T hree years after it began, the war between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine grinds on, so far claiming an estimated 10,000 lives. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sharp escalation in hostilities in late January and early February has “had a devastating impact on all aspects of life for civilians living along the contact line”, depriving tens of thousands of people of necessities and life-saving services.
From the start, the conflict has involved information as much as guns. Russia has been accused by Kiev and the West of waging ‘hybrid warfare’, blending conventional weapons with cyberwarfare and a blitz of propaganda designed to sow confusion about its role in perpetuating the bloodshed.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pointed to this threat, as well as suspected Russian meddling in the recent French presidential election, when he banned several Russian Internet companies on May 16. In a decree, he expanded economic sanctions to cover Yandex, often known as the Russian Google, and Mail.Ru, the operator of popular social media websites VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki.
“Hybrid warfare requires adequate responses to the challenges,” Mr. Poroshenko wrote, ironically, on his own VK page. “But the massive Russian cyber attacks around the world, in particular the recent intervention in the election campaign in France, suggest that it is time to do things differently and more strongly.”
The blacklist now covers 1,228 individuals and 468 companies, according to RT, Russia’s state-funded international broadcaster, which ridiculed the latest ban by quoting angry and incredulous Ukrainian social media users.
In Kiev, members of Parliament argued that the widespread use of Russian Internet services gave Moscow access to information about Ukrainian public opinion and the chance to feed users junk news and propaganda. Some international observers agreed, but others were critical.
Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit promoting press freedom, condemned the decision as a violation of freedom of expression while Antonin Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russian disinformation at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said Ukraine was going “Russia’s way”.
The episode was another reminder that the conflict continues to prove intractable, despite the two peace deals signed in 2014 and 2015. At a meeting on May 2, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both key players in the talks, said they were still committed to implementing the Minsk accords. But their bristly encounter showed just how far away a lasting peace remains.