportization” in the newly occupied territories, attacks on critical infrastructure, disinformation operations—these and other instances of weaponization fit well in the Kremlin’s strategy. They aim at breaking Ukraine’s will to resist and at poisoning people’s trust in their government, independent media, and other democratic institutions. But Russia’s approach has so far had little success. If anything, it has proved that Ukraine is far from being the failed state the Kremlin’s propaganda has been portraying for years and that the country’s leadership is capable of governing effectively even in wartime.

Yet, the Russian regime has not given up on its obsessive goal of conquering Ukraine, and it has no shortage of instruments, resources, and tricks to pursue this imperialist goal. For Ukraine and its partners, this presents the challenge of how to strengthen its resilience in nonmilitary domains while the primary focus still lies on physical survival and conventional warfare. Ukraine’s functional democracy has always been a key feature that distinguished the country from authoritarian Russia and helped it to gain support and assistance across the globe. The widespread expectation today is that the war, rather than serving as an excuse for holding back on democratic reforms, should be treated as a trigger to further modernize and strengthen Ukraine’s governing institutions by making them less vulnerable to Russia’s malign influence. Reflecting the imperative to fight on both fronts, Ukrainian policymakers pursue an integrated response that can be described as total democratic resilience. By focusing on democratic reforms as part of its whole-of-society resistance to Russian attacks, Ukraine has adopted a much broader approach to resilience than currently exists in many EU states.

Assaults on Civilian Infrastructure

Unable to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, Russia reverted to terrorist attacks against civilians. Shortly before the past winter, its military started massive missile and drone strikes on Ukraine’s energy grid and power plants, combined with simultaneous cyber attacks on telecommunication infrastructure and local authorities. In December, Ukraine’s Security Service reported there had been more than 4,500 cyber attacks since the beginning of the all-out war, with between ten and fifteen incidents per day. Russia’s aim is to traumatize Ukraine’s civilian population with energy shortages, digital and financial disruption, and disruptions to transport and healthcare. But the assaults on civilian infrastructure also pursue broader goals. By denying the population access to electricity, the internet, and other basic services, the Kremlin bets on breaking the will of Ukrainians to resist and forcing the government to sit at the negotiation table. It also believes that its massive bombing campaign will cause a new wave of refugees to the EU, similar to the effect of Russian shelling in Syria in 2015.

Iulian Romanyshyn
Iulian Romanyshyn is a fellow at the Academy of International Affairs NRW and a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies at the University of Bonn.

Russia’s attacks have achieved the opposite of what the Kremlin expected, however. Its bombing campaign left millions of people without heat, electricity, and water in the winter, but Ukrainian engineers outdid themselves in fixing the damaged electricity grid under wartime conditions. Until the massive missile attack on March 9, Ukraine had not experienced power outages in weeks. Western support is another factor that accounts for the country winning the winter energy battle. European countries have provided Kyiv with equipment to repair damaged power plants and electricity grids, but most importantly there have been enhanced efforts by partners to supply Ukraine with modern air defense and missile defense systems.

Russia’s brutal terror has boosted societal cohesion in Ukraine and stiffened the public’s resolve. In February, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians said they continued to believe in Ukraine’s victory on the battlefield, while in December 85 percent said they would reject any territorial concessions to Russia to end the war. The high morale of the population, boosted interpersonal bonds, and bottom-up will to resist the external aggression are crucial elements of the total resilience approach that Ukraine has successfully adopted.

Downfall of Oligarchic Influence

For years, Russia bet on its agents of influence to meddle into Ukraine’s internal affairs. Russian oligarchs traditionally had significant economic interests in the country and many of them continued running their businesses there even after the first invasion in 2014. For example, Mikhail Fridman, a Ukraine-born oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin, owns various assets in the country worth billions of dollars, including the major telecommunication company Kyivstar and one of the largest banks. Since the scale of the war’s destruction will mean a major reconstruction effort, Ukraine’s government stresses that the wealth of the Kremlin-linked oligarchs should cover parts of the mounting bill. But while the government was forceful in urging the EU, the United States, and other partners to freeze assets of wealthy Russians, at home it has not been leading by example. Even though the required legal instruments have been in place since May 2022, the authorities have dragged their feet on seizing well-documented assets of Russian oligarchs in Ukraine, to the fury of many anticorruption activists. The authorities eventually seized assets from one Russian oligarch, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, in August 2022, six months after Russia’s full invasion. Just like its Western partners, Kyiv struggles with the challenge of setting up legally sound instruments and adequate resources to manage confiscated Russian assets and to channel them toward Ukraine’s recovery.

The war effectively spells the end for the domestic oligarchic clans that have been at the center of Ukraine’s economy since 1991. Some of them have lost their assets in the occupied eastern and southern parts of the country while others have fled abroad. Thanks to their effective management of the war, the government and the public institutions have strengthened their legitimacy and trust in the people’s eyes at the expense of oligarchic groups. In addition, the EU has been pushing Ukraine for years to adopt rules that would introduce safeguards against oligarchs’ business activities and reduce their footprint in the political, public, and economic spheres. The European Commission has also included passing anti-oligarchic legislation among the seven criteria against which it will evaluate Ukraine’s progress as a candidate for EU accession.

In 2021, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a bill requiring the creation of a registry of individuals who enjoy undue influence on public policy due to their business assets and status. Even as the modalities of this law still await an assessment by the Council of Europe and international experts, it has already had a far-reaching effect. Last year, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, gave up his enormous media assets to avoid being included in the registry. The key task for Ukraine’s reformers and their international partners is to strengthen the institutional safeguards, such as anticorruption institutions, to consolidate this achievement. The risk that the old oligarchic system of influence will strike back in some form or other is real, especially in the context of Ukraine’s future reconstruction, which will involve billions of euros of financial investment that will need to be managed with full transparency and accountability.

Old and New Disinformation Threats

The weaponization of information has been part of Russia’s hybrid operations in Ukraine since 2014. What makes the current invasion different is the rapid rise in internet coverage and social media consumption. According to the Economist, Ukraine is “the most wired country ever to be invaded,” with 75 percent of its population using the internet and 92 percent having access to 4G mobile networks. Following its invasion in February 2022, Russia unleashed a full-scale propaganda campaign, relying on a mix of official state media sources, anonymous accounts in social media, and its paid army of internet “trolls” to flood comments sections and discussion forums on news websites and online sources. The Russian disinformation narratives have broadly sought to demoralize Ukrainians in their defense efforts, to exploit societal splits and sow new divisions, and to poison trust in the independent media and public institutions. In the newly occupied regions in the south and east, the Kremlin’s propaganda agents together with local collaborators actively promote the messages of Ukraine’s inevitable defeat and Russia’s mission to defend locals against the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv.

Compared to Russia’s invasion in 2014, this time Ukraine was better prepared to counter the disinformation attacks. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy engages in constant public communication about progress on the battlefield. Established within the National Security Council in 2021, the Center on Countering Disinformation debunks Russia’s manipulative and misleading narratives, including through social media platforms. This is a formidable task as many of these platforms, especially Telegram, have become a safe haven for disinformation due to lack of scrutiny and proper moderation policies. Investigative journalists and civil society organizations, such as StopFake and Detector Media, complement governmental efforts in checking facts and providing accurate information. A December opinion poll found that Ukrainians, including in the most vulnerable southern and eastern regions, decisively reject Russian narratives of internal divisions and Western betrayal of the country.

Ukraine’s resilience in the information war has created momentum for deepening reforms to preserve media freedom and pluralism of views. As a part of the conditionality for membership, the EU called for introducing legislative norms that would regulate the media sector in accordance with its directives in this field. In December 2022, the parliament passed the required law. If properly implemented, the law would not only strengthen the instruments to counter Russian disinformation but also develop norms to ensure transparency and the independence of media from undue political influence.

Toxicity of the Russian Orthodox Church

With Ukraine having the biggest number of Orthodox believers outside of Russia, religion has a special place in the Kremlin’s hybrid tool kit in the country. Even though the Orthodox Church of Ukraine received a formal endorsement of autonomy from the Constantinople patriarch in 2019, the process of separation from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has never taken off. As a result, the latter has continued to operate in Ukraine uninterrupted, even after Russia’s aggression in February 2022. The head of the ROC, Patriarch Kirill, has openly supported Russia’s war and blessed aggression in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials and activists point to the mounting evidence that the ROC clergy has cooperated with the Russian authorities in the occupied Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, justified the occupation and the orchestrated referendums there, and continued spreading the Kremlin’s narrative about Russians and Ukrainians being one people. Many of the most senior ROC priests have Russian passports and links with the Russian intelligence services. The government has taken steps to reduce the activity of the ROC in Ukraine by imposing personal sanctions on its top priests, but it has stopped short of banning the church. Even though the ROC presents a clear risk for Ukraine’s national security, the government continues to adhere to its commitment to protect freedom of religion.

Strengthening and Amplifying Ukraine’s Total Democratic Resilience

Ukraine faces the challenge of simultaneously holding off Russia’s aggression and reforming key areas of public life and governance. Strengthening whole-of-society resilience is the best strategy to bridge these two existential tasks. Total democratic resilience means that withstanding the wide array of Russian hybrid attacks intended to disrupt the country from within is an integral part of the democratic reforms and institution building that Ukraine needs to accomplish to become a member of the EU.

There are several ways in which the EU and its partners can help Ukraine to better resist and deter Russia’s nonmilitary attacks. The first line of effort is capacity building. Kyiv would welcome intelligence sharing and cooperation in learning about cyber threats, assistance in securing governmental communications and critical infrastructure, and joint exercises on cyber and disinformation threats. This can be pursued through the EU-Ukraine Cyber Security Dialogue established in 2021 or through bilateral channels with committed and capable EU and NATO members.

A second area of action concerns sanctions. The EU can expand the application of its personal sanctions targeting Russian individuals involved in deliberate violence against Ukrainian civilians and attacks on critical infrastructure. Even though the Russian leadership has been hit with such sanctions, ROC head Patriarch Kirill has not. The EU, in coordination with the G7, should also intensify its efforts in confiscating the frozen assets of Russian oligarchs in order to invest them in Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Finally, sharing best practices is another avenue of support. Ukraine can draw on the Code of Practice on Disinformation that the EU developed in cooperation with private stakeholders in the digital sector. There is also room for improvement when it comes to galvanizing operational ties and cooperation between Ukraine and the EU Agency for Cybersecurity or the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

These steps can make Ukraine less vulnerable to Russian malign influence, but it is important that the country’s enhanced capacity to resist and push back goes hand in hand with democratic reforms. Upholding a professional justice system that is free of political influence will continue to play an important role, as it is up to courts to rule on measures to take against Russian agents of influence or sanctioned Russian assets. Just as important will be continued support for independent, high-quality journalism to defend free speech and other democratic values. Russia’s war has triggered an unprecedented amount of internal cohesion and unity in Ukraine. It has also boosted people’s trust in public institutions, the military, the media, and local authorities. In other words, it has created momentum for a democratic transformation unlike any other crisis in the country’s modern history. Ukraine’s influential civil society will be a major driving force in this process as a watchdog over the Zelenskyy administration’s commitments to reforms and a safeguard against the return of the old oligarchic system. For example, the public outcry following the recent allegations of misuse of funds in the Ministry of Defense was a powerful trigger for leveraging new anticorruption measures across the government.

The actions taken and the lessons learned in Ukraine will inform larger efforts to reinforce democracies against external aggression. In the past, Russia regarded Ukraine as a testing ground for its hybrid warfare activities before exporting them to the West. Ukraine now has the potential to be a model of total democratic resilience that the EU can promote to counter Russian and other autocratic interference in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. This would signal a true shift in the EU’s strategic approach that would amount to assuming the need for full understanding of and responsibility for security challenges in its neighborhood, compared to its previous half-hearted policies to contain the Russian threat.

Iulian Romanyshyn is a fellow at the Academy of International Affairs NRW and a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies at the University of Bonn.

This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.

This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.