Ukraine's Digital Warriors: Defending Against Russia's Global Digital Assault
This week, we continue our exploration of the common narratives that Russia exploits in its disinformation operations aiming to destroy the untamable Ukraine. Where last week we explored the disinformation narratives focused on the West and its support for Ukraine. Now we return to investigate these narrative assaults on Ukraine.
It withstands an incessant barrage of artillery, missile strikes, and drone attacks, coupled with various destructive measures aimed at destabilizing its economy and status. These actions are intended to render the country vulnerable to the imperial objectives of the Russians.
Ukraine’s entities have assumed a prominent position in the fight against disinformation, recognizing the urgent necessity to address deceptive narratives jeopardizing their nation’s security and stability. These organizations are dedicated to fact-checking and countering baseless claims, with a primary focus on statements emanating from political figures and media outlets.
Since the launch of the full scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia has devoted all its efforts to fostering divisions between Ukraine and its allies. It has sown seeds of doubt about Ukraine’s success while also seeking to turn Europe against the refugees who have suffered the brutality and destruction wrought by Russia.
As we presented in part one, Russia’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine did not begin in 2014. Many narratives have adapted to the times and the targets. However, All narratives about Ukraine center on the elimination of both Ukrainian sovereignty and identity. This plays a pivotal role in Russia’s imperial ambitions in the region. The disinformation tactics used since 2014 have not changed by much. The manufactured “genocide of the people of Donbas” was displaced with denials of massacres by Russian soldiers in Bucha and Izyum.
Russian leaders and propagandists have utilized diverse tactics to subvert and obliterate the Ukrainian people’s sense of self. Despite these persistent efforts, the Ukrainian identity remains resilient and steadfast. Ukrainians continue to stand strong, not only on the physical battlefield but also in the realm of information warfare.
We return to a look at a project that tracks narratives and publishes, “The Propaganda Diary”, an online database of disinformation posts, outlets and narratives. This initiative, overseen by VoxCheck, operates as a subsidiary project of VoxUkraine, located in Київ.
VoxCheck’s analysts routinely monitor the information landscape, tracking, assessing, and evaluating the numerous narratives, sources, and tactics employed by Russian disinformation networks worldwide. Then they release updated monthly reports evaluating the collected samples and share their findings in multiple languages.
VoxCheck is operated under VoxUkraine, a Ukrainian think tank covering policy across the topics of governance, economics, social development, and reform. It is perhaps important to not, organizations like VoxUkraine and similar non-profit organizations rely on charitable contributions and international grants to sustain their work, emphasizing the importance of maintaining an independent and impartial stance in the battle against disinformation.
A REFRESHER ON WHERE THESE NARRATIVES WERE COLLECTED and the NETWORK OF LIES
A crucial strategy in the dissemination of Russian disinformation involves employing digital cutouts and proxies to obscure the origin of false information, aiming to enhance the credibility of deceptive narratives. This tactic creates an illusion of a blend between local and organic sources. VoxCheck has identified numerous outlets of disinformation operating in six European nations significantly impacted by these narratives: Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Germany, and Italy.
Each country and region crafts distinct narratives designed to influence the target audience within their borders and shape regional opinions. Russia meticulously monitors events that hold significance for each target audience, such as elections, policy votes, anniversary dates, and other key data points. This information is strategically leveraged to further deepen divisions among Western allies.
When analyzing many of these outlets, authorship is often unclear, and the sourcing of conclusions is ambiguous. Assertions about Ukraine and its allies lack specificity and proper sourcing. Some writers are overtly pro-Russian, while others employ concern trolling—a tactic that feigns concern for Ukrainians while undermining their sovereignty and safety.
Now, let’s scrutinize these narratives and understand how to recognize their playbook. It’s crucial to distinguish between misinformation, involving the unintentional spread of inaccurate information, and disinformation, which is the deliberate use of false information to deceive. These narratives originate from sources that actively propagate a mix of misinformation and disinformation.
THE ANTI UKRAINIAN NARRATIVES:
The Number one narrative uses to attack Ukraine is “you’re a bunch of Nazis”
To reinforce this demonstrably false claim, Russia uses a combination of narrative techniques to exploit past pain and appropriate collective disgust with Nazis. There were headlines about the “Azov battalion” or others containing accusations that the Jewish leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, is himself a Nazi. In fact, his great-grandparents and other family members were killed in a massacre in the Holocaust.
One of the oldest narratives in the KGB playbook was to imply or directly accuse any critic of Kremlin power of being a secret Nazi. Hundreds of operations were executed with this explicit agenda from the first days after the collapse of Hitler’s grand dream. Not suited to deal with the present as it is, Russians use this term as a bludgeoning tool against all critics.
The narratives extend to accusing the entire population, or at least enough to warrant an invasion, of being Nazis and determined to destroy Russia. When it wasn’t enough to say a battalion was the problem, Russia’s proxy sites accused all the leadership of being Nazis. When that wasn’t enough, they claimed the West was supporting Nazism. It got so bad that Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused Israel of being secretly Nazi when Russia couldn’t sway the nation’s support away from Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin had to call personally to apologize for that grievous insult to the people who faced Hitler’s wrath the most. Perhaps in this insult we can see the genuine interest in dealing with Nazism in the twenty first century.
Russia’s reliable outlets in Europe repeatedly tried to compare Ukraine to Hitler’s Germany. These superficial comparisons alone insult the facts of what happened in the 1930s into the 1940s in Germany. No such activity is happening in Ukraine.
When the Nazism claim failed, they turned to the assertion that “Fascism is on the rise” in Ukraine. Yet, simultaneously, they claim Zelenskyy is attacking religions. It would seem challenging to have Fascism without the church involved. In Moscow, by contrast, the Russian Patriarch Kirill directly cooperates with the government, including advocating for the illegal invasion of a sovereign nation. No such activity occurs in Ukraine.
And, the claim that Ukraine is sliding towards a Nazi dictatorship is also propagated while being contradicted by outrage over gender equality measures, acceptance of the LGBT community, and a leadership structure lacking the hallmarks of a Nazi organization. Thus, we must delve deeper into what Russia really means with this persistent claim.
Second, the world’s operative definition of a Nazi is clearly not an issue in Ukraine, and all six countries identified in the VoxCheck Propaganda Diary site have a clear history dealing with Russian imperialism. Thus, their narratives are designed to draw from the common definition of “Nazi” despite the lack of evidence of a Nazi problem. Russia knows this confusion exists and exploits it as a means of plausible deniability mixed with having European voices lend agreement to the lie itself.
Note: The offer stands from National Security Media to all readers to send information on any pending rally or Nazi events in Ukraine.
During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the disinformation machine was actively generating claims of Ukrainian aggression against Russian speakers in Donbas. While leveraging fears of nationalism and fascism in Crimea, it escalated the narrative by alleging that the “Kiev Regime” was conducting a genocidal war against Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Accusations of war crimes by Russia should be categorized into two groups: soldiers and civilians. In the civilian category, Russia has consistently asserted over the past decade that Ukraine frequently targets civilians, engages in the torture and murder of civilians, and imprisons dissidents, taking hostages or employing civilians as “human shields.”
Headlines were employed to assert that civilians in Ukraine were not killed by Russia’s Kalibr and Iskander missiles or the Shahid drones. Instead, the Russian proxy sites propagated claims that the destroyed civilian buildings were victims of Ukraine’s air defense. Independent of VoxCheck, we can verify data that shows a correlation of headlines blaming air defense with the vocal push to secure the skies over Ukraine. Russia frequently linked its disinformation campaigns to the latest defense requests.
Concerning soldiers, Russia’s proxy sites make allegations that Ukrainian forces fire at civilians, mistreat prisoners of war, use prohibited munitions, and hinder the evacuation of civilians from the front. Additionally, news headlines claiming that Ukraine was killing its own soldiers spread through these sites in Italy, Czechia and Slovakia through Sputnik and other outlets.
The disinformation sites surveyed regularly posted a variety of articles designed to impugn the character of Ukrainian leadership. These narratives intentionally pushed headlines accusing Zelenskyy and others of being corrupt, stoking the flames of war for profit, and even being drug addicts.
There were also narratives seeking to exploit fissures between leadership and amplify even the slightest disagreement as a meltdown of Ukrainian governance. They pushed the idea that Zelenskyy wanted to sacrifice every last Ukrainian for personal gain. Then came the narratives that the people oppose Zelenskyy, that the West could remove him, that the military sought to mutiny and kill him.
Pro-Russian media spread narratives about the Ukrainian army designed to both insult and demoralize Ukrainians. This included total lies about surrenders, disrespect for the fallen soldiers, mobilizing minors, and a range of unprofessional behavior.
While it is true that soldiers want more supplies, more ammunition, it is important to note that it is Russia’s objective to maximize internal doubts about capability and focus in the forces it is fighting. This is standard operating procedure. To achieve this aim, headlines in these surveyed countries promoted stories of cruelty and chaos.
More of the demoralization campaign conducted against Ukraine is determined to discourage the fight in Ukrainians and her allies. It amplified any voices saying Ukraine cannot win. This could include finding various retired military or diplomatic voices who would express cynicism of a victory for Ukraine.
From the beginning narrative of Kyiv fill fall in three days to Ukraine cannot survive the winter fight, these speculations failed. It included the false claim that offensives in 2022 had failed despite the evidence that land seized in the invasion’s opening month were returned to Ukrainian control in a matter of months.
To make sure outside support lost interest, “Ukraine is on the verge of complete collapse” was the headline directive that followed.
In another bait and switch, Russian proxy sites promoted the narrative, “Ukraine is a terrorist state” or a “state sponsor of terrorism” complete with claims after October 7, 2023, that it was working with the terrorists who Russia in fact supported in Gaza.
From the old narrative that Ukraine, always referred to as “the Kiev regime” was engaged in terrorism against its civilian population, the Russians repeatedly used these lines to justify further incursion into Ukrainian territory. It was the root of Putin’s opening invasion speeches, he was dealing with terrorists. He didn’t mean ISIS, Taliban, Al Qaida, in his rants. He meant Ukrainians, who are not on the lists of terrorist states, organizations or countries with a problem of terrorism besides the Russian attacks ongoing since 2014.
One Russian front site stated, “The terrorist nature of the current Ukrainian regime is clearly manifested both in the cynical attacks on the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant and in the ongoing terrorist attacks on Ukrainian and even Russian territories, the expert emphasized.” Another article from the same outlet went further to connect any action by a legitimate army on its own soil to America, but, of course, through the language typical of the Moscow regime, it isn’t America and Ukraine. Instead, it’s the Kiev Regime and Washington. This is how it is played in the Russian disinformation sphere and is always a key indicator of where the narrative originates.
The site claimed, “He noted that Washington allows the Armed Forces of Ukraine to conduct military operations to capture Crimea, the LPR, and the DPR, as well as the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions. According to the sociologist, the United States is pushing Ukraine towards terrorism and escalation of fighting. He clarified that this ‘permission’ includes not only approval and political cover but also the supply of relevant weapons and ammunition.” As you can see, in the Russian disinformation sphere, Ukraine supposedly requires permission from the United States to protect its own terrain, and anything else is labeled as terrorism and escalation of fighting.
Russia’s proxies also spread false information that Ukraine was behind terrorist attacks in Europe. The most significant accusation was related to the Nord Stream Pipeline or the claim that Azov planned to invade Belarus. Another accusation centered on an assassination attempt against Vadim Krasnoselsky, the Russian proxy puppet in Transnistria.
Then, when Ukraine finally struck targets in Russia after years of attacks by Russia, those were labeled as terrorism. The fits and cries of leadership in Moscow conveniently overlooked the memories of sending Shahid drones to attack civilian targets in Ukraine.
Now, this one is a complicated narrative to break down, so bear with me. In this make-believe world of Russian making, Zelenskyy embodies the evil dictator who has arrested his opponents, banned religions, suppressed the Russian language, jailed those who listen to Russian music, and banned the media. The use of outside voices to engage in concern trolling, as if speaking for Ukrainians, will be broken down to reveal the truth of these claims as we go through them.
In this narrative, we observe an old KGB tactic wherein a non-Ukrainian individual targets the integrity of a Ukrainian official or officials, including President Zelenskyy, before an article is employed to endorse that attack as a valid criticism of Ukraine itself. This involves utilizing various academics, media figures, or officials to assert false information.
Let us examine a couple of examples where the attacks are directly aimed at portraying the elected leader as a dictator. Here are some examples:
“ACCORDING TO SWISS INTELLIGENCE:”
This opening phrase marked the beginning of an article intending to criticize Zelenskyy in June 2022. It derived from a story that unfolded after a missile attack by Russia on the city. Following a Russian assault and the failure to unlock a bomb shelter in Kyiv, two individuals lost their lives. This incident sparked a controversy, leading to a confrontation between President Zelenskyy and Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko. Although it represented a common moment of crisis politics among leaders at that time, a few weeks later, a Czech website attempted to reinterpret it as a revelation “According to Swiss intelligence.”
In this narrative, Zelenskyy was portrayed as exhibiting more authoritarian tendencies, with a focus on dismantling his rivals, particularly Klitchko. The article, lacking an identified author and providing no supporting evidence or report, asserted, “Zelenskyy is trying to get rid of political competition before the presidential elections, which should take place in due time at the end of March next year.”
Instead of being presented as a typical political disagreement, the pro-Russian outlet framed it as exclusive insight from Swiss Intelligence, failing to provide any intelligence or convey coherent information to the reader. The dispute between Zelenskyy and Klitschko quickly subsided, and despite nearly two years of war, no substantial dictatorial measures have been implemented. However, this does not diminish the efforts of Kremlin proxies.
The inclusion of fake experts meant to manufacture external opinions includes a man like, Steven Bryen, who lacks any identifiable work experience related to Ukraine. He engages in pontificating about the end of democracy in Ukraine and is known for promoting disinformation, as seen in his comment, “Zelensky arrested most of his political opponents, silenced the media he did not like, including cases where the opposition was allegedly liquidated by the SBU”[i]
Bryen’s voice is presented as expertise on pro-Russian propaganda sites in Europe, creating a fabricated image of him as a security expert. However, Russians sometimes benefit from a voice that can inflict greater damage to the truth. In this case, it requires a person with a unique personality, completely lacking in both sound principles and honesty, to lie with a straight face. Enter the Tucker validation machine.
Many of the sites found in the Propaganda Diary inevitably have a link to a European propaganda site pushing the words of the former Fox News entertainment personality, Tucker Carlson.
He has been quick to promote the Kremlin line and these sites quickly echo each word without question nor interference. Moreover, they use it to promote the Kremlin narrative but through a popular American.
This is the information circle Russia’s propaganda loves the most. The voice of an American, a solid red blooded American saying exactly what the Kremlin writes to the letter.
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin stated his objectives in launching an invasion. Thus it is indisputable that Russia launched the invasion, unprovoked no less. It is therefore indisputable this is a war about driving out an invader, not a war for democracy in the framing of Carlson’s foil to Putin’s objective. It is in this intentional fogging that the disinformation model works best. Confusing two things on purpose.
Having no experience in Ukraine, Carlson blasted the country:
“Ukraine, to be technical, is not a democracy. Democracies don’t arrest political opponents, and they don’t shut down opposition media, both of which Ukraine has done. And by the way, Ukraine is a pure client state of the United States State Department — again, that’s fine. We are not mad about that, go ahead and run Ukraine if you want, if you think you can do a better job than Ukrainians. Just don’t tell us it’s a democracy.”
It’s true that this is a war for liberties, including democracy. Unfortunately, it extends beyond the scope of democracy to encompass more significant ideals. Carlson’s expressed concern for democracy is contradicted by his admiration for a dictator in office since 2000 who supports other dictators worldwide. In contrast, Ukraine experienced a change in leadership in its last election in 2019, as democracies tend to do. When was the last change in Russian leadership? Russia is a dictatorship. This dictatorship not only praises Tucker Carlson’s remarks on state television but also looks to his words as validation of their worldview.
Czech sites and the German version of RT quoted Tucker Carlson
“So we are currently waging a war for democracy in the name of a leader who just casually announced that he would like to abolish democracy.”
”But that’s not surprising, the ex-Fox News presenter pointed out. Wars are there to destroy democracies and in this sense they are intended to serve demagogues.”
An unnamed RT (or Russia Today, a state sponsored propaganda unit) article in Germany dated June 28, 2023 stated Tucker Carlson was concerned about Democracy, because Zelensky announced no elections due to the war. The war that Ukraine did not start.[ii] It quoted Carlson as saying “wars for democracy always destroy democracy’ even though the war wasn’t a war for democracy in the first place. It was an invasion by Russia on a country that has democracy. It was the invasion that stopped the democracy of the country.
THEN CAME THE TRAITOR
But if Tucker wasn’t bad enough, perhaps the European outlets could just directly quote a figure who would be the ultimate symbol of betrayal to Ukraine, that of Viktor Medvedchuk.
The worst, being in Poland when Medvedchuk wrote a piece that was passed off as “Pavel82”. If you wanted to know if Medvedchuk was a traitor to Ukraine, you merely need to read his attack on Zelenskyy. Instead of an impartial article from someone stating there were political opponents being locked up, this was a venomous revenge letter that overtly attacked Ukraine itself.
Below is an article by Viktor Medvedchuk – chairman of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform for Life party (banned in Ukraine), deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine for the 9th term, based on a recent UN report. I have reviewed the report (especially the part regarding Ukraine’s actions) and I confirm what Viktor Medvedchuk writes. At the end I also attach links to the report in English, Russian and Ukrainian versions. The report has 51 pages. If you want, read it, because you won’t find out about it in any media (including WNET radio). My notes are in italics. The article is in a slightly shortened version. If you want to read the whole thing, here’s the link at the end.
The only surprising thing about the last example is that it overtly put the words of a man who willfully backed turning Ukraine towards Russia despite the will of the people. If local sentiments in Kyiv and online sentiments are to be trusted, he’s not liked by Ukrainians. More important, his words are Kremlin words and in Ukraine, critics of Zelenskyy are not prone to want to hear Medvedchuk or others parrot Kremlin talking points. He was Putin’s pick for a puppet government. He will likely spend the rest of his life under Putin’s wing, for his chances in Ukraine seem over.
It is also important to see that Медведчук was portrayed as a dissident voice, the voice of reason, and presented as if he was a victim. Russia swapped American, British and lots of Ukrainians to get Медведчук and he is key to their vision of a Ukraine that resembles Лукашенко’s dictatorship in Belarus.
Another component of the disinformation aimed at Ukraine is a fogging campaign subtitled, “Ukraine illegally persecutes the Orthodox Church” which extends now across the globe in variations including “Zelenskyy has banned Christianity in Ukraine.” One merely travel to any local church nearly any time of day and see this is not true and in Ukraine there are plenty of churches to verify.
It is the definition of irony that Russia would be so apoplectic after being the source of the original religious suppression across Ukraine. The truth is, Ukrainians are quite religiously active compared to the west. So then what is the controversy?
Ukrainian officials have presented evidence that the monastery in Kyiv known as the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra has been used as an espionage front for Russian intelligence. None of this should be surprising considering Patriarch Kirill was a KGB officer and is essentially Putin’s top religious figure. But NatSecMedia can confirm that authorities in Ukraine’s capital have made evidence available to press and have put the case to the courts. Further, other services continue at churches under the Moscow Patriarchy. Please recall our story from Odesa and the Transfiguration Cathedral, which continues its services daily.
Dictatorships don’t bother with the courts and remember, the disinformation campaign frequently states Ukraine controls all the press, right?
It is good news to tell you, that there is press across the country that is independent, local, in tune with local events including shelling and assaults by Russia on the front. It is also true there are outlets here that feature their own content. However, yes, there is a state hub in the capital that is very active with a ton of types of programming. In an upcoming segment, we will explore the media landscape of Ukraine itself.
To the topic of disinformation and media control, it is important to close with the following reality check about media in war. Reporting is vital for the public to know what is happening in their country. It is vital for understanding what is happening in a neighboring country or region. Good journalism helps people make better decisions about how to help.
The rules for accreditation and journalism are straightforward here: avoid disclosing troop positions and security details to prevent dangers. This is a fundamental principle. The same applies to sharing air defense information or strike locations, as it helps the enemy gather information and target specific areas. Some journalists have violated martial law rules and lost their accreditation as a result. NatSecMedia maintains that we have never experienced inappropriate interference in our discussions with civilians, soldiers, checkpoint guards, officials, POW families, or other media.
However, we acknowledge that this is a country at war, and information collection is one of our specialties. We are aware that Russia uses position information to target locations. We expect that other journalists would do the same. Reports to the contrary about crackdowns on media do not appear to be true by the countless interviews and interactions we have had over nearly two years.
Amidst heartbreak, sadness, and trauma, Ukrainian refugees found themselves compelled to seek shelter beyond their country’s borders. This distressing reality was already difficult, and the situation was further compounded by the spread of falsehoods worldwide, intensifying the tragedy. Now, in addition to the logistical challenges, Ukrainians were being set up for failure abroad.
The narratives employed to denigrate Ukrainians depicted them as violent, diseased, corrupt, and troublemakers for the Europeans providing refuge during the war. Headlines were crafted to instill fear of Ukrainians among Europeans, portraying them as burdens on an already strained economic system.
Another narrative was that Ukrainians were not really fleeing a war but were seeking to take advantage of government benefits in a system already burdened by the population of the reader. Additionally, they were called “ungrateful” and “arrogant” and said they didn’t want to look for work.
Anti-immigration sentiments are not uncommon in Europe, as observed following the mass migration from Syria. These sentiments were also manipulated to heighten tensions among immigrant groups. Those groups were told they would get less support because now the system would have to deal with Ukrainians.
Subsequently, a disinformation campaign was launched to instill fear in Ukrainians about support from Europe. They were told they were a burden and then fear mongered about returning to their homeland. These refugees are already in enough stress. The disinformation campaigns only exacerbate the trauma.
There are many other smaller narratives to explore, but these are some of the more important items we ask you to consider the next time you hear headlines telling you Ukrainians are evil, war mongering and that their Jewish president is a secret Nazi dictator. The evidence is overwhelming that not only are these lies but they are easily disputed lies.
There is a bigger challenge in these lies to cover another day. While we are focused on these lies what destruction has continued. That is the nature of disinformation.
Special thank you to VoxCheck and your hard work at The Propaganda Diary. We invite the listener to comb through the linked examples for each narrative header.
NatSecMedia is donor driven and we thank all who help us continue independent journalism covering Ukraine and other topics.
Thank you to Andriy Kononenko and the Nareshti Dopamoha organization for your tireless efforts for Ukraine.
Special thanks to our media colleagues at the Ukraine Media Center.