WHAT KREMLIN PROPAGANDISTS SAY:
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kremlin propagandists have sought to promote the notion that ‘Ukraine is losing the war.’ Despite becoming embroiled in months of conflict with an end far from sight, Russian officials and pro-Kremlin outlets have maintained that the so-called “special military operation” is ‘under control’ and that ‘victory is imminent.’
This disinformation narrative is employed to boost morale among the Russian population and shore up support for the war. During his Victory Day speech, Vladimir Putin proclaimed that “a real war is being waged against our country again but we have countered international terrorism and will defend the people of Donbass and safeguard our security.”
Coverage of the invasion is tightly controlled within Russia, with the disinformation narrative taking various forms, ranging from reporting inaccurate fatality counts of Ukrainian soldiers to contesting reports that towns and cities have been liberated from Russian control. Vladimir Putin himself has denied the success of Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Disinformation actors often link this narrative to other disinformation narratives, including ‘the West is prolonging the war in Ukraine through the provision of military aid.’
WHAT ARE THE FACTS:
Ukraine successfully resists the Russian army. Whilst Vladimir Putin would love to rewrite history, it cannot be denied that Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression has been met with fierce and effective resistance from Ukrainian forces. In what was originally billed as a rapid operation to take the country, Ukraine has been able to resist the vast Russian offensive and even liberate significant amounts of its territory captured during the early days of the war. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to maintain an impression of having momentum in Ukraine and the pretense that the ‘special military operation’ will be swift has slowly faded away. With increasing losses on the Russian side threatening to dampen domestic morale and, ultimately, support for the Putin regime, assuring its citizens that victory is near becomes even more of an imperative for propagandists.
Ukraine has regained significant amounts of territory. By November 2022, Ukraine had reclaimed over 50% of the territory which Russia had originally captured since the beginning of the war, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Ukraine has fully expelled Russian forces from Chernihiv, Kyiv, Sumy, Zhytomyr and Mykolaiv.. In regions where Russia continues to hold a majority of land, including Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, the percentage of land in these areas controlled by Russian forces has fallen in the past year. According to the ISW, “Russian forces have captured a total of 282 square kilometers in the entire theater since January 1. In five weeks, Ukrainian forces have liberated nearly the same amount of territory that Russian forces captured in over six months.”
Russia is suffering massive losses. The war has been costly for Russia, with experts estimating a loss of nearly 10,000 units of key equipment such as tanks, trucks, artillery pieces and aerial drones which cost billions of dollars. While the Kremlin’s officials and their mouthpieces often point out how many soldiers the Ukrainian Armed Forces have lost and how many pieces of precious Western equipment were destroyed, Ukraine is not losing, it is moving forward - at a high cost, but it is moving forward.
Ukraine has strengthened its army through massive reforms. Comparing the military strength of the Ukrainian army in 2014 to 2022-23 paints a picture of modernised, highly skilled armed forces equipped with top tier gear. The commitment of the Ukrainian government to reform the military starting 2016, supplemented by financial and military aid, and training from Kyiv’s Western partners, helped to make Ukrainian Armed Forces what they are today. Moreover, Ukrainians have a culture of volunteerism, which was first evidenced in 2014 and even more so in 2022, when the Territorial Defense was established. The latter were the first to engage in combat action on February 24th, as they were the ones guarding the Hostomel Airport.
The scale of Russia’s losses is - unsurprisingly - absent from pro-Kremlin media coverage. In order to construct this disinformation narrative, propagandists must rely on selectively amplifying certain stories which can be used to paint a false impression. In one example, pro-Kremlin media outlets seized on a speech made by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, where she mistakenly stated that the Ukrainian losses could total 100,000 - the estimated figure related to fatalities and injuries, not just fatalities . As a result of the error, the statement was later corrected and edited in re-broadcasts. Russian propagandists exploited this error and correction to deploy accusations of a ‘cover-up,’ while continuing to spread the original speech without correction or clarification. By decontextualising the speech and presenting it without the subsequent correction, Russian disinformation actors sought to deceive their audience by dramatically inflating the number of Ukrainian fatalities, further feeding the idea that ‘the war is not going well for Ukraine.’
Debunker is a series of disinformation-busting articles from Debunk.org which focus on dispelling the harmful lies and propaganda being pushed by pro-Kremlin sources. Check out the rest of the series at debunk.org/debunker.