A few days before the start of the full-scale war, the Detector Media team noticed an increase in the number of disinformation attacks in the Ukrainian media. In this way, Russia was preparing the ground for the commencement of hostilities: stating that Ukrainian troops were shelling kindergartens; Zelenskyy was taking his family out of Kyiv in anticipation of war, etc. To document all these fakes, the Detector Media team created the #Disisnfochronicle project, where they documented Russian disinformation in real time: refuted fakes and manipulations, and collected propaganda messages. During the ten months of the full-scale war, the analysts recorded and refuted 1084 fakes, 354 manipulations, and 361 messages. They also recorded 222 exposés of different frauds and propaganda schemes. We will tell you what topics have become the most popular for the Russian propaganda machine in almost a year of the full-scale invasion and why Russia uses them for its manipulations.
According to the observations of Detector Media analysts, most of the fakes and manipulations recorded during the ten months were created in order to fuel long-established narratives of Russian propaganda. In other words, the Russian propaganda machine needs fakes and manipulations to shape a favorable opinion in society (both Ukrainian, Russian, and Western) in order to accomplish its political goals more effectively. For example, by regularly launching small fakes and manipulations in the media space, such as the claim that Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has a bracelet with Nazi symbols, or that the helmets of the Ukrainian military feature a Nazi cross, the propaganda machine fuels the narrative that Ukrainians are Nazis.
During the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war from February 24 to December 24, 2022, Detector Media pinpointed the main topics and narratives that Russian propaganda cultivated with its fakes.
The project methodology can be found here.
To find all the final materials about what the year 2022 was like for the media and information space, follow the tag results of 2022.
Most of the Russian disinformation was aimed at discrediting the current Ukrainian government. Particularly President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Office of the President. A popular message was that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a bad president who will soon betray his people because he does not intend to fight Putin. For example, in the first days of the war, Russian propagandists spread a fake that Zelenskyy had fled the country or was about to do so. The President himself promptly refuted such claims, recording a video in the center of Kyiv and assuring that he was not going anywhere. However, such fakes were constantly repeated: Russia even tried to launch and deepfake video purporting to portray Zelenskyy as saying that he was giving up, Ukraine had surrendered and that he was going abroad. The video appeared, in particular, on Facebook and Instagram, but Meta deleted it. Similar fakes about the President’s escape were launched by Russian propaganda not only in the first months of the full-scale invasion but also after the first massive missile attacks on energy infrastructure in October 2022. At the same time, propagandists launched a fake that Russia was hitting “decision-making centers”. Allegedly, a missile hit the Verkhovna Rada building, and Ukraine will soon capitulate, and Zelenskyy (once again) flees the country. In fact, the propagandists confused the dome of the Kyiv City Teacher’s House, which was hit by the missile, with the dome of the Verkhovna Rada, which stands elsewhere.
There were also a lot of Russian arguments regarding the so-called external governance and Zelenskyy as a puppet of the collective West. They claim that all decisions made by Zelenskyy and his team only harm Ukraine, because he has no regard for the welfare of his people, but only tries to fulfill the orders of his Western curators. Through such messages, Russia seeks to reinforce the idea that Ukraine is not an independent state, claiming that it is because of the government’s actions, which are dictated by the EU and the US. This is allegedly why the war broke out in Ukraine and people are dying. Thus, Russia shifts the responsibility for its aggression and blames others for the war — primarily Ukrainian authorities and “third parties”.
The Russian propaganda machine launched the statement that the Ukrainian government is bad because it doesn’t care about its citizens as well, because instead of agreeing to Russia’s terms and sitting down at the negotiating table, it continues the war, receives weapons from partner states, thus provoking the deaths of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages. However, while spreading such messages, propagandists keep silent about the fact that the war in Ukraine was initiated by Russia.
The notion that the Ukrainian authorities are making money off the war was also widely promoted. They claimed that the war isn’t ending because Zelenskyy and his associates are profiting from it. In particular, by selling weapons received from partner states. Alternatively, propagandists spread messages about the sale of flour and grain abroad at a time when Ukrainians have nothing to eat during the war. In autumn, Russian propagandists invented another way of so-called profit for the Ukrainian authorities. The propaganda machine began promoting messages about the sale of electricity abroad while Ukrainians are forced to stay home without power. In this way, Russia also tried to shift the responsibility and to give the impression that Ukraine’s electricity problems are not caused by enemy missile attacks on infrastructure facilities, but rather by Ukrainian government actions, which cares less about people’s lives and more about making money by selling electricity to other countries (in fact, electricity is not being exported).
By spreading claims about the “bad Ukrainian government”, Russia seeks to create instability, undermine the trust of Ukrainians in the decisions of the authorities, and intimidate them. They claim Ukraine will suffer in the long run, because the government does not care about the people, profits from the war, and wants the fighting to last forever.
Russian propagandists also tried to discredit Volodymyr Zelenskyy by spreading fakes and claiming that the Ukrainian President is ridiculed worldwide, his policies are not taken seriously, and he is considered a clown. This is how the Russian propaganda machine responds to almost every successful speech Zelenskyy makes to the international community or to Ukraine’s military achievements. For example, a supposedly new post stamp issued in Poland was circulated on social media. It depicts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a mustache similar to Adolf Hitler’s. In the comments on social media, users ask whether such stamps can be used to send letters to Israel. However, this stamp is fake. In Poland, a stamp with the image of Volodymyr Zelenskyy was indeed issued, but it is not an official stamp issued by the Polish Post, and Zelenskyy did not appear on it in Hitler’s image. Also, a photo of graffiti allegedly from Madrid was circulated online, depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a locust devouring the European Union. The posts claimed that the graffiti was allegedly painted by artists from the Madrid group Typical Optical. However, the photo that is being circulated is photoshopped. As a matter of fact, there is no such graffiti on the photo from the Plaza de las Cortes taken on December 27 in Madrid. The source of the fake photos is an Instagram account that has previously distributed fabricated photos of Zelenskyy’s caricature graffiti. The Russian propaganda machine is conducting a systematic campaign to discredit the President of Ukraine, for which it distributes dozens of fake graffiti and mocking covers, implying that Zelenskyy has lost his international credibility and that there is a decline in his popularity.
This narrative was also promoted by the Russian propaganda machine during the entire 10 months of the full-scale invasion, although it emerged much earlier. Back in 2014, Russian propaganda justified the invasion of two regions of Ukraine with the so-called Nazism, calling the Ukrainian government criminal and illegal. Ukrainians became Nazis allegedly because they “destroyed the people of Donbas”, banned the Russian language, hated everything Russian, etc. And the so-called “denazification” became one of the invented reasons for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
In the context of the full-scale invasion, the Russian propaganda machine fuels the claims about Nazism with small fakes and manipulations. For example, it alleged that Ukrainian refugees are Nazis who beat people abroad; claimed that “Ukrainian Nazis” exterminate children of the Donbas; that Ukrainians use various Nazi symbols. For example, Russian media claimed that the helmet of one of the Ukrainian soldiers bears the Nazi inscription Jedem das Seine (“to each his own”, used by the Nazis as a motto displayed over the entrance of Buchenwald concentration camp). The propagandists claimed that “this symbol is banned in Germany as Nazi and is associated with a call for mass murder”. Such messages were accompanied by photos of allegedly the same helmet. However, all this is fake. In fact, the photo was edited in Photoshop: the inscription Jedem das Seine was intentionally added. The photo shows musicians of the Ukrainian musical band Antytila, who joined the Territorial Defense Force at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Also, the Russians created a fake that the Ukrainian soldiers are being bestowed with Nazi awards. Allegedly, this is proof of the “thriving Nazism” in Ukraine. Propagandists claimed that for the Kharkiv operation, servicemen of the 92nd Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were awarded “Steel Crosses” similar to “Iron Crosses”, which were awarded to the “worst thugs” in the Wehrmacht. However, the “Steel Cross” badge has nothing to do with the Nazi “Iron Cross”, and it does not contain any Nazi symbols. The Ukrainian award “Steel Cross” combined the martial symbols of the Zaporizhian Host (crossed ceremonial maces) and successful campaigns against enemies (the heraldic sign of the Ukrainian hetman Konstanty Ostrogski, who defeated the Moscow army near Orsha in 1514).
There were also reports that Ukrainians are Nazis because they adorn Christmas trees with swastika decorations. A photo of the purported Christmas tree decorations allegedly used by Ukrainians spread through Telegram channels broadcasting pro-Russian rhetoric. The decorations in the photo are real, but they have nothing to do with Ukraine. This is an old photo that appeared on photo stocks back in 2011. Later, the photo was distributed by the website Slate.fr. These decorations are also mentioned in a scientific article in Polish about the celebration of Christmas during the Second World War. These photos were taken at the Museum of Bread and Art (until 2018 the Museum of Bread Culture) in Ulm. A collection of Christmas decorations (400 items) from the Third Reich was exhibited in 2013 by German art historians to illustrate how zealots changed the symbols of Christmas.
All such fakes fuel the narrative that Ukrainians are Nazis. According to the fakes, all their actions, habits, and even appearance demonstrates this.
Here is another recurring narrative of Russian propaganda, which has been regularly fueled with small fakes and manipulations throughout the months of the full-scale invasion. Russia constantly maintains that Poland plans to annex the western regions of Ukraine. In particular, the Lviv region. In addition to Poland, Russia accuses other neighboring countries, including Hungary, of possible future annexation.
At the end of September, Russian propaganda promoted the fake that Poland had launched a covert mobilization to seize Lviv in the future. Propagandists make such conclusions in the wake of the news about the deployment of the “Train with the Army” program, which is in fact a social initiative of the Polish Ministry of National Defense together with the Polish Army. The project aims to develop survival skills in case of emergency. In other words, no mobilization for the sake of future annexation will occur.
Russians also spread a fake that the Lviv region decided to organize referendums on the accession of western Ukraine to Poland, similar to those that Russia organized in the east and south of the country. The propagandists claimed that the preparations for the “referendum” are in full swing and that the ballots have been prepared. The team of analysts recorded dozens of similar fakes. In addition, earlier, Detector Media explained in detail why Russia invented the narrative of Poland’s seizure of Ukraine.
This statement was recorded by the analysts of Detector Media in May-June last year. It was preceded by claims about terrible Ukrainian refugees, Russophobes and Nazis, who destroy the economy of the host countries after being displaced; organize chaos and pogroms in those countries; mock the locals, and Ukrainian women prostitute themselves in the EU countries and tear apart European families. They claimed that the world is already aware of what Ukrainians are like. The Europeans are allegedly disappointed with their efforts to help Ukrainians and will now drive them home.
For example, a video was circulated online, showing an elderly woman allegedly complaining to the Polish authorities that she had been “robbed” by Ukrainian refugees whom she had welcomed into her apartment. In different versions of the story, either the woman’s children or the city authorities persuaded the 73-year-old Polish woman to provide shelter to a Ukrainian family. Instead, the Ukrainians allegedly robbed the woman, smashed up the apartment, ran up housing debt, and fled. However, the video attached to the post has nothing to do with Ukraine. It first appeared online on April 24, 2018. The woman in the video complains that she was not provided with the promised services — the replacement of all Internet and television equipment. It is likely that the video was filmed in the customer service office of Vectra, which provides telecommunications services in Poland. However, after such fakes, there are reports on the Internet that Poles, British, Germans, and Spanish, or residents of any other country that accepts Ukrainian war refugees, can no longer tolerate Ukrainians. Usually, Russian propaganda draws such conclusions based on anonymous comments of a few people but presents it as the opinion of the entire Polish, German or other society. This way, Russian propaganda attempts to reinforce the idea that Ukraine will soon find itself alone with its problems as a result of poor behavior by Ukrainian refugees abroad. Read more about Russian propaganda about Ukrainian refugees in the research of Detector Media.
During the ten months of the full-scale invasion, there were also many fakes, manipulations, and messages about the so-called third parties to the “conflict”. Russian propagandists claim that in Ukraine, Russia is at war not just with Ukraine, but also with the United States, the European Union, and NATO, whose actions allegedly “provoked Russia to war”. For example, propagandists wrote that a joint task force of officers and soldiers of Polish special forces in Ukrainian uniforms arrived in Marhanets, Dnipropetrovsk region, to identify pro-Russian residents of the city. This unit, according to the propaganda, is under the operational control of NATO headquarters. However, NATO countries are not involved in hostilities in Ukraine. There is no evidence of the presence of NATO troops in Ukraine. Western instructors only train the Ukrainian military to use modern weapons supplied to Ukraine by its partners; this training takes place mostly outside Ukraine. However, Russian propaganda is constantly spreading stories about foreign troops allegedly fighting in Ukraine. It claims that Ukraine had confirmed that NATO intended to attack Russia. Also, the Russian propaganda machine wrote that the NATO Secretary General does not want a ceasefire in Ukraine, so NATO “is forcing” Russia to destroy Ukraine. By doing so, Russia attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine and portray other states and organizations as aggressors. Russian propaganda claims that it is the other states that want war, want to destroy Russia, and so on, so the Russian government was forced to start hostilities to prevent a catastrophe. However, in such messages, propagandists forget that it was Russia that started the war long before 2022 — in late February 2014. Russia uses such messages to justify its defeats at the front as well. They argue that the “second army of the world” is losing in battle not to weak Ukrainian troops, but to trained NATO soldiers. However, sometimes the propaganda contradicts itself and, on the contrary, presents NATO troops as weak and incapable, claiming that only homosexuals serve there, who are supposedly incapable of fighting.
Many of the fakes, manipulations, and messages of Russian propaganda recorded by Detector Media analysts concerned life in the newly occupied territories of Ukraine and in the territories that the Ukrainian army has already liberated from Russian invaders. Russian propaganda tries to show the life of people under occupation in a positive light, telling how people are now allowed to communicate in their native Russian language; assuring that they have a better life because the Russian authorities care about them, etc. Instead, people in the liberated territories are being scared by “Ukrainian punishers” who will repress all those who lived under occupation and did not leave for the government-controlled territory of Ukraine. For example, after the liberation of Kherson, Telegram channels broadcasting pro-Russian rhetoric reported that hell broke loose for civilians in the city. They claimed that constant shelling of civilians would begin with the arrival of the Ukrainian army. Also, allegedly, all residents of the Kherson region who cooperated with the Russians are “done for”. According to propagandists, there are “tens of thousands” of such people. Russians used similar tactics during the liberation of the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv regions. In particular, propagandists wrote that the Ukrainian military shelled people’s houses in Bucha because people accepted assistance from Russians. They also spread fakes that in the liberated territories, all those who do not support Ukrainian nationalism will be punished with death. Russian propaganda is thus trying to spread the narrative of “Ukrainian Nazi punishers” and actively conceal the crimes of the Russian army in the occupied territories.
There are also a lot of manipulations about the standard of living in the liberated Ukrainian territories, which, according to propagandists, allegedly deteriorated after the Russian troops left. They claimed that the Ukrainian authorities are not engaged in the restoration of the liberated territories, because they do not care about the people. According to reports, Kherson residents complain that after Kherson was liberated from Russian troops, the quality of life there deteriorated. Supposedly, this was what the local residents of Kherson told journalists of the British edition of Sky News. However, propagandists took only one quote from a woman who said it had become “worse, they give help, but not to everyone” out of context. In fact, most of the Kherson residents mentioned in the Sky News piece told journalists that they were happy that the city was back under Ukrainian control, even if they now expect more trouble due to Russian shelling. However, Russia has an interest in manipulating this topic to convince people that life was better under the Russian occupation. There were reports that after the liberation of Kherson, it became impossible to live in the city: no electricity, water, food, etc. Russian propaganda outlets, in particular the Telegram channel of Vladimir Solovyov, published photos of queues in Kherson, where people stand for water, humanitarian aid, SIM cards, etc. They also wrote that let those who did not want to live “under the Russian world”, now “survive under the Ukrainian one”. However, the dire situation in Kherson was caused by no other than Russia, which occupied the city. During the occupation, Russians looted the city, destroyed critical infrastructure, including gas, water, and power supply systems. Now, local utilities are trying to return light and heat to the city as soon as possible, volunteers bring water and humanitarian aid, and phone companies distribute cards so that people can call their relatives in other cities.
Most of the Russian fakes, manipulations and messages that Detector Media has recorded during the ten months of the full-scale invasion are designed to discredit Ukraine as a state, to make it look weak, to devalue the struggle of Ukrainians for their independence. In the eyes of Russian propaganda, Ukraine is a country ruled by third parties, Ukrainians are Nazis ready to ruthlessly kill their own people, even children, and the government uses the war for profit. All these messages help Russia to legitimize its actions and justify its crimes in Ukraine. Propaganda claims that it is Russia that protects world order by fighting the Nazis, for if not for the Russian decision to start the war, Ukraine would have done so, and “everything would have been worse”.
You can find more refuted Russian fakes, messages, and manipulations on the website of Detector Media #DisinfoChronicle.