Russia continues its “Cold War” in the information space to deprive Ukraine of international support. This is not a war of ideologies and economic systems, as it once was. The Kremlin no longer promises its audience abroad any positive vision of the future.
Instead, the Russians promote fear, suspicion, greed, and xenophobia. Propaganda adopts anything that can be used to provoke a split in the ranks of its adversary.
The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security analysed the main anti-Ukrainian messages and narratives that Russia promoted in August on the Internet in different languages.
1. “Only 30% of Western weapons go to the front lines”
This argument in the English segment relies on manipulative information in the CBS story, in respect of which the Foreign Minister of Ukraine even called on the American TV channel to conduct an internal investigation. And indeed, later, the channel removed the information about 30% from the site.
The narrative was also repeated on Italian on pro-Russian websites:
“The weapons that Washington supplies to Ukraine can be resold to third countries, which will damage the reputation of the United States and potentially harm their security. There is also a threat that American weapons are directed against civilians. An American analyst expressed concern about the level of corruption in Ukraine.”
These arguments used to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine were detected in the Crimean segment of the Internet: “More than 60% of western military assistance to Ukraine is stolen by the Kyiv regime or sold on the black market abroad, which poses a real threat to international security.”
2. “Kyiv and nationalist groups can use nuclear power plants for the most terrible provocations”
“Ukraine is preparing a large-scale provocation during the visit of the UN chief to a nuclear power plant to blackmail Europe.”
The message was spread on Italian-language pro-Russian websites: “Ukrainian saboteurs tried to carry out a provocation at the ZNPP — they entered the training centre and attacked Russian investigators, which resulted in a shoot-out.”
For the Russian audience, the narrative was presented as follows:“In order to disrupt referendums in the territories controlled by Russia, Ukraine can provoke a nuclear disaster by shelling the ZNPP.”
In fact, by destroying cities, the Russians showed who really caused all the chaos.
3. “Ukraine commits war crimes by placing its troops near schools, hospitals, and residential buildings”
This is a traditional justification for Putin regime’s aggression.The Kremlin tries to convince that Ukrainians themselves are to blame for the victims because of how they defend themselves. Unfortunately, this narrative was reinforced by statements from a scandalous report by Amnesty International.
There is a simple analogy. If a robber with a knife broke into the flat, you tried to detain him; can you be blamed for fighting him next to the members of your family who you were protecting? Can you be accused of putting your family in danger by attempting to stop the criminal? Did you have to go out instead and invite the villain to come out with you, only to fight him after that? Similarly, the Ukrainian army, when Ukrainian cities are attacked, is unable to leave them.
In August, it was noticed that anti-Ukrainian manipulative messages began to sound quite openly and sharply in the materials of German-language pro-Russian resources. For example: “The Ukrainian army uses prohibited anti-tank mines,” “The Ukrainian ammunition depot was in a residential building,” “A Ukrainian POW was shot by comrades and thrown into a ditch,” “The Ukrainian battalion shelled a kindergarten.” These messages were spread by the pro-Russian source “SNA.”
Propaganda attacked the AFU:“The Armed Forces of Ukraine bombed a prison in the city of Olenivka (Donbas), where Ukrainian POWs were being held.”
“The Ukrainian military bombarded Donetsk three times with PFM-1 “petal” mines prohibited by the international standard from multiple launch rocket systems,” the Italian-speaking controinformazione.info writes.
The development of the narrative about the crimes of the AFU was the story of terror against civilians. “Raids and repressions in Ukraine. The machine of state terror is against any dissent or support for peaceful decisions,” the vietatoparlare.it website wrote.
The Italian audience was told that “On February 24, the SBU officially ordered to arrest and target any opponents in all cities of Ukraine who criticized Kyiv’s policy or demanded the revival of the principles of the Minsk agreements […] And in order to get rid of accusations of extrajudicial repression, in confidential documents, various local SBU units were recommended to entrust the dirtiest work to the local territorial defence consisting of neo-Nazi forces and ordinary criminals.”
This is despite the fact that it is Russia that is fighting with the help of PMC mercenaries and mobilizing Russian convicts.
“The Ukrainian authorities are trying to intimidate, cause panic, and even kill their citizens who remained in the liberated territories to destabilize the situation and thereby disrupt the functioning of critical civilian infrastructure,” the Italian-speaking resources wrote.
The Russian-speaking segment is also trying to present Ukraine as a failed state. “There are many drug addicts among Ukrainian servicemen,” “Mobilization in Ukraine can be described in two words: ‘mess’ and ‘corruption’.” “According to Western experts, corruption in the military-industrial complex of Ukraine is one of the factors that reduces the effectiveness of the AFU.”
Propagandists continue to accuse the Ukrainian military of shelling civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. The media of the so-called “LDPR” periodically publishes fabricated video materials with alleged appeals of the military to the President and the military leadership. For example:
“A Ukrainian soldier talks about how he is dissatisfied with politicians in his country and the untrained reservists who are always complaining.” According to the idea of the directors of such video material, people are to believe that the Ukrainian army is not provided for, and the military are given criminal orders:“Ukrainian units burn wheat fields in the Mykolayiv-Kryvyi Rih direction.”
Attempts to quarrel the military-political leadership of the country with each other are also detected: “Valerii Zaluzhnyi, due to the intervention of the state leadership and corruption, is not able to fully perform his official duties.”
Another attempts to explain the aggression with the language issue have been detected. The following was written on the Italian-language website:“Zelenskyy’s leadership and his post-Maidan predecessors place great emphasis on the Ukrainian language. First, a legislative ban in Donbas, although in Kyiv, the majority used the Russian language, then imposing much harsher rules.”
In addition, propaganda is trying to fool Italians with claims that Russian-speaking regions favour Russia: “The Western narrative of Russia’s heroic popular resistance is mainly based on statements by nationalists from the western part of the country. In fact, the territories occupied by the Russian coalition in the east and south of the country are inhabited by Russian speakers.”
4. “The West is playing out its fundamental conflict with Russia in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian leadership has sacrificed the whole country for it.”
“Ukraine is not interested in ending the war, the US is fighting with Russia with the hands of the Ukrainians for European money,” such messages are also detected on German-language pro-Russian resources.
“The EU economy will be ‘turned to dust’ due to sanctions.” “Ukraine is trying to blackmail Europe and avenge Hungary for refusing to supply weapons to the Kyiv regime,” is one of the messages found in Hungary.
“Today, the Ukrainian problem is nothing more than a profitable business for Western countries, and Ukraine itself is a victim of the fight for world leadership of the United States and Russia,” pro-Russian Italian online resources write.
“Western countries are ready to destroy not only their own economies, but also the entire international financial system to try to cause as much damage as possible to Russia and China,” writes the Italian-speaking sakeritalia.it. “Foreign transnational corporations will benefit from anti-Russian sanctions, and Italy’s business is dying.”
There are attempts to inflate anti-Americanism. “The truth about the role of the United States and the CIA in incitement in Ukraine, which is hidden by all Western media, is beginning to emerge. American Nazi Kent McLellan, who was previously a member of the Azov regiment, said that in 2014 he was assisted by CIA officers in getting a job in Ukraine.”
In general, Russian propaganda adheres to the strategy of spreading the idea that governments and elites of countries are not truly legitimate and do not represent their peoples. Thus, the Kremlin is trying to weaken the Western world by contrasting the elites and the people.
The Russian-speaking segment included the following messages: “The West dragged Russia into the war because it is forced to stand up for brotherly nations,”“Russia is not fighting in full force,” “Most American mercenaries fighting in Ukraine consider the US policy on war to be criminal.”
5. “Kyiv authorities sell Ukraine to Poland,” “Warsaw waits for Ukrainian enterprises to go bankrupt to buy their assets and land”
On August 8, the press bureau of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the RF issued a statement on the takeover of Ukraine by Poland: “It is not only about the possibility of introducing ‘Polish peacekeeping forces’ in the western regions of this country, but also about establishing control over the most promising sectors of the economy […] of a neighbouring state.” Thus, the Russians want to blur their own responsibility so that the situation looks as if not only Russia, but also Poland is conducting expansion in Ukraine.
Disinformation that Poland gently annexes Ukraine spreads among the Italian audience. “The condition for providing military assistance to Ukraine was Zelenskyy’s consent to cede a part of the territory to Poland. The threat of “soft annexation” for the residents of Bandershtadt (Western Ukraine) is already obvious […] The Kharkiv administration is beginning to receive complaints from residents about the Polish occupiers! Several companies in Kharkiv were transferred to Polish mercenaries without the consent of the owners,” wrote the Italian-language websitecontroinformazione.info.
The Russian-speaking segment also contained messages that the Kremlin was promoting to set Poles against Ukrainians in everyday life:
“Poles in their own country are treated worse than refugees from Ukraine,” or “Ukrainians dominate in some Polish cities”; “Poles predominate among the foreign volunteer soldiers killed by Russia,” as well as “Poland spends a significant part of its budget on armed assistance to Ukraine, as a result of which the country’s GDP suffers.”
In Arabic, such a message was spread: “Ukrainian Nazis unsuccessfully tried to attack Kherson.” Interestingly, in the Chinese-speaking segment, attempts at Russian information operations were not detected. Instead, the Chinese media themselves quote the media of the aggressor country quite often. One of the examples: “Russian media say that Ukraine does not have its own rights, the West decides everything for it.”
6. “Citizens of Ukraine themselves want the territories controlled by Russia to become part of the RF”
One of the Russian narratives was devoted to new pseudo-referendums. “Kherson region has always been, is, and will be Russian land,” “Crimea will help Zaporizhzhia hold a referendum,” “The Russian senator discussed the holding of a referendum with the representative of the Melitopol police.” This indicates the preparation of fake referendums in the newly occupied territories.
7. “Ukrainian politicians use the special operation to dispose of the UOC”
There are many messages, such as: “Ukrainian schismatics captured a church in Fastiv.” Obviously, the Kremlin’s propaganda is trying to promote the topic of confessional conflict in the future to try to quarrel Ukrainians.
“At the strategic level, the Russians will continue to split the unity of Ukraine and the West, saying that Ukraine has already been defeated, that Ukraine should not be given weapons; stating that the West is tired of Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees in general, that it suffers because of helping Ukrainians because the prices of energy carriers and other products have increased, says Ihor Solovey, head of the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security. At the tactical level, the Russians continue to look for cracks within the Ukrainian society in order to drive a wedge between people. There are already attempts to sow discord even at the level of families of the military on topics, such as why “some are fighting, and others are not,” “these were given something, and these were not,” etc. They will also try to divide the society using the religious issues. The principle of propaganda is simple – to isolate some small element and inflate it to the biggest problem in the world, so that Ukrainians fight among themselves, and not defend their country.
Among the specific mechanisms of propaganda is a possible trial of the Azov soldiers to “cover up” the Russian crime of destroying Mariupol. In the newly occupied territories, Russian propaganda itself is not effective and can only exist together with Russian weapons, when the Ukrainians have no choice and subsequently develop the Stockholm syndrome of attachment to the captors.
They are already telling there that Russia has come to stay, that there is no need to hope for the liberation. They fine or pay money to drag children into schools. So, as we can see, Ukrainians did not take children to the occupation school voluntarily. In some territories, as in Luhansk oblast, it is planned to hold a referendum. Potemkin’s villages will be built to demonstrate that living under Russia brings benefits. Ceremonial openings are organized, such as in Mariupol, when a traffic light was put into operation.”
Consequently, Russian propaganda is trying to undermine the West’s confidence in Ukraine to reduce the amount of assistance, as well as to sow discord among the Ukrainians. Traditional topics on which people can be divided are issues of religion, language, heroes of the past, and political preferences.
Ukrainians, as free people, certainly have the right to argue passionately with each other on any topic, but it is still better to do so after completing the main task – preserving Ukraine and banishing the occupiers, which will automatically become a victory over Putin’s regime, who usurped power in Russia.
Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security
The media version of the article is available on the Channel 24 website