Bot Attacks, Fakes, and Pseudo-Lawyers Advice: How Russia Is Trying to Disrupt Mobilization in Ukraine

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“Dear Ukrainians! You know what is happening in our country. Our people are dying at the front, people who are not motivated to give their lives, because we have only one, are taken away. Our authorities conceal all the losses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we are ready to help you make an official refusal to mobilize.”

Mass mailing of messages of such content in Telegram chats was recorded on February 17-18. It involved four dozen accounts that placed more than 700 completely identical announcements. 

Profiles have photos “borrowed” from photo stocks or social networks, and have already been used in Russian bot mailings.

In particular, the most productive of them, “Egor Pelevin,” accounting for more than 10% of messages, previously advertised a mining company from Irkutsk, remote work in Russia, and a Telegram channel with porn content.

Similar messages were posted by his “colleagues” “Alexey Baranov,” “Alexey Kretinin,” “Ruslan Karimov,” “Alexander Kudinov,” “Anastasia Shumikhina,” and others.

All the profiles involved in this newsletter have Russian names, profile descriptions in Russian, and before that, they participated in advertising mailings aimed at the Russian audience. There were no messages in Ukrainian and for Ukrainians until February 17 on these profiles. 

So, the newsletter can be considered a Russian bot attack aimed at:

●     demoralization of Ukrainians and counteraction to mobilization;

●     collection of personal data of Ukrainians: potential “customers” are advised to write one “Yevhen S(l)adko,” whose profile photo shows the slogan “No to draft notices!”  

Similar bot attacks indicate that Russians are behind much of the anti-mobilization activity in social networks and messengers. And this is not the only tool with which the aggressor state is trying to discredit and disrupt Ukrainian mobilization. 

The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security talks about the key ones.

How Russia Counteracts Mobilization in Ukraine

Information operations against mobilization have been carried out by Russian special services in Ukraine since the beginning of the hybrid aggression in 2014. Russians posted messages in the media field aimed at undermining trust in the military-political leadership and creating artificial splits in society, and also promoted a narrative of a “civil conflict” and a “war between oligarchs,” in which the average Ukrainian should not participate. Active measures such as “rallies of wives and mothers” or “anti-war rallies” were aimed at blocking the work of military enlistment offices.

Since 2016, the mobilization of reservists to the Armed Forces and the National Guard of Ukraine for participation in the ATO/JFO was stopped, the personnel were replenished at the expense of contract servicemen. However, on February 24, 2022, the situation changed: due to the full-scale invasion, martial law was introduced in Ukraine and full mobilization was announced. Almost simultaneously, a new Russian campaign was launched to disrupt it. After the announcement of partial mobilization in Russia in autumn, the information efforts of Russians to disrupt mobilization in Ukraine intensified.

Through various channels, Russian information troops disseminate messages about:

●     “raids” on men in Ukrainian cities, who are immediately sent to the front line without training and passing the medical commission;

●     the illegality of mobilization and “incorrectness” of declaration of martial law;

●     the possibility to avoid mobilization by sending MPs and members of local city councils, civil servants, police officers, customs officers, border guards, judges, etc. to the front;

●     the total corruption in the territorial centres of recruitment and social support — “the rich buy themselves off, the poor serve”;

●     the mass escape of men of conscription age from Ukraine, illegally crossing the border, bribing officials, and other “schemes”;

●     the discrimination of residents of different regions and social groups during mobilization (the technique is aimed at creating artificial splits between residents of eastern and western regions, cities and villages, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking people, local and internally displaced persons, etc.);

●     the large losses of the Armed Forces, military successes of the Russians and the doom of the mobilized;

●     the lack of sense in resistance due to the greater mobilization potential of Russia compared to Ukraine. 

Promoting the general anti-mobilization narrative, Russians play on the historical traumas of Ukrainians and actively use some real shortcomings of the Ukrainian mobilization system. The campaign aims at:

●     creating the most negative background for mobilization;

●     complicating the formation of mobilization reserve;

●     demoralizing and disorientating the Ukrainian society;

●     normalizing various forms of evasion from mobilization;

●     undermining confidence in the military-political leadership and authority of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Manipulations and Fakes in Pseudo-Ukrainian Telegram Channels

Since autumn 2022, the network of pseudo-Ukrainian Telegram channels, specializing in promoting pro-Russian messages under the guise of “insights” and “independent analytics,” began to pay more attention to mobilization issues. The consumers of content should have a strong feeling that the mobilization is unfair, evasion is a usual thing and a reasonable choice, and there is no need to fight for Ukraine at all.

To confirm the last statement, the administrators of Telegram channels actively highlight corruption scandals. We are talking not only about the materials of Ukrainian journalists about the procurement of the Ministry of Defence, but also about occasional detentions or searches in the cases of bribery. This is a simple manipulation: the Ukrainian military allegedly protect not Ukraine and the Ukrainian people from genocide, but fight for some “interests of corrupt officials.” 

Regular publications of “insider information” about the price to buy off from mobilization should not only strengthen the perception of Ukraine as a completely corrupt state, for which it is not worth fighting, but also incite dissatisfaction with injustice. Moreover, the aim is also to set readers against civil servants, MPs, athletes, who are allegedly “not mobilized.”

Algorithms for mobilization evasion are presented under the guise of legal certificates, with reference to unnamed lawyers and human rights defenders.

Anonymous Telegram channels scare readers occasionally with draft notices in “Diia” or in messengers. Some even hurriedly published the news that they were already being sent via Viber. 

This “news” was based on the announcement of the State Judicial Administration on the introduction of electronic subpoenas and summons. 

Other fakes are used to discredit mobilization. In particular, the message that the employees of the Territorial Centres of Recruitment and Social Support call taxi drivers and couriers to serve them with draft notices. As a “proof,” a staged humorous video about a Glovo courier was used — it was posed as documentary footage.

The “ingenuity” of the TCR employees is in the focus of the administrators of pseudo-Ukrainian channels. They got especially lucky with the videos shot in Odesa, which recorded the use of force — by the military against civilian men. 

Both incidents were filmed by eyewitnesses and published in local information Telegram channels and caused public outcry. In both cases, the Operational Command South initiated an internal investigation with disciplinary action against the servicemen. 

Telegram channels presented the reaction to the incidents as a weakness of the command and urged subscribers to shoot more such videos, demonstrating thereby the interest of Russians in the content of such a kind. 

Telegram Hysteria Surrounding Draft Notices

Currently, Telegram has dozens of channels that specialize in communicating the locations of TCR employees in various cities of Ukraine. 

At least two networks can be identified among them. Channels named “Serving draft notices” (in Russian) / “Serving draft notices” (in Ukrainian) have the same logo, created according to a single template and with identical descriptions. In six months, their audience has almost doubled. In August, the Kharkiv channel had 70,000 subscribers, and in February — already 125,000. The Odesa channel grew from 14,500 to 33,500, the Dnipro one — from 30,000 to 100,000. 

The main channel of the Solidary Friend network is dedicated to draft notices in Ternopil. It has over 44,000 subscribers. The rest of the channels — Lviv, Chernihiv, Cherkasy, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi — have hundreds of subscribers.

How many of them are real people, and how many bots are bribed for fake engagement, is unknown. The question whether the administrators of these channels coordinate their actions with the Russians, or only “hype” on a hot topic and gain an audience, should be answered by the Ukrainian competent authorities. 

The pseudo-Ukrainian Telegram channel “Typical Odesa” is diligently working the draft notice topic. Starting in mid-June, it publishes one to three mobilization messages daily: the location of TCR employees and recommendations for evasion. As well as appeals and guides on how to block the work of the military on the streets. Subscribers are recommended to gather in groups, make a fuss, in every possible way provoke TRC employees and shoot everything on video. 

Consultations of TikTok “Lawyers”

The specific nature of TikTok is the creation and publication of much content dedicated to mobilization. A special place among them is taken by short legal advice.

Among the persons recording videos on mobilization issues, the following groups can be distinguished:

●     real lawyers who use TikTok as a platform for advertising their services, and answer the most common questions about the legal regime of martial law, mobilization procedures, the rights and obligations of its participants, liability for evasion, etc.;

●     bloggers who retell or repeat what lawyers say to gain subscribers and views;

●     Russian agents of influence, who distribute disinformation and destructive appeals.   

Among the most common techniques used by representatives of the latter category are the following:

●     the manipulation of the concepts of “state of war” and “martial law” and imposing a false conclusion about the alleged illegality of the declared mobilization;

●     contrasting the military registration and enlistment offices liquidated in 2020 and the TCRs created on their basis stating that the latter allegedly do not have the right not only to mobilize, but also to maintain military records and work with the personal files of reservists concluded in military registration and enlistment offices. 

The video of “working” on the above-mentioned topics in communication with TRC employees is also posted on TikTok and other social networks. 

Pavlo Onyshchenko, the founder of the “Poton” CSO, joined the number of “consultants.” He is wanted in Ukraine in the case of an attack on SSU officers. In his TikTok blog, Onyshchenko calls not only to sabotage the mobilization, but also to unite in groups and coordinate the actions with him. 

Several anti-mobilization videos (without direct calls for boycott, but with a repetition of Russian manipulative statements) were recorded by Anatoly Shariy, whose extradition from Spain is sought by Ukraine.

A separate type of story is a video with men of conscription age who openly boast that they have bypassed the law and left Ukraine, or explain the reluctance to protect the Motherland by the need to take care of the family.

At the same time, TikTok, as well as Telegram, is used to disseminate information about the intentions of the Ukrainian government to mobilize male refugees abroad. First of all, in Poland and Great Britain. 

The basis for this fake was the introduction of the updated rules of military registration, according to which consular offices should facilitate the return of persons liable for military service home. However, they do not have the authority to serve with draft notices or carry out mobilization activities abroad.

After a series of painful defeats, unable to seize the strategic initiative on the battlefield, the Russians are trying to prevent the strengthening of the military capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Countering mobilization, as well as countering the intensification of Western military assistance, is an organic part of the war against Ukraine. This should be considered when consuming content on social networks.

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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