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Disinformation in the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Disinformation has been distributed by governmental agencies of Russian Federation and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) separatist areas of Ukraine in relation to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis.[1][2][3] Disinformation has also been part of Ukrainian online propaganda ("information warfare") that has focused on heroes and martyrs which has in turn, dramatized tales of Ukrainian fortitude and Russian aggression.[4]

Aims and attribution

Pro-Kremlin TV and radio host Vladimir Solovyov voiced support for his country's invasion of Ukraine.[5]

Disinformation largely attributed to Russia since the 2014 beginning of the Russo–Ukrainian war aimed to show Ukraine being involved in serious human rights violations.[1]

In January 2022, aims of disinformation (misinformation intended to deliberately deceive) distributed by Russian authorities included using "wedge issues" to encourage disunity among Western countries in support for Ukraine; to counter themes promoted by the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); to create plausible deniability for human rights violations carried out by Russian forces;[6] and to create a casus belli for further invading Ukraine.[3]

Facebook uncovered a Russian campaign using fake accounts, and attempts to hack the accounts of high-profile Ukrainians.[7] There are reports of paid Russian government staff searching for “organic content” posted by genuine users in support of the Kremlin, while making sure that these do not run afoul of platform guidelines, then amplify these posts. Researchers have found that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) has operated numerous troll farms who spam critics of the Kremlin with pro-Putin and pro-war comments.[8]

China state media has largely used Russian state media stories and information from Russian officials, including echoing misinformation and conspiracy theories. In March 2022, CGTN paid for digital ads on Facebook targeting global users with briefings and newscasts featuring pro-Kremlin talking points about the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine after Meta Platforms banned Russian state media advertisement buys.[9][10] The same month, CGTN repeated unsubstantiated Russian claims of biological weapons labs in Ukraine.[11] A leaked internal directive from Beijing News ordered its employees not to publish news reports that were "negative about Russia or pro-West." An analysis found that nearly half of Weibo's social media posts used Russia sources which were pro-Putin or described Ukraine in negative terms, while another third of posts were anti-West and blamed expansion of NATO, while very few posts described the war in neutral terms. Several history professors have penned an open letter that strongly opposed China's support for "Russia's war against Ukraine" but their post was quickly deleted by censors, while a celebrity who criticized Russia over the invasion had her account suspended.[12][13][14]

Due to Russian “fake news” law, Facebook and Twitter were blocked by Russia authorities, while TikTok has purportedly banned new uploads as of May 6. However a study by Tracking Exposed found out that TikTok had blocked all non-Russian content, but has continued to host old videos uploaded by Russia-based accounts and permitted Russian state media to continue posting, described as establishing a “splinternet” within a global social media platform.[15] TikTok's vague censorship has permitted pro-Kremlin news but blocked foreign accounts and critics of the war, as a result "Russians are left with a frozen TikTok, dominated by pro-war content".[16][17]


Putin and Konstantin Ernst, chief of Russia's main state-controlled TV station Channel One.[18]

In February 2022, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat judged that the quality of Russian misinformation videos had weakened, but remained especially effective for the older generation of Russians.[3]

Some observers noted what they described as a "generational struggle" among Russians over perception of the war, with younger Russians generally opposed to the war and older Russians more likely to accept the narrative presented by state-controlled mass media in Russia.[19] Kataryna Wolczuk, an associate fellow of Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia programme, said that "[Older] Russians are inclined to think in line with the official 'narrative' that Russia is defending Russian speakers in Ukraine, so it's about offering protection rather than aggression."[19] About two-thirds of Russians use television as their primary source of daily news.[20]

Many Ukrainians say that their relatives and friends in Russia trust what the state-controlled media tells them and refuse to believe that there is a war in Ukraine and that the Russian army is shelling Ukrainian cities.[21][22][23]

The main reason many Russians have supported Putin and the "special military operation" in Ukraine has to do with the propaganda and disinformation.[24][25][26] At the end of March, a poll conducted in Russia by the Levada Center concluded the following: When asked why they think the military operation is taking place, respondents said it was to protect and defend civilians, ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Ukraine (43%), to prevent an attack on Russia (25%), to get rid of nationalists and “denazify” Ukraine (21%), and to incorporate Ukraine and/or the Donbas region into Russia (3%)."[27]

In China,[28][29] India,[30][31] Indonesia,[32] Malaysia,[33] Africa,[34] the Arab world,[35] and Latin America,[36] some social media users trended towards showing sympathy for Russian narratives.

A study performed by Airlangga University revealed that 71% of Indonesian netizens supported the invasion.[37] This support was due to affection for Putin's strongman leadership, as well as anti-US and anti-Western political alignments.[38] Additionally, many Indonesians supported Russia due to positive reports of Ramzan Kadyrov and claims of the Azov Battalion covering their bullets with lard to be used against Chechen troops in the invasion.[39][40]

A series of four online polls by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation found that between 25 February and 3 March, the share of respondents in Moscow who considered Russia an "aggressor" increased from 29% to 53%, while the share of those who considered Russia a "peacemaker" fell by half from 25% to 12%.[41]

Russian themes

Numerous themes of disinformation either originated in Russia or favoring the Russian point of view have been reported.

Claims of altruistic Russian motivations

Russia has claimed that their motivations are to "liberate" Ukraine,[42] and to remove Nazis from power.[43]

Liberation of Ukraine

A few weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin's former adviser and Kremlin insider Sergei Markov said it would not be a "war against Ukraine, but to liberate Ukraine" from the pro-Western government that took power in 2014, adding that "a military operation now would prevent a wider war in future."[42] On 1 March 2022, Markov claimed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a "war between Russia and (the) United States puppet who now occupy Ukraine. It's liberation of Ukraine and it's a proxy war of United States against Russia. We believe there's no independent Ukrainian government and this government is wholly under the control of the United States security community."[44] Markov later admitted that the war in Ukraine was more difficult "than had been expected. It was expected that 30 to 50 percent of the Ukrainian Armed Forces would switch over to Russia's side. No one is switching over."[45]

On 24 February 2022, Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who is part of Putin's inner circle, said that "the purpose" of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was "to protect people living in Ukraine".[46]

Removing neo-Nazis from power

Putin has repeatedly described Ukraine, which has a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as being governed by neo-Nazis.[47][48] Putin has said he wants denazification of Ukraine.[43] Zelenskyy has stated that his grandfather served in the Soviet army fighting against the Nazis;[49] three of his family members died in the Holocaust.[50]

While Ukraine has a far-right fringe, including the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and Right Sector,[51][52] analysts[who?] have described Putin's rhetoric as greatly exaggerating the influence of far-right groups within Ukraine; there is no widespread support for the ideology in the government, military, or electorate.[53] Ukraine's rejection of the adoption of Russia-initiated General Assembly resolutions on combating the glorification of Nazism, including General Assembly Resolution A/C.3/76/L.57/Rev.1 on Combating Glorification of Nazism, Neo-Nazism and other Practices that Contribute to Fueling Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, was seen by Russian authorities as presenting Ukraine as a pro-Nazi state, with the only other state rejecting the adoption of the resolution being the US.[54][55] The Deputy US Representative for ECOSOC describes such resolutions as "thinly veiled attempts to legitimize Russian disinformation campaigns denigrating neighboring nations and promoting the distorted Soviet narrative of much of contemporary European history, using the cynical guise of halting Nazi glorification".[56]

An article in Dissent noted that "despite their neo-Stalinist paraphernalia, many of the Russian-speaking nationalists Russia supports in the Donbass are just as right-wing as their counterparts from the Azov Battalion" and treats the finding of Neo-Nazis in Ukraine as a "possible justification" to have been "profoundly mistaken".[57] Writing for NBC News, Alan Ripp finds that "Ukraine has a genuine Nazi problem — both past and present" but also finds labeling of its enemies as Nazis to be "a common political ploy in Russia" and that Putin was unlikely motivated by the history of Nazism in Ukraine when he launched the invasion.[58]

Claims of Ukrainian and NATO aggression

Spokesmen of Russian state media, the breakaway Donetsk People Republic, or Vladimir Putin have made unsubstantiated claims of aggression by NATO or Ukraine against Russian citizens, including assassination,[1] sabotage,[2] genocide,[59] and the development of bio-weapons[60] including birds carrying fatal diseases.[61]

Assassination attempts

According to Bellingcat, a supposed bombing of a "separatist police chief" by a "Ukrainian spy", broadcast on Russian state television, showed visual evidence of the bombing of an old "green army vehicle". The old car's registration plate was that of the separatist police chief, but the same licence plate was also seen on a different, new SUV.[1][2][3]

On 18 February 2022, the Luhansk People's Republic showed video appearing to show the removal of a car full of explosives that had been prepared for blowing up a train full of women and children evacuating to Russia. The video's metadata showed that it had been recorded on 12 June 2019.[2]

Sabotage attempts

The breakaway Donetsk People's Republic released a video on 18 February 2022 that claimed to show Poles trying to blow up a chlorine tank. The video was distributed further by Russian media. The video's metadata showed that it was created on 8 February 2022, and included a mix of different pieces of audio or video, including a 2010 YouTube video from a military firing range in Finland.[2][3]

Ukrainian intelligence attributed responsibility for the video to the Russian intelligence service GRU.[3]

Genocide in Donbas

In mid February 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine was carrying out genocide in Donbas.[59] Putin's claims were dismissed by the international community,[62] and Russian claims of genocide have been widely rejected as baseless.[63][59][3] The European Commission has also rejected the allegations as "Russian disinformation".[64] The US embassy in Ukraine called the Russian genocide claim a "reprehensible falsehood".[65] Ned Price, a spokesperson for the US State Department, said that Moscow was making such claims as an excuse for invading Ukraine.[66] Russian media also frequently blamed Ukraine for 8 years of war in Donbas.[67]

Propaganda in the state-controlled media has accused Ukrainian troops of attacking civilian targets in Mariupol.[68][69]

Biological weapons labs

In March 2022, Russia made unsubstantiated allegations that Ukraine was developing biological weapons in a network of labs, linked to the US.[60] Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China and Chinese state media amplified Russian claims.[70][71][72] QAnon promoters were also echoing the disinformation.[73][74][75] BBC Reality Check found no evidence supporting the claims.[76] The United Nations also refuted the claim.[74][77] Russian biologists in and outside of Russia have debunked the claims, stating that the allegations are "transparently false".[78]

According to researcher Adam Rawnsley, the Kremlin has a history of discrediting ordinary biology labs in former Soviet republics, having previously spread conspiracy theories about Georgia and Kazakhstan similar to the accusations deployed against Ukraine.[79][80]

Birds as bio-weapons

The Russian Ministry of Defense had previously made unsubstantiated accusations that the United States was manufacturing bio-weapons in Ukraine. The Ministry followed up with another conspiracy theory, which claims that the U.S. is training birds in Ukraine to spread disease and death among Russian citizens, according to a statement given by Major General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman of the Ministry to Russian state-controlled media. Specific details were given about diseases involved, including the name of a specific strain of flu with 50% mortality, as well as Newcastle disease. Media reports included maps, documents, and photos of birds with American military insignia, and also claimed that live, infected birds had been captured in eastern Ukraine.[61][81][82]

The claims were laughed off by U.S. State Department spokesman, who called them "outright lies", "total nonsense", "absurd", "laughable" and "propaganda". Director of the CIA William Burns told the U.S. Senate that Russia was using such claims to prepare the terrain for a biological or chemical attack by Russian forces against Ukraine, which they would then blame on the United States and Ukraine.[61][81]

Weapons of mass destruction

On 6 March 2022, Russian media agencies TASS, RIA and Interfax made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is making a nuclear dirty bomb.[83] The statement at the 2022 Munich Security Conference by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy about the failure of the Budapest Memorandum[84] was depicted by Russian media as a threat that Ukraine might reconsider its nuclear status.

Ukrainian use of black magic

As the invasion progressed, Russian state media claimed that Ukraine was using black magic to fend off the Russian military. RIA Novosti claimed that evidence of black magic had been found in an eastern Ukrainian village; according to their report, Ukrainian soldiers had allegedly consecrated their "weapons with blood magick" at a location with a "satanic seal".[85] News website specifically accused Ukrainian presidental adviser Oleksiy Arestovych of enlisting socrerers and witches to conduct a anti-Russian ritual in Ternopil Raion.[86]

Claimed success of Russian efforts

Flight and surrender of Ukrainian President

The Russian state media agency TASS claimed that Zelenskyy fled Kyiv following the invasion and also that he had surrendered. Zelenskyy used social media to post statements, videos and photos to counter the Russian disinformation.[87][88]

Other claims

False flag fakes

In March 2022, videos were discovered purporting to show Ukrainian-produced disinformation about missile strikes inside Ukraine which were then "debunked" as some other event outside Ukraine. However, this may be the first case of a disinformation false-flag operation,[89] as the original, supposedly "Ukraine-produced" disinformation was never disseminated by anyone, and was in fact preventive disinformation created specifically to be debunked and cause confusion and mitigate the impact on the Russian public of real footage of Russian strikes within Ukraine that may get past Russian-controlled media. According to Patrick Warren, head of Clemson's Media Forensics Hub, "It's like Russians actually pretending to be Ukrainians spreading disinformation. ... The reason that it's so effective is because you don't actually have to convince someone that it's true. It's sufficient to make people uncertain as to what they should trust."[89]

News masquerading as CNN

During the crisis, a number of fabricated CNN headlines and stories went viral on social media.[90] Misinformation spread on social media included a faked image of CNN reporting that Steven Seagal had been seen alongside the Russian military,[90] false tweets claiming that a CNN journalist had been killed in Ukraine,[90][91] a CNN lower third that was digitally altered to include a claim that Putin had issued a statement warning India not to interfere in the conflict,[90][92] and another that was altered to claim that Putin planned to delay the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine until "Biden delivers weapons to Ukraine for Russia to capture",[93] as well as a fabricated CNN tweet supposedly reporting on a figure referred to as "the Kharkiv Kid finder" alongside an image that actually portrayed YouTuber Vaush, who was not in Kharkiv at the time.[94][95]

"Grandmother with red flag"

A video showing that an elderly woman holding a Soviet flag to greet the Ukrainian military is widely spread in Runet since March 2022. The "Grandmother with red flag [zh]" is turned into a legendary image by Russian propaganda. Allegedly, this represents the desire of "ordinary Ukrainians" to reunite with their "Russian brothers".[96]

However, Anna Ivanovna Ivanova, the prototype of the "Grandmother with red flag", explained that she mistook Ukrainian military for Russian invaders at that time, and she wanted to "placate" them with a red Bolshevik flag so they would not destroy the village. Now she regrets and feels like a "traitor". Her house near Kharkiv was destroyed by Russian army, now she and her husband have been evacuated to safe place by Ukrainian army. She cursed the Russian army, figured out that the Russian army was responsible for shelling her house. The military of the Armed Forces of Ukraine appealed to people not to chastise the grandmother, whom was a victim herself.[96]

Ukrainian themes

The Ghost of Kyiv

On the second day of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, videos and picture went viral on social media, with claims that a Ukrainian pilot nicknamed the "Ghost of Kyiv" had shot down 6 Russian fighter jets in the first 30 hours of the war. However, there have been no credible evidence that he existed.[97] A video of the alleged pilot was shared on Facebook and the official Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, was later found to be from the video game Digital Combat Simulator World.[98][99] An altered photo was also shared by the former president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.[100]

On 30 April 2022, Ukrainian Air Force asked the "Ukrainian community not to neglect the basic rules of information hygiene" and to "check the sources of information, before spreading it",[101] stating that the Ghost of Kyiv "embodies the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending Kyiv and the region".[102]

American themes

Russian government preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine

U.S. officials claimed that they had intelligence suggesting that Russia might be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, a claim that U.S. President Joe Biden later echoed publicly. However, in April 2022, U.S. officials told NBC News that there is no evidence of Russia bringing chemical weapons near Ukraine, that the intelligence was based on weak evidence, and that the intelligence was released to deter Russia from using chemical weapons.[103][104]

Russia turning to China to receive military assistance

U.S. officials claimed that Russia had turned to China for potential military assistance, a claim one European official and two U.S. officials said "lacked hard evidence". U.S. officials told NBC News that there are no indications that China is considering providing weapons to Russia and that the Biden administration made this claim to discourage China from actually providing assistance to Russia.[103][104] Dave DeCamp of noted that The New York Times, The Telegraph, and the Associated Press all reported the claim from U.S. officials as if it was objective reality.[104]


The United States Department of State and the European External Action Service of the European Union (EU) published guides aiming to respond to Russian disinformation.[6] Twitter paused all ad campaigns in Ukraine and Russia in an attempt to curb misinformation spread by ads.[105]

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced an EU-wide ban of Russian state-sponsored RT and Sputnik news channels on 27 February, after Poland and Estonia had done so days before.[106]

Although the 1993 Russian Constitution has an article expressly prohibiting censorship,[107] the Russian censorship apparatus Roskomnadzor ordered the country's media to only use information from Russian state sources or face fines and blocks, and accused a number of independent media outlets of spreading "unreliable socially significant untrue information" about the shelling of Ukrainian cities by the Russian army and civilian deaths.[108][109] After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, released dual editions of his newspaper in both Russian and Ukrainian and said that his newspaper would defy the Russian media watchdog's rules that they only report official government information about the war, trusting reporting only from their own newsroom.[110] Muratov said that "Everything that's not propaganda is being eliminated."[111] Roskomnadzor launched an investigation against the Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, inoSMI, MediaZona, New Times, Dozhd (TV Rain), and other independent Russian media outlets for publishing "inaccurate information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and civilian casualties in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian Army".[112] On 1 March 2022, the Russian government blocked access to Dozhd, as well as Echo of Moscow, in response to their coverage of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The channel closed, with its general director announcing they would be "temporarily halting its operations", on 3 March 2022.[113]

On 4 March 2022, President Putin signed into law a bill introducing prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who publish "knowingly false information" about the Russian military and its operations, leading to some media outlets in Russia to stop reporting on Ukraine or shutting their media outlet.[114][115][111]

On 5 April 2022, Russia's opposition politician Alexei Navalny said the "monstrosity of lies" in the Russian state media "is unimaginable. And, unfortunately, so is its persuasiveness for those who have no access to alternative information."[116] He tweeted that "warmongers" among Russian state media personalities "should be treated as war criminals. From the editors-in-chief to the talk show hosts to the news editors, [they] should be sanctioned now and tried someday."[117]


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