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Exploring Russia’s Pre-War Tactics Against Ukraine’s Civic Sector Actors

By Guest Writer on May 18, 2023

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Although Russia’s aggression has undeniably altered the civic space landscape in Ukraine for years to come, the insights from Ukraine: Measuring civic space risk, resilience, and Russian influence in the lead up to war are useful to:

  • Illuminate how the Kremlin exploits hybrid tactics to deter resistance long in advance of conventional military action;
  • Identify underlying points of resilience that enabled Ukraine to sustain a whole-of-society resistance to the Kremlin’s aggression.

Below the AidData authors summarize the top-line findings from indicators on the domestic enabling environment for civic space in Ukraine, as well as channels of Russian malign influence operations.

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Restrictions of Civic Actors

Ukraine accounted for the fourth largest volume of restrictions (494 recorded instances) perpetrated against civic space actors in the E&E region, trailing Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The majority of restrictions of civic space activity documented between January 2017 and March 2021 were in the form of:

  • Harassment or violence (85 percent),
  • State-backed legal cases (8 percent),
  • Newly proposed or implemented restrictive legislation (7 percent).

Forty percent of instances of violence or harassment throughout the entire period were carried out by separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk or Russian occupiers in Crimea. Nine restrictions involved foreign governments, including Turkey (2), Azerbaijan (2), and Russia (5).

The lion’s share of these restrictions occurred in just two years, 2017 and 2018, coinciding with the imposition of Russian law in Crimea and protests following the arrest of Mikheil Saakashvili. There was a marked downturn in restrictions against civic space actors documented between 2019 and 2021, coinciding with the election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Russian-backed Civic Space Projects

The Russian government channeled financing and in-kind support via four Kremlin-affiliated agencies to seven Ukrainian and Crimean recipient organizations via five civic space-relevant projects between January 2015 and August 2021.

Legislative and executive branch restrictions of Russian-backed organizations in Ukraine in the years prior to the invasion likely inhibited the Kremlin from relying as heavily on this channel of influence, relative to the volume of activity seen in other countries. Regardless, the thematic focus of the Kremlin’s support was consistent with elsewhere in the region: mobilize pro-Russian sympathizers, stoke discontent with Kyiv, and create a pretext for Russian intervention.

Consistent with these aims, Kremlin support prioritized youth “patriotic” education, Eurasian integration, and increased autonomy for regional governments, particularly in the eastern oblasts. As documented in two companion profiles on the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kremlin also backed additional pro-Russian groups in the Donbas.

Russian State-run Media

Ukraine attracted 55 percent of all Russian state-run media outlets’ mentions across the E&E region related to specific civic space actors and five keywords of interest (NATO, U.S., EU, West, democracy). Between January 2015 and March 2021, the Russian News Agency (TASS) and Sputnik News referenced Ukrainian civic actors 5,993 times. Media organizations, nationalist paramilitary groups, and political parties were the most frequently mentioned domestic actors.

Coverage by Russian state media:

  • Highlighted far-right groups to stoke concerns of rising neo-Nazism
  • Vilified ethnic Crimean Tatar organizations and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a threat to conservative values;
  • Criticized Kyiv’s mistreatment of foreign journalists to discredit the Ukrainian government.

These Kremlin mouthpieces were even more prolific with regard to democratic rhetoric, mentioning NATO, the U.S., the EU, the West or democracy 6,563 times during the same period, with coverage concentrated around significant events in Ukrainian civic life (the one-year anniversary of the Odessa Trade Union House fire, 2017 restrictions on Russian banks and social media sites, and the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections) as well as broader international stories (Crimea sanctions, the 2018 Kerch Strait incident, EU and NATO membership prospects, and the U.S.-Ukrainian alliance) as vehicles to proliferate pro-Russian messages.

Attitudes Towards Civic Participation

Ukrainians were demonstrating, donating, volunteering, and helping strangers at much higher levels in 2021 than seen the decade prior, though interest in politics remained muted. In 2020, two-thirds of Ukrainians reported they were disinterested in politics and a mere quarter of the population had confidence in their government, political parties, and the parliament.

This disenchantment with organized politics stands in sharp contrast with a substantial uptick in reported participation in other forms of civic life. Over 40 percent of Ukrainians said they had or would join a demonstration in 2020 (+26 percentage points since 2010) and reported higher levels of membership in nearly every voluntary organization type, with the largest gains among churches, art organizations, and self-help groups.

In 2021, 47 percent of Ukrainians reported donating to charity, 24 percent volunteered with an organization, and over 75 percent reported helping a stranger—charting Ukraine’s highest civic engagement score in a decade.


With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see clearly three important truths about civic space in Ukraine between 2010 and 2021.

The first truth is revealing: the Kremlin patiently invested its media, money, and in-kind support for many years ahead of the February 2022 invasion in a bid to stoke discontent with the authorities in Kyiv; exploit societal cleavages along fault lines of religion, language, and ideology; isolate Ukraine from prospective democratic allies; and undermine domestic resolve in the face of its territorial ambitions.

The second truth is encouraging: it reveals a critical blindspot in the Kremlin’s influence playbook—the tendency to underestimate the strength of democratic societies to mount a unified resistance. Even if the Maidan Revolution created the initial opening for Ukrainian civic actors to emerge, it is the willingness of communities to stand together in the face of Russian aggression in Crimea, the Donbas, and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war that has served as an enduring source of resilience.

The third truth is sobering: Russia’s appetite for exerting malign foreign influence abroad is not limited to Ukraine, and its civilian influence tactics are already observable elsewhere across the E&E region. Taken together, it is more critical than ever to have better information at our fingertips to monitor the health of civic space across countries and over time, reinforce sources of societal resilience, and mitigate risks from autocratizing governments at home and malign influence from abroad.

Ukraine: Measuring civic space risk, resilience, and Russian influence in the lead up to war surfaces insights about the health of Ukraine’s civic space and vulnerability to malign foreign influence in the lead up to Russia’s February 2022 invasion. The analysis was part of a broader three-year initiative by AidData—a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute—to produce quantifiable indicators to monitor civic space resilience in the face of Kremlin influence operations over time (from 2010 to 2021) and across 17 countries and 7 occupied or autonomous territories in Eastern Europe and Eurasia (E&E). 

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