The Ukrainian Media Counters Russian Disinformation
In the context of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the Ukrainian media plays a crucial role in keeping people informed, fighting propaganda, and ensuring freedom of speech. From its beginnings as a project to introduce Ukrainian culture to people within the country and abroad, Ukraїner has become one of the leading media outlets telling the stories of Ukraine, its people in all their diversity, and their fight for freedom and democracy.
Ukraїner is a media project that aims to study Ukraine, to learn about its unexpected features and sites, and to share its diverse stories with a wide audience. Established in 2016, it now has over 300,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel and 197,000 followers on Instagram. It publishes materials in 15 languages. With millions of individual readers, Ukraїner has become one of the country’s most successful media projects for encouraging Ukrainians to learn more about their country and foreigners to discover it.
With the outbreak of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraїner and around the globe to support the country’s fight for freedom and democracy.
Ukraїner started as an ambitious series of cultural-anthropological research expeditions run by a small team of enthusiasts and aimed at showing Ukrainians the diversity of their country. Today, it has 20 people on staff and over 800 volunteers around the globe who work daily to keep the world informed about Ukraine.
In December 2021, the last time the Ukraїner team met to discuss its strategic plans for the coming years, more information was coming to light about Russia’s plan to escalate the war it had started in 2014. The threat of invasion was in the air. With its center located in Kyiv and its hundreds of volunteers spread across Ukraine, the core team devoted much of the meeting to developing emergency strategies. As a result, when Russian troops moved in, Ukraїner was able to evacuate all members of its team and volunteers who wanted to leave. Everybody knew what to do and where to go.
Maryan Manko, the organization’s grant manager and chief of international cooperation, has worked with the organization for more than five years. “Now the team comes together every three months to strategize”, he says. “Ukraїner used to be ‘slow media’. Today, it is ‘fast media’, ready to respond to any changes and challenges that come our way.”
Early in the war, the organization launched a project to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine. That was the start of the project Ukraine Resists, which continues to this day. The Ukraїner team goes to liberated cities and towns as soon as it is safe to do so, filming interviews with residents to record their recollections of the occupation and their resistance to it. Manko reports that the Ukraine Resists project shows people the strength of their collective resistance and how forcefully they can fight—knowledge that unites the country. Translated into English and Polish, these videos also show the rest of the world the bravery of the Ukrainian people and their eagerness to be free. The team also employs humor as an instrument to boost Ukrainian morale, using memes and jokes to encourage people to stay hopeful.
Ukraїner is now working on a new project called Brave Cities, which aims to inform Ukrainians and the international community about the cities still under Russian occupation, including smaller, lesser-known cities or towns such as Melitopol or Nova Khakovka. Russian propaganda in the occupied territories attempts to convince Ukrainians living there that the rest of the country judges them for living under Russian authority and has abandoned them. Ukraїner works to counter this narrative.
Since the February 2022 invasion, Ukraїner has gone to battle in other areas of the information war as well. The Russian propaganda machine bombards audiences with lies, promoting the ideas that Ukrainians are fascists and ultra-nationalists, and that the “Nazi” Ukrainian regime provoked Russia. Internationally, Russian propaganda pushes the narrative of Ukraine’s inherent institutional weakness and corruption and promotes the message “It’s not your war” to audiences in Europe and North America.
Ukraїner began by publishing information to expose the falseness and hollowness of these claims, explaining the mechanisms of Russian propaganda and showing how Russia uses a narrative of its own greatness to deflect blame for the war and the destruction it has caused.
“Look at the conversations that are happening in Brazil or Peru”, Manko says. “You can see that their leaders replicate the messages of Russian propaganda. In fact, we lack the presence of Ukrainian messaging in the countries of Latin America, Africa, and East Asia.” He goes on to express a frustration that many Ukrainians share: “Even in the United States, a documentary about jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny won an Oscar. The progressive, well-educated cultural community buys the idea of Navalny being a progressive democratic leader. In that case, we have a problem with Russian propaganda winning the narrative.”
Manko fears that if the world is tricked into believing Russian propaganda about Ukraine, then blame for the war and the many war crimes committed will eventually be placed on President Vladimir Putin alone. This would mean that Russia could simply replace Putin’s regime with a new one based on the same old values and mechanisms.
The Ukraїner team has ambitious plans. It wants to widen the geographic reach of its programming, share more stories about Ukraine, create new materials for internal audiences, and increase the country’s cultural diplomacy. Ukraїner brings to light new facets of Ukrainian identity, diversity, and cultural richness. In doing so, it shows the truth of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state with a proud history and diverse people and traditions.
But, Manko says, “Russian propaganda changes and adapts its messages all the time. It is crucial that the world can tell the difference between lies and truth and that people recognize when they are being manipulated. Unfortunately, we have much more work to do.”