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Russia's strategic narrative of the West: A study of influence in Ukraine

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - STRATNARRA (Russia's strategic narrative of the West: A study of influence in Ukraine)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2018-08-31

Project title: “Russia’s strategic narrative: A study of influence in Ukraine”

This project investigated how states achieve (or fail to achieve) influence via mass communication in 21st century international relations. It did so through a study of the Russian state's strategic narrative about international politics and its reception in Ukraine.

The project’s main objective was to explain varying responses to Russia's strategic narrative among audiences in Ukraine, including citizens (news consumers), Ukrainian journalists and political decision-makers.

Findings from this project have advanced research on power and communication in international affairs. The project has also generated practical insights that have been shared with policy-makers to improve the effectiveness of EU and UK engagement with Ukraine.

Original contributions and conclusions from this project include evidence that individual-level cross-border ties (such as regular cross-border travel and communication with family/friends) affect strategic narrative reception; and evidence that citizens assess the credibility of strategic narratives based more on 'what matters' to them than on 'what is true' (i.e. the perceived factual accuracy of the narrative).
During the first four months of the fellowship a review of relevant literature was conducted and hypotheses developed to explain variation in responses to Russia’s strategic narrative among Ukrainian citizens.
The strategic narratives of the Russian and Ukrainian governments were traced by analysing official statements made by the Russian and Ukrainian presidents and foreign ministers, as well as Russian state media content.
Having identified key points of contradiction between the Russian and Ukrainian strategic narratives, survey items were developed to measure support for each narrative. Polling company TNS Ukraine implemented the survey in Odesa Region.
Preparation then began for the qualitative stage of fieldwork. Another review of relevant literature was produced, looking at theories which explain variation in ‘media repertoires’ and credibility assessments. A small-n study was designed and conducted among adult residents of Odesa, based on audio-diaries and semi-structured interviews.
Finally, data was collected from journalists and politicians in Kyiv. An online survey was designed for Ukrainian journalists to find out how they perceived the ‘information threat’ from Russia and how it had affected their work. Interviews were conducted with 15 Ukrainian politicians to learn about the policy measures that have been taken to counter Russian propaganda.
During 2016-2017, the researcher analysed the survey data and transcripts.

Results from the project were presented at the 2017 ICA Annual Convention, the 2017 and 2018 BISA Annual Conferences and numerous other events.
Findings from the project have so far been published in two major articles, one in Perspectives on Politics, another in The International Journal of Press/Politics. Both journals are highly ranked. A monograph is in progress.

Between April and August 2017, the researcher completed a secondment to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During the secondment, the researcher presented project findings to policymakers and advised them on issues related to media development and strategic communication in Ukraine.
Besides the secondment, the researcher shared project results with policymakers by giving presentations to staff of European embassies and the European Commission’s Delegation in Kyiv. The non-profit organisation IREX took an interest in the research and used it as evidence when preparing media literacy interventions in Ukraine.

Throughout the first 19 months of the fellowship the researcher developed Ukrainian language skills by attending language classes. The researcher has also developed her skills through training in the R programming language and through the experience of working alongside policymakers on secondment.
The Stratnarra project has advanced the state of the art by demonstrating that individual-level ‘linkage’ between states plays a role in strategic narrative reception. This argument is developed in the article, ‘The Power and Limits of Russia’s Strategic Narrative in Ukraine: The Role of Linkage,’ published in Perspectives on Politics. Previously, the concept of linkage had only been measured at the state level (for example, by looking at the extent of a country’s trade with the USA or EU and the proportion of a country’s population travelling to the USA or EU). Linkage had been studied as a factor in democratization, but not as a factor in strategic narrative reception. The Stratnarra project has thus introduced a conceptual innovation to the literature on strategic narratives and persuasion in international affairs. It has shown how individual-level linkage and support for strategic narratives can be measured empirically, and demonstrated the association between these variables in Ukraine. The concept of linkage helps to move debates about the persuasive power of strategic narratives beyond the simplistic stimulus/response view of media effects, because linkage is not just a proxy for exposure to a foreign state’s narrative. It also represents cross-border social bonds which affect the priorities and reasoning of individuals exposed to competing narratives.

The Stratnarra project has also advanced the state of the art by demonstrating that individuals may judge the credibility of strategic narratives based on personal priorities (what they think really matters) rather than ‘facts’ (what they believe really happened). This work challenges previous theories of persuasion within International Relations, which linked credibility to a messenger’s honesty and reputation but did not take the values of audiences into account. The argument is developed in the article ‘Nothing is true? The credibility of news and conflicting narratives during ‘information war’ in Ukraine’, published in The International Journal of Press/Politics. The use of audio-diaries to investigate strategic narrative reception constitutes methodological progress, as few (if any) previous studies of persuasion in International Relations have used such qualitative methods to study narrative reception from an audience’s point of view.

The latter part of the Stratnarra project has advanced understanding of the consequences of 'perceived media influence' in international relations. The project examined and explained how elites in Ukraine (politicians, policy-makers and journalists) have responded to Russia's strategic narrative in ways that have drastically reduced Russian state access to Ukrainian audiences. It has thus demonstrated the need to include elite responses into any evaluation of strategic narrative effectiveness. This work has been presented at several workshops and conferences and is being prepared for publication.

The results of the Stratnarra project have elicited strong interest from policy-makers, the diplomatic community and non-profit organisations working in Ukraine. In particular, project findings have informed the plans of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and IREX to support media literacy in Ukraine.
Citizens help to construct a slogan of the revolution, 'Glory to the heroes!' (Kyiv, 2016)