Disinformation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine

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A Russian propaganda rally in Sevastopol, April 2022, portraying the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a defence of the Donbas. The slogan reads: "For the President! For Russia! For Donbas!"

As part of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian state and state-controlled media have spread disinformation in an information war. Much of the news about military propaganda during Russia's invasion of Ukraine focused on Russian disinformation.[1] Ukrainian media and politicians have also been accused of using propaganda and deception, although such efforts have been compared to the Russian disinformation campaign as more limited.[2] Both Russia and Ukraine exaggerate the losses they claim to have inflicted on each other.[3]

Russian propaganda and fake news stories have attacked Ukraine's right to exist and accused it of being a neo-Nazi state, committing genocide against Russian speakers, developing nuclear and biological weapons, and being influenced by Satanism. Russian propaganda also accuses NATO of controlling Ukraine and building up military infrastructure in Ukraine to threaten Russia. Some of this disinformation has been spread by Russian web brigades. It has been widely rejected as untrue and crafted to justify the invasion and even to justify genocidal acts against Ukrainians. The Russian state has denied carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, and Russian media has falsely blamed some of them on Ukrainian forces instead. Some of the disinformation seeks to undermine international support for Ukraine and to provoke hostility against Ukrainian refugees.

Russian disinformation has been pervasive and successful in Russia itself, due to censorship of war news and state control of most media. Because of the amount of disinformation, Russian media has been restricted and its reputation has been tarnished in many Western and developed countries. However, the Russian state has had more success spreading its views in many developing countries. In particular, Chinese state media has been largely sympathetic to the Russian side, and has repeatedly censored war news or reproduced Russian fake news and disinformation.

Descriptions of Ukraine-sponsored disinformation have focused on over-optimistic casualty reports, as well as promotion of patriotic stories such as the Ghost of Kyiv that were later discredited.

Russian themes

Russian mural of a pro-war "Z" symbol and the slogan "truth is with us"
Russian TV and radio host Vladimir Solovyov has broadcast disinformation and propaganda supporting the invasion of Ukraine.[4]

Disinformation (a lie or exaggeration meant to sway opinion) has been spread by the Russian state, state-controlled media, propagandists, and Russian web brigades as part of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Its purpose is to build support for Russia's invasion, and to weaken opposition to the invasion.[5][6][7][8] It also seeks to sow disunity among Western countries who support Ukraine; to counter NATO; and to cover up or create plausible deniability for Russian war crimes.[9]

The following are common themes in Russian propaganda and disinformation, along with some of the common rebuttals.

Denying Ukrainian nationhood and statehood

Russian propaganda has targeted Ukrainian nationhood and national identity, portraying Ukrainians as "Little Russians" or "part of an all-Russian nation". This has been a theme in Russian imperialist and nationalist rhetoric since the seventeenth century. For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has questioned the Ukrainian people's identity[10] and the country's legitimacy.[11] In his 2021 essay "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians", Putin claimed there is "no historical basis" for the "idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians".[12] Since then, Russia's official and media narrative is that Ukraine has always been Russian.[12] Björn Alexander Düben, professor of international affairs, writes that "Putin's historical claims do not hold up to serious academic scrutiny" and that he is "embracing a neo-imperialist account that exalts Russia's centuries-long repressive rule over Ukraine, while simultaneously presenting Russia as a victim of 'US imperialism'".[12]

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and former Russian president, wrote that "Ukraine is NOT a country, but artificially collected territories" and that Ukrainian "is NOT a language" but a "mongrel dialect" of Russian.[13] He has said that Ukraine should not exist in any form and that Russia will continue to wage war against any independent Ukrainian state.[14]

Such denial of nationhood is said to be part of a campaign of incitement to genocide by Russian authorities.[15][16] United Nations special rapporteurs have condemned the Russian occupation authorities for attempting "to erase local [Ukrainian] culture, history, and language" and to forcibly replace them with Russian language and culture.[17]

After the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Russian rhetoric portrayed Ukrainian governments as illegitimate, calling them the "Kyiv regime" or a "Nazi/fascist junta".[18][19] Putin said they were "led by a band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis",[20] and claimed Ukraine is "under external control" by the West or the United States.[21]

Allegations of Nazism

Pro-Russian activists with a sign likening the Ukrainian government to the Nazis
A sign saying "Denazify Putin" at a Ukraine solidarity protest

Putin falsely claimed that the Ukrainian government were neo-Nazis and announced that one of his goals was the "de-Nazification of Ukraine". Putin's claims were repeated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council; many diplomats walked out in protest.[22][23][24] These claims were repeated in Russian media to justify the war.[25] In April 2022, Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an article by Timofey Sergeytsev, "What Russia should do with Ukraine", where he argued that Ukraine and Ukrainian national identity must be wiped out, because he claimed most Ukrainians are at least "passive Nazis".[26][27][28] By May, references to de-Nazifying Ukraine in Russian media began to wane, reportedly because it had not gained traction with the Russian public.[29]

These allegations of Nazism are widely rejected as untrue and part of a Russian disinformation campaign to justify the invasion, with many pointing out that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had relatives who were victims of the Holocaust.[30] Some of the world's leading historians of Nazism and the Holocaust put out a statement rejecting Putin's claims, which was signed by hundreds of other historians and scholars of the subject. It says:

"We strongly reject the Russian government's ... equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression. This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it."[31]

The authors say that Ukraine "has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups" like any country, but "none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterization of Ukraine".[31] The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum denounced Putin's claims, saying "once again, innocent people are being killed purely because of insane pseudo-imperial megalomania".[32] The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem condemned Putin's abuse of Holocaust history.[33][34] Ukrainian Jews likewise rejected claims of Ukraine being a neo-Nazi state.[35]

Kremlin claims of Nazism against Ukraine are partly an attempt to drum-up support for the war among its citizens. Russian propaganda has framed it as a continuation of the Soviet Union's "Great Patriotic War" against Nazi Germany, even though Russia supports far-right groups across Europe.[36][37] In the words of Miriam Berger for The Washington Post, "the rhetoric of the 'fight against fascism' resonates deeply in Russia, which suffered huge losses in the fight against Nazi Germany".[38] Some Soviet imagery was used as part of this propaganda drive, and Ukrainian flags were replaced with Victory Banners in some occupied towns.[39][40]

Experts on disinformation say that Russia's portrayal of Ukrainians as Nazis helps them justify Russian war crimes;[25] Russia's UN representative justified the Hroza missile attack in this way.[41] Historian Timothy Snyder said the Russian regime calls Ukrainians "Nazis" to justify genocidal acts against them. He said pro-war Russians use "Nazi" to mean "a Ukrainian who refuses to be Russian".[42] Russian neo-fascist Aleksandr Dugin proposed to simply "identify Ukrainian Nazism with Russophobia". Dugin argued that Russia should be the only country allowed to define Ukrainian Nazism and Russophobia, in the same way that Jews have what he calls a "monopoly" on the definition of antisemitism.[43] Ukrainian officials respond that Russia's own actions in Ukraine are like those of Nazi Germany,[44][41] and some commentators, including Snyder,[42] have likened Putin's Russia to a fascist state (see Ruscism).[45][46][47][48] Some Russian units who took part in the invasion are themselves linked to neo-Nazism, such as the Rusich Group and Wagner Group.[49][50][51] Russian far-right groups also played a major role among the Russian proxy forces in Donbas.[52][53]

Like many countries, Ukraine has a far-right fringe, such as Right Sector and Svoboda.[54][55] Analysts generally agree that the Russian government greatly exaggerates far-right influence in Ukraine, as there is no widespread support for far-right ideology in the government, military, or electorate.[56][57] In the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary election, a coalition of far-right parties including Right Sector received only 2% of votes and did not win any seats.[58] Ukraine's Azov Brigade, which had far-right origins and included neo-Nazis, was a focus of Kremlin propaganda. By the time of the invasion, the brigade had been largely de-politicized.[59][60][61] A 2022 Counter Extremism Project report concluded that the Azov Brigade can no longer be defined as neo-Nazi.[62][63]

Donbas genocide allegations

A rally in support of Novorossiya in Moscow on 11 June 2014

In his announcement of the invasion, Putin baselessly claimed that Ukraine was carrying out genocide in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas region.[64] He said the purpose of Russia's "military operation" was to "protect the people" of the Russian-controlled breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin claimed they had been facing "genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime" for eight years.[64] There is no evidence for Putin's claims of genocide, and they have been widely rejected as an excuse to justify invasion.[64][65][66][5][67][68] The European Commission called the allegations "Russian disinformation".[69] Over 300 scholars on genocide issued a statement rejecting Russia's abuse of the term "genocide" to "justify its own violence".[70] Ukraine brought a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to challenge Russia's claim. The ICJ said it had not seen any evidence of genocide by Ukraine.[71]

Altogether, about 14,300 people were killed in the Donbas War, both soldiers and civilians. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 6,500 were Russian proxy forces, 4,400 were Ukrainian forces, and 3,404 were civilians on both sides of the frontline.[72] The vast majority of civilian deaths were in the first year,[72] and the death rate in the Donbas War was actually falling before the 2022 Russian invasion: in 2019 there were 27 conflict-related civilian deaths, in 2020 there were 26 deaths, and in 2021 there were 25 deaths, over half of them from mines and unexploded ordnance.[72] By comparison, after Russian full-scale invasion, 4,163 civilians were killed in March 2022,[73] meaning that more civilians died in that one month alone than in the entire eight years of the Donbas War. Since the invasion, Russian state-controlled media and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels falsely accused Ukrainian troops of attacking civilian targets in Mariupol and bombing Ukrainian cities.[74][75][76]

Allegations of NATO aggression

A map of NATO (blue) and the CSTO (orange) when the 2022 invasion began.

Russian propaganda often claims that NATO provoked the invasion and that Russia had to invade Ukraine to defend itself. In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin falsely claimed that NATO built up military infrastructure in Ukraine and threatened Russia.[77] Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but Putin claimed that it was under NATO control.[77] After the invasion began, Russian state media falsely claimed that some Ukrainian military units were under NATO command,[77][78] and thousands of NATO soldiers had been killed.[79] The Russian government accused NATO of waging a "proxy war" against Russia, because its members sent military aid to Ukraine after the invasion.[80]

NATO is a collective security alliance of 31 member states, similar to the CSTO of which Russia is a member. Outside its member states, NATO only has a military presence in Kosovo and Iraq, at the request of their governments.[81] In 2002, Putin said Ukraine's relationship with NATO was not Russia's concern,[82] and NATO and Russia co-operated until Russia annexed Crimea.[81] NATO says it is not at war with Russia; its official policy is that it does not seek confrontation, but supports Ukraine's "right to self-defense, as enshrined in the UN Charter".[81] Lawrence Freedman wrote that calling Ukraine a NATO "proxy" wrongly implied that "Ukrainians are only fighting because NATO put them up to it, rather than because of the more obvious reason that they have been subjected to a vicious invasion". He said that defeating the invasion might prevent further Russian expansionism, "a bonus for NATO", but any weakening of Russia would result from "Moscow's folly ...not NATO's intent".[83] Geraint Hughes said that calling Ukraine NATO's "proxy" insults and belittles Ukrainians, denies their autonomy and implies they do not really have the will to defend their country.[80]

Vladimir Putin's address to the nation (with English captions) on 24 February 2022. Putin claimed that Russia was forced to invade Ukraine to defend itself from NATO,[84]

Another claim is that NATO broke a promise not to let any Eastern European countries join. This unwritten promise was allegedly made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, but both NATO and Gorbachev denied it.[81][85] Between the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Russian invasion, 14 Eastern European countries willingly joined NATO, and the last time a country bordering Russia had joined NATO was in 2004.[86] Ukraine has sought NATO membership since the Russian military intervention in 2014, and applied again to join NATO after the 2022 invasion. According to Politico, members of the alliance have been wary of discussing its potential membership, due to "Putin's hyper-sensitivity" on the subject.[87] Russia's Security Council warned that Ukraine joining NATO would spark a Third World War.[88]

Russia's invasion prompted Finland to join NATO, doubling the length of Russia's border with NATO.[89] Putin said that Finland's membership was not a threat, unlike Ukraine's, "but the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response".[90]

Shortly before his death in a plane crash, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Russian military leadership of lying about NATO aggression to justify the invasion.[91] Prigozhin was a close ally of Putin and his Wagner Group played an important role in the Russian invasion.[92] Peter Dickinson of the Atlantic Council suggested the real reason Putin opposes NATO is because it "prevents him from bullying Russia's neighbors".[93]

Alleged assassination and sabotage attempts

On 18 February 2022, the Luhansk People's Republic showed a video purportedly showing removal of a car full of explosives prepared to blow up a train full of women and children evacuating to Russia. The video's metadata showed that it had been recorded on 12 June 2019.[94]

The breakaway Donetsk People's Republic also released a video on 18 February 2022 that claimed to show Poles trying to blow up a chlorine tank. The video was further distributed by Russian media. The video's metadata showed that it was created on 8 February 2022, and included different pieces of audio or video, including a 2010 YouTube video from a military firing range in Finland.[94][5] Ukrainian intelligence attributed responsibility for the video to the Russian intelligence service GRU.[5]

According to Bellingcat, a supposed bombing of a "separatist police chief" by a "Ukrainian spy", broadcast on Russian state television, showed visual evidence of the bombing of an old "green army vehicle". The old car's registration plate was that of the separatist police chief, but the same licence plate was also seen on a different, new SUV.[6][94][5]

On 22 February 2022, the Russian people's militias in Ukraine accused Ukraine of a "terrorist attack" that killed three civilians in a car on the Donetsk-Gorlovka highway.[95] France 24 described the incident as a false flag attempt with corpses likely coming from a morgue to set up the scene.[96]

Russia's alleged attempt to end the Donbas War

On 7 September 2022, at the Eastern Economic Forum, Putin claimed that Russia did not "start" any military operations, but was only trying to end those that started in 2014, after a "coup d’état in Ukraine".[97] Conversely, Russia's annexation of Crimea in February 2014 is regarded as the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.[98]

Before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the intensity of the hostilities in the Donbas had been steadily declining since the signing of the Minsk agreements in February 2015.[99]

Ukrainian biological and radiological weapons

Biological weapons labs

In March 2022, Russia alleged that Ukraine was developing biological weapons in a network of labs linked to the US.[100] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China and Chinese state media amplified Russian claims.[101] QAnon promoters also echo disinformation.[102][103] BBC Reality Check found no evidence supporting the claims.[104] The United Nations also refuted this.[103][105] Russian biologists in and outside of Russia have debunked the claims, calling the allegations "transparently false".[106]

According to researcher Adam Rawnsley, the Kremlin has a history of discrediting ordinary biology labs in former Soviet republics, and previously spread conspiracy theories about Georgia and Kazakhstan similar to those deployed against Ukraine.[107][108]

Birds as bio-weapons

Prior to March 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence made unsubstantiated accusations that the United States was manufacturing bio-weapons in Ukraine. In March the Ministry followed up with another conspiracy theory: the US was training birds to spread disease in Ukraine among Russian citizens, according to Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Ministry of Russian state-controlled media. He mentioned specific details, including a strain of influenza with 50% mortality, and Newcastle disease. Media reports included maps, documents, and photos of birds with American military insignia, and claimed that infected birds had been captured alive in eastern Ukraine.[109][110]

A U.S. State Department spokesman laughed these claims off and called them "outright lies", "total nonsense", "absurd", "laughable" and "propaganda". CIA Director William Burns told the U.S.Senate that Russia made these claims to prepare the terrain for a biological or chemical attack against Ukraine, which they would then blame on the United States and Ukraine.[109][110]

Combat mosquitoes

On 28 October 2022 Vasily Nebenzya, Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations, accused Ukraine of using drones with "combat mosquitoes" which spread "dangerous viruses".[111]

Ukrainian plans to use a dirty bomb

In March 2022, Russian state-controlled news agencies claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine was developing a plutonium-based dirty bomb nuclear weapon at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.[112]

In a series of calls to foreign defence officials made in October 2022, Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu similarly claimed that Ukraine was preparing a "provocation" involving the use of a dirty bomb.[113][114] The Institute for the Study of War suggested a desire to slow or suspend foreign aid to Ukraine as a possible motive for the allegations.[113] The foreign ministries of France, the United Kingdom and the United States rejected "Russia's transparently false allegations".[113] In a briefing, the Russian Ministry of Defence used photos of the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station, the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant, the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and a photo from a 2010 presentation by the Slovenian Radioactive Waste Management Agency [sl] as "evidence" for its claims.[115]

Denial of Russian war crimes

Exhumed victims of the Bucha massacre, April 2022

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were recorded and extensively documented, including attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, wilful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape, and unlawful deportations of children.[116] Russian officials denied the war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Bucha massacre a "fake attack" against Russia, claiming it was staged. He said that Russian forces had left Bucha on 30 March while evidence of killings had emerged, according to him, four days later.[117]

On 4 April at the United Nations, Russian representative Vasily Nebenzya said that the bodies in the videos were not there when Russian forces withdrew from Bucha.[118] This was contradicted by satellite images showing that the bodies were there as early as 19 March;[119] the position of the corpses in the satellite images matches the smartphone photos taken in early April.[120]

The Russian Defence Ministry's Telegram channel said Russian forces did not targeted civilians during the battle. According to them, a massacre could not have been covered up by the Russian military, and the mass grave in the city was filled with victims of Ukrainian airstrikes. The Ministry said it had analyzed a video purporting to show the bodies of dead civilians in Bucha, and the corpses were moving. The BBC's Moscow office investigated this claim and concluded there was no evidence the video had been staged.[121] Russian officials also blamed Ukrainian forces for the Mariupol theatre airstrike,[122] though independent sources confirmed that Russia was responsible.[123]

Residential building in Dnipro after Russian missile strike on 14 January 2023. Dmitry Peskov claimed that the residential building probably collapsed due to a Ukrainian air defense counterattack.

In November 2022, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the Russian military was attacking civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. According to Peskov, the Russian army only attacked targets directly or indirectly connected to military potential. In January 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defence confirmed their responsibility for the Dnipro residential building airstrike, which killed over 40 civilians.[124] But Peskov said that Russian forces never attack residential buildings and the residential building probably collapsed because of a Ukrainian air defence counterattack.[125]

In December 2022, Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for his statements about the killings in Bucha on charges of "spreading false information" about the armed forces. Yashin was tried over a YouTube video released in April 2022 in which he discussed the discovery of murdered Ukrainian civilians in the suburban town of Bucha, near Kyiv.[126] In February 2023, Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko [sv] was sentenced to six years in prison for publishing information about the Mariupol theatre airstrike.[127]

Other Russian claims

Ukrainian Satanism and black magic

In May 2022, Russian state media claimed that Ukraine was using black magic to fend off the Russian military. RIA Novosti said that evidence of black magic had been found in an eastern Ukrainian village; according to their report, Ukrainian soldiers had allegedly consecrated their weapons "with blood magick" at a location with a "satanic seal".[128]

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council and also a former Russian president and prime minister, described the invasion as a sacred war against Satan.[129] Vladimir Solovyov, a presenter on state-owned channel Russia-1, also called the invasion a "holy war" against "Satanists" and said Russia is up against fifty countries "united by Satanism".[130]

Assistant secretary of Russia's Security Council Aleksey Pavlov called for the "de-Satanisation" of Ukraine in October 2022, claiming that the country had turned into a "totalitarian hypersect".[131] In an article for the Russian state-owned Argumenty i Fakty newspaper, he identified the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish movement as one of the "hundreds of neo-pagan cults" operating in Ukraine. Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, wrote a letter to Russian authorities, asking them to condemn Pavlov's comments, which he described as "a new variety of old blood libels".[132] About 70% of Ukrainians are religious, and half of those attend religious services.[133]

False flag fakes

In March 2022, videos were discovered purporting to show Ukrainian-produced disinformation about missile strikes inside Ukraine which were then "debunked" as some other event outside Ukraine. However, this may be the first case of a disinformation false-flag operation,[134] as the original, supposedly "Ukraine-produced" disinformation was never disseminated by anyone, and was in fact preventive disinformation created specifically to be debunked and cause confusion and mitigate the impact on the Russian public of real footage of Russian strikes within Ukraine that may get past Russian-controlled media. According to Patrick Warren, head of Clemson's Media Forensics Hub, "It's like Russians actually pretending to be Ukrainians spreading disinformation. ... The reason that it's so effective is because you don't actually have to convince someone that it's true. It's sufficient to make people uncertain as to what they should trust."[134]

The Olenivka prison massacre, described by most independent experts as a Russian-orchestrated sabotage, has been reported by Russian media as a missile attack by Ukraine. While the exact cause of the incident has still not been conclusively confirmed, most experts conclude the Russian version highly improbable.[135][136][137][138]

Flight and surrender of Ukrainian President

The Russian state media agency TASS claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fled Kyiv following the invasion and also that he had surrendered. Zelenskyy used social media to post statements, videos and photos to counter the Russian disinformation.[139][140]

Russian state-owned television channel Russia-1 spread false claims that Zelenskyy fled Ukraine following the 10 October 2022 missile strikes.[141]

Anti-refugee sentiments

Russian disinformation has also attempted to promote anti-refugee sentiments in Poland and other countries with an influx of mostly Ukrainian refugees from the war. Social media accounts with ties to Russia have promoted stories of refugees committing crimes or being unfairly privileged, or about locals discriminating against refugees (in particular, against black and non-Ukrainian refugees). Such disinformation is intended to weaken international support for Ukraine.[142]

News masquerading as Western coverage

A number of fabricated CNN headlines and stories went viral on social media.[143] including of a faked image of CNN reporting that Steven Seagal had been seen alongside the Russian military,[143] false tweets claiming that a CNN journalist had been killed in Ukraine,[143][144] a CNN lower third that was digitally altered to include a claim that Putin had issued a statement warning India not to interfere in the conflict,[143][145] and another that was altered to claim that Putin planned to delay the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine until "Biden delivers weapons to Ukraine for Russia to capture",[146] as well as a fabricated CNN tweet supposedly reporting on a figure referred to as "the Kharkiv Kid finder" alongside an image that actually portrayed the YouTuber Vaush, who lives in the US and was not in Kharkiv at the time.[147]

Other Western stations, for example BBC or DW have seen similar fakes distributed.[148]

"Grandmother with red flag"

Propaganda poster of grandmother with red flag, Saky, Crimea, 9 May 2022

A video showing an elderly woman holding a Soviet flag to greet the Ukrainian military has been widely spread in Runet since March 2022. The grandmother with a red flag was turned into an iconic image by Russian propaganda. Allegedly, it represents the desire of "ordinary Ukrainians" to reunite with their "Russian brothers".[149]

Anna Ivanovna, the subject of the "grandmother with red flag" video, explained that she mistook the Ukrainian military for Russian invaders and she wanted to "placate" them with a red Bolshevik flag so they would not destroy the village. She now regrets it and feels like a "traitor".[150] Her house near Kharkiv was destroyed by the Russian army, and she and her husband have been evacuated. She cursed the Russian army which she deemed was responsible for shelling her house. The Ukrainian military appealed to the public to not chastise Ivanovna, who was a victim herself.[149][151]

13 "French mercenaries" killed in Kharkiv

On 16 January 2024, Russia carried out a missile strike on a multi-storey building in Kharkiv, claiming it had killed a dozen "French mercenaries". Local authorities said that 17 civilians were injured and that there was no military target in the building.[152] Russian media even published a list of 13 French men ostensibly killed in the attack. French network Radio France Internationale (RFI) contacted two people on the list, Alexis Drion and Béranger Minaud, volunteers of the International Legion of Ukraine who were both in France during this attack on Kharkiv, and made an interview with them, confirming they never died and that the story is a Russian propaganda. RFI assumes this was tied to the French announcement of a delivery of 40 SCALP missiles to the Ukrainian Army.[153]

Russian claims about Ukrainian civilians

  • "Russian soldiers will be welcomed as heroes by civilians for liberating them in Ukraine" [154]
    • Ukrainians confront Russian tanks with bare hands [155]
    • Ukrainians jubilant as Ukraine retakes Kherson [156]
  • "No strikes are being made on civilian infrastructure" - In February 2022 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov[157] "Russian armed forces do not attack civilian objects on the territory of Ukraine" - June 2023 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov [158]
    • Russia's full-scale aggression has caused $137.8 billion damage to Ukraine's infrastructure in a year.[159]
  • "Civilians are not being targeted"[160]
    • The United Nations estimated that as of July 24, the war had killed or injured more than 12,000 civilians[160]
    • Civilians are tortured and killed[154]
    • Civilians suffer wilful killings, attacks, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and sexual violence, as well as forcible transfer and deportation of children - Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, to the General Assembly[161]
    • At least 10,000 killed civilians confirmed by the UN since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion - November 2023[162]
  • The Kremlin claimed "they do not intend to impose anything by force."[163]
    • Civilians who refuse Russian passports denied medical facilities[164]
    • Civilians without passports threatened with deportation[165]
  • "Ukrainian citizens can decide on their future" - President Putin 12 June 2021 [166]

Claims of Wikipedia publishing false information

Amongst Russia's attempts to control the free press and present their own views are attacks on Wikipedia, which has been on a government registry of prohibited websites for over 10 years.[167]

In May 2022, the Wikimedia Foundation was fined 5 million rubles for articles about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia claimed to have uncovered 16.6 million messages spreading "fakes" about the invasion on platforms including Wikipedia.[167] The Wikimedia Foundation appealed the ruling in June, stating the "information at issue is fact-based and verified by volunteers who continuously edit and improve articles on the site; its removal would therefore constitute a violation of people's rights to free expression and access to knowledge."[168]

In November 2022, a Russian court fined the Wikimedia Foundation 2 million rubles for not deleting "false" information in seven articles about the "special military operation", including the Bucha massacre and the Mariupol theatre airstrike.[169]

In February 2023, a Russian court imposed a fine of 2 million rubles on the Wikimedia Foundation for failing to remove "misinformation" about the Russian military.[170][168] In April 2023, another fine of 800,000 rubles was imposed on the Wikimedia Foundation for not removing materials about Russian rock band Psiheya [ru], with another fine of 2 million rubles being imposed in relation to other articles such as the Russian language version of Russian occupation of Zaporizhzhia Oblast.[171]

Support for Hamas

On October 8, 2023, a video supposedly of Hamas thanking Ukraine for supplying them was shared by an X account linked to the Wagner Group. It was viewed over 300,000 times and shared by American far-right accounts. The next day, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev tweeted, "Well, Nato buddies, you've really got it, haven't you? The weapons handed to the Nazi regime in Ukraine are now being actively used against Israel."[172][173][174]

Claims of organ harvesting

In April 2022, Canada's Communications Security Establishment said there was a coordinated effort by Russia to promote false reports about Ukraine harvesting organs from dead soldiers, women and children.[175]

In May 2023, RT aired a documentary titled Tanks for Kidneys, which promotes false claims that Ukraine has been selling organs since 2014, including from children in orphanages and Ukrainian soldiers.[176]

Ukrainian themes

The Ghost of Kyiv

On the second day of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, videos and picture went viral on social media, with claims that a Ukrainian pilot nicknamed the "Ghost of Kyiv" had shot down 6 Russian fighter jets in the first 30 hours of the war. However, there have been no credible evidence that he existed.[2][177] A video of the alleged pilot was shared on Facebook and the official Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, was later found to be from the video game Digital Combat Simulator World.[178][179] An altered photo was also shared by the former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.[180] On 30 April 2022, Ukrainian Air Force asked the "Ukrainian community not to neglect the basic rules of information hygiene" and to "check the sources of information, before spreading it",[181] stating that the Ghost of Kyiv "embodies the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending Kyiv and the region".[182]

Snake Island campaign

On 24 February 2022, the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a viral audio recording in which the crew of a Russian warship offered Ukrainian border guards on Serpent Island to surrender to the Russian forces. One of the border guards responded by saying, "Russian warship, go fuck yourself".[2]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the death of the border guards. A few days later, Ukrainian officials reported that the border guards were alive and had been captured by Russian troops.[2][183] The New York Times stated that "The Ghost of Kyiv" story was likely to be false and that the claim that the Snake Island border guards had all been killed was false, and that both cases were either propaganda or a campaigns to raise morale.[2]

United News

Since February 2022, Ukrainians have gained access to the United News telethon, which has become a key tool of information warfare. However, after almost two years of war, interest in the program decreased due to Ukrainians' war fatigue. Critics claim that United News distorts the reality of war, keeping silent about events at the front and weakening Western support for Ukraine, and has become more of a mouthpiece for Ukrainian government than objective source. The telethon's trust ratings have declined in the last months of 2023 due to the evolution of its content and the perception of the program as political manipulation.[184] Coverage of Ukraine's counteroffensive in 2023 also caused discontent, as it seemed too optimistic, despite the setbacks and failures that accompanied this period.[184]

Media expert Igor Kulyas, analyzing telethon for the Ukrainian organization Detector Media, noted that the participants of the show for most of 2023 focused on the "effectiveness and skill of the Ukrainian forces," while the Russian forces were described in an extremely negative light, which created a "completely different reality" compared to with the real situation on the ground.[184] Some Ukrainian military consider the "Unified Marathon" to be "a world divorced from reality, which is fed to the Ukrainian audience." Anton Filatov, a former film critic and later a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, believes that disinformation about Russia is the hidden purpose of this telethon. He expressed indignation at promises to recapture key facilities in a matter of weeks, excess of modern weapons, generalizations about Russians as "hand-assed jerks" and their commanders as "morons"; stories in the news are generally perceived as "cloying sedative for peaceful [people]."[185]

Ukrainian southern counteroffensive

In the summer of 2022, a number of Ukrainian officials spread misleading information about the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south of the country in the Kherson Oblast in order to regain control of Kherson.[186] Ukrainian special forces have said that the highly publicized Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson Oblast was a military disinformation campaign aimed at distracting Russian forces from the real offensive that was being prepared in the Kharkiv Oblast. Taras Berezovets, a spokesman for the Ukrainian special forces brigade, said: "[It] was a big special disinformation operation. ... [Russia] thought it would be in the south and moved their equipment. Then, instead of the south, the offensive happened where they least expected, and this caused them to panic and flee".[187][188]

Fakes about Russian mobilisation

Alexander Titov from Queen's University Belfast notes that the rumours about new Russian mobilisation are "partly a misinformation campaign launched by Kyiv to sow dissent in Russia" and that the "spreading rumours of imminent mobilisation in Russian is clearly part of Ukraine’s psychological warfare, but the more they do it without anything happening, the less credible it becomes".[189]

On 22 September 2022, the "conscript base" of the 2022 Russian mobilisation from the hacker group Anonymous began to spread in Ukrainian Telegram channels. As it was claimed, the distributed file allegedly contained the passport data of more than 305 thousand Russians subject to mobilisation "first of all". It was also noted that Anonymous hackers obtained the data by hacking the website of the Russian defence ministry, but the group itself didn't report this leak. The ministry didn't comment on the alleged leak, but reposted "War on Fakes", a Telegram channel. The report says that the published database "is compiled from several open databases and has nothing to do with the Ministry of Defense." Ruslan Leviev, the founder of Conflict Intelligence Team, and Andrei Zakharov, a correspondent of the BBC News Russian, are of the opinion that the "conscript base" is a fake.[190][191]

On 30 December 2022, Oleksii Reznikov announced a second wave of Russian mobilization, which was supposed to begin on 5 January 2023

In December 2022, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and head of military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov claimed that a new wave of mobilisation would begin on 5 January 2023, but this didn't happen. Then in January of the same year, Ukrainian officials continued to claim that 500,000 people would be mobilized that same month.[189]

On 9 January 2023, information spread on social networks that the Federal Security Service sent all border services an order to restrict the departure of Russian citizens subject to conscription for military service.[192] On January 11, this statement was published, among other things, by the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Press Secretary of the Russian President Dmitry Peskov called that as "information sabotage". The head of the human rights group Agora, Pavel Chikov, called the "orders" a fake, because "the orders were executed inappropriately, although they are similar to the original ones".[193] Factcheck.kg noted that, according to the Russian GOST for official documents, the date must be indicated in a "verbal-digital way" and that when writing an order it is also necessary to refer to the law. Paragraph 12 contains an extra character, which is also unacceptable. Also the document is not certified by the seal or signature of the relevant officials or organizations and, thus, is a fake.[192]

On 5 September 2023, a document allegedly signed by Sergei Shoigu on a new wave of Russian mobilization appeared in the Ukrainian media and Telegram channels (including UNIAN). Regional and federal representatives of the Russian authorities called the "order" a fake. Russian independent media SOTA concluded that it was a fake and provided a number of arguments to support this opinion; for example, in Russian legislation there are not "representatives of military commissariats", but military commissars.[194][195] A few days later, on September 11, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces published an unsubstantiated statement that Russia could soon launch a major mobilization campaign of 400,000 to 700,000 people.[196][189]

Other disinformation

The media focused much less on how other countries' propaganda during Russia's invasion of Ukraine worked to promote certain narratives.[1]

Turkish mercenaries

In October 2022, a video had been gaining traction on social media allegedly showing Turkish mercenaries going to fight for Russia in the Ukraine war. The video was first published by a pro-Russian Telegram channel claiming that "Turkish legionnaires joined the Russian army and will take part in combat operations in Ukraine". But it quickly gained traction when Nexta shared it with a similar claim. However journalists from Euronews Turkish-language service confirmed that the men are speaking a dialect of Turkish but are not from Turkey. The mix between this dialect and some Russian words signals that these men were most likely Meskhetian Turks (Ahiska Turks). Euronews spoke to a representative of Ahiska Turks abroad who confirmed that the men in the video are speaking the Ahiska dialect. He also told that he believes that these men living in Russia and therefore being mobilised for the war in Ukraine. Adding that, since Ahiska Turks consider themselves Turkish, this is why the soldiers were seen with a Turkish flag in the video.[197]

Russosphere

Russosphere is a French-language social network that promotes pro-Russian propaganda in Africa. It was created in 2021, but fully launched in February 2022, prior to the invasion of Ukraine.[198] It amassed over 65,000 followers on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as Telegram and VK.[199] The network's posts typically accuse France of modern-day "colonialism", describe the Ukrainian Army as "Nazis" and "Satanists", and praise the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company.[198] In early 2023, the BBC and Logically reported that Russosphere was created by Luc Michel, a Belgian far-right activist.[198][200][199]

Fake RAND report

In September 2022, the Swedish far-right online newspaper Nya Dagbladet published a document it claimed was leaked from the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank. The report, which was supposedly published that January, claimed the U.S. planned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis to weaken Germany and divide Europe.[201][202] Nya Dagbladet's article was shared by Russian state media outlet RT and the Russian Embassy in Sweden on Twitter.[201]

RAND denied publishing such a report, stating that it was a fake.[201][202] Lead Stories noted that the document's content resembled statements by members of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory movement.[202][203] Logically noted that the report contained many issues indicating it was a fake, including multiple factual, spelling, grammatical and formatting errors, and several discrepancies with RAND's other published reports.[201]

Fakes involving celebrities

In December 2023, Microsoft revealed that messages recorded by US actors on the website Cameo have been repurposed to spread misinformation about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy being a drug addict on social media and Russian state media.[204] Wired reported that images of Western celebrities edited to contain pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian quotes were spread on Facebook, with the operation being linked to Doppelganger, a Russian disinformation campaign.[205]

Release of unproven intelligence by the West

United States officials said they had intelligence suggesting that Russia might be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, a claim that US President Joe Biden later echoed publicly. However, in April 2022, three U.S. officials told NBC News that there is no evidence of Russia bringing chemical weapons near to Ukraine, and that the intelligence was released to deter Russia from using chemical weapons.[206]

U.S. officials had said that Russia had turned to China for potential military assistance, a claim one European official and two U.S. officials told NBC lacked hard evidence. U.S. officials said that the Biden administration made this allegation to discourage China from actually providing assistance to Russia.[206]

Censorship

In Russia

On 4 March 2022, Putin signed into law a bill introducing prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who publish "knowingly false information" about the Russian military and its operations, with the Russian government deciding what is the truth, leading to some media outlets in Russia to stop reporting on Ukraine or shutting their media outlet.[207][208][209] Although the 1993 Russian Constitution has an article expressly prohibiting censorship,[210] the Russian censorship apparatus Roskomnadzor ordered the country's media to only use information from Russian state sources or face fines and blocks, and accused a number of independent media outlets of spreading "unreliable socially significant untrue information" about the shelling of Ukrainian cities by the Russian army and civilian deaths.[211][212]

Roskomnadzor launched an investigation against the Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, inoSMI, MediaZona, New Times, TV Rain, and other independent Russian media outlets for publishing "inaccurate information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and civilian casualties in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian Army".[213] On 1 March 2022, the Russian government blocked access to TV Rain, as well as Echo of Moscow, in response to their coverage of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The channel closed, with its general director announcing they would be "temporarily halting its operations", on 3 March 2022; its frequencies were later re-assigned to the Russian state propaganda outlet Sputnik Radio.[214][215] Novaya Gazeta ceased publications on 28 March 2022 and its publishing license was revoked on 5 September, but it was quickly revived in Latvia as Novaya Gazeta Europe.[216][217][218] The websites of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Moscow Times, Radio France Internationale, The New Times and BBC News Russian were blocked.[219][220]

As of December 2022, more than 4,000 people were prosecuted under "fake news" laws in connection with the war in Ukraine.[221] Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that "These new laws are part of Russia’s ruthless effort to suppress all dissent and make sure the [Russian] population does not have access to any information that contradicts the Kremlin’s narrative about the invasion of Ukraine."[222]

Due to Russian fake news laws, Russian authorities blocked Facebook and Twitter, while TikTok in Russia banned new uploads. However a study by Tracking Exposed found out that TikTok had blocked all non-Russian content, but has continued to host old videos uploaded by Russia-based accounts and permitted Russian state media to continue posting, described as establishing a "splinternet" within a global social media platform.[223] TikTok's vague censorship has permitted pro-Kremlin news but blocked foreign accounts and critics of the war, as a result "Russians are left with a frozen TikTok, dominated by pro-war content".[224][225]

In China

The BBC reported that coverage of the war was heavily censored on social media in China. Many stories and accounts supporting one or the other side were removed. A Taiwanese research group accused Chinese media of "regularly quoting disinformation and conspiracy theories from Russian sources".[226]

In March 2022, China Global Television Network (CGTN) paid for digital ads on Facebook targeting users with newscasts featuring pro-Kremlin talking points after Meta Platforms banned Russian state media advertisements.[227][228] The same month, CGTN repeated unsubstantiated Russian claims of biological weapons labs in Ukraine.[229] A leaked internal directive from The Beijing News ordered its employees not to publish news reports that were "negative about Russia". An analysis found that nearly half of Weibo's social media posts used Russia sources which were pro-Putin or described Ukraine in negative terms, while another third of posts were anti-West and blamed NATO, while very few posts described the war in neutral terms. Several history professors have penned an open letter that strongly opposed China's support for "Russia's war against Ukraine" but their post was quickly deleted by censors, while a celebrity who criticized Russia over the invasion had her account suspended.[230][231][232]

Effects of Russian disinformation

Putin and Konstantin Ernst, chief of Russia's main state-controlled TV station Channel One[233]

Facebook uncovered a Russian campaign using fake accounts, and attempts to hack the accounts of high-profile Ukrainians.[234] There are reports of Russian government staff searching for "organic content" posted by genuine users in support of the Kremlin, while making sure that these do not run afoul of platform guidelines, then amplifying these posts. Researchers have found that Russia's Internet Research Agency has operated numerous troll farms who spam critics of the Kremlin with pro-Putin and pro-war comments.[235]

In February 2022, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat judged that the quality of Russian misinformation videos had weakened, but remained especially effective for the older generation of Russians.[5]

Some observers noted what they described as a "generational struggle" among Russians over perception of the war, with younger Russians often opposed to the war and older Russians more likely to accept the narrative presented by state-controlled mass media in Russia.[236] Kataryna Wolczuk, an associate fellow of Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia programme, said that "[Older] Russians are inclined to think in line with the official 'narrative' that Russia is defending Russian speakers in Ukraine, so it's about offering protection rather than aggression."[236] About two-thirds of Russians use television as their primary source of daily news.[237] According to the cyber threat intelligence company Miburo, about 85% of Russians get most of their news from Russian state-controlled media.[238]

Many Ukrainians say that their relatives and friends in Russia trust what the state-controlled media tells them and refuse to believe that there is a war in Ukraine and that the Russian army is shelling Ukrainian cities.[239][240][241]

Some Western commentators have claimed that the main reason many Russians have supported Putin and the "special military operation" in Ukraine has to do with the propaganda and disinformation.[242][243][244] At the end of March, a poll conducted in Russia by the Levada Center concluded the following: When asked why they think the military operation is taking place, respondents said it was to protect and defend civilians, ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Ukraine (43%), to prevent an attack on Russia (25%), to get rid of nationalists and "denazify" Ukraine (21%), and to incorporate Ukraine and/or the Donbas region into Russia (3%)."[245]

In China,[246][247] India,[248][249] Indonesia,[250] Malaysia,[251] Africa,[252] the Arab world,[253] and Latin America,[254] some social media users trended towards showing sympathy for Russian narratives. A study performed by Airlangga University revealed that 71% of Indonesian netizens supported the invasion.[255] This support was due to affection for Putin's strongman leadership, as well as anti-US and anti-Western political alignments.[256] Additionally, many Indonesians supported Russia due to positive reports of Ramzan Kadyrov and claims of the Azov Regiment covering their bullets with lard to be used against Chechen troops in the invasion.[257][258]

A series of four online polls by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation found that between 25 February and 3 March, the share of respondents in Moscow who considered Russia an "aggressor" increased from 29% to 53%, while the share of those who considered Russia a "peacemaker" fell by half from 25% to 12%.[259] On 5 April 2022, Alexei Navalny said the "monstrosity of lies" in the Russian state media "is unimaginable. And, unfortunately, so is its persuasiveness for those who have no access to alternative information."[260] He tweeted that "warmongers" among Russian state media personalities "should be treated as war criminals. From the editors-in-chief to the talk show hosts to the news editors, [they] should be sanctioned now and tried someday."[261]

Countering Russian disinformation

Logo of NAFO
A NAFO mascot on a destroyed Russian tank displayed in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin

The United States Department of State and the European External Action Service of the European Union (EU) published guides aiming to respond to Russian disinformation.[9] Twitter paused all ad campaigns in Ukraine and Russia in an attempt to curb misinformation spread by ads.[262] European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced an EU-wide ban of Russian state-sponsored RT and Sputnik news channels on 27 February, after Poland and Estonia had done so days before.[263]

Reddit, an American social news aggregation, content rating, and discussion website, quarantined subreddits r/Russia, the national subreddit of Russia, and r/GenZedong, a self-described "Dengist" subreddit in March 2022, after both the subreddits were spreading Russian disinformation. In the case of r/Russia, the site's administrators removed one of its moderators for spreading disinformation. Sister sub of r/Russia, r/RussiaPolitics was also quarantined for similar reasons. When the subreddits are quarantined, they don't show up in searches, recommendations and user feeds, and anyone who tries to access the quarantined subreddits would be shown a warning regarding the content, which they must acknowledge in order to access it.[264][265]

In May 2022, a group calling themselves NAFO was created with the object of posting irreverent comments about the war and memes promoting Ukraine or mocking the Russian war effort and strategy using a "cartoon dog" based on the Shiba Inu. NAFO was seen by The Washington Post as having a significant impact on Russian troll farms.[266] On 28 August 2022, the official Twitter account of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine tweeted its appreciation of NAFO, with an image of missiles being fired and a "Fella" dressed in a combat uniform, hands on face, in a posture of appreciation.[267]

See also

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External links