How Russian Special Services Mislead Relatives of Ukrainian Military

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The Centre for Strategic Communications has analyzed the messages of shell Telegram channels that pretend to be channels of the AFU units. 

Such channels “work” with the relatives of Ukrainian defenders, in particular, invite them to protests and public demonstrations. Under a pro-Ukrainian patriotic wrapper, they spread Russian narratives. 

Among these narratives: the command of the brigades are incompetent and traitors of Ukraine; the official Telegram channels of military units conceal the truth; the authorities in the country are corrupt, steal the assistance to the army. The West is using us, our defenders are victims, suffering great losses. In the first months of the war, information was spread in posts that the report of the number of victims among the civilians was false. Sometimes these channels distributed branded Russian content about the “invasion of gays” and even quoted Russian politicians: Medvedev, Kadyrov, and others. 

In addition, the Kremlin special services continue to collect personal data on servicemen and their relatives via the Internet, and intensified the work of bots to spread the negative information among relatives and friends of defenders. 


On January 14, on the day the Russian missile hit a residential house in Dnipro, a rally of relatives of the Ukrainian military was held in Kyiv. 

Up to 200 relatives of Ukrainian soldiers who went missing or are in captivity reportedly came to the capital from different cities of Ukraine. The demand of the rally to the Ukrainian authorities was: “the exchange of all for all.”

Illustration: Suspilne, Photo: Daria Nematian Zolbin

The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War made a statement after the rally that demonstrations in support of Ukrainian POWs were used by the special services of the Putin regime.

“Russia has intensified special operations that are intended to shake public sentiment in Ukraine. The enemy uses, as information pretexts, the measures organized to support prisoners of war. The action on the Independence Square was no exception. Russia-controlled resources distribute enemy narratives in the media space, which are, in fact, calling for Ukraine’s surrender in the war against the aggressor. … Russia continues to make efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian society from the inside, using the grief of families, which it caused.”

The headquarters also urged the relatives of the POWs to be attentive, not to help “hostile propaganda with their unconscious actions.” On January 14, another exchange of prisoners with the Russian side was planned. However, at the last moment, it was cancelled at the initiative of the Russians. It may have been an element of information and psychological special operation to loosen the trust of Ukrainians in the authorities. 

It is indicative that the relatives of the prisoners for this demonstration were actively called on from the shell Telegram channels of allegedly combat units of the AFU, which were actually organized by Russian special services to conduct information and psychological operations.      

The key message of the demonstration on January 14 was the requirement for the Ukrainian authorities to exchange “all for all.” This proposal was repeatedly made by Ukrainian government officials, in particular, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Instead, Russia evades such a proposal at all costs. Therefore, the purpose of actualizing the message on exchange with the help of another rally is Russians’ attempt to shift the blame in the eyes of relatives of Ukrainian defenders from Russia to Ukraine. 

Earlier, the Russians have already distributed the following narratives among the relatives of the military: the authorities are inactive, sabotage and negligence prevail. For example, the Russians distributed information to a group of relatives of captured National Guardsmen from the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, contrasting the Mariupol Azov soldiers with marines, stating that their relatives were treated like second-grade. Although in fact this approach is more characteristic of the Russian army, with its Wagnerians, convicts, Kadyrovites. As an example: those mobilized from the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories are exchanged the last. 

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, on March 2, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that “the Russian occupiers began to create fake pages of our combat units, for example, of the 93rd SMB, the 81st, etc.” After all, as the report stated, you cannot check the correctness of the pronunciation of the word “palianytsia” in social networks, and therefore where the author comes from.

The enemy, mimicking the Ukrainian military, spreads information to demoralize the society: about “the losses of our units, dead civilians, negativity about the Ukrainian army to cause panic and dissatisfaction with the command (leadership).” To undermine the will of Ukrainians to resist and promote the message that everything is already lost.  

A fake page, allegedly of the 80th Separate Air Assault Brigade, is still functioning. Although the leadership of the brigade reported that it had no official Telegram channel. Administrators of false channels, in turn, attack the official pages with “truth.” 

As we can see, the channel tries to undermine the confidence in the commanders, which is the basic task of hostile PSYOPs to impair the controllability of the Ukrainian army and its will to actions. Of course, for the plausibility of the dummy page, Russians use patriotic Ukrainian symbols and rhetoric about “victories over the Rashists.”

Quite often, fake channels make funny mistakes in the Ukrainian language. And these “puzzles” are often not easy to solve and understand what the author really wanted to say. For example, in the post about the rally on the Maidan, it was stated that “people are trying to find out the intellect of fighters.” 

The authors, using an automatic translator, may have referred to the Russian word for “fate” — but something went wrong, so it came out “intellect.”  

This fake channel of the 81st Separate Air Assault Brigade often publishes information about the missing soldiers and thus attracts the attention of relatives of the fighters. Indicative is the description of the channel: “We are collecting evidence of bad actions of the command against our guys! We are collecting information about the needs of our soldiers to pass it on to volunteers. We are talking about what the “official pages” of the brigade keep silent” 

At the same time, the page also publishes openly Russian narratives. For example, about the deceitful West, which is enriched by the sale of outdated equipment to Ukraine.

The key message of fake pages, as already mentioned, is the discrediting of the leadership. As in this example:

Nevertheless, sometimes Russian creators of PSYOP cannot help but post something completely obscene, like quotes of Dmitry Medvedev. 

In this case, the idea that allegedly it is Ukraine which does not want peace is being promoted. 

Periodically, Russian fighters of the information front also mention their sick topic — gays, with whom an unequal battle is being fought. Quote from the post: “The Eurogayzation. The boys in the brigade are unhappy with this state of things.”  

Messages are published about the “crimes of the brigade command,” volunteers who allegedly accuse the authorities of the fact that our guys have nothing to wear because “MoD, Yermak, Tymoshenko are thieves,” and the army is not even provided with clothes. That the losses are due to command errors. Dissatisfaction with the statements of Defence Minister Reznikov is provoked. Sometimes videos of moral abuse of Ukrainian prisoners are published, in which they are forced to say: “Glory to Russia.” 

Russians provoke internal conflicts between relatives of POWs

According to the statement of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War on January 17, in recent days, in many thematic groups and chats where relatives of captured servicemen communicate, there has been a wave of activity of fake accounts. One of their goals is to provoke internal conflicts and sow distrust in Ukrainian state authorities. Another goal of the Russians is to monitor information that is published in similar groups.

In addition, as reported by the headquarters, Russian web resources are massively sending SMS to the families of Ukrainian defenders with a proposal to fill in a questionnaire, which will allegedly help to find the POW in the territory of Russia or in the territories of Ukraine occupied by it. Thus, Russia’s special services collect personal data, which can eventually damage the conditions of defenders in captivity and may prevent their release. For example, when the Ukrainian serviceman for one reason or another poses as a civilian. 

Fact-checkers from the NotaYenota project wrote about a similar potential danger. They believe that the Russian occupiers have created several groups in which they allegedly search for the missing Ukrainians, but in fact collect information about the Ukrainian military and their relatives. 

For example, the “Prayer” page has 169,000 followers. Every day, there are posts about the missing, their phones, where and under what circumstances they disappeared. The page is managed by three administrators from Armenia. This page, in turn, manages at least 6 groups with the names “Search for the missing,” “Ukraine today, Good evening, we are from Ukraine!,” “Search for people during the war,” “Strong Ukraine,” “Search for people.” All these groups have various other moderators from Armenia, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more.

The activity of the enemy in creating such pages on the network is evidenced by information from the service, which checks chatbots. It has already identified 7 fake chatbots posing as the eVorog service, through which Ukrainians can send information about the movements of the Russian military.

In Ukraine, Putinism uses a network of popular Telegram channels posing as Ukrainian ones and promoting the topics of “treason” on the part of the authorities and conspiracy theories. 

Fake channels and their messages  

The fake channel of the 56th separate motorized infantry brigade of Mariupol also portrays Ukrainian soldiers as victims of the injustice of their leaders and blames Zelenskyy. 

In the first days of the war, this channel urged people not to take up arms because of the unprofessionalism of civilians. This channel also insisted that the photo of the bloodied female civilian was a psyop. It questioned the crimes of the Russian military in Bucha: “the footage of civilians killed by ‘Russian troops’ was only shown a day later.” And it also explained that “the attack on the Kharkiv Oblast State Administration took place because the object was classified as military,” because the headquarters of the local territorial defence was allegedly located there. 

Enemy psyop troops also tried to blame the deaths of civilians on Ukrainians themselves, claiming that Ukrainians purposefully “dragged” Russians into cities. This message contributes to the general Russian narrative that the Ukrainian army is hiding behind civilians. 

And here is an example of how a fake channel, which calls itself the 46th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade, talks about the defence of Soledar. The message is full of placing the blame on the military authorities, as well as local commanders, for ill intentions or incompetence.

The post portrays Ukrainian soldiers as victims rather than heroes, targeting the incompetent command.  

The fact-checking organization StopFake believes that even CNN believed this fake source and shared information about an “organized retreat” from Soledar. “This may have happened due to journalists being unaware of all dangers connected with the use of Telegram channels. Or someone deliberately recommended a fake channel to journalists,” StopFake suggested. 

As soon as during the first week of the war, the Kholodnyi Yar 93rd Brigade reported that Russians had created a Telegram channel to demoralize the staff of this brigade and their families. Immediately after the attack, a fake about high numbers of prisoners was published.   

In April, it was reported that despite the channel getting exposed, Russians continue using it for spreading disinformation. Here’s how they do it: they publish documents found on the battlefield, such as passes to the military unit with names of our soldiers, and claim them to be dead. They post fake written complaints of soldiers who refuse to go to the frontline. This is done in order to sow panic among relatives and friends. 

A little detail is that the channel often uses the word EXCLUSIVE in their words, which is a typical gimmick of Russian military propagandists in particular. 

On the eve of the successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, this channel posing as the 93rd brigade began to spread a conspiracy, saying that information about the offensive appears only to distract the public from the failure in the Kherson direction. “There’s something I keep mulling over: that the attack on Balakliya was organized to avoid answering people’s questions about the so-called Kherson counteroffensive — and that’s it? What was the genius idea???”

Of course, after the successful counteroffensive, the psyop agents had to admit it, they still had to try and convey that Russians were doing everything right: “Thus, even though we are attacking, we are not destroying the enemy physically, while suffering losses from its bombs and artillery. This means that the enemy is ALIVE. And it did not lose its strength.” In general, conveying respect for Russians “between the lines” is yet another goal of such channels. 

On the first days of the war, the channel reported, citing Russian Telegram channels, that Zelenskyy may have left Kyiv, and debunked “fakes of the authorities.” Even a week after the war started, on March 1, it shared Kadyrov’s message and his call on Ukrainians to surrender. “Ukrainians! Today, there is no leadership in your country that would worry about its citizens, think about them, try to make their lives better. There are no patriots, there are no defenders… 

On March 16, a fake page claiming to be the 14th separate mechanized brigade distributed a deepfake in which Zelenskyy “says” that he is giving the order to surrender.

It also published the Russian narrative that the distribution of weapons led “to chaos and anarchy, rampant crime reached unprecedented proportions. … It seems that the idea of creating units of the territorial defence eventually turned into legalized banditry, without having time to develop into an insurrectionary movement controlled from Kyiv.”

The channel disseminated another threatening message circulated by the Russians at the beginning of the war, as if the elites, in order to “avoid hostilities on the territory of their cities,” are ready to “hand over the cities to the Russian troops without resistance, but on the condition that their property and funds are preserved.”

Another frequently circulated Kremlin message is that “Moscow and Warsaw are in the final stages of tacit agreements to hand over the western regions of Ukraine to Poland — in exchange for agreeing to annex the southeastern and central parts of Ukraine to Russia.”

The hybrid war goes on

Propaganda was especially invested in undermining the morale of the Ukrainian army. A few days before the full-scale invasion, the General Staff of the Armed Forces reported the appearance of a fake page on Twitter that pretended to be the official account of the Armed Forces. In July, Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s fake Twitter account was exposed. 

As the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) reported in its study of the first 6-month period of the war, at the beginning of the invasion, many Ukrainian generals received personal messages from Russian military commanders. They contained calls to surrender and assurances that Russia had no intention of causing any harm to Ukraine. Almost all colonels and other senior officers of the Armed Forces received messages of similar content, but from anonymous numbers. The strategic importance of this campaign is evidenced by the fact that on the second day of the invasion, Putin publicly appealed to the Ukrainian military not to resist. As we can see, they cynically tried to deceive the Ukrainian military, because Putinism pursues the openly Nazi goal of destroying Ukraine and its people.  

In recent months, a new psyop has been observed, aimed at spreading the negative attitude of Ukrainians to mobilization using various videos, particularly edited ones, with the message “look how everyone is being captured — avoid this if you can.”


The Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov, who was recently appointed as the head of the “special operation” in Ukraine, was once known as the author of the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine.” A year before the war, he presented the hybrid methods of the Russian army, essentially describing how Russia would attack Ukraine in 2014. 

“The emphasis of the methods of resistance used is shifting towards the widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures implemented with the involvement of the population’s protest potential.  All this is supplemented by military measures of a covert nature, in particular, the implementation of measures of information confrontation and the actions of special operations forces,” said his article “The Value of Science is In Anticipation.”

In general, various provocations through the creation of fictitious, allegedly “enemy” organizations are a practice that has been characteristic of the Chekists since their very beginning. The Bolsheviks were underground revolutionaries who, even after seizing power, retained the mindset of subversive agent work. In the 1920s, acting on behalf of the anti-Bolshevik underground, the Chekists lured Yurii Tiutiunnyk and Borys Savinkov from exile. In the 1930s, the pseudo-underground served to identify opponents of the Soviet government. In the 1940s and later, the NKVD created “legendary hideouts” of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and fictitious marches of the OUN to discredit the liberation movement of Ukrainians and destroy its leaders.

Today, Russian special services create and maintain fake pages in social networks, achieving a certain informational influence, as was the case with the aforementioned case of support for a rally by relatives of Ukrainian prisoners. However, comparing the situation with 2014-2015, there is a clear deterioration of capacity of the Kremlin special services and how they influence public opinion in Ukraine. Ukrainian wartime counter-propaganda also began active work. 

Putin’s regime failed to provoke panic in social networks, which would have resulted in demonstrations on Bankova Street and in front of the General Staff. They failed to undermine the general trust in the command.

The ain reason for this is how the historical process of formation of independent Ukraine was quite regular and stable. The defence forces are waging a fair war, which means that Ukrainian soldiers understand what they are fighting for. Their relatives are not really fooled so easily. Having gone all-in with an open invasion, the Kremlin showed its hand: fooling Ukrainians and the world has become much more difficult. Putin’s idea of an imperialist, genocidal war will not be able to prevail because it stands on a false foundation.

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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