Less than two weeks ago the world watched on in horror as, a military superpower Russia invaded its democratic peaceful neighbour Ukraine.
There were various pretexts for the invasion ranging from Ukraine being a threat to the national security of Russia by virtue of its desire to join NATO and Ukraine needing to be de-Nazified to Ukraine carrying out genocide on Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine.
These lies and false narratives of course were all deliberately deployed strategically as part of the hybrid war that Putin has being waging on Ukraine and the wider West for eight years, since the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine.
The world has finally woken up to the true and unspeakably evil nature of the Putin regime - and the toxic lies of the regime convince fewer and fewer among us. This is a war that the Ukrainians are fighting with the most incredible bravery and mental and physical toughness – the world stands in awe and admiration. But it is not enough to stand in awe and admiration, we are already providing practical support but we must do more. If we don’t not only may Ukraine fall, but in time so will the West and the way of life we have built since 1945 and come far too often to take for granted.
So, while our leaders at a national level argue about how much more we should sanction Russia, arm Ukraine and whether we should get personally more involved with the likes of a ‘No fly zone’ we need to focus on what we can do at a local level and in our councils in particular.
Local government has a very important role to play in how we as a nation stand by the people of Ukraine and resist what is also a hybrid war being waged against all of us. Having worked in local government for 15 years I know chief executives, their teams and political leaderships across the country will be grappling with what their councils need to do.
I have grouped what I think local government specifically needs to do into four broad areas The list is probably not exhaustive and I do not seek to teach anyone to suck eggs. But I hope it may be helpful.
- Staff and community engagement and humanitarian aid.
If your authority has members of the Ukrainian community or diaspora working for it they will be incredibly traumatised by what is happening to their country, friends and family members back home. Speak to managers, HR and OD colleagues and your Ukrainian staff and work out how best they can be supported.
If you are fortunate enough to have Ukrainians working for your authority or any of your partner organisations involve them as far as possible in your various activities. It may seem obvious but make sure they are at the heart of outreach work you may be doing to any Ukrainian community you may have living in your local area. Also ensure they are involved in any preparations being made locally to receive Ukrainian refugees. I have been saying for over five years that we all need to see Russia through Ukrainian eyes. Your Ukrainian colleagues will help you to do this.
- Communication and disinformation
The truth is we are all at war with Russia, we have been since 2014 when Russia has been waging a hybrid war not only on Ukraine but on all of us in the West. That war has included cyber-attacks, meddling in elections and even assassination attempts on British soil. It is also an information war where we have been subject to poisonous lies, false narratives and disinformation spewed into our information sphere by the likes of RT (Russia Today) Sputnik and thousands of rancid keyboard jockeys in Kremlin controlled troll farms outside Moscow and St Petersburg who drip their poison across the web. The purpose of all of this disinformation is often not to sell one narrative – it is simply to sow confusion, division and dissent among us.
Local government communications teams working with colleagues across their local areas have a vital role in countering and neutralising this poison. Think about how you go about it and contact the Government Communication Service and colleagues in LGcomms for support. We are all in this together and if you don’t immediately know what to do help and advice is out there.
- Resilience and business continuity
All local authorities will, or should, have robust crisis and business continuity plans in place. One of Russia’s hybrid war weapons of choice are cyber attacks aimed at critical infrastructure and government local and central. Britain has led the charge in supporting and arming Ukraine where we are seen as probably their best friend. This is not lost on Putin who has as much as said he will not forget the UK’s role in opposing him. We probably need to have a heightened expectation that we could become victim to such attacks and adjust our emergency planning accordingly.
- Community cohesion
In times of crisis different communities can find themselves targeted and the victims of hate crime. Insanely we even saw this with the Chinese community at the beginning to the COVID outbreak. Many Russians do not support this genocidal war being carried out in their name. Indeed, many have been seen in recent days at anti-war protests standing side by side with their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. We simply must do everything in our power to bring people in our communities together at this horrible time. The targeting of innocent Russians who live among us must not be tolerated – rather reach out to this community and see how they can also be brought into our community efforts. And use their voices against this genocidal war against their peace-loving neighbour.
Russia wages a war on all of us, not just Ukraine,and Putin’s ambitions will defiantly not stop with Ukraine. If we understand the nature of Russia’s hybrid war strategy we will realise that each and everyone can find a place from which to punch back, none more so than those of us who work for local government.
- I would like to thank director of communications for Birmingham City Council Eleri Roberts for her help with this article.
Cormac Smith is a former Chair of LGcomms and has held senior communication roles in several local authorities. As a senior civil servant, he spent two years between 2016 – 2018 working as an embedded special communication advisor to the foreign minister of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin.