Information war

The Bell

Hello! This week our top story is about the unabated tensions over Ukraine and the rising casualties of a bitter ‘information war’. We also look at the doping allegations and rivalries in figure skating that have blighted Russia’s Winter Olympics, and why Russia is falling behind when it comes to the development of an electric vehicle market.

Fears rise over Ukraine amid escalating ‘information war’

Russians have been following the course of events in Ukraine with bewilderment. As before, few believe a real war will break out. However, the level of tension is making even the most hardened skeptics nervous. And the role of Western media has become a cause of concern: deliberately or otherwise, many news outlets are seen to be stoking tensions and playing the role of willing pawns in a bitter ‘information war’ between the Kremlin and the White House.

What happened?

Despite repeated U.S. assertions of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, this week began with signs of de-escalation. President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Monday the possibility of continued talks with their Western counterparts. And then Putin spoke about the end of military exercises with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. That news saw the ruble strengthen against the U.S. dollar, and brought some stabilization to stock markets.

But the pendulum swung the other way Tuesday as the Russian parliament voted to ask Putin to recognize the rebel statelets in Eastern Ukraine. If Russia recognizes the People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and the People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR), then deploying Russian troops to these areas would be a formality and the Minsk Agreements, which brought an end to fighting in 2015, would be dead in the water. However, Putin stated the same day that he was not yet prepared to recognize the republics, and that Russia needs to use “not fully realized opportunities to implement the Minsk Agreement”. A swift recognition of the DNR and LNR is seen as unlikely by experts. But now that parliament has made a formal request, it’s something Putin can return to at any moment.

The Ministry of Defense continued to talk Wednesday about the curtailment of military exercises near the Ukrainian border. A spokesperson said that some units had “already started packing”. Investors lapped this up: the ruble strengthened to under 76 to the U.S. dollar and stock markets — both in Russia and the U.S. — returned to growth.

But hopes that this all added up to a major de-escalation faded quickly. It was clear Wednesday that Russia’s statements about withdrawing troops were being contradicted by Western officials. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that Russia was continuing to build up its military presence on the Ukrainian border. And U.S. media outlets published comments by unnamed White House officials Thursday who said that a further 7,000 soldiers had been added to Russia’s 130,000-strong force in the area.

The situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorated sharply Thursday, with both the Russia-backed rebels and the Ukrainian army accusing the other of intensive artillery bombardments. The same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry expelled the U.S. deputy ambassador in Moscow and gave a formal response to proposed security guarantees from the U.S. – the document contained not a hint of compromise.

The pace of events quickened noticeably Friday: the DNR, and then the LNR, announced a mass evacuation of the population over fears that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would soon authorize a military offensive against the rebel statelets. However, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry categorically denied claims of an impending attack on Donbas — and such a move would amount to political and military suicide considering the Russian troop build-up.

An alleged car bomb exploded in central Donetsk on Friday evening, and U.S. President Joe Biden gave his starkest warning yet of an imminent invasion, saying he was “convinced” that Putin had decided to authorize a military incursion into Ukraine.

Separatists leaders in both the LNR and DNR announced Saturday morning that they were conducting a full military mobilization of all adult men. Later in the day, Putin oversaw the beginning of strategic nuclear exercises, including the launch of ballistic missiles.

What do the experts say?

Top foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukoyanov said that moves by the Russia-backed DNR and LNR were an attempt to force Kyiv to implement the Minsk Agreements. He pointed out that, immediately after the head of the DNR made his statement, Putin called on Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table with representatives from the DNR and LNR to “coordinate political, military, economic and humanitarian measures to bring an end to the conflict”.

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin agreed. Indeed, he said the gambit was intended to pressure not just Ukraine, but also France and Germany, who, as participants in the Normandy Format for negotiations over the Eastern Ukraine conflict, can influence Kyiv. If there is no sign of progress, Makarkin does not rule out the possibility that Russia will recognize the DNR and LNR, as requested by the Duma earlier this week.

What next?

These events were met with surprise in Russia — and a large degree of skepticism. The White House claims of an imminent invasion late last week forced Russians to contemplate the possibility of a real war, perhaps for the first time. And the tone taken by U.S. officials — and the prospect of a shooting war — were terrifying even for convinced skeptics about military action. However, the Defense Ministry’s announcement about troop withdrawals and Putin’s words on the importance of diplomacy, meant the belief in imminent war quickly faded. Despite the alarming developments later in the week, there are still few in Russia who seriously believe that a large military conflict is just around the corner.

‘Information war’

After this week’s ‘non-invasion’, there was some debate about the role of the Western media in political games between the Kremlin and the White House. Throughout recent Russian history, the ‘Western press’ has been seen as a model of objectivity and impartiality — something worth striving to emulate. However, in recent years the situation has changed. Disillusionment began in 2016 when Russia was accused of helping Donald Trump to become president. In the ensuing media frenzy, news outlets published a lot of expertise on Russia that was often naïve — and sometimes deeply-flawed. Inevitably, Russian propaganda did everything it could to turn a spotlight on this sort of reporting.

Now, it looks like the same thing is happening again. Clearly, the Russian and U.S. governments are waging an information war against each other. And, to some in Russia, it appears as if Western media outlets are taking a far too uncritical approach, not least in clickbait headlines about imminent invasion. There have been claims that Western journalists are — wittingly or unwittingly — exacerbating tensions. All this is a delight for Russian officials, and the Foreign Ministry spent the week mocking the “Bloomberg collective”. The comments on a Facebook post by leading BBC Russian Service journalist Ilya Barabanov reflected some of the disappointment felt by Russia’s liberal media community as they watched the Western coverage of events unfolding in Ukraine.

Why the world should care

Nobody knows what Putin intends to do in Ukraine, and it’s by no means certain his plans will become clearer any time soon. But the Kremlin has already achieved one success: the credibility of independent media outlets have been undermined and clashing media narratives are sowing not only chaos and confusion, but also long-term mistrust.

Figure skating scandals dominate Russia’s Winter Olympics

Unlike the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which was remembered for open homophobia on Russian state-owned television, the Winter Olympics in Beijing produced genuine sporting drama. But, once again, the Russian team was the subject of serious doping allegations.

Rivalry, tears — and trimetazidine

Russia’s figure skaters won the team event in Beijing and took gold and silver in the individual contest. Despite these successes, there were tears and angry words. The biggest tragedy for the Russian team was the fourth-place finish for skater Kamila Valieva in the individual competition. A few days prior to this, the 15-year-old was accused of using banned substance trimetazidine. In her defense, Valieva said her grandfather uses the drug and that it must have entered her body as a result of accidental contact.

The suspicions around Valieva meant the medal ceremony for the Russian athletes after the team event was postponed. The skater herself was initially banned from further participation in the Olympics. But she contested the decision and was eventually given the green light to compete in the individual event Thursday. She led the field after the short program, but fell twice in the free program and ended up just missing out on a medal.

Valieva was widely expected to win gold and her failure to do so was a shock to many fans and observers. After the free program her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, greeted her abruptly: “Well, why did you let it end up like that? Why did you just give up the fight?”. State-owned TV channels Channel 1 and Rossiya 1 both complained that the youngster was “hounded”, “destroyed”, “killed” and “broken” by Olympic officials and Western journalists as a result of the doping allegations. Many Russian fans share those sentiments. Sports media outlet Championat described the “terrible tragedy of a young skater” and said “Valieva couldn’t cope with the weight of expectation and, under intense pressure, fell apart on the Chinese ice.” Newspaper Sport-Express said it was “a tragedy that should shame the IOC [International Olympic Committee]”.

Russian figure skater Alexandra Trusova, 17, won silver in the individual contest. In the process, she became the first skater in history to land five quadruple jumps. However, she lost out on gold to another Russian, 17-year-old Anna Shcherbakova. When Trusova realized that she had come second in the competition, she threw a public tantrum. “I hate everybody! I hate it! I never want to skate again, never in my life! I hate this sport! I’m never going on the ice again! It’s impossible, this can’t be allowed! Everyone else has a gold medal, but not me,” she told her coach. At the medal ceremony, Trusova burst into tears and refused to applaud her team-mate Shcherbakova.

Following the Valieva doping scandal, many in the sporting world have called for an age limit in figure skating. There was also widespread criticism of Valieva’s coach, Tutberidze, with IOC chief Thomas Bach among those who spoke out. The IOC will check for evidence that the 15-year old skater is being abused. Several figure skating fans and sports journalists accused the coach of sacrificing her skaters’ health for success and cultivating “one-off champions” who blaze a trail at the Olympics, but who then quickly burn out.

What else will the Olympics be remembered for?

Compared with the 2020 Summer Olympics, these games have led to little anger about Russian athletes once again competing as ‘Team ROC’, under a neutral flag, and with no Russian anthem at medal ceremonies. These restrictions are due to ongoing doping sanctions that were imposed after evidence of a state-sanctioned doping campaign in Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. At other Olympic Games, there was far more anger over this issue among Russian officials, state propaganda ‘journalists’ and Russian fans. This time, though, hardly anyone paid attention. During the Opening Ceremony of the games, commentators on state-owned Channel 1 barely mentioned the fact that Russia’s athletes were without their national flag.

There was also less hostility toward Ukrainian athletes. During the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, Channel 1 cut to a commercial break when the Ukrainian team entered the stadium. This time, however, there was no break in the broadcasting, and the Channel 1 commentators even said a few words about previous Ukrainian success at the Olympics. That said, a photo was later circulated on social media showing Putin ‘dozing off’ during the parade of the Ukrainian team. The Kremlin refused to comment.

Why the world should care

Figure skating is one of Russia’s favorite sports and the plight of the young Russian skaters has affected fans deeply. Things are complicated by the whiff of doping — the very issue that has caused so many difficulties for Russia’s Olympic team. Moreover, the doping probe into Valieva is ongoing — the Russian figure skating team may still be deprived of its gold.

Russia lags far behind in the electric vehicle market

Sales of electric vehicles are increasing rapidly all over the world with the pandemic merely accelerating this trend. In an investigation published Monday, The Bell looked at whether Russia can catch up with the pacesetters of ‘electrification’. Even though the Russian government announced ambitious plans last year, the country’s chances seem slim.

  • As the revolution in the global car industry gathers pace (between 2012 and 2018, the average annual growth rate of the global electric vehicle market fluctuated between 46 percent and 69 percent), Russia remains on the sidelines. An expert from the Higher School of Economics suggested it was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: on the one hand, there are so few electric vehicles that there is little profit in creating an infrastructure for them; on the other hand, people won’t buy electric vehicles if they can’t charge them. While Western countries are moving toward electrification, last year’s international leader in terms of both sales (60 percent) and production (48 percent) was China.
  • The Russian government decided last year to give a significant boost to the domestic electric vehicle market with the announcement of an ambitious program through 2030 that will increase both production and usage. The overall budget was estimated to be at least 591 billion rubles ($7.6 billion). But most experts see the plans as unrealistic.
  • The document envisages that, by 2030, there will be 1.4 million electric cars on Russia’s roads, with 144,000 charging stations. Last year, there were just 12,290 electric cars in the country, and no more than 400 charging stations.
  • But ambitiousness isn’t the biggest problem with the program, according to experts. More important is the issue of capacity for charging stations, which could find themselves outdated and unready for new, rapid-charging batteries.
  • There are also major doubts about whether 1.4 million electric vehicles could be put on the road in 8 years. According to accounting firm PwC, the electric vehicle market in Russia will grow by an average of 82 percent a year through 2030 — which would mean just 281,000 electric cars on the road by the end of the decade.
  • Problems plague the development of Russian-made electric vehicles. The government plans to set up assembly lines for three brands of electric vehicle in the next 3 years: Lipetsk-based Motorinvest will put together the Chinese Changan crossover; a car will is being developed by entrepreneur Denis Shchurovsky’s Zetta project; and the Kama-1 car will be assembled by truckmaker Kamaz and the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University.
  • Another potential manufacturer is Avtotor, which is based in Russia’s Western exclave of Kaliningrad. Avtodor is due to localize electric vehicles including the Kia EV6 and the Hyundai Ioniq 5 in 2023. It also has plans for its own electric vehicles.
  • Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Alexander Morozov said last year that Motorinvest is expected to be first to the market. Zetta will be hard on its heels. KamAZ is due to open its first electric vehicle factory by the end of 2025.

Why the world should care

Explaining the lack of interest in electric vehicles, experts pointed to few incentives for manufacturers, the absence of obvious benefits for buyers and the high price of vehicles. It appears Russia is at least a decade late with electric vehicles, and it’s hard to imagine it could now catch the market leaders. Perhaps an illustrative comparison is with smartphones: the first Russian-made smartphone only appeared in 2013 — five years after the release of the first iPhone.

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