‘We Ukrainians know Putin all too well’

Ukrainian lawyer and current Harvard Law student says the Western world is already a theater of operations in Russia’s hybrid global war of disinformation campaigns

For international law expert Svitlana Starosvit LL.M. ’13 S.J.D. ’22, Russia’s military assault on Ukraine is horrifying yet unsurprising because, she says, “We Ukrainians know Putin all too well.”

“Regrettably, for Ukrainian diplomats fighting Russia’s aggressive diplomacy for decades and spending years persuading our partners about Putin’s intentions to no avail, this attempt to subjugate us through war is the tragic ‘I told you so’ moment,” says Starosvit, who for years was a lawyer at Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she supervised the Office of Legal Affairs and the International Law Department. This year, she is in Cambridge completing her S.J.D. at Harvard Law School and she currently doesn’t hold an official position with the Ukrainian government although she consults on legal cases for them.

The Western world seems to underestimate the degree to which it is also already a theater of operations in Russia’s hybrid global war, through the use of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the weaponization of social media

“On February 24, Putin declared war on Ukraine. Although he claimed it was merely a ‘special military operation,’ from the international law perspective the armed conflict is a matter of fact, not of words. This is traditional warfare,” says Starosvit, in an interview on Feb. 26. “What worries me is that the Western world seems to underestimate the degree to which it is also already a theater of operations in Russia’s hybrid global war, through the use of disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the weaponization of social media.”

“Putin’s short and long-term objective is crushing in the most humiliating way what Ukraine has been building over the last three decades: an independent and free society,” she says. “Yes, Ukraine has suffered many problems on the way, has a tragic history of corruption, and certain institutions still need to be built or strengthened.” Nonetheless, she emphasizes, the contrast between Russia and Ukraine is stark. “Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukrainians elected six presidents. Russia had just two, and its second president has been in power for more than two decades. There is obviously a dramatic gap between how Ukrainians and Russians think about state power, what is the source of this power and what can be done with it.”

Putin’s objective beyond Ukraine is to demonstrate that modern Ukraine was simply an utter failure of the U.S. foreign policy. … Ukraine is not his ultimate target.

“Putin’s objective beyond Ukraine is to demonstrate that modern Ukraine was simply an utter failure of the U.S. foreign policy. He can successfully sell this message at home. In his telling, Ukraine is Lenin’s project that the Americans caught up with later. Externally, this would undoubtedly give him the leverage to argue that the configuration of the post-Cold War order was a mistake and Russia should be playing a key role in the region by imposing its decisions on states which are in its ‘sphere of influence.’ Ukraine is not his ultimate target.”

Does she believe Putin can be deterred? “He must be,” she says, adding, “He can be [deterred] through international support for the Ukrainian people.”

In 2014, Starosvit was a lawyer in Ukraine when Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. As she explained in an interview with the Harvard Law Bulletin at the time, she worked around the clock with lawyers to hold Russia accountable for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine that year, killing all 298 people aboard, and she was part of the team developing a strategy for holding Russia accountable before the international courts.

Now, as she watches the invasion of her country from so far away, she wants the U.S. and the rest of the world to understand Putin’s intentions and their implications for global order, including his Feb. 24 threat that anyone interfering in the war in Ukraine “will face ‘consequences greater than any you have faced in history,’” she says, quoting Putin.

“As many commentators have observed, this was a thinly veiled threat to resort to nuclear weapons. What starts out looking like a regional conflict can easily escalate. That is a principal lesson of our two world wars. Russia is trammeling the institutions and laws that were wisely erected in the aftermath of World War II to avoid a reoccurrence.  It is headed down a dangerous path and taking the world with it.”

Putin is determined to end a free, independent, democratic state on Russia’s borders because Ukraine is an example to all Russians of how different their lives could be if they did not live under totalitarianism.

She says that Ukraine and its Western allies “performed admirably in preemptively identifying the Kremlin’s plans. The world understands that Russia launched a full-scale military assault on Ukraine that was unprovoked and illegal.” It is critical, she says, to understand that Putin “is determined to end a free, independent, democratic state on Russia’s borders because Ukraine is an example to all Russians of how different their lives could be if they did not live under totalitarianism.  Modern Ukraine is a threat to Putin by its very existence.”

As many experts have noted, there is a “flood of misinformation pouring from Russia” about the invasion, including Putin’s claim that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — who is Jewish and had family members who died in the Holocaust — is a neo-Nazi determined to commit genocide against Russian speakers. “What truly shocks me is what I see in the U.S. political debates,” she says. “American politicians have not reached consensus on the Kremlin’s actions. I suppose it has something to do with short-term political gains in the upcoming elections. These are very dangerous political games. We are seeing right now what it can lead to.”

The Kremlin’s information machinery has been very successful in the last couple of years in amplifying dissident voices in Western societies. But certain values transcend any short-term political divides.

“The Kremlin’s information machinery has been very successful in the last couple of years in amplifying dissident voices in Western societies. But certain values transcend any short-term political divides and the West still knows right from wrong,” she says. “It cannot be debated that Russia has just started the biggest state-to-state international conflict since World War II, with enormous threat to European order with global consequences. For the last two nights, people of Kyiv and Kharkiv had to spend their nights in subways as shelters because of air strikes. The last time people of Kyiv had to use subways as shelters was in 1941, when the city was attacked by Nazis.”

While Ukraine is deeply grateful for the support that has come from all corners of the world, nonetheless “the future of European order and peace is in the hands of the Ukrainian people, who have been left to fight a struggle of global importance on their own. We need more help,” she says. “When it comes to sanctions, the West seems wonderfully united. There is, however, more the West can do, like banning Russia from SWIFT and reducing the oil and gas trade.” (As of Saturday, Feb. 26, the U.S. and E.U. announced the expulsion of certain Russian banks from SWIFT.) While Europe may feel short-term economic effects from hard-hitting sanctions, “they pale in comparison to the costs of a new bigger war and lost lives in Ukraine, including lives of civilians. Putin speaks only the language of power.”

And while economic sanctions on Russia and personal sanctions against Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are very important, she wants the U.S. and key allies to consider further military support and the imposition of no-fly zone. “We understand that imposing a no-fly zone is a very sensitive issue and our partners have ruled out this option as for now out of fear of starting a larger conflict, but we hope that decision may be reconsidered,” she says.  “This is a defining moment for the United States.  It’s cohesion, resilience, and liberal spirit that is needed now more than ever. Democracy cannot be left to decay into an empty slogan.  It needs American support now as it has in the past.” (As of Feb. 27, Canada and Europe shut down airspace to Russian-controlled aircraft.)

This fight with disinformation effectively ruined Kremlin’s plans to destabilize us from within and take over with limited military efforts.

Starosvit says the combat spirit of Ukrainian military is high and resistance was stiffer than Russian forces expected. “Ukrainian people are very united and strong. Many of them refused to flee the country and stayed in their native cities,” she says. “This level of unity is very inspiring. The Ukrainian military is undoubtedly the most important source of resistance in this war. There is another achievement of our society that plays an important role: it is combating Russia’s disinformation. There are constant and immediate updates among real people in social media assessing the accuracy of information and identifying which resources and platforms should not be trusted and blocked. I’m glad that people like me can help with this task even from an ocean away. This fight with disinformation effectively ruined Kremlin’s plans to destabilize us from within and take over with limited military efforts.”

With family and friends in Russia, “This makes this war a tragedy for me at a very deep personal level,” she says. “Unfortunately, disinformation and propaganda have been a powerful tool in many wars and conflicts the world has already witnessed. I simply cannot wrap my head around how many people in Russia, including many people whom I know personally, idealize Putin and believe the way Ukraine and Ukrainians are portrayed as ‘Nazis’ in news and social media in Russia. How is it possible to completely ignore the simple fact most Russians are familiar with: more than 8 million Ukrainian died fighting against Nazism?”

Yet there are signs of hope, too. “I receive messages from Russian friends every day apologizing on behalf of their nation,” she says. “There will be scars left from this war that will never heal, but Ukraine knows that its actual enemy is Vladimir Putin, not the Russian people. I hope those Russian people who still do not understand the tragic losses on both sides and, most importantly what is behind this war, its real and absolutely insane causes, will realize what horror the Kremlin’s regime brings. They have many smart, good people. I hope they will have a chance to build the country they deserve. We Ukrainians have the right to go our own way.”