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Portrayal of the Olenivka prison massacre in the Kremlin's media ecosystem

On the night of 28-29 July 2022 an explosion tore through one of the buildings of the Russia-controlled prison near Olenivka where Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) were being kept. More than 50 Ukrainian POWs were killed and more than 70 were injured. The majority or nearly all of the POWs held at the detention facility were individuals from the Azov Regiment who surrendered after the fierce defense of Azovstal.

More than a year has passed and while the Kremlin prevented an independent investigation of the explosion, evidence of other crimes committed by the Russian state, journalistic investigations and testimonies of the Ukrainian prisoners allows us to draw a conclusion that the Olenivka prison massacre was most probably carried out by the Russian side, making it yet another example of Russian war crimes - Geneva conventions clearly state that the killing (and any other maltreatment) of the POWs is prohibited.

Russia’s response to the explosion in official communication channels

From July 28th to August 14th, 2022, in the 6 official Kremlin channels, there were a total of 12 unique articles which used keyword “Еленовка” and focused on the brutal explosion of the detention center.

Already on July 29th, Russia’s Ministry of Defense in its summary of the events of the “special military operation”, claimed that the explosion in Olenivka prison is a “bloody provocation” carried out by the “Kiev regime”. Moreover, it stated that the explosion was caused by HIMARS strike - such claims will become the most repeated message that the pro-Kremlin media, including TG channels, chose to attach to the bloody events. This was of course denied by independent experts because, among other things, HIMARS missile would have caused by far more damage to the building, and a year after the explosion the UN also said that the it could not have been caused by a HIMARS rocket.

Nonetheless, it is particularly telling that a Russian reporter on the morning of July 29th, just hours after explosion quickly found supposed fragments of HIMARS rocket, seemingly confirming that the Russian side was quite well prepared for the onset of the disinformation offensive surrounding the bloody massacre of Ukrainian POWs right from day one.

In the same first official publication, it was also claimed that Ukraine carried out this attack to intimidate other members of UAF from surrendering, and just like the lies that HIMARS was used, “explanations” that Ukraine committed the brutal attack as means to scare the members of UAF or the POWs will remain one of the most prevalent.

There were also claims about how the US is helping Ukraine commit these attacks and is also responsible for the attacks. For example, on August 2nd published an articles stating:

“Именно администрация Байдена несёт прямую ответственность за все одобренные Киеву ракетные атаки по жилым кварталам и объектам гражданской инфраструктуры населённых пунктов Донбасса и других регионов, повлекших массовую гибель мирных жителей.”

On the same day, a customary transcript of a rant by Maria Zakharova nobly titled “Briefing by the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry M.V. Zakharova” was released on website, stating that Ukraine wanted to kill the POWs because they “started to confess of their crimes”:

“Почему киевский режим нанес удар по СИЗО, где находились украинские военнопленные? Потому что они начали давать показания, рассказывать о своих зверствах против мирного населения Донбасса, стали раскрывать факты (с цифрами, датами, с привязкой к географии). Эти военнопленные теперь угрожают режиму В.А.Зеленского тем, что стали живыми свидетелями преступлений. О чём последние четыре-пять месяцев кричат из Киева, западные «партнеры», либеральная общественность во всем мире: «Какие там нацисты», «там никого нет», «никаких преступлений на почве ксенофобии никогда не совершалось». Теперь же выведенные с «Азовстали» боевики предоставили доказательства того, чем они занимались (не самостоятельно, а в составе ВСУ). Такие опасные, с точки зрения киевского режима, свидетели подлежали уничтожению. Поэтому просто нажали кнопку «пуск» и произвели выстрел из американского оружия по их же информационным наводкам. Так всё цинично и просто, но при этом абсолютно в стилистике западной философии – уничтожать тех, кто еще вчера служил верой и правдой, присягнул, выполнял преступные приказы, считая, что они правильные и идущие в русле национальных интересов Украины.”

In this publication, it was also stated that Russia very much approves and calls for an independent investigation into the explosion. Despite such rhetoric, the recent statements from international organizations goes to show that it is the Kremlin which prevented such proceedings.

In the official media, other claims included a message saying that Ukraine insisted that Azov fighters be placed in the Olenivka prison in the first place and the doubling down on statements that Ukraine carried out the attack to prevent prisoners from confessing or that Russia sincerely wanted an independent investigation: Duma website shared a Telegram post by the chairman of the Russian Duma Vyacheslav Volodin who said that the attack was carried out “to prevent a new Nuremberg trial, where captured Nazis - Azovites would testify” (drawing parallels between Ukraine and nazism are of course a textbook tactic of Kremlin lie peddlers) and Leonid Slutsky supposedly visited the prison with “international expert pool” and discussed “the problems of countering Western propaganda and its Ukrainian-fascist branch.”

Russian Telegram environment

Similar main messages were present in the Russian Telegram (TG) environment as well. The absolute majority of posts in our sample directly blamed Ukraine for the explosion in the prison. More than half of them also stated that HIMARS was used to carry out the attack. Figure 1 shows some of these posts which in their essence do not differ much from the publications in the official communication channels. All the event messages present in official communication were repeated in the TG environment as well and in fact, the most viewed post in the RU TG environment was created by Vyacheslav Volodin and the publication was reposted by the Russian Duma website.

Most viewed posts in RU TG.
Figure 1. Most viewed posts in RU TG.

This means that there were not many “creative” spins on the bloody events on the night of July 28-29th. However some more “developed” publications were present.

  • A long post by Boris Rozhin, among other things, claiming possible involvement of the British secret services and that such an attack was considered for quite a long time.16 He was also quoted as an interviewee in another TG post, where he framed the explosion at Olenvika prison (and “other recent provocations”) as terrorist acts committed by Ukraine which are unconditionally supported by the West.

  • Development of the narrative that Ukraine’s outlook on the explosion is ridiculous and that “irrefutable evidence” is being denied (example 1, example 2, example 3).

  • One post expanded on the supposed reasons why the explosion of the prison is beneficial for Ukraine and how Russia had no reason whatsoever to carry out the attack and that better means to kill the Azov soldiers were present. The “reasons” for the killing include: i) to prevent them from confessing the crimes of the “Kyiv regime”; ii) surrender of Azovstal was a blow to Kyiv’s reputation; iii) if Azov soldiers grew too strong, they could participate in a military coup against the regime.

  • One of the most popular Russian military bloggers also added that “[...] with this attitude of the regime [Ukraine] towards its own citizens, captivity is, in fact, the only real chance to survive” and thus, Russia will not disclose sites where POWs are located to protect them.

  • A supposed quote by a Pentagon official (“If it was a strike from the Ukrainian side, I assure you, they did not want to do it”) was framed as confirming that Ukraine is responsible for the attack.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the disinformation campaign to spin the massacre of Ukrainian POWs in Olenivka prison is the inclusion of Steven Seagal in these efforts. He is a known Kremlin mouthpiece who got Russian citizenship in 2016 and worked as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s “special representative” to the United States and Japan, even receiving the state Order of Friendship from Putin in 2023. (Steven Seagal’s visit to Olenivka to film a documentary was also extensively covered on Russian state television).

In the summer of 2022, he visited the occupied Donbas region while supposedly making a film about the events in the region. On August 9th, Seagal also visited Olenivka prison. He essentially repeated Russian claims about the events and was shown the “irrefutable evidence”. 9 unique posts shared his claims.

Vladimir Solovyov Telegram post
Vladimir Solovyov Telegram post

Pro-Russian Ukrainian Telegram environment

Not surprisingly, in the pro-Russian Ukrainian TG environment the most prevalent messages were also those which blamed Ukraine for the explosion of the detention center. However, it is quite surprising that a rather limited number of posts were mentioning HIMARS missiles (only 11) as the means by which Ukraine supposedly committed the attack. Messages about Ukraine's “interests” and the claims about Ukraine falsely accusing Russia or US admitting Ukraine’s culpability (both messages even in a higher number than in other environments) were prevalent.

However, while the repetition of the claims already prevalent in official channels or Russian TG were considerable, in the pro-Russian Ukrainian TG environment a number of new messages more targeted towards Ukrainian audiences were also created.

  • There were claims that Ukraine had shelled Olenivka and its surroundings before, although there are no military targets there (example 1, example 2).

  • There were assumptions that there are no incentives for any of the sides to try and find the truth in the attacks. It was stated that each of the sides entered their own information bubbles and they are not even trying to explain different perspective to each other which was the task of Ukraine’s informational warfare efforts.

  • Furthermore, it was claimed that Ukraine did not try enough to save the prisoners held in Olenivka and thus the development of the narrative that Ukraine does not care for its soldiers/citizens (example 1, example 2).

  • Supposedly, even in Ukraine, there is division on whether Ukraine's version of the events is correct or not.

  • Developing the motives of Ukraine for attacking the Olenivka prison, it was stated that Zelensky is trying to silence his critics and opposition.

  • “Война с фейками” account in its post refuting Ukraine’s “fake stories”, claimed that Russia is following proper journalistic standards.

  • The claims about Pentagon confirming that Ukraine is responsible for the attacks were framed as showing the disunity between Ukraine and the US.

  • There were claims that Ukrainian POWs are becoming disillusioned with Ukrainian leadership and beginning to realize the truth. Moreover, “DPR” is helping the relatives of the POWs and is trying to “win them over”.

Pro-Russian Baltic Telegram environment

Since TG as a social media is not very widely used in the Baltics, it pretty much just repeated the official Kremlin or other pro-Kremlin channels’ messages about the event. Main focus is of course on the culpability of Ukraine and how HIMARS rockets were used.

Perhaps the only more unique aspect in this sample was that one pro-Russian channel “Трибалтийские Вымираты” took a quote from Estonian PM Kaja Kallas and mocked her, implying that she is talking nonsense about Russia’s responsibility in the murder of Olenvika prisoners.

“Трибалтийские Вымираты” Telegram post
“Трибалтийские Вымираты” Telegram post

Not surprisingly, some Lithuanian channels also shared Steven Seagal’s visit to Olenivka and his quote about how “Zelensky was involved in crimes against humanity.” But another pro-Kremlin American, Scot Ritter, was also quoted saying that the HIMARS system was used and that Kyiv is trying to prevent POWs from confessing.

Elements of conclusion

The full distribution of event messages regarding the massacre of Ukraine POWs on 29th of July can be seen in the table below.

Distribution of event messages across 4 different sample groups
Table 1. Distribution of event messages across 4 different sample groups

Number of publications throughout the the analyzed period (includes all groups)
Chart Number of publications throughout the the analysed period (includes all groups)

As indicated in the table and as we have seen from the short overview above, while there are some slight expected differences between how the event was presented, the main backbone of the story in its full picture is quite the same. Ukraine was blamed for the explosion and the deaths at Olenivka prison, it was said that a HIMARS missile was used and that Ukraine had many motives for committing such an act against its own soldiers. There was a supposed need to either scare them from surrendering or prevent them from confessing the “crimes” of the Kyiv regime. Moreover, it was quite often mentioned that Russia is eagerly seeking truth, meaning that they have invited international organizations to investigate the explosions and that they already provided evidence on Ukraine’s culpability which is “irrefutable”. Thus, Ukraine is falsely accusing Russia and this can be considered as another provocation.

The official Kremlin communication can be considered as the “driest” but even so, the main messages it provided were also present in all TG spaces. But we can see that a more diverse cast of actors were utilized, notably with the presence of Steven Seagal. It can also be argued TG posts delved deeper into conspiracy narratives about direct involvement of foreign countries (mainly US, but also UK) in organizing the attack or further developing Ukraine’s possible motives (possible coup d’état, need to get rid of critics).

Out of the three groups of TG channels (RU, UA, Baltic), it seems that Ukrainian ones were comparatively more adapted towards the target audience. For example, stating that attacks on Olenivka prison show that Ukrainian leadership does not care about its soldiers and it did not do enough to exchange/save prisoners held in Olenivka.

Going back to the main message, the supposed involvement of HIMARS rockets, it is worth mentioning that the first HIMARS systems arrived in Ukraine probably on the 23rd of June, 2022. A little over a month later, the explosion in Olenivka prison took place. By the looks of it, the Kremlin quickly took the chance or was even preparing the explosion while having in mind the possibility to blame it on the new military aid Ukraine received. Looking at the bigger picture, the claims about HIMARS involvement can be considered as part of a more general effort to portray the military aid as being used for evil purposes. But then again, it does not seem that any of the messages used to frame the events of July 29th fell out of line with the story the Kremlin tells about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Finally, it is quite noteworthy that almost all of the messages appeared on the first day of the event (seen on Table 1) and the amount of publication peaked on that day as well (seen on Chart 1). This seems to indicate that there was seemingly no discord on how pro-Russian actors chose to react, which might indicate that Russia was prepared for the event.

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