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Nothing humane. Dehumanization of the enemy as a manifestation of hybrid warfare

Ucraina
©EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO  |   Ukrainian activists, some of them wearing masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, perform near the Dutch embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, 22 March 2016.

The concentration of Russian troops near the borders of Ukraine, which began in late March 2021, was accompanied by what seemed to be an information-psychological operation to dehumanize the enemy. Despite the reduction of tensions after a number of events in the international arena, that technology deserves detailed analysis.

Of the beginning of the undeclared (unconventional) war in Donbass in the spring of 2014, the process of dehumanization of opponents began. If the actions of the Russian Federation and its puppets were more systematic and prepared (details below), Ukraine's reaction was situational. Ukrainian servicemen and soldiers of volunteer battalions began to be called "Ukropy" (analogy with the plant), members of pro-Russian illegal armed groups - "Colorados" (by the color of "St. George's ribbon" and by analogy with pests). However, the mass dehumanization of the enemy in the modern world seems ineffective without using specific “examples” aimed at generating a high level of emotion within the public.

In early April 2021, the Russian media and media in the Russian-backed rebel Donbass reported the death of a 5-year-old boy Vladislav Shikhov in the village of Oleksandrivske as a result of a grenade explosion allegedly dropped by a Ukrainian UAV. The boy's grandmother herself appeared on the air of Russia-1 TV channel. However, she did not mention the lethal devices, but only spoke about the circumstances of the boy's death. The OSCE SMM concluded by telephone survey that the child had been the victim of an unidentified explosive device found in his own backyard. However, the informational use of the distorted version of the story continued. The Ukrainian Armed Forces simply did not have at the time drones capable of executing this type of strikes, and yet this did not stop the speaker of the State Duma of the Russian Federation ,Vyacheslav Volodin, to ask for the exclusion of Ukraine from the Council of Europe.

Dehumanization of the enemy is a technique that has been used in conflict for a long time. The First and Second World Wars presented numerous examples of the use of such tactics. Nazi Germany focused on advancing the "race theory" about the superiority of the Aryan (German) race over the Slavs and Jews. The Soviet propaganda focused on the nation-enemy: in the summer of 1942, for instance, a well-known Soviet poet who worked as a front-line correspondent, Konstantin Simonov wrote the poem "Kill Him" (Kill a German!), which was widespread in the Soviet Union and was used to summon the fighting spirit of the military. A little later, publicist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote the similarly titled article "Kill!".

In modern times, the Russian government also relies on the work of military correspondents, but their functions are somewhat different. Alexander Kots, Semyon Pegov, Yuri Kotenok, and Daria Aslamova not only cover armed conflicts in which the Russian military is directly or indirectly involved, but are also participate in psychological operations. They were present in Georgia in 2008, covered events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine since the spring of 2014, and reported from Syria. Experts consider them agents of influence of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. And this influence should not be ignored. In April 2021, in the midst of the escalation of the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "we have all the information about the state of affairs in the Donbass from our military correspondents."

The activities of Graham Phillips, a British citizen who worked in Donbass for the Russian TV channels Zvezda and Russia Today, are very revealing. He not only covered the course of hostilities in the Donbass in a favorable light for the Kremlin, but also carried out direct provocations against the citizens of Ukraine.

It will be recalled that there was another case of dehumanization of the enemy by Russian propagandists. This is a "crucified boy" - a widely circulated television story about the demonstrative execution of a little boy by the Ukrainian military. The absurdity of the accusations gradually turned this statement into an illustration of the cynicism of Russian propaganda, but in July 2014, in the midst of hostilities in the eastern regions of Ukraine, its creators could well have had the desired effect.

No less interesting is the fate of a woman who acted as the locomotive of this fake in 2014. In April 2021, Halyna Pyshnyak, the wife of a former Berkut special police officer, gave an interview to Dozhd TV. It is significant that this case was called "the main fake about the war in Donbass", and the heroine herself did not find a positive attitude towards herself in the Russian province. This is a rather telling situation – the attitude of propagandists to the "consumables" for spreading fakes is contemptuous.

Although dehumanization can be called an element of modern warfare, it would be a mistake to assume that such operations are conducted exclusively in theaters of war. Both in 2014 and in 2021, the spread of absurd rumors about the death of young boys as a result of war crimes was to become a catalyst for mobilization – both for the population of separatist-held territories and the public opinion within Russia. In the spring of 2021, this did not happen because the Russian leadership decided to refrain from a further escalation tensions, but the very fact of using such operations is a powerful signal of preparation for hostilities.

In the fall of 2018, information about the murder of a local Ukrainian boy by a group of ethnic Hungarian teenagers was spread in local public networks of social networks in Zakarpattia. It was illustrated with a photo of a grief-stricken mother crying over the body of a boy. The Department of the National Police in Zakarpattia Region did not confirm that such a crime ever took place.

It should be emphasized that Russia is trying to dehumanize the enemy not only in Ukraine. Following the deployment of an additional NATO contingent in the Baltic States, information on sexual crimes began to appear in the public domain. The accusation was directed against Bundeswehr soldiers, suggesting a desire to use stereotypes about World War II. The use of elements of historical memory in such episodes is a trademark of Russian propaganda, but Lithuania and Germany have managed to quickly disprove the fake.

As the intensity of political events does not decrease, and the confrontation between Russia and the EU finds more and more manifestations, I want to focus on a number of recommendations in the fight against dehumanization:

  • The dehumanization of the enemy has not lost its relevance since the world wars, today it is more emphasized.
  • The main tools of dehumanization are fake news about crimes against children committed by the enemy's military, and in some cases, by representatives of other nationalities
  • Fake accounts and local news sites are used to disseminate the fake information, but in the case of Russia, fakes go to the federal level and become elements of the national agenda.
  • The logic of using such information suggests we are bound to see more of it employed against political opponents during election campaigns or at the culmination of political crises.
  • Dehumanization of the opponent in the modern world requires a dense flow of information, which deprives the recipient of information the opportunity to critically evaluate it.
  • It is necessary to counteract dehumanization by dismantling fakes into components, using the official position and promptly provided materials.
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  • In the beginning of the undeclared (unconventional) war in Donbass in the spring of 2014, the process of dehumanization of opponents began. If the actions of the Russian Federation and its puppets were more systematic and prepared, Ukraine's reaction was situational.
  • Dehumanization of the enemy is a technique that has been used in conflict for a long time. The First and Second World Wars presented numerous examples of the use of such tactics. Nazi Germany focused on advancing the "race theory" about the superiority of the Aryan (German) race over the Slavs and Jews. The Soviet propaganda focused on the nation-enemy: in the summer of 1942, for instance, a well-known Soviet poet who worked as a front-line correspondent, Konstantin Simonov wrote the poem "Kill Him" (Kill a German!), which was widespread in the Soviet Union and was used to summon the fighting spirit of the military. A little later, publicist Ilya Ehrenburg wrote the similarly titled article "Kill!".
  • Although dehumanization can be called an element of modern warfare, it would be a mistake to assume that such operations are conducted exclusively in theaters of war. Both in 2014 and in 2021, the spread of absurd rumors about the death of young boys as a result of war crimes was to become a catalyst for mobilization – both for the population of separatist-held territories and the public opinion within Russia.
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