Russia has produced a number of false narratives over more than a decade, which its ecosystem of disinformation and propaganda continuously injects into the global information environment. Russia has long waged disinformation campaigns in Europe, but they are currently becoming more aggressive.
The explanation is that Russia is searching for ways to stop the West from helping Ukraine, and, on the other, it wants to portray a success to balance off real Ukrainian military victories in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Kherson regions.
The growing and blatant use of propaganda by Russia about President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine serves as a timely reminder of the need to be watchful of disinformation and fake news strategies that have the potential to deceive people all around the world.
We examined Russia-funded media during the first two weeks of November 2022 and discovered a long list of fake news and propaganda that was spread by Russian propagandists to further Russia’s political objectives. For example, the Russian propaganda machine stated that the West was abandoning Ukraine and that weapons delivered to Ukraine were being sold on illegal markets.
The extent of the damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure following attacks by Russia-funded media is likewise exaggerated, with the notion that the efficacy of the air-defense systems is low.
Moscow also keeps repeating its lies about a “dirty bomb” planned by Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s complete dependence on the West, and Ukraine’s refusing to engage in negotiations. To be ready when you encounter them on any dubious medium, let’s look at the top five Russian disinformations and fake news stories.
1. Disinformation about a total blackout in Ukraine
Russian media and fake Telegram accounts have spread disinformation about a total blackout in Ukraine. This fake news was denied by Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s energy operator. The claims of a full or partial cut off from the electricity supply are untrue, and the information is false, Ukrenergo’s press office stated. “In dubious Telegram channels, the Ukrenergo logo is used to distribute false information, including the total or partial blackout of the nation. This information does not match the facts!”, the company declared.
Russian airstrikes damaged Ukrainian energy infrastructure, but most of it was quickly restored, and no total blackout happened. In some regions, Ukrainians will see the introduction of hourly power outage schedules due to the damage from Russian shelling.
2. Disinformation about ‘inefficient’ Ukraine’s anti-air defense system
First of all, just think that Ukraine is under continuous and tremendous missile and kamikaze drone attacks. No country in the world in history was a target of missile attacks at this scale. Despite, all of these terror attempts, and hundreds of cruise missiles launched at Ukraine, its energy infrastructure is still working, and some parts are being repaired.
The air defense system was efficient. The official figures of the Ukrainian Air Force Command prove this, starting on October 10 with the first significant missile attacks. On this day, 84 different types of ground-based, sea-based, and air-based missiles were launched by the Russian Federation from the Black Sea (“Kalibr”), the Caspian region (X-101, X-555), and other locations (“Iskander”). 45 of their missiles were destroyed. In addition, 9 out of 12 Shahed-136 kamikaze drones were downed by air defense. In other words, 75% of drones and nearly 54% of all missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defense.
Russian invaders used 96 air- and sea-based cruise missiles (X-101, X-555, Caliber), X-59 guided air missiles, Shahed-136/131, Orion attack drones, and “Orlan-10” in their attack on Ukraine on November 15. 75 cruise missiles (more than 78%), two Kh-59 guided air missiles, ten Shahed-136/131, and one Orion and Orlan-10 UAV were all destroyed by the Ukrainian air defense system.
So, 78 to 88 percent of all cruise missiles were intercepted by Ukrainian air defense during the two most recent large-scale missile attacks. The efficiency of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense, thanks to the western weapons supplies, was noticeably improved during the war.
3. ‘Nuclear fake news’ about Ukraine preparing a ‘dirty bomb’
Russia continues to spread fake news saying that Ukraine is allegedly preparing to use a “dirty bomb”. This dangerous fake has been already debunked by the Ukrainian government, the UN, and the IAEA who did not find any traces of such a bomb in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.
Russia reported a “dirty bomb” threat in Ukraine to the UN Security Council. However, Western and Ukrainian officials denied Moscow’s assertion and called it a false pretext for the escalation of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia’s accusations indicate that Moscow plans to use tactical nuclear weapons and will try to blame Kyiv. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that Russia’s accusations that Ukraine is preparing to use a “dirty bomb” are part of a new stage of the campaign to disinform the civilized world.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published photos that were supposed to serve as evidence, but journalists identified a fake and nonsense. Sky News journalists analyzed the photo used by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to present the “dirty bomb”. One of the photos has been used on the Internet at least since 2016. It was used in Mexico to illustrate a news story about a stolen truck with radioactive materials.
4. NATO presence claimed to justify Russian army defeat in Kherson
Russian propaganda media continues fantasies regarding the presence of NATO experts in Ukraine. Russian media was trying to cover up the reality of panic and withdrawal while doing all necessary to find any success for the Russian army. The inclusion of fictitious “NATO specialists” in the Russian-Ukrainian war is one of the strategies used by Russia to “transform” the defeats into “successes” and to restore the reputation of the Russian army.
Russian propaganda claims that NATO forces, not the Ukrainian army, were truly successful in repelling the significant enemy counterattacks that the Russian army recently encountered. Olga Skabeeva, a prominent Russian TV propagandist, claimed that “NATO is strong” and “the whole West felt for Russia.” She also refers to the “success” of the “western specialists” in this regard in the Kharkiv region, which tragically gained notoriety for Russian war crimes, mass graves, and the tortured remains of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians discovered following the Russian retreat.
Given that over 260,000 Russian males of military age have already fled the country to avoid mobilization, all of these stories depict the agony of Russian propaganda as it tries to rally the Russian people for the fight against the demonic “NATO army” and the “collective West.”
However, on the ground, we saw pictures of the Ukrainian army liberating Kherson, and entering the city. And no videos of NATO soldiers there were ever seen.
‘5,000 Polish fighters in Zaporizhzhia’ that exist only in Russian media
Russian propaganda has been circulating a myth about foreigners fighting for Ukraine from the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, calling them mercenaries. The story of foreign mercenaries in Ukraine was still being promoted by Russian media outlets in November; this time, it was claimed that there were 5,000 Polish mercenaries on the front line in Zaporizhzhia. Another total fabrication.
First of all, a mercenary is someone who primarily seeks financial gain. Such mercenaries are not combatants when they enter a conflict, which means that they are not regarded as individuals engaged in combat activities on either one or both sides of the armed conflict. The involvement of mercenaries in hostilities is prohibited by Ukrainian legislation.
At the same time, a decree issued by the President of Ukraine in 2016 allows for the admission of foreigners to serve in the armed forces on a contract basis. On February 27, 2022, President Zelensky announced the creation of the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, which allowed foreign volunteers, including those of Ukrainian ancestry, to defend Ukraine. This came about a few days after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The International Legion’s main objective in the war is to resist the Russian army. Considering how international law is defined, representatives of the International Legion cannot be categorized as mercenaries. They are viewed as combatants under the Geneva Convention.
Second, the claim that 5,000 Polish men are fighting in the Zaporizhzhia area made in claims circulated by Russian media is false and, in the words of Anton Myronovych, spokesman for the International Legion is “nonsense.” A large number of foreigners on the Ukrainian side exist only in Russian propaganda. These lies are spread by Kremlin media in an attempt to show that they are not losing the battle to the Ukrainians.
5. Fake news ‘Western weapons supplied to Ukraine are sold on illegal markets’
The first logical question that arises here is, would it be possible to destroy Russian army positions in Ukraine with the use of Western weapons, reconquer so many territories and force Russian invaders to flee, and at the same time sell weapons elsewhere? Looking at the Ukrainian military success and the efficiency of the anti-air defense systems vs Russian missile attacks, it’s crystal clear that the weapons are being used for the right purposes.
Russia-funded propagandists have been working this week to persuade their audiences that Ukraine is utilizing Western weapons improperly. For instance, the Finnish newspaper Yle covered this in an article citing an interview with Christer Algren, Senior Commissioner of the National Bureau of Investigation.
The Finnish criminal police reportedly have information about the prospect of Ukrainian military weapons ending up in the hands of Finnish criminal organizations, according to a journalist. However, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that there was solid evidence to support the accuracy of the article’s information. Media investigation showed that there was no evidence for this disinformation.
6. Fake news ‘The West will stop weapons supply to Ukraine’
Another disinformation made by the Russian propagandists was that Ukraine would soon stop receiving weaponry. Based on the report in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, they came to this conclusion. Allegedly, Western Europe is suspending arms shipments and gradually withdrawing its backing for Ukraine.
An article with a misleading headline, simply states that Italy is coordinating its intentions to arm Ukraine while it awaits the arrival of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Russia gains from promoting the idea that Ukraine will soon be without weapons and that its leadership is to blame for this even though it does not influence what happens to the weapons.
This disinformation is both Moscow’s wishful thinking and its information psychological campaign against Ukraine and the West. But the reality is different. Ukraine receives more and more weapons from Western partners, namely agreed during the Ramstein 7. And in the latest event, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced more military help to Ukraine during his visit to Kyiv on November 19. It’s the opposite of what the Russian propaganda machine tries to portray to its audiences.
7. Russian fake about imaginary desertion in the Ukrainian army
Another Kremlin propaganda narrative targets the Ukrainian Armed Forces. False information regarding desertion in the Ukrainian army is spread by the Russian media. It’s related, if we would dare to believe Russian media, to the same courageous men that pushed Putin’s forces from Kherson, Lyman, and the Kharkiv region.
According to RIA Novosti state propaganda media, military field courts have been established in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, where deserters and those who disobey orders are sentenced to death. Pursuing its disinformation goal, Russian propaganda does not shy away from using prisoners of war for this purpose. A Ukrainian officer, a prisoner of war, who was captured by the Russians near Opytne, said on camera, probably under pressure, that the soldiers did not want to stay at their positions. These images are now used by Russian propaganda.
At the same time, neither information about significant desertions nor coverage in other media was provided. Additionally, Russian forces have been losing ground in recent months, and all of their offensive attempts have failed. In contrast to what Russian media claims, Ukrainian forces have successfully reclaimed several areas, which would not have been possible if there had been significant desertions.
These information and psychological operations by the Russians aim to damage the Ukrainian military’s morale as well as the confidence of Western partners in the Ukrainian army’s capabilities. But it’s not difficult to expose these fakes.
Russian regime fully controls media domestically but struggles abroad
The Russian government, like many other authoritarian regimes, effectively controls the Russian media, but it is unable to impose broad censorship on foreign media outside of its reach. However, the Russian government and other Kremlin-friendly players want foreigners to accept their version of events because if they do, they will be more likely to back Russia’s actions. These efforts aim to obfuscate or confuse people by overwhelming them to the point where they are unable to discriminate between fact and fiction when persuasion is impossible.
Disinformation techniques are used by Russia’s regime to broadcast false information about its war against Ukraine worldwide or through its supporters to sway public opinion overseas.
By providing media content in numerous languages, Russia has significantly increased its media presence outside of its borders throughout the Putin period. As a counterbalance to Western foreign media, the Kremlin-backed global news channel RT (previously Russia Today) was established in 2005. To promote its disinformation campaign after the conflict with Ukraine started, Russia also established the Kremlin-supported news organization, Sputnik. These disinformation stories are backed by thousands of fake accounts on social media, namely Twitter and Facebook.
After its invasion of Ukraine Moscow has changed its game plan to focus more on its domestic audience as well as the Russian-speaking diaspora in nearby countries and those further abroad as Kremlin-backed news outlets are now outlawed in the European Union.
Russian disinformation tactics
Moscow’s disinformation activities are being carried out by Russian media and intelligence agencies across its sophisticated propaganda ecosystem. It includes malicious social media operations with battalions of bots, the use of online proxy news organizations, the insertion of false information into a television broadcast, and the organization of conferences to lead participants to believe that Ukraine and the West are to blame, not Russia.
The false concepts, tainted narratives, or lies propagated by one of Russia’s numerous dissemination channels are occasionally picked up and repeated by reliable news sources, but this is less common than when Russian propaganda is repeated on social media. In addition to fabricating facts, Russian propagandists frequently fabricate sources.
Though their forms are meant to mimic legitimate news programs, Russian news networks like RT and Sputnik News are more like a mix of entertainment and misinformation than fact-checked journalism. Russian news outlets and other media outlets frequently misquote reliable sources or attribute a particular untruth to a more reliable source.
The Russian firehose of lies exploits every aspect of psychology. Russian propaganda may contain some misleading information that audiences simply accept because they do not perceive it as fake or because different indications encourage them to give it more credence than they should.
This percentage rises over time as people start to forget that they rejected particular supplied “facts.” When misleading information is in line with popular narratives, the proportion of lies that are believed rises even higher. The messages are significantly more likely to be believed when there is supporting information or when unquestionably reliable sources spread the lies.
Russia invests billions in disinformation trying to justify its war
Russia’s intimidation campaign continued with the mentioned fakes and narratives in November. Russian media tries to explain away every Russian defeat by claiming that while Russia isn’t now fighting at full power, it will unquestionably do so soon. One of the propagandists’ versions claimed that the ‘large-scale offensive’ would start in the first few days of November, then it was “postponed” to the end of November.
One thing is sure, Russia invests billions in its propaganda and disinformation campaign for a reason. The Kremlin still believes that these measures will help them to undermine the unity of the West and the morale of the Ukrainians, to achieve at least a small success in its war against Ukraine. Facing the West and Ukraine should stay determined and vigilant, and counter all disinformation campaigns.