Interview with Alexander Vinnikov, head of NATO representative office in Ukraine; Yulia Laputina, deputy chief of information and cyber security department of SBU (29.01.2019)

In “Eurointegrators,” media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova sits down with diplomats, heads of international organizations, and Ukrainian power brokers to discuss Ukraine’s European integration.

In this episode, the guests are Alexander Vinnikov, head of NATO representative office in Ukraine, and Yulia Laputina, deputy chief of information and cyber security department of the Security Service of Ukraine.

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

See the text version of the interview: 

Popova: Hello. I present today a new episode of the “Eurointegration” program, and our guests today are Alexander Vinnikov – the Head of NATO representative office in Ukraine and Yulia Laputina – the Deputy Chief of Information and Cyber Security Department of the Security Service of Ukraine.

In the next months, elections will be the topic #1 in Ukraine. The Euro-Atlantic integration is being discussed by many candidates. How could this affect development of relations between Ukraine and NATO?

Vinnikov: Yes, clearly, this year will be a very important year, because Ukraine will have elections. But also because Ukraine needs to continue implementing the very ambitious Euro-Atlantic reforms, that it has committed to. So, last year, we saw a very important step Ukraine took in adopting a Law on National Security, and this year that law needs to be implemented. So, there is much work ahead, and we are looking forward to supporting Ukraine in this process.

Popova: Does the election period influence relations between Ukraine and NATO? Can it cause some slowing down of some projects of NATO in Ukraine?

Vinnikov: We continue our work in supporting Ukraine in the development secondary legislation that is required under the framework law on national security. And we continue our work on the various Trust Funds and capacity-building programs that we have been implementing for many years. And we continue our political dialogue on our military-to-military cooperation. So, we have full agenda.

Popova: How can NATO be beneficial to Ukraine? Is it beneficial for NATO to have Ukraine as a partner or a member in a future?

Vinnikov:  From NATO’s prospective, we have an open-door policy on membership. And we of course stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future. We also stand by our decisions taken at the Bucharest summit in 2008, where Alliance stated that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. Now we expect Ukraine to continue to focus on its reforms, to strengthen its democratic institutions, to strengthen the rule of law, and of course to develop its defense capabilities in line with NATO standards. So, we believe very much that the focus right now should remain on those systemic institutional reforms that I just mentioned.

Popova: Alexander, at which stage is the implementation of NATO Trust Funds projects in Ukraine? And how do you rate Ukraine ongoing reforms in fields of national security and defense, and which fields do you think needed more attention?

Vinnikov: We have a wide range of Trust Funds and capacity-building programs. I’m not going to go into the details on each of them, you can see them on the infographic. But I’d like to just highlight couple of examples, where we are supporting Ukraine in critical area, for example, Medical Rehabilitation – we have helped servicemen and women get the treatment they need after being redeployed from the east of Ukraine. We have also assisted various medical institutions with modern equipment, and we have helped to Ukrainian team participate in the Invictus Games, where they brought a lot of success back to Ukraine. Another example that I’d like to mention is the Cyber Defense Trust Find, through which we have helped Ukraine become more resilient to cyber-attacks, and also through provision of equipment and training. As to your second question about the progress of Ukraine security and defense reforms, I think Ukraine has come a long way since the beginning of the Russian aggression, particularly tactically and technically. The Armed Forces are in a much different place, much better place today, than they were then. At the same time, Ukraine has been focusing on setting the ground rules for Euro-Atlantic reforms, including through the adoption of guiding documents, like the National Security Strategy, like the Strategic Defense Bulletin and like the Law on National Security, which I mentioned. Now the focus should be on the implementation of all of those principles to move from theory to practice and that of course is not always easy, but we are committed to supporting Ukraine on that path.

Popova: Speaking about practice, we have a colonel from the Security Service of Ukraine here, and we can ask her about the cooperation with NATO. What did you do already, and what you are going to do?

Laputina: It`s very important that NATO`s Trust Funds helped us to provide the first stage of fighting cyber threats. Also in the Security Service of Ukraine, we created a Cyber Security Incident Response Team. In State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection, a special center of cyber defense of Ukraine was created. It’s very important, that NATO’s assistance has prompted creating and developing our own system with using our own facilities. In particular, in SBU we created and developing now criminal cyber-laboratory. It has no analogues in Ukraine now. The uniqueness means not only technical issues, but engaging of high quality specialists. They effectively train and work to resist all possible cyber threats we face today and in the future.

Popova: Could you tell us, which concrete steps are taken by Security Service of Ukraine to implement the Road Map of Ukraine-NATO in strategic communication development?

Laputina: We realize – for country`s reforming, especially defend sector, we have to understand the values we move toward.  We should clearly understand what are the goals of programs we provide with Alliance`s assistance. To achieve concrete changings in defense and security sector we have to keep in mind these values and follow them. The strategic communications is the right instrument for reaching effective partnership which leads to defense sector`s improving. So, we made some practical steps to keep the process going. To use the strategic communications we have to train our staff. In National Academy of Security Service together with our operative departments, we have created a special course of training for officers who work on cyber and information security. It was a kind of fresh experience for us, but it is a common practice for NATO members. We invite different specialist, civil society activists and journalists to join the process as coaches. This program has been running for one year, we trained many specialists; we want more specialists to be engaged in this project.  It would also serve as a ground for communications and debates. We have our practice out of a real hybrid war as we are facing a real aggression coming from Russia. We can also invite specialists and experts from NATO to our program as well. We have already created monography “Strategic communications within hybrid war: Views from scientist to volunteers”. There we put our general experience gained and we hope the monography would be annual. And we invite media representatives for trainings on strategic communications. Hope, we cope it work like a team.

Popova: NATO representatives in Ukraine and even other ambassadors who visited my program have been vocally critical about slow pace of Ukraine Security Service reforms. At the center of the discussion is their dissatisfaction with the new wording of the legislative act ‘On the Security Service of Ukraine’. What is your position about it? And what is the Security Service doing about it?

Vinnikov: Reform of the Security Service of Ukraine is one of the five pillars required to implement the Law on National Security. So clearly, this is one of the very important parts of the Security and defense reform process in Ukraine. Upon Ukraine’s request, we have been providing advice and support to the development of a range of policies and draft legislation documents. We understand that the SBU has developed and submitted a new Law “On the SBU”, we have just had sight of it, and we have been now requested to provide our comments and feedback, so we are in a process of analyzing it, because it is quite a comprehensive law.  So I can’t prejudge what our analysis will be at this stage. However, at the same time what I can say is that in line with the requirements of the Law on National Security the focus of the SBU should be firmly on counterintelligence, counterterrorism and the protection of State secrets. Which would mean that its current functions of combating corruption and economic crime would be distributed to other competent agencies in line with the requirements of the law. So this is very much our position, because we believe that a strict delineation of competences will make the SBU a more trustworthy partner for the Euro-Atlantic security and intelligence community.

Laputina: That is right; reforming of security service is a kind of institutional reform, which has helped us to get withdrawn out of Soviet past, soviet-managing style. Now we practically use many methods, which NATO member states successfully use. We are struggling to gain the trust toward our state security structures. But I think society and people should also realize that security services are responsible for important issues, so, there should be mutual trust. We should be the partners. In this regard, we could report on declassification of archive documents. So, we see the progress and changings and I do believe this reform would be fully conducted.

Popova: One more question about Strategic communication. There are some speakers, like even the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko, who once said that Ukraine had lost an information war against Russia. As NATO helps Ukraine to develop Strategic communication abilities, and you are dealing with it in this field, what do you think about it? Has Ukraine lost an information war?

Laputina: I think Russia started this war long before 2014 when the military phase had begun. The information war was the pre-step and started earlier. There were different periods, opened and hidden by Russia. Ordinary people hardly new of those disinformation Russia`s activities. They made huge influence on people minds, they manipulated by all means, using TV channels and media as well.  So, we are suffering this kind of war for many years, not just couple of years. Anyway in that time no one could even predict to what it would lead, I mean real, military aggression, which we face, it seemed unreal.  Now we feel more secure as we had got experienced in a quite short period of time. Today we have effective instruments to protect our security and stay ready and better prepared to coming threats. We learned how to prevent the threats and in this fight we have to get united – media, activists and the representatives of security sector.

Popova: I don’t know if you can speak about it officially, but if yes – please, do it. You told me once that during Yanukovich time and even before you noticed Russia’s tries to influence the information sphere, especially in Crimea and in the eastern Ukraine. And you made a report about it to your bosses, and it didn’t work.

Laputina: We warned that we had threats of Russian hidden influence upon situation in Crimea. As one of examples, “The organization “Russian World” was funded by state budget projects. There also were other running programs aimed to raise the issue of reintegration the Crimea issue in Russian information field. We reported all the potential threat to the government and president. I think that the state simply did not have time. Since all this was happening just at the junction of the change of power. But when Yanukovich became a president he cancelled the programs, which would aimed to decrease Russian influence here. He fully controlled Security and Defense Services, so it led to more Russian propaganda in Ukraine. And today, unfortunately we feel that.

Popova: And you have been dismissed, right?Laputina: Yes.Popova: NATO’s activities in Ukraine are mainly security issues. But can we talk about more wider range? As far as I remember, you have an anniversary of NATO this year.

Vinnikov: Indeed, this year we will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the signature of the North-Atlantic Treaty in 1949. I think it’s important to underline that NATO Is not, as some people think, purely a military organization. In fact we are political military organization, and a political component is extremely significant, and we take a very comprehensive view of security issues. When it comes to our activities in Ukraine, again, we cover a very wide spectrum of issues, some of which people don’t necessarily associate with NATO. That includes of course Strategic communications, that includes Medical rehabilitation, that includes also scientific work – for example Ukraine is the biggest recipient of the NATO science for peace program with more than 40 scientific projects being developed jointly between Ukrainian scientists and NATO countries’ scientists.

Popova: Alexander, how do you see the resolution to the conflict in Donbass?

Vinnikov: Well, NATO’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has been unwavering ever since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Allies have made it clear that they do not and they will not recognise Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, and they have also called on Russia repeatedly to stop its destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine. We are among those that call it openly an aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and because of that we believe that a lasting political settlement needs to be reached, and we support the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

Popova: But does it really work?

Vinnikov: Well, we see that the Minsk Agreements are not being implementing currently, and we continue to call on both sides to implement these agreements, and Russia has a particular responsibility in this regard. And at the latest NATO Summit in Brussels we reiterated the call on Russia to withdraw its personnel, to withdraw its weapons and to withdraw its support for the separatists in Donbass. So, this is something that Russia can do as of now, without waiting for the deployment of a possible UN peace-keeping mission, which some people are talking about. Russia can already abide by its Minsk Agreement commitments and should do so. In particular, we also support the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, whose work currently is being limited by the fact that they don’t have a full access and they don’t have full security guarantees. So again, we call for the OSCE to be given all of those, so they can do their job.

Popova: For several years, there have been many discussions NATO countries journalists on the occupied territories. Should they work there now? And do you think if they should work there in 2014, especially after shooting down of MH-17 and to make investigations about this tragedy? What do you think about foreign journalists on the occupied territories and the front line? And what does the SBU think about it?

Vinnikov: Well, my answer is very simple. I think since this is sovereign Ukrainian territory, it’s for Ukraine to decide, what the rules of the game are.

Laputina: We understand that the freedom of speech is a top priority, this is European democratic value and we should respect it. But all their activities (journalists`) must be legal, according to the law. We understand that people need and want to know about situation in occupied territories as well.

Popova: One more quest will join our interview now. This is Professor Volodymyr Paniotto – General Director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

We got your research regarding the attitude of Ukrainians towards NATO. Please display this infographic now.

I ask you to comment on these infographics. So, we see that thirty-nine percent of the Ukrainian citizens want to join NATO, but thirty-fife percent do not want to join any union. And nine percent still believe in Russia. What could you say about these figures?

Paniotto: These figures indicates significant dynamic. To compare to 2012 we see growing percentage of those who for joining NATO, the figure was 12 percent. Of course, the radical changes happened after Crimea was annexed and situation in Donbass grew to military conflict. Another factor is changing Ukraine`s territory, it does not allow to interview many who are behind the lines, I mean Crimea and some parts of Donbass. One third of those figures changes were caused by territory factor. One more reason – radical changes in county`s life at the end of 2014 when people realized that our neighbor was too dangerous and to get protected Ukraine should join the NATO some day.

Popova: What advice could you give a Head of the NATO Representation to Ukraine? What can be done to increase people’s willingness to join NATO? Without further military actions from Russia.

Paniotto: We see the difference between people`s knowledge about NATO and attitude to NATO. According to research, Ukrainians do not know much about NATO.  When we put some test question like «what do you know about decision making within NATO» only 11 percent have clear answer, 20 percent say they have only some knowledge about NATO.  So, we need some range of new information campaigns,   including films or other effective programs.

Popova: Thank you, Professor, for joining our program. Thank you for your data. Alexander, what do you think about these numbers and about the opinion of Professor Paniotto?

Alexander: I agree that more information is needed. We have a dedicated Information and Documentation Center here in Ukraine, which has been working over 20 years. Which continues to reach out to the regions of Ukraine, to explain what NATO is and what it isn’t. Because also if you look at the statistics of knowledge and support for NATO, you will see quite significant regional differences as well across the country. There Is a lot of work to be done to address the myths and misconceptions that are still pervasive about NATO.

Popova: Thank you for joining our program. Thanks to all who watched us. See you nest week.

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