Timely AidData study helps explain underpinnings of Russia’s invasion and Ukraine’s resilience

Conducted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an AidData research project answers critical questions about how the war has unfolded.

June 1, 2023
Nathan Warters, William & Mary News

Editor's note: This blog was originally published by William & Mary News at the following link: https://news.wm.edu/2023/06/01/timely-aiddata-study-helps-explain-underpinnings-of-russias-invasion-and-ukraines-resilience/.

AidData, the international development research lab based at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, did an exhaustive study of Russia’s attempts to use media, money and partnerships with sympathetic civic groups to advance its interests in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

Ukraine was one of 17 countries closely examined, and toward the end of the three-year project, Russia invaded Ukraine to begin a war that is still ongoing after 15 months.

“I remember when we started working on this, people asked me, ‘Why are you studying Russia’s global influence operations? They’re not all that consequential.’ Well, I guess that’s changed,” said AidData Director of Policy Analysis Samantha Custer, who led the study along with Deputy Director Rodney Knight and Senior Research Analyst Jonathan Solis. Eight other AidData staff members and 46 W&M student research assistants were also essential to supporting and implementing the expansive project.

The research team was tasked with creating methodology and uncovering data to answer critical questions about Russia’s influence in three pivotal domains – civic space, media and the energy sector – in 17 countries and seven territories in Eastern Europe and Eurasia (E&E) that the Kremlin deems within its sphere of influence.

While the AidData team was conducting its research, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was intensifying.

“I went in assuming that we would find some evidence of Kremlin influence operations, but I didn’t realize until we had the benefit of hindsight just how long, slow and steady of a campaign you can see Russia engaging in well before the hot conflict with Ukraine,” Custer said.

“Of course, I knew that theoretically the Russian government had the motives and means to exert pressure on local populations via various civilian influence channels, but we were seeing a pretty systematic build up to military intervention that I hadn’t anticipated.”

The study produced “thousands and thousands of rows of data, much of which will become publicly available, and more than 40 reports,” Custer said.

Data and democracy are among the four cornerstone initiatives of W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan.

“We hope that this treasure trove of data and analysis will equip policymakers with critical insights on how to manage risk and build resilience for countries in the Kremlin’s shadow,” Custer said.

The results of the three-year research project were released in increments starting in March. Country-specific and region-wide reports are already publicly available on the state of civic space and media resilience across Europe and Eurasia. Next month, AidData will release information on its efforts to produce a novel energy-security index. The research team looks forward to extending this work to additional years, measures and geographies, Custer said.

Ukrainian resilience

One of AidData’s first reports examined Russia’s use of money and media tools as early as 2015 in an attempt to apply pressure to the Ukrainian population. AidData found that these tactics worked poorly, however. Had they been in play a decade earlier, the invasion may have encountered a much different Ukraine, Custer said. Instead, what Russia ran into was a resilient country galvanized by its own civic growth.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Custer says Ukrainian citizens appeared to come to the realization after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 that their freedom was fragile, and they had a role to play in withstanding the Kremlin’s efforts to reclaim its lost empire while also holding their own leaders accountable.

“Post-Crimea, the atmosphere really changed, I think, because Russia’s annexation of Crimea was so controversial for Ukrainians and seen as such an encroachment upon Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Custer said. “It is no coincidence that after this episode, you started to see an incremental shift and greater interest on the part of Ukrainians to become more engaged in civic life.”

Ukrainians began to engage at much higher rates in common political forms of engagement like protests and strikes and demonstrations. There was also an uptick in the percentage of the population that gave to charities, volunteered their time and helped strangers.

Custer said that while Ukraine’s military response to Russia’s invasion has been more hardy than anticipated, what’s most striking is the civil society response in a variety of ways in the middle of the conflict.

“Civil society actors are providing emergency and relief support, evacuating villages; they’re routing medical and food supplies to those in need, they’re providing intelligence-gathering and logistical support for the military,” Custer said.

“My sense is that a lot of that was motivated by this feeling of, ‘Hey we’re under attack. We need to join forces and rally to protect our country.’ I don’t know that Russia anticipated the strength of that reaction,” Custer said.

Students conduct ‘valued and meaningful’ research

William & Mary students were critical to AidData’s Russia research, working on teams to examine the influence in civic space, media and the energy sectors.

“That’s part of our secret sauce in being able to tackle these audacious problems is we have an army of talented and motivated students behind us that are really making this possible,” Custer said.

Hannah Ray ’25, a double major in government and Russian & post-Soviet studies, helped track violations of freedom of expression, freedom to assemble and freedom to organize in Eastern Europe and Central Asia through instances of violence or harassment, restrictive legislation and state-backed legal cases.

“I valued researching in-country primary sources, which allowed us to understand authentic perspectives on the hardships each country was facing,” Ray said. “This experiential learning opportunity has molded me into a stronger student, a student with the ability to deeply engage with coursework using a firm grasp of real-world contexts.”

Abby Maher ’23, an anthropology major, focused predominantly on the media ownership and media sentiment aspects of the project. Her team mapped the top media outlets in 17 countries and then unraveled the tangled ownership threads that often linked back to various obscure parent and offshore companies, she said.

She then transitioned to the media sentiment team to help manually code thousands of sentences about topics such as NATO, Russia, the EU and Vladimir Putin based on how those topics were described on a detailed scale from negative to positive.

“It feels very gratifying to be part of a project like this where I know that the work I’ve done is valued and has meaning,” Maher said. “I’ve been able to see the impact of my work first hand because of its use by other researchers, such as the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab — which I also work for.”

“With the recent war in Ukraine and the world’s renewed interest in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the importance of this work has only grown, and I hope it will continue to provide beneficial data for other researchers as well.”

Patrick Schroeder ’23, a double major in economics and international relations, spent time on the civic space, financing and media teams.

“We worked on years of news articles for both the financing and media in many countries,” Schroeder said. “The work was extremely exhaustive. Each article was assessed by at least two research assistants to ensure no stones were left unturned, and our results were checked by superiors. We attempted to create the most comprehensive review of Russian influence possible.”

Schroeder said working on a research project of this scale “was incredibly empowering” and made him “a substantially better student.”

“I am very proud my work is useful to policymakers,” he said. “And I am so happy to see the final products out in the world.”

Nathan Warters is a Communications Specialist at William & Mary News.

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