Shelling of Civilians in Eastern Ukraine as Putin’s Grand Fake

The “key Russian fake,” which brought the most damage, killings, and actually became the igniter of the war, is a story about the shelling of civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk by the Ukrainian military.

And since November 27, Russian propaganda has been showing stories with shelling and sufferings of civilians in Donetsk almost every day. 

Since the beginning of December, Russians have been turning locals against Ukraine with all their might, provoking a new wave of hatred. At the same time, Kremlin propaganda positions the shelling of Donetsk as unprecedented, as the largest one since 2014. This mirrors the narrative of the terror against Ukrainian civilians. On December 15, in addition to the usual shelling of civilians, propaganda also covered damage to the Saviour-Transfiguration Cathedral in Donetsk. 

Many words have already been said that Kyiv has never been interested in setting civilians in Donbas against itself. But why Moscow needs it is understandable. On December 7, at a meeting with members of the “Human Rights Council,” Putin admitted with a smile that for Russia, the seizure of Ukraine’s lands is a serious result: “Well, this is still a significant result for Russia. This is a serious question. Truth be told, the Sea of Azov has become the inland sea of Russia. Peter the Great was fighting to reach the Sea of Azov.”

But before annexing the territory, it was necessary to deceive many people: to convince that Ukraine is their enemy, and therefore Russia is fighting for them, and not for territories.   

At that meeting, Putin also mentioned his “grand fake” narrative: “Strikes are delivered directly on residential areas. No one can but know about it. Everyone is silent. Like nothing is happening. It’s horrible, of course… There can be only one answer on our part — a consistent fight for our national interests. We’re going to do precisely that.”

The picture of the killing of civilians becomes the main “firewood,” thanks to which Putinism manages to incite war on an emotional level. The Kremlin’s manipulation on human grief is all the more cynical because it is impossible to hide the victims of the Russian army, which attacks residential areas of Ukrainian cities.

An example of Russian propaganda. Telegram post by propagandist and information criminal Rudenko

And no matter how artificial all this may look, but on some Ukrainians and uninformed people (for example, Russians or residents of distant countries), the narrative “Ukraine bombs Donbas” can make an impression.

We can recall how in 2008 many Ukrainians became victims of a similar information campaign by the Kremlin that Georgia attacked South Ossetia and “killed 2,000 civilians.”  For example, on August 9, Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said that at least 2,000 civilians had been killed. Although these claims were reasonably refuted later, but at the time of the pronouncement they partially achieved the expected emotional effect, even in Ukraine.

“Donbass was bombed for 8 years” — became a similar cover for attacking Ukraine.  And it works for Russians who cannot acknowledge the criminal nature of their state — because then the picture of their world will collapse. Even the imaginary “parity” of innocent victims of war serves as a lifesaver for their conscience.

In fact, there is no question of any “parity.” The number of civilian casualties of the confrontation in 2014-2021 (on both sides of the contact line) is simply incomparable with the losses that Ukraine suffered after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicates that the number of civilian casualties has drastically decreased by 2022.  

The narrative of violence against civilians in eastern Ukraine is also in demand by Russian propaganda abroad. For example, RT makes documentaries for foreign audiences in different languages, where, of course, it exposes Ukraine as a murderer of civilians. And millions of people who come across dramatic footage of the deaths of children and adults on the Internet believe in the “atrocities of Ukraine” and will thus continue to perceive the Russian-Ukrainian war. Orwellian lies in action. 

This is how military “journalist” Evgeniy Linin explained the mood in Donetsk on Russian television around December 10. Donetsk may lose its patience. Those guys from defence, who are on the line — they are ready to go to the very end — to the border with Poland. And if there is an order, then even further. Strategically, different directions are now being played out. We see how the situation is unfolding in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia Oblast… Here, Donetsk turns out to be a bastion, against which everyone breaks down.” 

However, as the ancient Roman principle proclaims, “Seek who benefits.” For example, after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Russians mobilize fooled Ukrainians to fight Ukraine. And in 2014, the Kremlin sought to mentally detach Donbas from Ukraine, provoking a bloody feud with long martyrology of victims on both sides.  

In the campaign of recent weeks, there has been a noticeable attempt by Russians to influence exactly the inhabitants of the former temporarily occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast. Perhaps these efforts are aimed at additional recruitment of militants and increasing their motivation for future offensive actions.

“Many people were sent here to carry out sabotage”

At the end of 2016, the former leader of the so-called “LPR” Valery Bolotov said in an interview that the shelling of Luhansk was carried out by fighters from the “Zarya” battalion.

This confession was made in response to a question in an interview with the publication “Rosbalt”: “It is known that Igor Plotnitsky commanded the Zarya battalion, there are rumours in Luhansk that it was this battalion that staged provocations and shelled Luhansk in the summer of 2014. Is it true?”

“Yes. And not only Zarya. Many people were sent here to carry out sabotage and undermine discipline. And Zarya turned out to have the highest percentage of those ‘saboteurs.’”

Two months after this interview, Bolotov died suddenly after tasting coffee at a “business meeting” in Moscow. His widow pointed to poisoning as a possible cause of the militant’s death. This confession may be the reason for his murder.  

In 2018, Denys Kazanskyi shared another video, in which another “LPR” militant Alexander Lis (Agafonov) from Russia confessed that in 2014, Plotnitsky had shelled Luhansk on purpose. 

Rumours about “nomadic mortars” shelling the city spread among Luhansk residents since the very beginning of the conflict. At the same time, Luhansk journalists were surprised by the fact that Russian propagandists were at the scene of the tragedy earlier than the local media. There is also direct evidence that the shelling was carried out from Russian positions. For example, during a phone conversation, a person heard a missile flying from a Russian position near the city and exploding in Luhansk, which the second interlocutor then heard. 

After the start of the full-scale war, in August, Russian propaganda was promoting a similar topic, as if Ukraine covered Donetsk with insidious anti-personnel mines Lepestok, which were launched from MLRS. Mines were scattered around the city, and people would lose their legs if they were to step on one. As proof of this, propaganda broadcast stories with the injured. 

However, there are no Lepestok mines in Ukraine, since they were destroyed in accordance with the Geneva Convention prohibiting the use of anti-personnel landmines.

And here is how the regular propagandist of the Kremlin regime, neo-Stalinist Starikov, pushes the topic of shelling, ultimately concluding that the war with Ukraine must be continued. 

“To form a negative attitude towards the Ukrainian army”

What goals do the Russians pursue by manipulating the opinion of Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied eastern regions? On June 1, volunteers of the international intelligence community InformNapalm released a document — an information campaign plan developed by the so-called “Ministry of Information of the DPR” on the instructions of Russian supervisors. 

Among the goals, we see the following: “to reduce the level of social tension among the relatives of servicemen mobilized to participate in the special military operation; to form (continue the formation) a loyal attitude towards the servicemen of the allied forces participating in the special military operation among the residents of the DPR (including the residents of the liberated territories), and a negative attitude towards the Ukrainian army.”

The first page of the information campaign plan developed by the so-called “Ministry of Information of the DPR”. 

As we can see, Russian propaganda in the occupied East of Ukraine must constantly solve a difficult task — fool people to explain to them why they need to fight. This requires a constant feed of atrocities provided by provocative acts of terror.

Another document, which was also published by InformNapalm volunteers, features the “Ministry’s” report on the results of information sabotage in 2021.  

According to the document, this activity was based “on carrying information sabotage that creates a negative image of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the military-political leadership of Ukraine, lowering the morale and psychological state of Ukrainian servicemen, misleading the Ukrainian command (disinformation), provoking the conduct of multiple official investigations inside law enforcement agencies of Ukraine, etc. During the year, 53 information diversions were carried out (listed in chronological order).”

Among other things, item No. 49 of the document says that “a staged video was filmed about Ukrainian soldiers using a 120 mm calibre mortar to fire at Donetsk. The video was published on the previously hacked website of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine (over 100,000 views).” No. 13 says that “disinformation has been published on the preparation of a provocation by the AFU on their territory with deaths of local residents to create grounds for a full-scale offensive (over 500,000 views).”

“Crime and Punishment”

Evidently, Russians had quite a workshop creating fake videos. However, great historical achievements, as the bloody scriptwriters of the Kremlin believe, take real tragedies with real dead people because this allows you to control people’s emotions.

Let us recall that Putin’s ascension to the Russian political Olympus was accompanied by explosions of residential buildings in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, which played the role of casus belli for the revanchist second Russian-Chechen war. In his book The FSB Undermines Russia, Alexander Litvinenko, who was later killed by agents of the Kremlin, blamed his former employers for these acts of terror. During the planting of explosives in Ryazan, a group of FSB officers was actually detained, and later, after confusing excuses, the Russian authorities declared this case an exercise. It seems that terrorist attacks and provocations to incite war lie in the very essence of Putinism.

The methods of sabotage tested in the Caucasus are now being used against Ukraine. Monitoring of 19 German media outlets in November, conducted by Vox Ukraine, identified 155 cases of disinformation. Most of them (47) were about the Ukrainian army allegedly committing war crimes.  Representatives of Ukrainian authorities were discredited in 14 cases. 13 cases were about “Nazism in Ukraine.”

Researchers from Vox Ukraine write: most often, the propaganda media in Germany mention “war crimes of Ukraine” precisely in the context of shelling of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. For example, shelling of the occupied Donetsk oblast, during which civilians are killed, for which only the Ukrainian military is blamed. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are also named as the main culprits for the shelling of crossings for civilians in the Kherson oblast, which prevents civilians from safely evacuating from the war zone. Inhumane conditions, torture in captivity, lynchings of collaborators — all these crimes are also attributed to Ukrainian soldiers.” 

Various information about Russian provocations, in particular, testimonies of eyewitnesses, victims and perpetrators, needs systematization and generalization. This would help consolidate all the separate cases into a single proceeding in the investigation of Russian war criminals. 

The victims of such terrorist attacks are not those killed, maimed and deprived of their property. Millions of people who are deceived and charged with hatred suffer from this, too. The very chance for future peaceful coexistence of those affected by this war in Ukraine is deliberately targeted by the enemy.  

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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