Events on the Russia-Ukraine front line accounted for 36% of all war-related disinformation. A significant portion of the narratives observed focused on creating the perception that Ukraine is losing the war, that there are tensions between Ukraine and its partners, or that Russian victory is inevitable. Ukraine and the West are both frequently blamed for provoking the war, harming civilians, causing the food crisis, and engaging in Nazi or terrorist tactics. Attempts to portray both Ukraine and the West as weak and internally divided have also been a key feature of pro-Kremlin propaganda.
The following summery analysis is based on extracts from the Interim Report (June-September, 2022) of the Ukraine War Disinfo Working Group, which represents a team of researchers from Debunk.org and our partners. The Interim Report collates insight drawn from the monitoring of narratives trending across pro-Kremlin sites and social media across eleven countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as they relate to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The course of the events on the Russia-Ukraine frontline is quite expectedly the most popular source of fakes, misinterpretations, and speculations. The topic is news-generating and therefore the most debated: around 36% of all the analysed pieces were dedicated to it.
Over the summer period, the following events attracted the most attention and provoked special
waves of disinformation:
the Russian offensive operation in Donbas, occupation of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in June – early July;
the blockade of Ukrainian ports that endangered global food security, and resolution of the crisis on July 22;
the destruction of the Olenivka POW camp and death of over 50 Azov soldiers, July 29;
the escalation of military action around the NPP in Zaporizhzhia since late July;
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, August 3;
the assassination of Darya Dugina, August 20
All these events were reported on in a distorted manner in order to promote the following narratives about the war in Ukraine.
Russia is winning the war
Reporting on the events of the war by pro-Kremlin voices is intended to create the impression of the Russian army’s constant and steady progress through Ukrainian territory. Russian victories (large or small) are exaggerated, while losses are minimized or entirely silenced.
The morale of the Russian army is described as high; the army is well supplied and organized; the “special operation” is progressing according to plan. On top of that, the Russian army reportedly destroys Ukrainian aircraft, artillery, and Western weapons, including HIMARS.
Russian victory is inevitable; whoever stands in its way will be destroyed
Local voices (especially in North Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Hungary) claim that confronting Russia is suicidal; dialogue and cooperation with Moscow is the only pragmatic and wise policy.
Propagandists regularly publish stories of exaggerated or fictional Russian military victories to show how mighty Russia is. Statements of Russian politicians (like Sergey Lavrov or Ramzan Kadyrov) are frequently quoted as they threaten the West with a military response.
Russia is not fighting at fully capacity but will do so if provoked
This narrative is used by top Russian officials (like Sergey Shoigu) to explain away the failures of the Russian army in Ukraine; the same argument is popular among local pro-Kremlin voices. They claim that Russia follows the rules of war; it tries to protect the lives of civilians and limit the destruction of infrastructure, even though such precautions slow down its progress.
Russia liberates; its control of the Ukrainian territories is legitimate
Life in the occupied territories is claimed to be idyllic. According to pro-Kremlin propaganda, the locals, after years of chaos and disorder under Ukrainian control, have finally been able to enjoy security and stability.
As this narrative legitimizes Russian occupation, it was particularly strong in August, when Russia was preparing to arrange several “referenda” and annex these territories.
Ukrainians are pawns in the global clash between the US and Russia/China
Ukraine is portrayed as a mere puppet in the hands of “real” global powers like the US, Russia, and China. This claim fits into the broader narrative that Ukraine is controlled by the West and appeals to anti-globalist and anti-Western sentiments in local societies.
The message that the US will “wage war until the last Ukrainian” has contributed to this narrative, creating the perception that the US is using Ukrainian lives to meet its own strategic goals.
The West started / provoked the war
Pro-Kremlin propagandists have been discussing the war in the context of a distorted interpretation of modern history centred around the historic rivalry between the West and the East.
This historic mythology provides the following chain of events:
the West has been trying to destroy Russia for centuries
the dissolution of the USSR was a temporary defeat for Russia
NATO promised not to expand to the East, but broke its promise
Russia began to regain its power in the 2000s and thus challenged the West’s global dominance
the West has been “playing dirty” by organizing the “colour revolutions”, including in Georgia and Ukraine
after 2014, the West started saturating Ukraine with weapons and therefore encouraging Kyiv to attack Russia
the aggressive Kyiv regime was ready to attack Russia, but the Kremlin acted first to prevent that
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the escalation of the Serbia-Kosovo border dispute in early August were described in a similar manner, with the US being blamed for provoking further conflicts with Russia and its allies.
The West wants the war to continue indefinitely
Pro-Kremlin voices claim that some Western elites are interested in the war’s continuation. Western business is alleged to be profiting from the war and coercing Kyiv to continue fighting (despite Kyiv’s readiness for negotiation). These claims are one facet of the aforementioned “imperialistic” interpretation of US foreign policy by pro-Russian propaganda.
There are tensions between Ukraine and its Western partners
When it comes to relations with its allies, Ukraine is portrayed either as a puppet obeying Western orders or as a beggar pleading for more financial and military support. According to propagandists, Kyiv has gone as far as to stage Russian war crimes in order to portray itself as a helpless victim in the eyes of the West.
However, the West is becoming increasingly more irritated with Ukraine, having expected quick victories that the Ukrainian side has been unable to achieve. Pro-Russian voices claim that reports of Ukrainian successes, including its offensive in Southern Ukraine, are fakes meant to please Western “sponsors.”
The Ukrainian Army endangers/kills civilians and commits other war crimes
As increasingly more evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian army on the occupied territories is revealed, pro-Kremlin propagandists have begun to engage in whataboutism. They are attempting to persuade foreign audiences that Ukrainians are in no way better when it comes to the conduct of war.
According to their claims, for example, it was the Ukrainian Armed Forces that shelled the Olenivka POV camp on July 29, killing more than 50 Ukrainian soldiers. They allege that this was done either to demand greater support from the West or to prevent Azov fighters from revealing information that the Ukrainian government would rather keep secret.
The Amnesty International report from August 4 has been frequently cited by pro-Russian voices.
The morale of the Ukrainian Army is low
In the rhetoric of pro-Kremlin messengers, Ukrainian soldiers are miserable, dirty, poorly equipped, and undernourished. They hate their commanders and want to return home.
Many of them desert. Propagandists also highlight evidence (be it fake or real) of the participation of foreign mercenaries in the Ukrainian army. References to foreign mercenaries are often used to claim that “Ukrainians don’t want to fight” and that “the West is fighting in Ukraine against Russia”.
The Ukrainian leadership is incompetent, and the country is about to collapse
According to the distorted narratives of pro-Kremlin propagandists, Kyiv has little control over the situation in the country, which has largely descended into chaos. Ukraine is allegedly plagued by widespread corruption, internal power struggles, and other scandals. Politicians are portrayed to be quarrelling over Western financial aid and arms supplies.
These narratives are intended to portray Ukraine as a failed state whose military defeat and economic collapse are inevitable, and thus justify the Russian invasion. Propagandists develop various scenarios for the future and have gone as far as to circulate maps illustrating possible divisions of Ukrainian territory among its neighbouring states after its “inevitable” collapse.
Poland is going to occupy Western Ukraine
This strange conspiracy theory has been frequently observed. Among Ukrainian audiences, it is most likely intended to sow distrust between the Ukrainians and Poles. For non-Ukrainian audiences, this narrative is meant to create the perception that there is no trust between Ukraine and its allies, and that the latter have personal interests in the war.
Ukraine is a Nazi / terrorist state
Primarily in Poland – but also in Slovakia and Hungary – Ukraine’s history from the 1940s-50s is selectively drawn upon to claim that all Ukrainians are Nazis, and that this ideology has been tolerated and further nourished by the West.
Pro-Russian voices urge Ukraine’s neighbouring states to “remember” the events of the 20th century and end their support of Ukraine for the sake of justice. Since August 20, the narrative “Ukraine is a terrorist state” has become one of the cornerstones of Kremlin propaganda in the region, partially replacing accusations of Nazism.
Both inside and outside of Russia, pro-Kremlin voices connect the assassination of Dugina, explosions in Crimea, and alleged Ukrainian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia NPP to claim that Ukraine is engaging in “terror tactics”.
The Ukraine War Disinfo Working Group unites 10 think tanks and research groups, which are working non-stop to monitor Kremlin propaganda in 14 countries.
Our partners: Civic Resilience Innitiative (Lithuania), Analyses and Alternatives (Bulgaria), Prague Security Studies Initiative (Czechia), GRASS (Georgia), Atlatszo (Hungary), MOST (North Macedonia), Fakenews.pl (Poland), Slovak Security Policy Institute (Slovakia), Detector Media (Ukraine), Press Club Belarus (Belarus), GlobalFocus Center (Romania), European Western Balkans (Serbia).