War in Ukraine: Kremlin's disinformation dispatch
When Russia invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February, many of us didn't believe it was happening. But some of this disbelief and ongoing denial is because the invasion of Ukraine was not just a physical incursion, upon entry Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed disinformation campaigns designed to demoralise Ukrainians, play havoc with their defence strategies, and give fuel to the fires of conspiracy. From spreading falsified news about border closures to spoofing an assault on the strategic naval city of Odessa, the early days of military action saw Putin’s disinformation playbook in full swing. But as Russia’s early efforts faltered and their strategies unravelled, the Kremlin panicked, setting off a wave of intensified information warfare. So what has Russia’s disinformation strategy been in Ukraine, and how does it compare to the Kremlin’s efforts in other neighbouring countries?
Disinformation is nothing new, one of the earliest documented uses traces back to ancient Rome, when Octavius forged the last will and testament of Mark Antony. That sort of fabrication is very far removed from the realities of disinformation today however, which is far more public-facing. For its part, the Kremlin has 100 odd years of experience with state-led disinformation, with the Bolshevik regime in the 20s closely integrating disinformation into the intelligence and state apparatus. The word disinformation was allegedly coined by Joseph Stalin himself, to make it appear that the concept was western, an act of disinformation in itself.
To examine Russia’s disinformation history we spoke to disinformation researcher Dietmar Pichler, a program director for Austria’s EU Centre for Digital Media Competence. “During the 1980s, the Soviet Union spread the rumour that the United States ‘invented AIDS’ in a laboratory as a ‘biological weapon’.” Early Kremlin disinformation efforts were not just contained to the Soviet sphere but also were spread across newspapers all over the world. “Today, spreading information, but also disinformation is much easier than during the Cold War,” Pichler explained, “target audiences can be reached very fast, rumours spread faster than ever before, and social media allows anybody to publish. Now it is easily possible to influence public opinion or even fake public opinion when trolls put many comments below an article in support of the Russian narrative surrounding its origin.”
The Kremlin has been redrawing borders and rewriting history since the establishment of the USSR, and when Putin rose to power he began placing emphasis on the country's past. He painted a grand historical narrative about Russia’s greatness, the presence of Russian people in territories it used to command, and the so-called fabricated nations that are former constituents of the USSR, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Another key narrative that has made him popular and secured him allies is his portrayal of Russia as the “Third Rome”. This historical narrative that Moscow is the successor to Rome and Constantinople as the home of the Roman Empire dates back hundreds of years, and has seen revival under Putin who has used Byzantine symbols like the double-headed eagle, talks about the divine ordination of Russia, and constantly emphasises Russia’s Christian Orthodoxy.
These narratives have been used to rile up nationalist sentiment and distract from Putin’s ongoing failure to provide wealth and prosperity for the Russian people. Instead of focusing on curbing corruption and liberalising for the benefit of ordinary citizens, he works to focus people’s attention on his restoration of Russian greatness and efforts to ‘protect’ Russians living outside the country’s borders. In Putin's declaration of war, he stated that Ukraine denies everything that unites Russia, part of a larger pattern of rearranging Russian history to fit his ideological ambitions.
Disinformation claims designed to undermine Ukrainian territorial sovereignty have circulated since 1991 when the Soviet Union shattered. The Kremlin’s focus on it increased hugely ahead of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and a renewed Russian-language version began circulating after Russia's invasion in an apparent bid to create a justification for the war. A speech falsely attributed to former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that the former USSR country had not registered its borders since December 1991 - "According to the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] treaty, the territory of Ukraine is an administrative district of the USSR. Thus, no one can be blamed for separatism and forcibly changing the integrity of Ukraine's borders''. In reality, under both the Budapest Memorandum and Belovezh Accords, Ukraine holds internationally recognised borders. Claims that Ukraine is an administrative region of Russia today are unfounded as they declared independence before the CIS was even established.
"The Kremlin's focus on disinformation designed to undermine Ukrainian Sovereignty spiked ahead of the 2014 annexation of Crimea"
Pichler describes two waves of disinformation. The first was a demonization of Ukraine, including accusations of Nazism, which aligned with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. This demonisation did not end, but it spiked again concurrently with the buildup of Russian troops in late 2021. The second wave spoke of the destabilisation of the Western world and democratic societies and painted them as a civilization in decline on the brink of collapse, which saw much support from populist parties across Europe.
Russia is using disinformation to paint Ukraine as a dangerous power with a malicious history. Claims of Russian genocide and kidnapping of children in the Donbas area are nothing new - a remarkably similar story was spread about Finland a couple of years ago. Ahead of the invasion, the French language branch Russia Today began circulating disinformation that the US had begun transferring jihadist groups to Donbas and were planning an assault on Russians, along with various claims about chemical and nuclear weapons. These false-flag operations were called out across social media particularly by open source groups who focus on fabricated media and unverified claims.
Sputnik Italia came forward with inaccurate claims that NATO pushed Kyiv for a military solution in the Donbas region by supplying weapons and ammunition, attempting to place the blame for aggression on Ukrainian security forces. It is not just hard-line stances emerging from the Kremlin’s disinformation chorus however. Outlets masquerading as legitimate media have attempted to undermine the effort of foreign entities and actors by presenting themselves as liberal or left-wing as well. Following Russian airstrikes on Kyiv, a map began circulating presenting several locations of airstrikes in "the last 48 hours" worldwide, in an attempt to paint Russia’s actions as nothing compared to the United States. Once again this tactic is not new, we saw very similar maps created when coverage emerged of Moscow backed forces levelling Syrian apartment buildings or Wagner Group brutalising or killing Syrian citizens, designed to distract from these actions by engaging with traditional anti-government narratives. Redfish, the original source, was created by former Russia Today journalists and served a Russian-government agenda in a left-learning facade instead.
As a final example of Russia’s recycled disinformation tactics, accusations of the mistreatment of Russians in other countries have been a huge focus for the Kremlin before and during their invasion of Ukraine. They have worked to fabricate stories that damage the reputations of neighbouring governments and give Russia a justification for anger or military intervention. Aside from the aforementioned attempts in Finland, Luhansk and Donetsk were the primary targets for these stories in Ukraine, and similar stories have been fabricated about Poland over the last couple of years. Kremlin backed news source Sputnik began to claim that refugees had been executed on the Belarusian-Polish border during the migrant crisis that was in fact orchestrated by Lukashenko. A Polish deserter soldier who had escaped to Belarus spread unfounded claims of "mass executions” of migrants in 2021, alleging that Polish soldiers would shoot at least 20 people each day at the border. As the migration crisis continues, Sputnik has been working to label Poland as a Russophobic and psychopathic country that is determined to interpret anything Russia does as aggressive.
The Domestic Impact of Russian Propaganda
Reaching the minds of the Russian population has become extremely difficult, “it is more and more difficult to reach them even technically.” Pichler stated. Some Russians have become desperate to create a voice in a muted society “people are using restaurant reviews, dating platforms and E-Mail to reach their counterparts in Russia. There are several reports from Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine who cannot even convince their own relatives about the Russian attacks on their city or the war in general. War is a word that is banned in Russia. The media is only allowed to call it a ‘special operation,’ which applies also to the foreign press that leaves the country”.
"People are using restaurant reviews, dating platforms and E-Mail to reach their counterparts in Russia"
Debunking Russian disinformation and convincing the Russian population and stakeholders that the war in Ukraine has been based on lies and propaganda is a cornerstone of efforts to reduce or stop the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The population has already felt the impact of economic sanctions. If people start realising that they are sacrificing their wealth for nothing, they will ask questions, Pichler states.
History is repeating itself, both recently with Putin's breaking of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and also Soviet history. As new generations begin to rise, without ever witnessing the days of the Soviet Union, Putin’s playbook becomes more impracticable and redundant. Old measures are becoming less effective, and Putin is facing a tougher reality. This is no longer a political war; this is a war on all fronts, but what needs to be acknowledged is that in this day and age, the frontlines of war are also on our screens, they are on our phones, they are in our hands, and no one is immune to disinformation.
Dietmar Pichler is a Russian disinformation analyst and program director for the Austria’s EU Centre for digital media competence.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift