This week, we examine the common narratives Russia exploits in its disinformation operations to undermine Ukraine and her allies.
We will discuss the most recent Russian disinformation narratives in action and shed light on the activities of Ukrainian groups that continuously monitor disinformation operations on the global digital frontier, navigating the space between autocracy and freedom.
Ukrainian groups have been at the forefront of the battle against disinformation, recognizing the importance of countering false narratives that threaten their nation’s security and stability. These organizations are dedicated to fact-checking and debunking false claims, primarily those made by politicians and media outlets.
“Ukraine’s Digital Warriors: Defending Against Russia’s Global Digital Assault”
By Chris Sampson
Since the outset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russia has exerted all its efforts into dividing Ukraine from its supporters, sowing seeds of doubt about its success, and turning Europe against the refugees who have endured Russia’s brutality and destruction.
Russia’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine did not start in 2014, nor did it commence in 1991. In fact, Russia has been deploying its information machinery against all aspects of Ukrainian culture and identity since the earliest opportunity. The erasure of Ukrainian identity plays a central role in Russia’s imperial ambitions in the region. Russian leaders have employed various tactics to undermine and obliterate the Ukrainian people’s sense of self. Despite these persistent efforts, the Ukrainian identity endures, remaining robust and unwavering. Ukrainians continue to stand strong, not only on the physical battlefield but also in the realm of information warfare.
Russian disinformation campaigns have been observed in various contexts, including interference in foreign elections, undermining international alliances, and inciting public unrest. They often exploit vulnerabilities in the information ecosystem to achieve their objectives.
Let us take a look at one such project that tracks narratives and publishes, “The Propaganda Diary”, an online database of disinformation posts, outlets and narratives. This initiative is overseen by VoxCheck, which operates as a subsidiary project of VoxUkraine, located in Київ.
In the Ukrainian capital city, VoxCheck’s analysts diligently scrutinize the information landscape, tracking, assessing, and evaluating the numerous narratives, sources, and tactics employed by Russian disinformation networks worldwide. Furthermore, they regularly release updated monthly reports containing all 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.
THE NETWORK OF LIES
A key tactic in Russian disinformation propagation is the use of digital cutouts and proxies to mask the source of disinformation and attempt to lend credibility to the lies. In doing so, they make it appear as a combination of both local and organic. VoxCheck has listed dozens of sources of disinformation across six European countries that are heavily affected by these narratives. This includes Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Germany, and Italy.
Each country and region has its own determined narratives meant to influence the target audience in these countries and also affect regional opinions. Russia also pays close attention to events that matter for each target audience, including elections, policy votes, anniversary dates, and other key data points that it uses to further divide the Western allies.
It should be noted that when examining many of these outlets, you will often find no author attribution, or you will be unable to identify how the source arrived at its conclusions. Instead, assertions about Ukraine and allies will be both vague and lack proper sourcing. In other cases, there is a spectrum of writers who are either overtly pro-Russian in the most obvious ways, or they engage in a sort of concern trolling—a common tactic used to appear concerned about Ukrainians when, in fact, the article is working to undermine their sovereignty and safety.
Now, let’s examine these narratives and explore how we can better recognize the playbook for what it is. Remember, these come from sources that directly propagate a combination of misinformation and disinformation.
Please remember the key distinction between misinformation, which involves the dissemination of inaccurate information or framing without the intention to mislead, and disinformation, which is the intentional act of lying through the deliberate use of incorrect information or framing to deceive a target audience.
Here are the disinformation claims propagated by pro-Russian media within this narrative:
Note: We will use the narrative titles as presented by VoxCheck to avoid confusion and those headers are properly descriptive.
The First Narrative to consider.
To make this easier to remember, we will collectively group all the twenty-six narratives that VoxCheck has determined into a few main categories: narratives about the West’s relationship to Ukraine, then a look at the attacks on Ukraine itself, and finally, a few truly absurd narratives that should be mentioned.
The Top Narrative by volume is the most telling: “The West Controls Ukraine and Uses It For Its Own Purposes”. The VoxCheck meters showed at least 1583 sample cases of this narrative.
To establish this narrative, Russia has deployed a range of supporting narratives to root this framing in the minds of the west. In doing so, Russia creates multiple issues for the unaware engaged participants trying to confront Russia. On the Ukrainian side, this means all pleas for assistance must be said in a way that is mindful of the appearance of subservient national status that embodies Russia’s accusation. On the Allies side, the desire to avoid being involved or to appear to validate the accusation created various forms of response that only served the Kremlin objectives. This can and has created policy paralysis and even dissent that delays and diminishes support for Ukraine against Russia.
To push this narrative, there were fourty one sub-narratives that essentially repeat the idea that Ukraine is merely a puppet of the West and is being weaponized directly to attack Russia. The supporting narratives range from blaming the West for Euromaidan when the fact shows Viktor Yanukovich betrayed the will of the people with an economic pact with Russia after the people wanted to join the European community.
This included saying the West doesn’t care how many Ukrainians die, that the West will abandon Ukraine, that the West will divide up Ukrainian resources for profit and control, that the West is preventing Ukraine from entering peace talks, and so forth.
Further, the narratives are sometimes loaded with conspiracy theory talk blaming George Soros, saying the West is building a “New World Order”, and that Ukraine is controlled by Globalists.
An interesting side note, propaganda physically dropped into the Kherson Oblast featured a comment telling Ukrainians that it was George Soros was responsible for the invasion. No explanation about why a Ukrainian would ever believe this.
Continuing with the anti-West narratives, the second most common narrative blames the West for Russia’s aggressive invasion. Despite the facts, Russia pushed this narrative hard across the globe, and the VoxCheck crew identified at least 1347 cases of this specific narrative in their database.
Without evidence, Russia claimed if it had not attacked Ukraine, then it would have been attacked on its own territory. It claimed it would not seek to occupy Ukraine, and that NATO was building up military presence. The VoxCheck crew identified at least 39 sub narratives to these claims.
The third narrative to in the antiwest propaganda concerned itself with “Weapons provided to Ukraine by Western Countries”. This narrative had at least 811 case samples.
Russia disseminates false information suggesting that Ukrainians mishandle Western weapons or that these weapons are ineffective in altering the course of the war. The objective of this narrative is to cultivate the perception that Ukraine is an unreliable partner, incapable of ensuring the proper utilization of the aid it receives. Consequently, it insinuates that there’s no merit in providing weaponry or other forms of assistance to Ukraine.
These narratives were also employed to tarnish the reputation of the Ukrainian government, portraying it as corrupt and inept in fulfilling its commitments, as well as to discredit the military. It was alleged that military personnel were specifically responsible for announcing weapon sales. Additionally, they argue that the supply of weapons to Ukraine will merely extend the duration of the conflict without contributing to Ukraine’s victory.
Additionally, the disinformation campaigns promoted the false narrative that Ukraine was selling its weapons, that these weapons were being funneled to the black market, and that they weren’t reaching the front lines. Then, of course, Russia makes sure to spread the idea that these Western weapons were inferior to Russian weapons and were being destroyed easily by superior Russian power.
The VoxCheck team identified 427 cases of disinformation for this narrative.
In a bid to distract from its own sanction pains, Russia’s disinformation proxy outlets promoted headlines attacking the sanctions as losses for the West. It falsely claimed that these sanctions were causing various problems with inflation, that they would destroy the economies of Europe and America, that arming Ukraine was depleting Western resources, and that sanctions were useless in harming Russia.
Another scare tactic, not based on any truth, aimed at the Ukrainian target audience, claimed that European countries wanted to divide up Ukraine. Through the spring and summer of 2023, disinformation outlets promoted claims that Poland would take back Western Ukraine. In response, Russia sought to project itself as the protector of Ukraine from these alleged forces.
The VoxCheck crew identified 287 sample cases. Despite having only two specific sub-narratives, several dozen headlines for each saturated the news in all six examined countries, including Poland. It would seem logical that the Polish people would know this wasn’t true, yet outlets like Sputnik Polska repeatedly pushed this obviously debunked headline.
At the beginning of the full-scale invasion on February 27th, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for anyone who wanted to join the defense of Ukraine and Europe to come and fight alongside the Ukrainians. This initiative led to the creation of the International Legion for the Territorial Defense of Ukraine, allowing foreign veterans to fight with the Territorial Defense Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. While mercenaries are typically defined as soldiers who fight for financial reward, unlike the Wagner mercenaries employed by Russia, International Legion fighters were required to sign contracts and were paid no differently than Ukrainian soldiers.
Russia’s disinformation proxies attempted to propagate the idea that the need for foreign fighters stemmed from a lack of soldiers in the Ukrainian army or other critical vulnerabilities in Ukrainian forces. They also falsely claimed that these fighters were attacking civilians in Ukraine. Additionally, disinformation centers in Europe, particularly in Poland, pushed the narrative that Polish fighters were being conscripted and that Poland was essentially a “satellite” of America.
In total, the VoxCheck crew identified at least 285 samples of this narrative.
Last in our list for the Russian emphasis of Western influence on Ukraine concerns the discussion of peace negotiations. VoxCheck identified at least 258 sample cases of this narrative. It is a very important narrative despite others having examples having significantly more traffic.
The Russians manipulate this narrative heavily on multiple levels to damage both the West and Ukraine by portraying both as determined to kill all Ukrainians for the western ambitions, to emphasize Western control over Ukraine as to reduce it to a puppet state of the West, and to portray Russia as the reasonable party.
Examples of these headlines claimed when Ukraine wants to negotiate, the West prevents it from doing so. Then, in a contradiction of this claim, it then tries to frame Ukraine as the unreasonable party who doesn’t want to negotiate and that it intends to in fact escalate aggression against Russia.
Another flavor of this narrative seeks to falsely suggest the only way to peace is for Ukraine to demilitarize entirely. To do this, it cited examples of countries in Europe who have adopted neutrality and ban on deployment of foreign troops, like the example of Austria or Switzerland.
In the second half, we will examine the narratives directed at Ukraine itself and how Russia aims to render the country so toxic to allies and supporters that they will abandon Ukraine, allowing Russia to consume it entirely and without hindrance. These narratives are designed to tarnish the character of the entire nation and undermine the credibility of its leadership and military. Let’s delve into the narratives highlighted by VoxCheck.
It is evident that the primary disinformation narrative employed by Russia against Ukraine centered around Vladimir Putin’s attempted justification for invasion—the ‘denazification’ of the country. This narrative also propagated the idea that allies assisting Ukraine were sympathetic to Nazis, even making a bold attack on the nation of Israel. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, offended Israel to such an extent with this rhetoric that Putin had to personally call and offer a direct apology to the Israeli nation.
We will dedicate an entire article to this discussion at a later date, as it is a historically volatile subject that also holds deep traumatic memories for the Ukrainian people, who were victims of the German Nazis in World War Two.
For now, we report that VoxCheck has identified at least 1322 sample cases within this narrative group. This includes headlines suggesting that Ukraine is transforming into a modern Nazi dictatorship, that fascism is spreading in Ukraine, that the West supports this activity, and that it is Russia that is obligated to fight this terror. This is despite the reality that Russia is home to several Neo-Nazi organizations like the Russian Imperial Movement and Rusich.
It is also essential to note that Russia’s definition of Nazis does not primarily revolve around antisemitic hatred or the actual ideology of Adolf Hitler; instead, to Russia, it signifies opposition to Russians themselves. This obviously creates a conundrum when you have a nation constantly under attack, subjugated, and targeted for either forced assimilation or elimination. It should be no surprise that a nation that has been invaded since 2014 and is currently enduring almost two years of a full-scale invasion with a daily barrage of missile and drone attacks is deeply anti-Russian.
Lastly, it should be noted that Poland was specifically targeted with tons of propaganda to exploit historical grievances with Ukraine. Despite Poland’s deep-seated resentment toward Russia, there were many instances in the past year where this historical pain was invoked to potentially drive a wedge between the Polish nation and Ukraine. It is noteworthy that Poland has welcomed numerous Ukrainian refugees, and Ukrainian officials have consistently expressed deep gratitude since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
NARRATIVE TWO: THE UKRAINIAN ARMY COMMITS WAR CRIMES
Combined with, The RUSSIANS DO NOT COMMIT WAR CRIMES
In a game of projection, Russia has been promoting the narrative that Ukraine has been engaged in war crimes against its citizens since its initial invasion of Donbas in 2014. For the past nine years, it has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine not only attacks civilians by shelling civilian infrastructure but also targets civilians with torture and execution. Additionally, it alleges that Ukraine kills its own soldiers, asserts that its air defense systems are responsible for deaths caused by Russian missiles, and accuses Ukraine of using residential positions to employ civilians as human shields.
Similarly, these disinformation portals worked overtime to promote the false narrative that the massacre in Bucha was a hoax, and they attributed the airstrikes, such as those on Kremenchuk or Kramatorsk, to Ukraine. Furthermore, they blamed Ukraine for the deaths of its own soldiers held captive in Olenivka.
Russia also obfuscated the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, presenting it as a humanitarian act instead of acknowledging its clear status as a war crime. This has led to charges and an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin.
IN OUR NEXT SEGMENT
We have many more narratives to cover in Russia’s effort to undermine Ukraine. In our second episode, we will examine direct attacks on the leadership and army of Ukraine, the claim that Ukraine is not a democracy but a terrorist state. We will explore the effort to weaken support for refugees displaced from Ukraine and how Russia has exploited past historical pains and anti-immigrant sentiment to create resentments and hostility towards people who have been forced to flee the war.
For now, we thank you for listening and for your kind support.
Thank you to the hard working groups like VoxCheck doing the work overtime. Great thanks to InformNapalm, you’re the true OGs.
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. Thank you to the team around us.
National Security Media is funded by readers and listeners like you. Thank you.