Steve Komarnyckyj is a PEN award-winning poet, a writer for Ukraine’s Euromaidan, and has worked on the Index on Censorship for the last two years. His current work is centred on the methodology of Russian-led hybrid conflicts including the deployment of non-state actors and Russia’s use of multiple narratives.
“Russian soft power can shape the world views of other nations. Ultimately it can be deployed as a weapon of war turning populations against their own states.”
His background is just as fascinating as his work. “I am a literary translator of mixed Ukrainian and English parentage and grew up in Yorkshire,” he told me, by way of introduction.
“My partner Susie conceived Kalyna Language Press in part as a means of conveying translated Ukrainian literature to an English audience. However, we want to develop the press so that it publishes translations from other languages and English language fiction and poetry,” he explained proudly.
Steve began to study Russian activity some time ago, which is perhaps unsurprising given his heritage, but his work led him to look beyond the contentious borders of Ukraine. “I became interested in how Russian soft power can shape the world views of other nations. Ultimately it can be deployed as a weapon of war turning populations against their own states.”
This is how Steve and I came to make each other’s acquaintance – after I’d been busy exploring the mess which links Russia to the far-right across Europe and to the White House, I was able to broaden the scope of my investigation and found a wealth of evidence (including from NATO) of a live hybrid conflict between Russia and the West.
Komarnyckyj stumbled across the subject in much the same way, he told me.
“When I read about Ukraine in English sources I realised that Russia was putting words into the mouths of English writers and academics. Subsequently, I would meet people who on learning I was Ukrainian would say that Ukrainians were all Fascists etc. It was like talking to dozens of glove puppets operated by Stalin.”
“Much western academic discourse and journalism remains polluted by Russian soft power,” he added, confirming much of what I’ve been able to discover independently.
I wanted to get deeper into Steve’s unusual background, mainly to find out how a poet ends up with significant experience of a hybrid conflict.
“I am a hybrid myself,” he said. “A half-Ukrainian half-English man steeped in both cultures who enjoys Borshch and a bag of chips. However, the negativity towards Ukraine I encountered in England troubled me.”
“I and many other Ukrainians fought against the stigmatisation of our culture for years. Russians regard Ukrainian culture as an aberration and believe that Ukrainians are simply self-deluding Russians. Britain I am afraid internalised this view of Ukraine. Worse still it accepted Russia’s myth of cultural superiority.” This makes sense, in many ways, especially when set against the background of the collusion between the far-right right and Putin’s Russia. White cultural superiority can be clearly seen in the narratives across the changed face of the West, and it is brutally ugly.
“This notion of Russian cultural superiority is indeed as fatuous as a beer advert,” Komarnyckyj added.
“Yet it continues to hold sway in Britain. The notion that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were authors who in some mysterious essentially Russian way reached the parts other writers could not reach. I challenge such views by translating Ukrainian poetry and have won two awards from English PEN along with my publisher Kalyna Language Press. I also lobbied for recognition of the Holodomor the genocide famine inflicted on Ukraine in the thirties.”
The Holodomor refers to a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine which took place between 1932 and 1933 and killed an estimated 7 million to 10 million people. The inhabitants of Ukraine, the majority being ethnic Ukrainians, died of starvation in a peacetime. The tragedy was only recognised in 2006 – by Ukraine along with fifteen other countries – who declared it as a genocide carried out by the Soviet government.
More recently, Steve told me, he has started to work with voluntary organisations, such as Euromaidan Press, human rights groups and Ukrainian authors to “change perceptions of Ukraine in England.”
“I have not participated directly in the conflict and would like to express my respect for those Ukrainians fighting and dying right now for Europe’s freedom,” he added.
“This notion of Russian cultural superiority is indeed as fatuous as a beer advert,”
We turn more directly to the area I’ve been investigating, hybrid conflicts. What I call the Alternative War.
“A hybrid conflict is one in which multiple means including military and soft power are used to gain ascendancy over an opponent,” Steve explained. “The aim is to transform the enemy state into a psychological/political vassal.”
“As Vitalii and Dmytro Usenko note, Russians have a much wider of warfare than their western counterparts. They cite the “Social Security Concept” of the all-Russian political party “Truth and Unity Course”. This document identifies six priorities for warfare. Many of these would not strike many of us as being means of waging war. They include changing the worldview of the enemy and manipulating history. Russia has also studied Western doctrines laying out how a hybrid war can reach a population beyond the front line.”
Broadly, Komarnyckyj is not only confirming my own findings but adding the benefit of Orwellian language to explain the reason we’ve become so familiar with terms like Fake News.
“It’s important to realise that Russia is adopting hybrid war to the service of a mentality which believes in its intrinsic superiority,” Steve continued. “The USSR as the Usenkos note aimed to create a planet-wide union ruled from Moscow. It shared with both the Tsars and the current regime an aspiration to subdue the world.”
I can’t help but wonder if this argument is a little too fantastic but, as I’ve heard others say, it’s no real stretch of the imagination and Steve sets it out rather neatly.
“Many will argue that such views of Putin are hyperbolic. As I watch politics in the UK and US implode under Russia’s destabilisation effort I can only wonder why. Putin controls the President of the United States. What will it take for the west to wake up and realise the danger we are all in?”
“Putin controls the President of the United States. What will it take for the west to wake up and realise the danger we are all in?”
According to Komarnyckyj, the priorities of a hybrid war can only be realised by “using non-military means and the humanitarian sphere.”
He explained the framework he laid out in 2014, which describes some of the mechanisms used to pursue a hybrid war.
“1. Agents of influence including politicians, businessmen, corporations with a stake in Russia’s localisation program, energy sector etc.;
2. Networks of journalists who may be sectarian Communists or social conservatives
3. Sectarian left wing sites (such as Counterpunch and Global Research) which exploit a linguistic disconnect to create a sanitised Russia and a conversely stigmatised Ukraine;
4. Political proxies (such as Stop the War and numerous politicians);
5. PR Agencies and consultancies;
6. The Troll army of paid internet commentators, all working to a script.”
We both agree on adding the huge “bot army” on social media to this list, and Steve’s list also mirrors everything I’ve read in NATO, EU and US Intelligence assessments.
“I would also introduce the term Deniable Asset,” Steve adds, “which refers to a tool used to pursue Russia’s aims but with no formal link to its military. Western politicians loaned billions to parrot Putin’s words. Journalists who trouser cash from Russia Today and praise Putin etc.”
Again, I find his work mirroring my own, with Wikileaks and some of the far-right politicians such as Nigel Farage being prime examples.
Darkly, Steve raises an issue I’ve long held a personal suspicion over – now even more poignant in the light of ongoing terror attacks and the surrounding narratives from Putin-linked figures like Trump.
“Finally we must consider detached assets,” Komarnyckyj told me. “The activist who has drunk in the ideology purveyed from Moscow via that organisation etc. In this context, it’s worth noting that there are links between Russian intelligence and ISIS. No direct orders for an attack on the west need be issued by Putin- he just has to wind them up and watch them go.”
My own research has led me to understand the clear relationship of benefits in kind between conflicts driving immigration and extremism, and anti-immigrant sentiment driving extremism and conflict. Essentially, this creates a self-perpetuating cycle in which a state such as Russia would have to do little more than sit and watch while its objectives were achieved and security services distracted.
Steve goes on to introduce two more concepts, which he argues fall within multiple narratives, attractive to multiple audiences.
“For Putin’s Russian audience, Ukraine is presented as becoming a “Godless Gay Colony” of the West,” he told me, adding that “for the West, Ukraine is presented as a fascist hell hole.”
“Kadyrov’s persecution of gays is aimed at a religious socially conservative audience stretching from the US bible belt to Afghanistan. Never take Russia and Putin at face value- see the country as a criminal cartel engaging in theatrics and terror to secure its goals,” Komarnyckyj added.
“It’s worth noting that there are links between Russian intelligence and ISIS. No direct orders for an attack on the west need be issued by Putin- he just has to wind them up and watch them go.”
While the alternative war has only now started to be exposed in the West, it has been ongoing for some time right under Steve’s eyes, and there are lessons to be learned. So, I want to find out exactly how has this played out in practice in Ukraine.
It transpires the tactic has roots much older than the current developments in technology.
“Russia has always viewed Ukrainians and Russians as one people,” Komarnyckyj told me. “Many Russians see Ukrainian identity as a kind of blasphemy against the Russian state. Russia has therefore engaged in a hybrid war against Ukraine for centuries. The Ukrainian language was subjected to endless restrictions. Gogol was bribed to rewrite his novel Taras Bulba so that it did not portray Russia as an enemy of Ukraine. These tactics are in accord with the concept of attacking the consciousness of the enemy. Russia’s hybrid war seeks to colonise the souls of its foes.”
But the contemporary development of the technique is clear when set against the evidence now unravelling before us courtesy of the weakest link: the Trump White House.
“In Ukraine as in the US, Russia parachuted its candidate into the presidency. In Ukraine as in the US, he was aided by Manafort, a Republican party fixer. In Ukraine as in the US, the candidate was a Russian style oligarch tasked with establishing a managed democracy,” Steve said, adding “a managed democracy is Putin’s term for his preferred social model.”
“Elections are won by oligarchic political parties by a combination of mass brainwashing using fake news and deniable terror. Critical journalists are murdered by shadowy figures who are never caught. Opposition leaders are gunned down when the cameras are switched off.”
There is nothing to deny or contradict in a word of this, but it appears Ukraine has proved to be a critical sticking point.
“Putin and Russia made a critical error in Ukraine,” Komarnyckyj explained, “because they are blind to the differences between the two nations. Ukrainians have, in the absence of a state developed a ferocious capacity for self-organisation. They have simultaneously understood perhaps better than Russia itself the nature of the current conflict.”
“The current war pits popular sovereignty against oligarchic populism- it is being fought within states and between states. Ukraine has its oligarchs but its people aspire towards a democracy where power is granted by the people. When Yanukovych tried to stifle protest in November 2013 he inadvertently mobilised Ukrainian civic society. Ukrainians very quickly developed tactics to overthrow their autocrat.”
But Russia did have some successes in its advance on Ukraine, though Steve informed me this is actually a trap, of sorts.
“Russia’s seizure of Crimea was successful because the Peninsula was heavily Russianised. However, its attempt to trigger revolts across Ukraine in 2014 beginning in the Donbas failed. Russia simply does not understand that Ukrainians are not Russians. Putin only succeeded in establishing a heavily armed enclave in the Donbas. It has become a snare in which his ankle is caught.”
“A wider invasion though often mooted would be problematic because it would require the mass killing of the people Putin claims to be protecting,” he added.
“a managed democracy is Putin’s term for his preferred social model.”
“When Western journalists talk about “rebels” in east Ukraine they are giving credence to a Russian fiction. They might as well argue that Rod Hull’s Emu was a real bird. The DNR and the LNR are tools of Russia and completely curated by its intelligence services.”
“These journalists are helping Putin’s war,” Komarnyckyj told me, adding that “these tactics are in accordance with the concept of attacking the consciousness of the enemy. Russia’s hybrid war seeks to colonise the souls of its foes.”
It has become undeniable that journalism is currently acting as both the guardian against this multi-faceted threat but, in many cases, is also working for it.
Beyond this, however, Steve believes literature also has to play its own part in shaping the future – providing a world memory for future generations that goes beyond headlines and column-inches alone.
“I have recently translated a novel, The War Artist, by a Russian-speaking native of Luhansk, Maxim Butchenko. The book explores in fictional form how Russia created a failed pseudo-separatist revolt and two fake countries. I have also recently translated a book by the Ukrainian-speaking Donbas native Liubov Iakymchuk. Her poetry brings home the suffering and pain inflicted on the Donbas by Putin’s war. Careless talk costs lives,” he told me.
“These journalists are helping Putin’s war…Russia’s hybrid war seeks to colonise the souls of its foes.”
Komarnyckyj has been looking outwardly at the West and I was curious as to what concrete signs he saw of the hybrid conflict elsewhere, beyond my own findings which are solidly based in fact.
“Russia’s assault on Ukraine has become a sleight of hand which, like a conjuror’s gestures, diverts the audience’s attention, it was convenient for western leaders to believe that Putin could be thrown Ukraine like a mad dog might be appeased with a scrap of meat. Equally many of them refused to accept that their countries were under his hybrid attack,” he told me.
I’ve seen enough documentary evidence from such a variety of sources that I can confirm this without hesitation.
“However,” he continued, “[Putin’s] aims were always much wider than Ukraine. He aspires, like his Soviet predecessors to conquer the world. He believes that transnational and business ties combined with a propaganda blitzkrieg can conquer his foes. The US will become a mirror image of Russia with a managed democracy and a population in thrall to hate propaganda. Europe will splinter into vassal states ruled by weak demagogues like Le Pen.”
Again, his assessment is flawlessly backed up by evidence.
“I would argue that Brexit was a successful hybrid war operation pursued by means of deniable assets,” Komarnyckyj said.
“Similarly, Trump’s election can be viewed as a triumph for Putin. The war against the West is using bullshit rather than bullets- but it is no less deadly for that. We may find that no British troops die as a result of Putin’s attack. But in ten years Britain will no longer be Britain but an oligarchy. The British will be an enclave at the edge of Europe providing a theme park for an international caste of oligarchs.”
Having established the sheer level of Russian money laundering through the city of London, and the current government’s almost inexplicable alignment with the insanity of Trump’s White House, this rings wholly true – especially when set against Prime Minister Theresa May’s outline of a tax haven state on the doorstep of an increasingly united Europe.
Of course, it is also worth noting that the Conservatives have been aligned in some way with Russian oligarchs since the days of George Osbourne.
“The war against the West is using bullshit rather than bullets- but it is no less deadly for that. We may find that no British troops die as a result of Putin’s attack. But in ten years Britain will no longer be Britain but an oligarchy.”
Steve’s assessment of the tactics deployed in response to Russia’s assault on democracy is very astute, and rightly scathing of the wider media.
“The war is curiously invisible in the West because it is being pursued by overt rather than covert means,” he said.
“If an intelligence service bribes a politician to betray their country they are prosecuted. If a media channel pays them for bogus media work they are praised by an army of trolls and bots on Twitter. They are feted by the oligarchic press (for Putin’s Western collaborators include many of our own native oligarchs who share his aims).”
“So, yes, I see signs of the conflict and that in the US and UK Putin is winning,” he added.
Since Macron’s election, a triumph over Putin’s favoured candidate, Le Pen, I’ve been watching the marked change in the EU stance and, again, we share the same view – both in terms of the likely rise of a stronger Europe and the hopeless mess facing Britain.
“Putin has inadvertently created what he most feared: a unified and angry Europe,” Steve told me. “His successes in the US and UK may ultimately become failures if they galvanise those countries into recognising and targeting their enemy. This may be happening in the US. Alas, the United Kingdom is losing a war it does not even know it is fighting.”
“Putin has inadvertently created what he most feared: a unified and angry Europe,”
Part of my own investigation has exposed just how alive Europe and NATO are to the very real conflict and what active measures they are deploying, including shutting down disinformation channels. But half of the battle, for me at least, is trying to make people pay attention.
Komarnyckyj agrees wholeheartedly.
“In 2014 I outlined a number of initial ideas for defeating Russia’s hybrid war,” he told me. “I believe that these ideas remain a useful basis for tackling Putin’s undeclared war against the west. However, the three initial steps are: 1) To accept that the war is happening. We all have a collective responsibility to see beyond the lies of our foe. Look not at what they say but what they do. 2) To recognise the deniable assets for what they are and target them. Ban Russia Today. Treat the politicians and journalist on its payroll as social pariahs the Lord Haw Haws of the digital age. 3) To develop a plan to counter the threat based on the recognition that it is them or us.”
“Sadly we have not reached stage 1 in the UK,” he added, explaining that “the head of MI6 made a statement recognising the threat last year but worded in vague terms.
“Our politicians are making the problem worse by trying to surf the wave of chaos unleashed by Putin. And Johnson is too large and wobbly, literally and metaphorically, to stay upright on any surfboard. They are actually assisting Putin’s efforts to toxify political debate by trumpeting Brexit – a parochial, brain dead policy which will isolate the UK and help splinter the transatlantic alliance.”
“They are actually assisting Putin’s efforts to toxify political debate by trumpeting Brexit – a parochial, brain dead policy which will isolate the UK and help splinter the transatlantic alliance.”
Before the UK becomes “Russia’s North Sea Oblast”, as Steve terms it, I press him on what practical countermeasures need to be taken – in particular considering we are for now – rightly, in my view – seen as enemies of our EU neighbours.
Komarnyckyj doesn’t hold back, saying we urgently need to map Russia’s propaganda resources to develop a “conceptual framework” which breaks the countries resources into categories such as “directly financed media agencies, directly paid agents of influence, Soviet legacy political parties who are still Russian-centric in orientation.”
He also makes clear we need to collectively shift away from “uncoordinated initiatives towards pooling resources and coordinating actions; move away from reacting to the material produced by the propaganda apparatus to a focus on coordinated action to destroy the apparatus itself; and focus on undermining Putin’s virtual world and its hired creators by exposing its – and their – dishonesty.”
I believe these moves are well under way in Germany and France already, and Komarnyckyj receives them positively, though he places an emphasis on non-violent action based upon his own experience.
“The strategy must adhere to best practice in terms of being anti-discriminatory. It is likely that the traditional ploy of depicting people negatively will be utilised against any organised campaign. It is also possible that attempts will be made to discredit the campaign by planting agents who will make provocative, inflammatory statements. Indeed, Ukrainian politics has been affected by a number of right-wing parties who may have been sponsored by Russia.”
As well as setting out the need for planned action focusing on the structure of Putin’s propaganda apparatus, Steve says any such response “must adhere to the principles of transparency, equality, and diversity both as a matter of principle and because this will neutralise several means by which Russia might attempt to discredit the attack on its propaganda apparatus.”
He is, undeniably, correct: we have to fight fire with water, not petrol.
“accept that the war is happening. We all have a collective responsibility to see beyond the lies of our foe. Look not at what they say but what they do.”
Working as an independent journalist I’ve been able to avoid the trap of editorial slant, but this provides its own struggle because I’m competing with the financial backing of billionaires in trying to expose this mess.
I asked Komarnyckyj for his view on the broader involvement of the mainstream media, which isn’t directly funded by the public through outlets like Byline.
“There are other elements of the situation in the UK which deserve special mention,” he said. “You have an oligarchised media ownership which has assisted Putin’s Brexit plans, you face the proliferation of fake and pro-Russian sites- alt right and hard left- on the Anglophone web, extensive penetration of politics by deniable assets and the Moscow-based press corps who import RU narratives with a gloss of respectability into the western media- in exchange for privileged access.”
“The UK needs to tackle its oligarchised media and to introduce sanctions for fake news – journalists need to adopt a code of ethics preventing them from accepting money from subversive fake media channels. We need to educate the public to become resistive to manipulation via social media – and to be intelligent, sceptical consumers of news.”
Having carried my own unbreakable ethics through from my time as a police officer and whistleblower, I already see Byline as a vital frontline resource in this conflict and Steve agrees.
“Your work gives a very comprehensive and detailed account of Russia’s hybrid operations against the West using open source intelligence and your own investigation. I think it should be widely circulated particularly because you are a British voice on this theme.”
Nonetheless, we are both painfully aware of the risks of failure. “Britain will not survive unless it rids itself of Russia’s deniable assets,” Steve added.
When turning from the press to the role of academia, Komarnyckyj is less positive.
“The UK and the West must also address the impact of Russian soft power on academic discourse,” he told me and didn’t pull his punch afterwards. “In the thirties, Russia inflicted a genocidal famine on Ukraine (which involved confiscating everything edible from vast areas) and undertook mass executions from 1930 onwards. Yet Western academia has been manipulated – via a combination of professional ties, the carrot of archival access and the consistency of message emanating from Russia – into arguing that this was in large degree a famine caused by collectivisation. Unfortunately, this reflexively complicit attitude facilitated Putin’s attack.”
“He knew that the UK would lack robustness to challenge his blatant destabilisation via deniable assets. We are paying a price for our cowardice and allowing him to reinvent Stalin as a great leader. Labour and the left never shed their totalitarian heritage – progressive politics in the UK is crippled by this legacy, fettered by a dead ideology.”
“The truth is our greatest weapon,” he told me, but added “however, until we see Russia as it really is rather than through the prism of Russian soft power we are lost.”
“The truth is our greatest weapon.”
On that note, and taking into account my own success so far – achieved through hard graft and crowdfunding – I want to know if any of Komarnyckyj’s proposed solutions are working on his own front line.
“Ukraine has very quickly worked through steps 1 – 3 from my outline,” he told me. “Civic society has been able to develop initiatives to counter Russia’s hybrid operations. These include initiatives such as Stop Fake, InformNapalm, Euromaidan Press – these groups tackle disinformation head on and compile intelligence on Russia’s war effort via the web. Ukrainians are still facing massively entrenched corruption and have their own populist oligarchs, however, the continuous challenge offered is transforming Ukraine. The population understands Russia and is fighting at every level.”
Things here in Britain, Steve tells me as a dual national, are not going so well.
“Unfortunately, the UK’s ‘civic society’ and political parties are heavily penetrated by Russia,” he said. “Organisations such as Stop the War UK, parties like UKIP, are in effect tools of Putin’s hybrid war.” My own investigation backs him fully with broad evidence, and other work around the Labour Party is of sufficient quality to present a cause for concern.
“The Putin/Milne handshake, the Farage meeting with the RU ambassador illustrate my argument about the move from covert to overt. During the cold war, an agent of influence recruited by the KGB would be prosecuted. During the present conflict, an agent of influence recruited by Russia Today can launch a campaign to bugger up the EU in plain sight. We will pay heavily for our failure to condemn and reject this species of totalitarianism.”
“We will pay heavily for our failure to condemn and reject this species of totalitarianism.”
Speaking to Steve, I was left with hope. Not because enough has been done, not by a long way, but because we are on the right track.
And it starts exactly where we began – in my case anyway – with independent journalism, funded by the direct support of the public, discovering the truth and making it heard.
This is how we will win. Together.