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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russian Mind-Control Tactics Prey On Ukrainians In Occupied Territories

Russia has occupied of parts of Ukraine for almost a decade, busy promoting a pro-Russian narrative in those territories. Moscow's aim is to ensure loyalty and deliberately create tensions among Ukrainians in free territories. It is a formula that has been

A mural for children of Donbass by Italian street artist Ciro Cerullo aka Jorit stands on Metallurgov Street in Mariupol.

People who have lived under occupation since 2014, say life following the February 24 full-scale invasion has taken even darker turns.

Anatoly Bondarchuk

KYIV — For almost a year and a half now, Russia has been trying to defeat Ukraine both on the battlefield and in the information space. Special attention has been paid behind the front lines, where the Kremlin has been busy trying to widen the gap between Ukrainians who live in the “Temporarily Occupied Territories” (TOTs) and people living in the free territories of Ukraine.

Its strategy, on the one hand, is designed to undermine the trust of the TOT residents in Ukraine and weaken resistance to the occupation. On the other hand, it seeks to force the Ukrainian leadership and public to abandon the liberation of the occupied territories.

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The longer the war lasts, the higher the likelihood that people who live in the Russia-occupied territories will be ready to accept the status quo. People who have lived or are still living under occupation describe life following the February 24 full-scale invasion as follows: the destruction of infrastructure and residential buildings, terror, and repression against those who do not support the occupation.

Subduing resistance

According to military psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk, this phenomenon is based on the inherent dynamics of human behavior. Initially, individuals strive to adjust to ensure their survival. Then they seek avenues for socialization if the prospect of a new social order seems irreversible. Consequently, people adapt and embrace new rules of engagement, regardless of their personal preferences. The psychologist suggests that this process typically lasts around 2.5–3 years.

However, the Russian occupiers are not ready to wait that long, especially against the backdrop of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The fact that Ukrainian Armed Forces' previous operation successfully liberated the entire occupied part of the Kharkiv region and the right bank of the Kherson region only added fuel to the fire. It is unlikely that the Russian army wants to see this experience repeated.

So, the occupiers are actively exploiting the psychological state of Ukrainians to swiftly subdue resistance in the temporarily occupied territories, seeking to acquire a loyal population that will not aid the Ukrainian army and will refrain from disclosing the coordinates of Russian forces, equipment, ammunition depots, and so forth.

The Russians understand that individuals living in the occupied territories are obliged to interact with them. This enables the propagation of myths suggesting that the residents of TOT are tarnished in the eyes of Ukraine. Propaganda intensifies these fears and insists that if the territories are liberated, Ukraine will immediately accuse all individuals, without exception, of collaboration.

Russian propaganda spreads disinformation, inciting hatred, fear, distrust, and social tension.

Those who have obtained Russian passports (often done forcibly or under pressure) will find themselves in prisons or, worse, facing execution. A new Russian myth alleges that Ukraine deliberately sabotaged the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Station and left its citizens to their fate.

Lyudmila Bondarenko, an elderly woman with reduced mobility, has her Russian passport delivered to her home in the rural town of Stanitsa Luganskaya.

People who left the city are "traitors", while those who stayed are true "patriots" who did not abandon their city.

© Alexander Reka/TASS/ZUMA Press

Cut off from the West

Of course, all of this is untrue. But that may be clear only to those who live on the free territory and have access to objective information. The situation in the occupied territories is somewhat different. Russia wants to cut these areas off from the Ukrainian information space by blocking social networks (Viber, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and YouTube), Ukrainian government websites, and online resources. According to an OPORA study, as of March, the occupiers blocked access to 979 Ukrainian online resources and 10 government websites.

At the same time, Russia is building its own informational space. It relies on the development of two platforms — the social network Vkontakte and Telegram. The researchers found 1,045 active pages and groups on the former and 640 Telegram channels created to provide information services to the occupied territories.

By these means, Russian propaganda spreads disinformation, inciting hatred, fear, distrust, and social tension between people who remain in the TOTs and those who decided to leave them. For example, this strategy is actively used in occupied Mariupol. According to Mykola Osychenko, the president of Mariupol Television, it boils down to the following thesis: people who left the city are "traitors", while those who stayed are true "patriots" who did not abandon their city.

That is why, in its policy towards the TOT, our country should take into account that people under occupation have almost no access to objective information.

Increasing tensions

Russia is interested not only in setting the inhabitants of the occupied territories at odds with those who live in the government-controlled areas, but also in increasing tensions in Ukrainian society in general. For example, the propaganda claims that those who supported Ukraine have long since left the occupied cities, while those who remained support Russia. This piece of propaganda tries to imply that there is no need to die for people who allegedly have anti-Ukrainian views.

Despite Russia's best efforts, this opinion is not popular in Ukraine. This is confirmed by the results of a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in September 2022. According to the survey, a majority of Ukrainians (72%) consider the residents of the territories occupied after February 24 to be victims of circumstances, and only 12% think of them as collaborators or indifferent to Ukraine.

According to another survey conducted by the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research in November 2022, the majority of Ukrainians (85%) believe that it is worth keeping in touch with the residents of the TOT. Also, a third of Ukrainians are sympathetic to people who remained under occupation and were forced to take Russian passports if it helped them survive. However, 14% of respondents believe that obtaining a Russian passport is a crime that requires punishment.

In this photo illustration, the Telegram logo is displayed on a smartphone screen.

Russia is building its own informational space. It relies on the development of two platforms — the social network Vkontakte and Telegram.

© Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

Agent network

Unfortunately, no survey answers the question of why there is a negative attitude toward TOT residents, even if the percentage is small. We can assume that several factors influence this.

First, the duration of the occupation matters: people are more likely to distrust those who are forced to come into contact with the enemy for a longer period.

Secondly, some Ukrainians lack information about the realities of life in the occupied territories (pressure, abductions, difficult humanitarian situation, etc.), the circumstances that force people to stay under occupation, and the difficult decisions people living there have to make.

Thirdly, the media actively cover the facts of cooperation between local politicians and citizens, but this is not a widespread phenomenon.

Ukrainians are generally sympathetic to the people who remained in the TOT.

Fourthly, there is the Russian myth that most residents of Crimea and Donbas allegedly wanted to become part of Russia. Of course, there were such people, but their percentage is much smaller than those who supported the integrity of Ukraine. For example, in March 2014, according to the Rating Group, only one-third of Donbas residents supported separation from Ukraine, while 56% rejected the idea.

At the same time, the regular Russian army and the agent network that Russia has been building in Ukraine for decades took an active part in the occupation of Crimea and Donbas.

Exodus and resistance

Fifth, we often overlook the mass exodus from the occupied territories and the resulting changes in the population. To assess the attitude of TOT residents toward Ukraine, we must first allow everyone to return home. The enemy wants us to believe its claims that an entire occupied city is for or against Ukraine, even if most of its population has left.

As we can see, Ukrainians are generally sympathetic to the people who remained in the TOT. At the same time, a certain part of society distrusts those who remained in the occupation, both after the full-scale invasion and after the Russian aggression of 2014-2015. It is this category of Ukrainians that the government, media, and the non-governmental sector need to work with.

The key message is that most people who have remained in the TOT are resisting the occupation and waiting for liberation.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Bibi Blinked: How The Ceasefire Deal Could Flip Israel's Whole Gaza War Logic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed ahead a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Though the humanitarian and political pressure was mounting, Israel's all-out assault is suddenly halted, with unforeseen consequences for the future.

photo of someone holding a poster of a hostage

Families of Israeli hostages rally in Jerusalem

Nir Alon/ZUMA
Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 at 8:55 p.m.


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war.

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha, he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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