On the evening of January 22, two Ukrainian girls were attacked in the Berlin metro. The three men, who spoke Russian, first began to insult the passengers on the car. On the platform, one of them grabbed the girl by the hair and hit her on the head. Judging by the description of the events set out in the report of the Berlin police, the reason for the aggression could be the communication of the girls in Ukrainian. It is unclear which country the attackers were from. But their aggressive reaction to the Ukrainian language suggests that it is a hate crime — the hatred generated by Russian propaganda.
Incidents like the one in the Berlin subway, anonymous “letters of happiness” that try to intimidate Ukrainians abroad, are all consequences of the systematic work of the Russian information machine.
The number of such cases has the potential to grow because, due to the full-scale invasion of Russia, millions of Ukrainians were forced to flee the war.
As of the end of 2022, almost 5 million internally displaced persons were registered in Ukraine. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in January 2023, the number of Ukrainian refugees in the European Union exceeded 7.9 million people. In total, more than 17 million people left Ukraine for the EU in less than a year, more than 9.1 million returned. These are the biggest migration challenges that Ukraine has faced in more than 30 years since gaining independence.
Russian propaganda quickly instrumentalized the topic of Ukrainian refugees. Discrediting this social group has become one of the key areas of work of the Kremlin’s information machine, as well as discrediting the Ukrainian army, military and political leadership, the state and Ukrainians in general. The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security analyzed how Russian propaganda “fights” the Ukrainian refugees.
Why Russian Propaganda Attacks Ukrainians Abroad
The Russians are simultaneously conducting several synchronized with each other information campaigns against Ukrainian refugees. Each of them is aimed at different audiences: Russian, Ukrainian, and the population of countries hosting refugees from Ukraine.
Messages for the Russian audience are aimed at further demonizing Ukrainians and strengthening the chauvinistic sense of their own superiority. The campaign fits into the general anti-Ukrainian, anti-European, anti-Western narrative of Kremlin propaganda. The campaign also aims to boost confidence in the inevitability of the Russian victory. After all, the West supposedly should “get tired” of Ukraine and stop supporting the fight against the Russian aggression.
The above message should also demoralize the Ukrainian audience, provoke a feeling of hopelessness. Ukrainians are being convinced that “no one needs them” — neither in their own country nor abroad. Moreover, Russian propaganda deliberately provokes conflicts between Ukrainians, contrasting those who left with those who remained.
Among citizens of the states hosting refugees, propaganda spreads traditional anti-migrant messages about social parasitism, rising crime rates, cheap labour engaged in dumping in the labour market, “insurmountable” cultural differences between the citizens of Ukraine and the EU countries and related conflicts. Since these messages do not correlate with reality, propaganda actively uses blatant fakes. As far as the inhabitants of the Global South are concerned, Russian propagandists call the friendly attitude towards Ukrainians “white racism,” contrasting Ukrainian refugees with migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
Campaigns to discredit Ukrainian refugees are part of Russia’s information war. The Kremlin is trying to raise the level of anti-Ukrainian hysteria among Russians and strengthen support for the war of conquest, demoralize and disorient Ukrainians, as well as reduce the level of support for Ukraine in the West.
How Russian Propaganda Demonizes Ukrainians Abroad
The campaign to discredit Ukrainian refugees began almost immediately after the full-scale invasion. Already in early March, a text called “’Civilized’ West Will Shudder at the Acquaintance with Refugees from Ukraine” appeared on the Russian blogging platform. Soon it was reprinted by the propaganda resource “Eye of the Planet” with one, but significant correction: in the title and the text, the neutral word “refugees” (“bezhentsy” in Russian) was replaced by a consonant neologism “beshentsy” (frantic people) with a negative connotation.
The term was added to the newspeak dictionary of Putin’s Russia during the migration crisis that Europe faced in 2015. This word in propaganda materials was used to call migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
The frequency of use of the word “beshentsy” can be considered one of the markers of the transition to the use of blatant hate speech against Ukrainians abroad. In Runet and Russian-speaking segment of social networks, more than 9,500 publications were identified by monitoring tools (excluding comments) using this term, which were created in 10 months of 2022. The vast majority of them were published during September-December, when the Russian army lost the initiative on the battlefield, and the Ukrainian Defence Forces conducted successful counter-offensive operations, liberating Kharkiv region and Kherson.
The main platform for the hate speech towards Ukrainian refugees was the Russian social network Vkontakte, which hosted 73% of these publications. Propaganda Telegram channels come second (10%). It is they that have become the main source of the content that was re-posted by users of social networks.
In total, more than 50,000 publications aimed at discrediting Ukrainian refugees in European countries were found in the Russian-language segment of social networks.
Key anti-Ukrainian messages were presented in the above-mentioned material, as well as in the article “Rudeness Made in Ukraine,” which was published on the website “Free Press” on May 1.
Both texts can be called “program ones” because they have collected almost all the clichés on refugees. In the future, the authors of the content focused on them. “Novelty” can be seen only in specific “life stories” and fakes that were published in social networks and with the help of which the main points of propaganda were promoted.
Aggressors and Victims: Messages of Russian Propaganda about Refugees from Ukraine
A package of messages to discredit refugees is being promoted through stories of conflicts involving them, mostly made up. Depending on the situation, the propaganda portrays Ukrainians both as aggressors, victims of aggression, and a “legitimate” target for hatred and bullying. The arsenal of propagandists contains diametrically opposite messages.
● Rich people left Ukraine in expensive cars, shocking the reserved Europeans with their behaviour;
● Ukrainians are beggars, for whom leaving for the EU has become a “golden ticket.”
The use of polar images of arrogant rich people and similarly insolent lumpens, which irritate Europeans with their appearance and behaviour, is used by Russians both to discredit Ukrainians abroad and to incite hatred towards refugees among compatriots who remain at home.
A popular story is about the alleged destruction of housing by Ukrainians, provided to refugees by locals for rent or free. Photos and videos that have nothing to do with the published stories are used as “proof.” In particular, a woman of respectable age, who complained about the quality of services in the office of the Internet provider, was presented as a victim of Ukrainians who robbed her flat. StopFake fact-checkers found the original video, which was published in 2018.
● Ukrainians are not going to return home;
● The Ukrainian government is not interested in the return of refugees, nobody needs them, they are not expected anywhere.
To promote the point of the “uselessness” of Ukrainians to their own government, propaganda used the statement of the Minister for Reintegration Iryna Vereshchuk, who urged refugees not to hurry back home and spend winter in Europe due to Russian shelling of critical infrastructure.
● Ukrainians are slackers who want to take advantage of social benefits and not work;
● Ukrainians take jobs from the locals, causing discontent of the latter.
Both messages are standard for anti-immigrant rhetoric, and Russian propaganda predictably adjusted them to the current situation.
● Refugees are aggressively trying to impose the Ukrainian language on local people, demonstratively disdaining the countries that sheltered them;
● Ukrainian refugees speak mostly Russian and do not know Ukrainian.
The promotion of these messages should confirm the mutually exclusive points of Russian propaganda about “Ukrainian Nazism,” as well as that there is no difference between Ukrainians and Russians (therefore, Ukrainians do not exist at all).
● Ukrainian refugees terrorize Russians (mostly women);
● Russians abroad regularly put arrogant Ukrainians in their place.
A striking example of the combination of these messages was the coverage of the story of Yuliia Prokhorova. A 30-year-old Russian citizen who came to a rally in support of Ukraine in Munich with the Russian flag insulted Ukrainians and danced “kalinka.”
Russian propaganda portrayed this provocation almost as a heroic act in the rear of the enemy. The predictable outrage on social networks, and the problems that the Russian woman had with the law, became the reason for portraying her as a victim.
● Insolent Ukrainians regularly provoke conflicts and commit offences, immigrants from Ukraine are potential criminals, and women are also prone to prostitution;
● Vulnerable Ukrainians regularly become victims of fraudsters, aggressive locals, and also suffer cynical exploitation.
Despite the fact that the above-mentioned examples of messages are opposite, and sometimes mutually exclusive, this does not prevent Russian propaganda from using them in parallel. After all, all of them are aimed at consolidating stable negative associations with Ukraine and Ukrainians in the minds of the audience.
Criminals and Freeloaders: the Image of Ukrainian Refugees in Russian Propaganda for European Audiences
Russian propaganda also broadcasts the above messages for citizens of European countries hosting refugees from Ukraine. The key task of the propaganda is to convince the audience that the influx of refugees from Ukraine will affect the well-being and safety of locals. A negative attitude towards Ukrainians should be transformed into a negative attitude towards Ukraine as a whole and affect the level of its support. To do this, the following messages are distributed:
● Ukrainians are a burden for taxpayers;
● the government cares about refugees more than its own citizens;
● Ukrainians behave insolently, spoil property, and commit crimes against locals:
● Ukrainians are carriers of dangerous diseases and can infect locals.
The channels for distributing these messages are social networks, Telegram channels, Russian information resources (in particular, the network of websites of the Sputnik news agency), as well as dubious sites. Occasionally, local tabloids become the source of “hot” news. Published in December, a Daily Mail article about a Birmingham resident who accused a Ukrainian refugee of attempted rape was actively highlighted by Russian propagandists and Telegram channels. Law enforcement officers did not find evidence of this crime: this is directly stated in the article, but the Russians ignored such a nuance.
One of the tools of the media attack on Ukrainian refugees in Germany was the Deutsche Wahrheit Telegram channel, which was created in spring 2022. The content of this channel was analyzed by specialists of the analytical organization ISD (Institute for Strategic DIalogue). Most of the videos (88 out of 219) posted from April 14 to July 11 contained negative references to Ukrainian refugees. Metadata, in particular, the original names, indicates their Russian origin.
In particular, the channel’s administrators accused a Ukrainian woman of stealing a sausage in a German supermarket by publishing a video; its original title is “Yekaterinburg resident stole a sausage and hid it under her dress.” To increase the credibility of publications, creators of fakes attached to them the logo of well-known German media, such as Deutsche Welle and Bild.
A Bild plate and subtitles were attached to the video from the medical laboratory, stating that Ukrainians allegedly posed a threat to epidemiological safety in Europe.
A Belarusian citizen detained in 2016 with neo-Nazi tattoos was presented as a Ukrainian. A screenshot from the operational video of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs was presented by the authors of the fake as a screenshot from a defunct article by Deutsche Welle.
After appearing on Telegram, these and other fakes were spread on Facebook by suspicious profiles.
The authors of materials that focus on the Polish audience, in addition to the above-mentioned topics, try to speculate on historical traumas (such as the Volyn tragedy) and stir up fears of “Ukrainization” and “banderization” of Poland.
Even the Office of the Coordinator of Polish Special Services drew the attention of the fellow citizens to the fact that Russians organized a targeted information campaign to discredit Ukrainians.
Representative of the Office Stanislav Zharyn reported on the recording of attempts to spread lies about Ukrainians in Poland, insinuation and manipulation of the circumstances of the events.
“For Russia in the current situation, it is a priority to ensure that the West stops helping Ukraine. To this end, the Kremlin uses political, military, and propaganda measures, seeking to ensure that this leads to the isolation of Ukraine,” he explained.
With the help of the topic of refugees, Russian propaganda is trying to weaken the unity of the West, accusing the United States and Great Britain of allegedly dragging Ukraine into the war, while it is the EU countries that faced the migration problem because of this.
To remove responsibility for the aggression against Ukraine from Russia, a conspiracy theory is spread in the media space about the war as a collusion of mysterious forces (world government, transnational corporations, secret organizations, etc.), which have a plan to build a “New World Order” and establish total control over humanity. The spread of this narrative was recorded in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and other European countries.
To “whitewash” the aggressor, the manipulative statement that “Russia hosted the largest number of refugees from Ukraine” is also used. Content consumers are led to the conclusion that Russia is not the aggressor because otherwise Ukrainians would not have sought refuge there. Meanwhile, the facts of forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens to Russia, blackmail of parents with the deportation of children, as well as the creation of unbearable conditions in the occupied territories and the inability to go somewhere besides the Russian border are silenced.
Carrying out aggression against Ukraine, Russia uses both military means and disinformation and propaganda. To promote the messages Russia needs, propagandists use fakes, manipulations, and hate speech. The channels of their distribution are social networks, Telegram, Russian state and other media.
Campaigns to discredit Ukrainian refugees are aimed at not only reducing the level of empathy for Ukrainians, but also at reducing the level of support for the Ukrainian state. The efforts of propagandists are also aimed at strengthening the atomization of Ukrainian society and inciting chauvinistic sentiments among Russians. That is why it is important to counteract this destructive activity of the Kremlin.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security