Information war high priority for both sides in Ukraine conflict

By Murray Brewster and Valeriy Kulyk, The Canadian Press

KYIV, Ukraine – The ghosts of the Cold War are everywhere these days in Ukraine, but sometimes they can appear anew as flesh and blood. Many in the West may have forgotten, but defectors were a key propaganda prize through the long standoff with the old Soviet Union.

Ukrainian officials may be hard-pressed these days to compete with the onslaught of Russian online and television messaging, but they are happy to show off one of their prizes: Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Lt. Illya Bogdanov.

Bogdanov defected last year and has appeared at news conferences in Ukraine spouting opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia reportedly wants him extradited to face extremism charges.

He sat down with The Canadian Press to answer five questions, with the help of a translator, about himself and the intense propaganda war that has engulfed the region. The following is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you defect to Ukraine?

A: I was 14 years old and I was involved in the political rights movement in Russia. I was in opposition to our state. I am not alone in this point of view, of course.

Q: You have relatives still in Russia. Are you not afraid for them?

A: They have not touched my relatives, but they (have) given some of my friends a hard time. They questioned (them). They also questioned my parents, but did not apply any pressure to them. As for me, they continue their attempts to get me. There was one attempt to kidnap me. It was prevented by SBU (Ukrainian Security Service). Once, they tried to kill me, but I managed to trick my killer, so he is now imprisoned by SBU. Also, they tried to make me come to their consular office.

Q: As a former FSB officer, how effective do you think Russian political messaging and propaganda have been?

A: They are doing great job. I mean, here in Ukraine, they don’t really understand the aim of all this. Basically journalists are whoring themselves to maintain Putin’s regime and hold on (to) power. Putin is not interested in bringing back USSR, Russian Empire or Great Russia. He is not interested in all this. He is not really interested in unity (outside of Russia). He is doing everything in order to keep his power. Basically, 80 per cent of (Russian) society doesn’t bother with critical thinking.

Independent media in Russia are under a great pressure. So, they are forced to remain silent. The best example is that a few friends of mine put likes on my social media page. As a result, the agents of the anti-extremist centre (in Russia) expropriated their PCs. They took their computers for damned likes! So you can imagine what pressure independent media have to face?

Q: Social media has been a crucial (propaganda tool) and the Ukrainians complain about “Kremlin bots” (Internet trolls). What can you tell us about that?

A: Yes, that is (a) common intelligence subversion in Russia. It is not something unusual. Everything works according to a course book. The army is working according to a course book, (and) intelligence is not an exception. Here I contacted SBU with the suggestion to make the same thing, right now we are working on it, but you must understand that taking care of 500 accounts is a bit difficult without proper resources.

Q: Do you regret defecting?

A: No, I have absolutely no regrets. I am very happy. I am following the call of my heart.

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