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Since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014, international security research has been extensively shaped by increased focus on information operations and hybrid warfare. The Kremlin’s use of multiple instruments of power, including cyberattacks, conventional troops, economic pressure and massive disinformation campaigns, has threatened security of not only Ukraine, but many Western democracies as well. Although foreign experts’ analysis of the Russian hybrid warfare often takes into account vulnerabilities and mistakes made by Ukraine, it seems to accord less attention to the multiple ways in which the country succeeds in handling Russian aggression. While Ukraine has been a testing ground of new-generation warfare techniques, it has also conducted testing of many diverse countermeasures to mitigate them. To enrich international discussion on the Russian hybrid warfare with the knowledge of Ukrainian strategies and solutions towards it, we have invited to our series Alina Frolova, an experienced professional in the field of strategic, government and crisis communications based in Ukraine. Before assuming her current position as Deputy Chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies in Kyiv, Alina has served as a public official in the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine and Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine, where she facilitated implementation of strategic and government communications amid the ongoing conflict. In our interview with Alina, we discuss the importance of strategic communications and key factors behind their success, the most effective mechanisms against foreign influences, recent escalation along the Ukrainian border, as well as Ukraine’s image abroad and the country’s progress in the pursuit of NATO membership thus far. On behalf of the Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Roman Kolodii, Alina: thank you!
1# Alina, how would you like to present yourself to the international readers of Scuola Filosofica?
Alina Frolova, Deputy Chairman, Centre for Defence Strategies, Founder of StratcomUA (Center for Strategic Communications), Deputy Minister of Defence of Ukraine 2019-2020.
2# How did you start to get involved in strategic communications (stratcom) and the analysis of hybrid threats? What were the key drivers that pushed you into this field?
I have dedicated most of my professional life to communications and marketing, working with leading international brands and companies (I am founder of three communications agencies dealing with marketing, GR and public communications). In 2014, when Russian aggression started, we actually lacked legitimate or any functioning government in Ukraine, as well as governmental communications as such. It was an existential threat to the state as Ukraine had no trust of other nations and was increasingly losing in the hybrid warfare. In this situation, communications professionals decided to launch a media centre – Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC) – which has for a long time substituted official communications. I was one of its founders and took responsibility for the security and defence component, as well as communications with domestic audiences. It was the beginning of a very deep and extensive diving into public communications and defence communications, with tasks as diverse as establishing relations with an emerging NATO Stratcom, launching MH-17 support communications and implementing guerrilla campaigns to enhance resilience among Ukrainians. We went through an intense and painful real-time training in hybrid warfare that time. Later, I became advisor on stratcom to Ministry of Defence (2015-2017), advisor on stratcom and defence cooperation to the Minister in the newly established Ministry of Information Policy (2016-2019), as well as lead for the governmental stratcom development project implemented by the Ministry and the National Security and Defence Council.
For me, the important and driving motivation was to bring structured approach and strategic thinking to the governmental communications and to drive them to their proper place as a vital component of government policy rather than just an administrative function. Hybrid warfare has emerged as a new domain where I could literally defend my nation with my professional skills. These times gave a huge boost to my skills and knowledge.
3# You are Deputy Chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies (CDS) in Ukraine. Could you outline the mission and tasks of your organization, as well as your personal area of responsibility? What methods and techniques does the Centre apply in its work?
CDS is an independent Ukrainian think-tank that combines efforts of leading Ukrainian and international experts to assist in: (1) solving Ukraine’s most pressing security and defence issues, (2) developing relevant strategies and capabilities, (3) promoting key reforms. Our mission is to positively impact the development of the security situation in Ukraine and in the region. We use our expert potential to improve security decisions and policies, analyse the most important issues and answer the most critical questions. We offer solutions and work with decision-makers to ensure their implementation.
I am proud to be a member of the very strong team of the Centre. As CDS is a quite young organization, I, as one of its leaders, cover a lot of issues, but mainly focus on advocacy, GR, networking, fund raising. Also, I am leader for the Crimea Platform cooperation project, which focuses on the Black and Azov seas’ security issues, as well as de-occupation and reintegration of Crimea. I also contribute as an author to some policy papers developed by the Centre.
CDS mainly focuses on:
consulting governmental authorities and agencies;
developing policies and recommendations for security and defence;
monitoring principal reforms in security and defence;
shaping local and international expert communities’ opinions regarding the topics of interest;
improving public policies through expert and public engagement;
raising public awareness on security and defence issues through active communication.
While developing policies, we always commit to a balanced approach. In this regard, we apply a collective approach to policy-making, conduct a lot of relevant interviews, pass all our papers through an independent evaluation by the best known Ukrainian and foreign experts. We want to stay out of any political influence, but still be able to influence the politics to support Ukraine’s secure and successful development as a European state.
4# How important, and effective, is hybrid warfare in Russia’s foreign policy, especially its policy towards Ukraine?
Hybrid approach is the key component of all Russia’s warfare operations. Ukraine just became a very telling example of it, as we have faced one of the most massive aggressions in the XXI century. I won’t refer to the well-known Gerasimov’s concept but rather point to Russia’s current behavior. Trying to gain political benefits and a leading place on the world’s political arena, Russia uses all available means to pressure Ukraine. It also actively uses Ukraine as a pressure factor for Western democracies. Looking at the latest escalation and the so-called rapid check-up of Russian troops’ readiness, we understand that Russia aimed at boosting its relations with the newly elected US administration, gaining back silent support (or at least passive attitude) of the EU and pressuring Ukraine, which announced the establishment of Crimea Platform and expressed intent to start gas exploration in the Black Sea. Also, the Kremlin kept in mind other minor tasks like deeper integration with or control over Belarus’ Armed Forces. Was it a military operation? Obviously yes, with a direct military threat in the Kerch strait, for example. At the same time, this operation has achieved mostly political objectives. In the modern world, you cannot wait for an official declaration of war. It is more likely that a nation can face the use of chemical weapons on its sovereign territory (like the poisoning incidents in the UK or Bulgaria) or a blast at an arms depot (the Czech case). And how to identify and counter such a hybrid threat is a true challenge for all democratic states.
How successful is Russia with this? Tactically, I would say, it is rather successful: it has imposed its chaotic agenda on the majority of Western states and put Ukraine in position of necessity to prove its sovereignty and right to existence again. But in the long run, Russia does not seem to be succeeding, as Ukraine has turned toward the European path of development with more passion and resolution than ever before, NATO has reconsidered its existential senses and strengthened its capabilities and Western nations designated Russia as one of their main threats and enemies. It looks like Russia is going down the road of the Soviet Union’s economic collapse due to sanctions. However, we should not forget that this strategic approach is possible only thanks to the sacrifice of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, and we must put more efforts and be faster in proposing new common defence policies.
5# You worked as Aide to the Minister of Information Policy of Ukraine and then as Deputy Minister of Defence of Ukraine implementing strategic and government communications and helping counter hybrid threats to Ukraine’s national security. Could you describe your key accomplishments on these positions and their impact?
With government communications, we started from the very scratch. During those years, we managed to introduce and raise the importance of stratcom for the state. Stratcom was introduced in key strategic documents in the sphere of national security as well as in the President’s address to the parliament. We have modernized communications units in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, Border Guard Service, launched dozens of stratcom courses and educational programs in military universities, designed a partnership roadmap on stratcom development with NATO and established strong cooperation with respective government units of our foreign partners. We still have a lot of work to do, but the stratcom culture and the understanding of its importance is already within the Ukrainian governmental system. And I am proud to be part of the transformations happening.
6# Working on strategic and crisis communications in the government is always challenging, but doing it in a country that faces foreign aggression seems especially so. What can the Ukrainian case teach the international community about strategic communications amid an ongoing hybrid conflict?
Stratcom is a quite new term and approach for all states, but I do believe that it is built on classical and efficient premises, namely good strategy and good implementation. The Ukrainian case has demonstrated that any state must have well-prepared and well-trained stratcom capabilities (infrastructure, dedicated staff and resources). Hybrid warfare requires that you also have military/defence stratcom capabilities that combine communications, OSINT, information operations etc., as well as an established cooperation with info-activists and civil society. I am sure that Ukraine can never win this war against the stronger and richer enemy without deep involvement of civic activists; and the necessity to develop effective collaboration with civil society to enhance national resilience is the main lesson learnt in our war.
7# What determines success or failure of certain government and crisis communications? Are there some mechanisms against foreign influences in the realm of national information security that work especially well?
I would say it is trust and speed of reaction. During the pandemic, we saw how different the behavior of ordinary people was in states where levels of trust in government were high or low. Trust is obviously a long-term task for any government. At the same time, speed of reaction and openness in communications bring immediate results; in fact, proper and open communications during crisis can build trust, as in critical moments people are more receptive to any messaging. I also like the practice of pre-crisis planning and exercises which many governments do, this helps a lot with team readiness and operations during a real-world crisis.
As for influences, the biggest protection is critical thinking, this skill must be an integral part of any modern education system. However, all states now must also revise their rules for media regulation (as we face a new treat of proxy-media), as well as limit the monopoly of social media networks on content regulation. This is a serious challenge of balancing freedom of speech with the need for new regulations that should protect nations from negative influences. I believe that only collective efforts of media, governments and society can bring this new balance to the information domain.
8# How successful is Ukraine’s image-building efforts abroad? What are the key strategic narratives that Ukraine seeks to promulgate internationally?
I do not agree with the position that Ukraine is losing the infowar, but it can definitely do more. For a long period, we have been mostly focused on proving that we are not a failed state (the Russian narrative) or we are not part of Russia. At the same time, Ukraine was associated abroad mostly with Chernobyl, revolutions and war. In 2018, the Ukrainian government adopted a new concept for promoting Ukraine abroad with the main slogan ‘Ukraine now’. The key idea was to demonstrate that Ukraine is a dynamic and fast-changing country where history is happening right now, with big investment opportunities and tourist attractions. Ukraine is trying to promote its own proactive narratives. It is also positive and new in our communications that the government gave access to brand and guide books with relevant information to be used by any business or government agency in order to unite umbrella image-building efforts of all actors. It has yielded good results – the branding is actively used in practice.
That being said, government communications still lack sustainability and consistency. Also, in the last couple of years, the government has not put enough resources into the country’s promotion abroad. The big part of this issue is the absence of modern professional communications infrastructure in central government, which makes communications politically contingent.
Therefore, I would say that we are on the right track but still lack sustainable background to reach visible success.
9# Since June 2020, Ukraine has become a member of NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Programme. Apart from that, the Ukrainian Constitution declares the country’s resolve to pursue NATO membership. How would you evaluate Ukraine’s progress in boosting its chances of joining NATO in the future?
I am absolutely sure that we will see Ukraine as part of NATO family, because this is a clear desire and position of the nation, not just politicians. We can see this in polls, official statements by our officers and soldiers, as well as in civil society’s response to any attempts to question this course. Ukraine has the right to NATO membership, as it has demonstrated its readiness to protect the eastern boarder of Europe and put a lot of efforts in transforming its Armed Forces towards NATO standards. However, we still have to do a lot. The main goals are to complete C2 transformation not only in structure, but in values, and to establish civilian control over Ukraine’s Armed Forces; then, NATO is not only all about military component, but also democratic values and principles, therefore Ukraine needs to prove its serious and consistent dedication to such a lifestyle. The most important point is that it’s in Ukraine’s interests to follow the path of transformation. And the faster we move, the easier the decision to accept us will be for NATO states.
I really welcome the potential granting of a membership plan to Georgia, which made great progress in internal transformations and took active part in NATO operations demonstrating its readiness, and I do hope Ukraine will have the same success soon. The only argument we should not hear from NATO states is that our future relations depend on Russia, because this is exactly the essence of Russian neocolonial policy towards its neighboring states that threatens the security of the whole world. And it is the time for all Western democracies to acknowledge this.
10# How can our readers follow you and your organization on social media or elsewhere?
11# Could you list five words that characterize you?
Open-minded, idea-driven, communicator, leader, cheerful