Why block VKontakte when it provides evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine?
Alarming yet vague statements from high-ranking Ukrainian officials turned into President Petro Poroshenko’s May 15 Decree blocking VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and other Russian-based social media and TV channels. The immediate fallout from the move came in a torrent of angry accusations of censorship, etc. as well as warnings that such blocks would take a long time to achieve. The longer-term consequences of the move, if it is indeed implemented, are at least as serious. The websites that fall under such a ban often provide vital incriminating evidence of, for example, Russia’s denied yet extensive military engagement in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s Decree brings into force a decision from the National Security and Defence Council from 28 April 2017 on personal economic and other restrictive measures (sanctions).
Internet providers will be obliged to block access to VKontakte, Odnoklasniki, Yandex and other Russian services. The new decision envisages sanctions against 468 legal entities, including VKontakte, etc, the Kaspersky Laboratory and Dr Web. Economic sanctions are also to apply against major Russian TV channels. Sanctions have been brought in against 1,228 individuals, from Russian, Ukraine and other countries. The application of sanctions, as well as freezing of assets, in the case of Ukrainian citizen Olena Berezovska may well run up against legal problems. Berezovska lives in Moscow and runs ‘Ukraina.ru’, a pro-Russian website created by the Kremlin-funded Russia Today. It is unclear how a Ukrainian citizen can be refused entry to Ukraine, and the blocking of assets is possible only on the basis of a court order. In fact, Mykhailo Chaplyhya, from the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Secretariat has pointed out that no website may be blocked in Ukraine without a court order.
While many Ukrainians reacted with anger and accusations of censorship, others believe that the move should have been taken a long time ago, and call it a question of national security.
Politician Taras Berezovets called it incredible that in the third year of war with Russia, there is indignation “over the closing of the main information-sabotage Russian channels.” We must not confuse censorship with defence of national security. VKontakte, Odnoklasniki and Mail.ru are actively used for propaganda and counter-propaganda to serve the Russian security service, and fed with discrediting and fake information about Ukraine. Berezovets also asserts that these networks are used to coordinate activities and / or recruit new agents for Russian intelligence, as well as other destructive activities.
As reported, Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] has long warned Ukrainians to steer clear of all such Russian-based networks. There are certainly good grounds, with the FSB in particular believed to have effectively unhampered access to VKontakte. Crimean Tatar activist Remzi Bekirov was recently jailed for a post from seven years earlier on a VKontakte page that he had himself deleted.
The social media are all Russian and abound with material which is openly and aggressively anti-Ukrainian. Journalist Artur Hor typed in ‘anti-Maidan’, and came up with a staggering 2.5 thousand groups. There were 3.2 thousand groups when he tried ‘Novorossiya’, the term used by Russian President Vladimir Putin in claiming that Donbas and several south-east Ukrainian oblasts were not organically part of Ukraine. In both cases, there were well over 100 thousand participants registered in Ukraine.
There are also plenty of groups on such social networks that are pretending to be pro-Ukrainian, but in fact seem more menacing, and are themselves administered by Russian citizens. The same is true of some media, such as The Kharkov News Agency (nahnews.org) which, any visitor would reasonably assume, is based in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The site is regularly quoted by Russian state-controlled media who prefer to refer to sources apparently in Ukraine. Nahnews.org is in fact run from St Petersburg and is probably one of the ‘troll factory’ enterprises owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire often referred to as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite chef.
Others are aimed at deliberate provocation or worse. The SBU, for example, reported the activities of a certain Serhiy Zhuk, who pretended to be a Ukrainian patriot living in Ukraine, though he was based throughout in Russia. From there he had been directly involved in creating and administering a number of groups titled ‘Patriots of Ukraine’, ‘Maidan-3’, ‘Everybody out on Maidan’, which were clearly aimed at provoking mass protests.
The counter-arguments are, however, compelling. It is probably easier for the FSB to control VKontakte and Odnoklasniki, which are part of the Mail.ru.Group, that Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov holds a controlling number of shares in. He is known for his close relations and absolute political loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is nonetheless not in the slightest impossible for the FSB to use Facebook to achieve the same purpose.
There are also numerous Ukrainian-based websites that are regularly used for spreading fake separatist stories, and a few that fairly openly push pro-Russian narratives.
There is a limit to how much Ukraine can ban if it hopes to remain a democracy.
There are also other problems. The Internet Association of Ukraine stated in response to the decree that such blocks cannot be swiftly achieved.
More importantly, Russia has been blocking independent websites for many years. Most people know how to bypass them. Frustratingly, it is now likely that Ukrainians will do so, although the advice to not use VKontakte as a social network is well-founded.
The ban would probably also accentuate the divide between parts of Ukraine where Kyiv could enforce it, and those under Russian or Russia-supported militant control.
There are also advantages to intelligent use of VKontakte. Civic activists have succeeded in finding important evidence of Russia’s military engagement in Ukraine by following the pages of Russian soldiers. InformNapalm recently tracked down proof that Putin had given a state award to Alexander Minakov for his role in the battle for Debaltseve in the Donetsk oblast in February 2015. The fighting to capture that government-controlled city continued after Putin agreed a ceasefire as part of the Minsk II Agreement on Feb 12, and investigative journalists have provided evidence suggesting that it was Putin himself who ordered the offensive.
There is considerable evidence also of Russian weapons, tanks, etc. used in Donbas, from ‘selfies’ taken by soldiers or Russian mercenaries. On July 23, 2014, Russian soldier Vadim Grigoryev posted an incriminating photo with the caption: “We pounded Ukraine all night”. This is just one of numerous photos which are often deleted later, but which have by then been recorded. The Insider collected a number of such incriminating posts, including that on the left picture above.
While it is certainly unwise to trust information provided on most Russian state-controlled media, it is vital to monitor them closely. It is, for example, noticeable that the armed searches, arrests and prison terms on fabricated charges in Russian-occupied Crimea are being presented on Russian television as the ‘fight against terrorism’. Ukrainian political prisoners are regularly defamed on REN-TV, NTV and other Russian channels. All such material is based on manipulative distortion of footage and words, and sometimes open fakes. A ban will obstruct the struggle against lies and propaganda, while leaving a huge audience in Russia without any chance of seeing the fakes exposed.