In part 1, we described in detail the Russian propaganda machine. In the second part, we will analyze the real cases of the Kremlin’s information attacks on Ukraine.
As we have said, Russian propaganda consists of a series of narratives that aim to either create the necessary information background or blur the existing one. At the same time, it counts on eliciting emotions so that there is no room for facts.
Every Russian information operation against Ukraine has a purpose: to justify aggression against Ukraine, to deny one’s own crimes, to shift responsibility for the war to Ukraine, to disrupt aid to Ukraine from its allies, and so on.
We have gathered the main information operations that the Russians have been using against Ukraine for the past 8 years. So, first, the Russians were looking for the causes of the invasion.
Causes of the invasion
In 2014, Russia occupied Crimea and part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. While Russia admitted the occupation of Crimea, justifying it by the “will of the people,” in the east, a “civil war” scenario was at play for 8 years.
According to their legend, Ukraine is allegedly at war with the insurgents of the two seceded People’s Republics, Donetsk PR and Luhansk PR, although the world community has repeatedly captured Russian troops in the east on video, and it was the Russian administration that exercised control over the occupied territory of Donbas (Russian citizens). Russia has been supplying weapons and issuing passports to residents of the occupied territories for years.
Just before Russia started the war, the Kremlin recognized the independence of both “people’s republics,” extending their territory to the whole Donbas, despite the fact that in most part of the region, the 2014 pseudo-referendum never took place under the barrel of the Russian guns, and the secession has never been supported by a vote “Russian World” supporters.
On February 24, a “special operation” began, in which the Russians justify the bombing of Ukraine with the old myth that the latter “bombed Donbas for 8 years” while the world was silent. Hence, Russia is compelled to save its people.
It should be noted that there is no separate people of Donbas with their own language, because the region is inhabited mostly by Ukrainians and Russians, and most of the Donbas territory has remained under Ukraine all these years.
Prior to the invasion, the Russians launched several narratives into the mass media to justify the invasion.
On February 16, 2022, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation stated that it had allegedly found five mass graves of civilians in Donbas, alluding to the genocide perpetrated by the Ukrainians. The truth is, all burials have been in the occupied territories for 8 years, and only Russian specialists have access to them. Given these facts, there are doubts about the veracity of the investigation, which by the way, no one in Russia has mentioned seriously.
On February 17, the Russians fired on the premises of a kindergarten in Stanytsya Luhanska on the part of Donbas controlled by Ukraine. At the same time, the Russian propaganda began to disperse information that the Armed Forces of Ukraine had fired on kindergartens in Luhansk People’s Republic, using the photos and positions of kindergartens of Stanytsya Luhanska but simply ignoring the fact that this territory is controlled by Ukraine.
On February 18, Russian propaganda began accusing Ukraine of intensifying shelling of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, even though the Russian army had already drawn hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Ukraine’s borders by that time. The “leaders of the republics” reacted in recorded video messages about the evacuation of the population. But the video metadata shows that both videos were written on February 16, i.e, two days before the alleged kindergarten shelling.
On February 19, five days before the invasion, the Russians accused Ukraine of shelling its border checkpoint, and on February 21, their propaganda spread footage of a burned-out “Ukrainian armored personnel carrier” that allegedly crossed the Russian border and was destroyed.
Thus, the Russians staged two reasons for the invasion:
⦁ direct incidents at the border, copying the incident in Gliwice that was a pretext for the Nazi German invasion of Poland.
⦁ the general pretext, a la the Yugoslavia case, in which Ukraine allegedly disintegrates as a result of a “civil war” and Moscow had to intervenes like NATO in the 1990s in order to prevent war crimes.
The general pretext was being promoted more actively in Russia by means of “talking heads” under the tagline “where were you for 8 years when Donbas was bombed?” Now it’s clearer how Putin thought of justifying the future bombing of Kyiv in a conversation with German Chancellor Scholz on February 15.
However, aviation has not been used in Donbas since 2014, when the Russians shot down a Malaysian Boeing flight 17. There are no recorded cases of ballistic missile attacks either, even by the Russians. The largest artillery shelling of the civilian population in the Donbas up until February 2022 was the shelling of Mariupol by the Russians themselves in 2015, killing 29 civilians.
Moreover, in 2017, Ukraine actively promoted the idea of bringing peacekeepers to Donbas at the UN. The Russian propaganda machine, on the other hand, launched a campaign to discredit the contingent and opposed it.
In particular, Vladimir Putin said that the introduction of peacekeepers would lead to a similar massacre in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica and Russia will not allow it (interestingly, in 2015, Russia itself vetoed a UN resolution proposing to recognize those events as genocide).
Currently, the city of Mariupol and the towns of Severodonetsk, Popasna, Volnovakha, and Rubizhne have been virtually destroyed in the Donbas. However, all of them have been destroyed in the last two months by Russian airstrikes.
Depopulation of Ukrainians
Since 2014, the Russians have been conducting information operations to create a negative image of Ukraine in order to reduce its support from partners, as well as to divert attention from the root causes of the war. Here Russians work in five business lines:
⦁ accusations of Ukrainians of Fascism and Nazism;
⦁ the army of Ukraine is uncontrollable and likens ISIS (or even cooperates with ISIS);
⦁ shifting responsibility for the Russian war crimes to Ukrainians;
⦁ US biological laboratories;
⦁ blaming Ukrainians for the migration crisis in the EU and denigrating Ukrainian migrants.
Let’s analyze each of these business lines.
Nazism / Fascism business line
The story of “Ukrainian Nazism” has been reaching the international level since 2013 when the Maidan Revolution began in Ukraine. At the time, the Russians were actively spreading Nazi symbols, which were allegedly used everywhere by protesters.
Russian propagandists wanted to repeat the same trick in advance of the 2022 invasion. According to Rolling Stone, the Russians established a network of paid agents to paint a swastika on the streets of Ukraine. The media would later spread it demonstrating it as proof of Nazism.
In 2015, the Russian state television Russia 1 broadcast a fake that Ukraine plans to create a thousand-hryvna bill and depict Adolf Hitler on it. The main source of the news was actually a joke on the Russian site “Pikabu” (Russian analogue of Reddit), but the propagandists didn’t care.
In the Ukrainian parliament there is no single force that can be characterized as Nazi or even sympathizers. This single fact disavows the Russian propaganda. All parties are at the center, except for the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – For Life,” which uses leftist slogans. The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy who won the election with the whopping 73% vote is an ethnic Jew who uses the Russian language in everyday life.
The uncontrollable Ukrainian army and the ISIS business line
In 2014, during the Russian invasion of Donbas a number of volunteer battalions was formed in Ukraine, as the army was indeed uncontrollable at that time due to the corrupt president who escaped scared of the Maidan protests.
However, Ukraine does not have the volunteer battalions anymore. All of the previous volunteer units have long been fully integrated into the Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies after scrupulous personnel selection. This contradicts the thesis that the Ukrainian army is uncontrollable. On the contrary, it is the discipline of the Ukrainian military that allows it to defend effectively against the enemy that outnumbers the Ukrainian army.
Notably, Russia spreads stories about the Nazis of Ukraine who oppress the Russian language, although half of Ukraine speaks Russian. At the very same time, Russia tells stories about Ukrainian camps to train ISIS fighters, something that Nazi sympathizers wouldn’t do.
Russia started spreading such stories in 2016, when a leader of the occupied Crimea alleged the existence of ISIS camps in the neighboring Kherson Region of Ukraine. He tried to link ISIS to the Crimean Tatars who are indigenous to Crimea and did not recognize Moscow’s power over the peninsula.
In 2017, French Senator Nathalie Goulet reported an ISIS camp in Ukraine alleging that the information came from the Security Service of Ukraine. When the Security Service denied having such information, she apologized that the journalists distorted her words. Yet, the journalists showed screenshots that proved her direct accusations of Ukraine.
It is worth noting that the senator was in close contact with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. She was previously spreading Kremlin’s Nazism-in-Ukraine narratives across Europe.
At the same time, the Russian propaganda TV channel “Zvezda” (star) that belongs to the Russian Defense Ministry) has reported repeatedly that Ukraine was buying oil from ISIS, and Odesa was an ISIS transit port in Europe. No confirmation of this was provided; all stories had a reference to the “experts”. These experts were Kremlin’s artificially created thought leaders (see part 1 of this story).
Pushing off the responsibility business line
We talked about how the Russians shifted responsibility for the downed Boeing to Ukraine or the shelling of a kindergarten before the current stage of the war. The same pattern continued at scale now. One recent case is the Russian shelling of Kramatorsk railway station on April 8, which killed more than 50 people.
Almost immediately, the Russians announced that they had destroyed the gathering of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but later they began to delete these news posts and messages while shifting responsibility for the shelling to the Ukrainian army Forces.
For this purpose, for example, they launched misinformation that the Russian Federation does not have “Tochka-U” missiles, which hit the railway station. However, that was easy to refute, as the Russians themselves have boasted of the successful use of these missiles since the invasion, and their TV networks had footage of the missiles on the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.
#Kramatorsk missile strike. Russian forces claim that they do not have "Tochka U" missile complexes. Which is another lie. Here is a video with "Tochka U" transported via railway. Notice the tactical sign "V" on the side of the vehicle. #Ukraine #UkraineNow #RussiaUkraineWar pic.twitter.com/eL7B2hNmrS— Russia Vs World (@RussiaVsWorld_) April 8, 2022
In addition, Russian bots began to disperse a would-be BBC video that blamed Ukraine for the shelling. In fact, the Russians forged the video simply by editing their video with BBC identifiers. BBC itself has issued an official statement that it had nothing to do with that video.
The Russian propaganda algorithm continues as follows. If information that implicates Russia in war crimes cannot be erased, the Russians are beginning to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the crime itself. The case in point is Bucha where the Russians posted a video that captures staging a film, claiming that it captures the staging of the Bucha massacre by the Ukrainian security services.
A few years before, the Russians acted similarly with the downed Malaysian Boeing. One of the narratives transmitted to the West was that there were no passengers inside the plane, and it was full of corpses deliberately lined up over the Russia-occupied territory.
American biological laboratories business line
The Russians regularly accuse Ukraine of operating American bio labs in the country. Propagandists accuse them of creating COVID-19 in Ukraine, or of developing bio-weapons against the Russians that trained wild birds supposed to spread.
They anchored this in the real fact that old Soviet bio labs that had existed were conserved and were going through the process of destruction. Just like other constituent parts of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had research centers with biological materials. The US financed the safe storage and disposal programs of these bio labs in Ukraine as well as in Russia until 2014.
In 2022, the Russians conducted an information operation in which they claimed that US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland had confirmed the existence of American bio laboratories in Ukraine and feared that they would fall into the hands of the Ukrainian army.
However, in reality, the Russians took her words out of context. She said that there were laboratories in Ukraine that stored hazardous materials and that they could be seized by the Russians for further use against Ukraine. However, she did not say that these were American laboratories.
Ukrainian immigrants business line
The last business line of the Russian propaganda machine is to work on denigrating Ukrainian immigrants in order to incite hostility towards them. In March, a Russian-speaking resident of Germany recorded a video in which she accused Ukrainian immigrants of beating to death a 16-year-old Russian boy.
However, the police of the region where the tragedy allegedly took place denied the story and said that there had been no such crime. The author of the video later admitted that the story was untrue. Interestingly, the story was spread by pro-Russian German journalist Alina Lipp.
Another example is the story that Russian propaganda was spreading on social networks where a video allegedly captures the consequences of bad behavior of Ukrainians on a German train. The video shows the railcar full of trash and covered with stickers. However, if one watches the video very attentively, one can see that the train was filmed after transporting fans of the Augsburg football club, and the stickers of the ultra-right groups of this FC could be seen in the video.
The list of Russian information operations aimed at denigrating Ukraine is much much longer than d what is covered in this article.
An equally important topic for Russians is the use of anti-Western rhetoric. In particular the topic is the war with NATO.
War with NATO
The Russians regularly emphasize the point that they are at war with NATO and not just with Ukraine. In this way, the Kremlin not only justifies its failures and losses in the war, but also presents itself as a “victim” of world aggression and shifts responsibility for the war to the West.
The “confrontation” between Russia and NATO on the territory of Ukraine dates back to the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine when the Russians actively promoted disinformation about NATO snipers who fired shots and specially trained militants who staged a “coup” that led to Yanukovych’s escape. The training ground was somewhere in the Baltics.
Since then, the Russian Federation has been actively pushing the issue that Ukraine has an illegitimate regime and is governed externally. This is despite the government in Ukraine has changed on democratic elections since the Maidan of 2014, and the parliament reshaped government coalition and opposition parties a few times.
Most of all, Russia is pushing information about NATO soldiers and weapons. This message was launched long before the Russian invasion of 2022. Back in 2014, the Russian media reported that American troops captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which ironically they would capture in 8 years.
In 2015, the Russian media began spreading the narrative that the West itself acknowledged the presence of its troops. As evidence, they referred to Vice News, US media outlet, which said that a foreigner by name Jackson withdrew his unit from the vicinity of Debaltseve in the Russian-occupied part of Donbas. The original article said that Jackson was a call-sign of a Ukrainian soldier, but the Russians decided to miss this fact.
For years, the Russians have said that they are capturing Abrams tanks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But no video of such a tank or a battle with it was ever provided. At the moment, Russians are openly saying on their shows that it’s NATO that is at war with them. In support of this, they are sharing videos of a foreign legion, or videos of Ukraine-NATO exercises that took place earlier. The Russian bots work hard spreading these messages on social networks.
This list is an attempt to classify business lines and main messages of the Russian propaganda. Russia makes several information campaigns every day. Their task is to set an agenda so that the facts simply do not reach the general public silenced by “white noise” of fakes and provocations.
At the same time, Russians play on emotions, targeting messages to different target audiences in different regions. The main task is to find a trigger for each of them. The Kremlin is actively using the ignorance of the victim of propaganda based on geography, language and culture. As a result, the victim chooses Russian messages because of emotional triggers and these messages stick and often withstand the pressure of exposure to facts.