This case study was written by Fabio Belafatti and Iveta Siniūtė.
A bad month for the Kremlin
In December 2022, the UN released the advanced results of its investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The report is damming for the Kremlin, especially because the UN uses an extremely strict and thorough process to confirm each instances of war crimes, victim-by-victim: a slow process (hence the several months wait), but one that leaves few doubts about its results, which will probably be updated to account for additional crimes, as the investigation proceeds.
The report comes after the release of interim findings by the UN in October, September, and June, and, of course, the publication in late November of the final sentence on the 2014 downing of the MH17 flight, for which three Russian operatives and pro-Russian separatists were found guilty.
These investigations do not really break new ground: They simply confirm what was already obvious about Russia’s crimes in Ukraine.
And yet, Russia had always gone to great lengths to deny any war crimes. On the occasion of the UN report’s publication, it is worth looking back at the previous months of rhetorical gaslighting by the Kremlin and learn more about its practices.
The basic lie: “It’s all staged”
The disinformation machine of the Kremlin swung into action in earnest following the now-infamous Bucha massacre of March 2022.
Its first strategy was the most obvious: Claim that it is all fake.
After denying any involvement in the massacre, Russian authorities started calling it a “monstrous forgery”. In a tweet, the Russian MFA lied calling the atrocities in Bucha a staged provocation by Ukraine and the West, macabrely listing a series of spurious reasons why the corpses were, supposedly, not convincing enough.
It is not clear how the Russian authorities can so confidently claim that nobody suffered during something as inevitably violent and traumatic as a military occupation.
Playing with time
To advance the narrative that “it is all staged”, other tweets cast doubts on the timeline of the discovery of the killings: Since it was not until four days after the liberation of Bucha that the massacre was uncovered, it must have been staged. Bucha’s mayor, Russian media told the world, did not mention corpses laying on the streets when speaking on March 31 – thus, corpses must have appeared later, under Ukraine’s watch.
But what about the Bucha mayor?
He had in fact started to speak of Russian widespread atrocities on March 7, describing the situation in town as a “nightmare”, with corpses piling up on the streets and dogs tearing them apart. And again, on March 28, 2022, the local mayor spoke again to international media describing Russian crimes in Bucha.
However, as the first interview with the Bucha mayor had taken place much earlier, while the second was not done with an English- or Russian-language media outlet, they both flew below the radar of most global media.
The second interview, in particular, is especially hard to reach for English- or Russian-language readers who want to fact-check the Russian claim, making the Russian claims of “weird timings” about the discovery of the Bucha crimes sound plausible.
“Russionality” VS Western hysteria
“Plausibility” is also built by playing the “rationality card”, a common rhetorical strategy in which someone claims that the opposing side is “hysterical” or “irrational”, too emotionally invested, and unable to see facts objectively.
As an ad hominem attack, this strategy is rather coarse: This may be why it often falls on highly serious and prominent figures to make such claims in an attempt to make them sound more credible.
Kremlin’s disinformation often uses euphemisms to refer to atrocities. In this broadcast, a famous Kremlin propagandist and TV presenter tries to deny the Bucha massacre by denying another one, the Srebrenica genocide in an effort to depict a “pattern” of “provocation” of which Russia is a constant victim.
In the broadcast, the Srebrenica genocide is euphemistically labelled “a situation”. In a similar way, atrocities and crimes in Bucha have been described as non-existing “harassment” by Russian authorities.
Using dismissive vocabulary ties in to the previous trick, as it makes the claimant look rational and soft-spoken, in contrast to their interlocutors who, in comparison, appear unhinged.
Two for the price of one
Sometimes the best strategy when telling a lie is to wrap it inside another one.
This tweet from the Russian Embassy in India repeats the previous claims about Bucha, but in the same place also advances Russia’s long-peddled false claim that its attack on the Mariupol children and maternity hospital was fake.
Throwing two pieces of disinformation into one is not a new tactic: The above-mentioned broadcast also uses the trick of making two false claims into one: Bucha is a lie, just like Srebrenica is a lie. Other speeches bundle together denial of the Bucha massacre with denials of Russian atrocities in Syria.
The logic of this tactic may be hard to grasp: after all, if you are already denying the obvious on one issue, why add another one? Would this not make your claim sound even more absurd?
Clearly, for those who already believed Lie n.1 (In this case, “Srebrenica never happened”), anchoring Lie n.2 (“Bucha never happened”) to it will be effective. This is the case with the statement by the TV presenter, who speaks to a Russian audience that probably already believes that the Srebrenica genocide never happened.
But what about those who never believed Lie n. 1, and are being asked to now believe Lie n. 2? It is indeed counterintuitive, but paradoxically, building the impression of a pattern can be a very effective way to make people accept both lies.
This is what happens in the Russian Embassy tweet, which is aimed at a global audience: Here, the reader is being told Lie n.1 (“The Mariupol bombing never happened”) while being fed Lie n.2 about Bucha; the framing of the lies is such that distracts away from the crimes themselves, and onto an alleged persecution (against Russia, by international media) instead. The denial of both crimes thus appears less implausible because it is instead recast as “evidence” of a pattern.
It is convoluted, but when faced with the issue of denying the obvious, you might as well try it.
Flipping the message
Arguably, the most interesting of the rhetorical tricks in the Kremlin’s arsenal is the use of contradiction.
Exactly on the same days when it was promoting the “Bucha never happened” line, Russia was simultaneously also pushing the opposite message: Bucha was not, in fact, staged; quite the contrary, it was very real, but it was done by somebody else: Ukraine, of course.
The two messages could in fact be advanced in the same statement, as was the case with an April 7 claim by Kremlin spokesperson Maria Zakharova who talked of Bucha as the latest of a series of “fabricated episodes” and “staged shows” aimed at “accusing Russia of war crimes”, but simultaneously described it as a crime by Ukrainian forces.
Similarly contradictory claims were also made about the Olenivka prison massacre, where 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war were murdered on July 29: Russia and its disinformation channels condemned the act blaming it on Ukraine, falsely claiming that Kyiv’s Armed Forces barbarically killed their own comrades with a HIMARS. Yet, at the same time, Russian diplomats endorsed the very same act, calling for Azovstal fighter to be given a humiliating death.
What is the point of pushing two contradictory messages at the same time? Two explanations are likely.
Impossible to deny the obvious
The first and most intuitive one is that at some point, denying the obvious becomes impossible.
This is what happened with the Odesa port bombing on July 23, when Russia attacked Ukrainian infrastructures one day after the signing of an agreement for the export of Ukrainian wheat destined to the Global South: After initially denying the attack, Russia quickly flipped the message, claiming the attack, but stating that it was justified.
Likewise, as the scale of the massacres in Bucha became too vast to ignore - especially when satellite imagery from the days of the Russian occupation (March 11 and 19) showing corpses on the streets begun to surface - outright denials of the massacre started to sound less and less plausible.
Shifting the blame (as done with Bucha), or justifying the act (implicitly, as with Olenivka, or explicitly, as with Odesa) instead of denying the fact might be a way to get out from an untenable rhetorical situation of one’s own making.
Bringing more scrutiny to veil the obvious
To make the “flipped message” more convincing, one can also feign sincerity and desire for truth.
In the case of Bucha, for example, Russia called for an international inquiry into the events on April 6, in the wake of its allegations that the killings had been perpetrated by Ukraine.
Bringing international scrutiny on an event that was obviously carried out by its soldiers helped make the “Ukraine actually did it” message more believable, or at least sow mistrust among Ukraine’s supporters: One would be forgiven for wondering, “why would Russia call for an investigation if it is guilty?”.
Most importantly, calling for an investigation allows to buy time. As we have seen at the beginning, the investigation(s) eventually did take place. And they did not produce the results that Russia liked. But by now, months have passed since the Bucha massacre, and the global media’s attention has moved elsewhere.
The message has changed. Or has it?
Interestingly and most tellingly, “flipping the message” is not always a definitive act.
Russian media did not stop using the “Bucha never happened” line even after claiming that it did in fact happen, that it was the Ukrainians’ doing, and after calling for an international investigation. As late as July, the message of Bucha being staged still coexisted with the message that Ukrainians were responsible.
Likewise, the same is clear about the Olenivka massacre: Even as the message was flipped to claim that Azov fighters deserved to die humiliating deaths, Russia did not cease to condemn the massacre as a Ukrainian atrocity.
Clearly, thus, the message was not flipped merely because the first talking line had become untenable. Something else was going on.
Here is where the second explanation comes to play. Contradiction serves to deliberately confuse the message.
Sending contradictory messages is, in fact, a staple and cornerstone of Russian disinformation. Differently from Soviet propaganda and disinformation, which advanced one, clear, ideologically coherent message, and generally stayed “on topic”, Russian disinformation operates on a different level.
The problem with Soviet disinformation – which Russian operatives must have noted – was that while its message might have been coherent and ideologically well-crafted, its power went only as far as the ideological project behind it (Soviet socialism) was viable.
As soon as this project collapsed, the messages surrounding it also lost traction. Instead – and rather cleverly – Russian authorities never anchored their message too strongly to any clear ideological project. Instead, they deliberately advance a flurry of contradictory messages that seek to sow discord rather than build an alternative reality or viewpoint.
The ultimate goal is to make people doubt the very possibility to find “truth” about anything.
From the long game to the immediate present
Up until the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this “Postmodern” strategy of making people doubt the very existence of truth only worked in the long-term, by undermining public trust in Western media and institutions and weaken Russia’s opponents over many years.
However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this all took a much more practical and immediate dimension: advancing contradictory messages, sowing discord, and making people doubt everything they read is extremely useful in a context in which Ukraine’s ability to defend itself depends so much on help from other countries.
That willingness to help in turn depends on clarity of minds on the rather straightforward facts on the ground (Ukraine was invaded – Ukraine is suffering) and the equally straightforward moral implications thereof: one side is guilty, and the other one deserves support.
However, if the “soup” of contradictory messages that Russia seeks to promote makes people believe that the two parties do not, in fact, occupy diametrically opposed moral positions, and are in fact equivalent, the average European voter will start to doubt the validity and legitimacy of Ukraine’s struggle, and, therefore, question the very need to support Ukraine.
Everybody is bad
Indeed, it is possible to note that around the same days when Russian crimes are exposed, Russian authorities also launch communication campaigns aimed at the global audiences, “exposing” alleged Ukrainian war crimes. Around the liberation of Bucha, these tweets came out disclosing Ukrainian wrongdoings in Donbas; on the days of the Olenivka prison massacre and following outrage, Russia produced these tweets accusing Ukrainian forces of war crimes.
At the end of the day, it does not really matter who is good: what matters is sowing a cloud of doubt and building moral equivalences.
In the context of a war of invasion in which one side depends on the good will of its allies to resist, this is enough. Russia does not need to be seen as “good”: just as something as bad as its opponent.
All of these reasons should help us understand that blocking or allowing Russian disinformation ceased to be a matter of free speech (assuming it ever was) on February 24, 2022.
Up until then, the question of disinformation could be discussed on the level of opinions, ideas, and long-term intangible effects on societal resilience and trust.
Since February 24, however, it moved straight into the field of immediate, practical, direct military effects.
Any consideration about censorship and blocking of Russian disinformation channels needs to balance the importance of defending free speech against the fact that Russia’s own tactics have ensured that its disinformation messages are, now, practical instruments of war.