Russia intensified its disinformation campaigns against Ukraine in September 2023. This analysis provides an overview of the most spread disinformation cases during the last months, paying attention to tactics and goals of Russian propaganda.
This report was prepared within the Kremlin Watchers Movement project. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers.
Kremlin Watchers Movement is a project which is running for almost 3 years now within the effort to fight Russian malign influence and disinformation in Europe. Gathered authors, junior analysts are producing content about Russian malign influence and disinformation on social media, informing not only expert society but also wide population about latest events in this field.
In September 2023, Russian propaganda channels intensified their disinformation activities in connection with the war in Ukraine. At the end of August, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine received information about five narratives that Russian propagandists would actively promote. According to the Main Intelligence Directorate, the Russian disinformation system will focus on the following narratives:
- “Mass Mobilization” — spreading false information that all Ukrainian citizens will be mobilized in the near future, regardless of gender, age (including minors), or health status.
- “Undermining the Confidence of Western Partners in Ukraine’s Victory” — disseminating information about imaginary agreements for “peace in exchange for territory,” insinuating changes in political figures (fabricating materials about a supposed “secret agreement” between the mayor of Kyiv, Vitalii Klitschko, and representatives of the American Republican Party regarding support for his future presidential elections).
- “Ukrainian Counteroffensive Will Not Succeed” — spreading false information about an increase in burials in cemeteries in major cities; emphasizing the “lack of success on the front” and highlighting “significant losses”; disseminating reports of defenders’ deaths in every region of Ukraine, searching for those supposedly responsible for the alleged “failures” with the aim of discrediting Ukrainian military leaders and officials.
- “Total Corruption” — disseminating messages alleging that the state is not combating corruption, that officials are embezzling state funds with impunity, and that state procurement is effectively non-existent.
- “Comfortable Life in Occupied Territories” — spreading false information about purportedly good living conditions in the territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia; falsehoods about high wages, low prices, and full food security; reporting on supposed reconstruction of residential buildings and infrastructure in the occupied territories; creating an image of “free elections” planned for September this year; disseminating fabricated materials claiming that “Ukraine is renouncing the territories occupied by Russians” and intends to “surrender Kupiansk.”
One of the main themes of the Russian disinformation system has been the discrediting of the EU and the West, along with accusing them of waging war in Ukraine. Some websites spread false information about President Volodymyr Zelenskyi in mid-September, labeling him as an MI6 agent. At the beginning of September, when Russia launched a missile strike on Kostiantynivka in Donetsk Oblast, Russian portals reported that the Ukrainian army was responsible for the attack.
Disinformation about Volodymyr Zelenskyi
Since the beginning of the war, one of the goals of Russian disinformation has been to discredit Ukraine and its government, with many disinformation narratives targeting President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. They aim to undermine the integrity and independence of Ukraine by portraying it as a puppet state dependent on the West. By employing such narratives, Russia seeks to depict that the West controls Ukraine and presents the primary threat to Russia. This is intended to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Prior to the full-scale invasion, one of the key elements of pro-Russian rhetoric in European media was also the “demonization” of the West and the Ukrainian government to justify Russia’s actions. As part of monitoring specific European media for the “Propaganda diary” database, we observe a consistent popularity of narratives such as “The West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes” and “Actions of Ukraine and the West forced Russia to start the war.”
In September 2023, some pro-Kremlin websites reported that during the 2019 election campaign in Ukraine, Western media were convinced that Volodymyr Zelenskyi was an MI6 agent who regularly traveled to London, and British emissaries were said to come to Ukraine to collaborate with him. Zelenskyi was also allegedly surrounded by British agents.
Western countries, including the United Kingdom, provide military assistance to Ukraine following Russian aggression. In April and June 2022, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, visited Kyiv. In November 2022, his successor, Rishi Sunak, visited Kyiv. In turn, Zelenskyi visited London in February and May 2023. However, the meetings between the leaders of Ukraine and the United Kingdom were focused on Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the key topic of the negotiations was assistance to Ukraine. These meetings do not imply that the President of Ukraine is a British agent.
Discrediting the EU and the West
For many years, Russia has been using disinformation narratives against the EU to undermine European values and create a negative image of the EU. In September, Russian propagandists began spreading information that Russian citizens wishing to visit European countries must leave their phones, luggage, valuables, and even cosmetics at the border. According to Russian portals, the EU follows orders from the world government and cannot make decisions independently. According to these narratives, EU policy is Russophobic.
This narrative is associated with the well-known and repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory about a global government and a new world order (NWO). According to this theory, current changes in international politics are linked to the activities of a secretive global power elite seeking to take over the world through an authoritarian world government, which would replace sovereign states. This narrative aims to create a negative image of the EU, especially in Russian society, and justify Russia’s policies towards Ukraine and the West.
Some of the disinformation narratives in September of this year also concerned the recommendations of the European Commission, published on September 8, regarding the ban on entry into the EU for cars registered in Russia. This ban is part of the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia in connection with its aggression against Ukraine. Pro-Kremlin websites claimed that this was a response to the ineffectiveness of the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia.
Acknowledging sanctions as ineffective in the short term is a typical Russian manipulation. Sanctions, as an economic tool, often work slowly but have a long-term impact on the aggressor country’s economy. For instance, the ban on importing Russian oil by sea and price limitations in 2022 led to Russia losing the European market. Overall, fossil fuel export volumes in September 2023 dropped to the lowest level since the full-scale invasion.
In September, Russian propagandists also repeatedly echoed narratives about Ukraine’s dependence on the EU and the US, portraying Ukraine as a dependent state carrying out the orders of the West. The head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, claimed that the US and other Western countries are in fact, at war with Russia and are using Ukrainians only as cannon fodder.
He reiterated a similar narrative during the UN Security Council meeting, stating that the direct responsibility for the destabilization of Ukraine and the outbreak of civil war lies with the West, which sabotaged the implementation of the Minsk agreements. He claimed that the “special military operation” Russia is conducting in Ukraine is a consequence of the violations of the Minsk agreements allowed by Western countries. According to him, the basic human rights of citizens of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” were violated. Lavrov emphasized that the West avoids discussing the real causes of the current crisis in Ukraine, placing all blame on Russia. He also added that Western countries have nurtured an openly Nazi regime in Ukraine for many years, which openly distorted the results of World War II and the history of their own people.
Transfer of Guilt for War Crimes
One of the main methods of Russian disinformation during the war in Ukraine is to accuse Ukraine or Western countries of crimes committed. In September, this method was employed in connection with the rocket shelling of Kostiantynivka in Donetsk Oblast, carried out by Russia on September 6. This attack resulted in the deaths of 17 people, with over 30 injured. However, Russian propagandists began reporting that the Ukrainian army was responsible for the attack and that Volodymyr Zelenskyi unjustly accused Russia. According to Russian claims, this attack was a provocation by Ukraine, coinciding with the visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kyiv.
In reality, there is no doubt that the attack was carried out by Russia using S-300 missile launchers. One of the missiles hit the market square in the city center near a shopping center, causing a fire in the market’s stalls. On that day, Russia also launched missile strikes on other cities in Ukraine. Kostiantynivka is under Ukrainian control and has repeatedly suffered from Russian attacks, including in March and September 2022 and in March 2023.
Militarization of Education in Russia and on the Ukrainian Territories Occupied by Russian Federation
Since the beginning of September, Russian secondary schools have introduced mandatory nationalist and military courses. The curriculum, approved by the Ministry of Education of Russia, includes, among other things: tactics, marksmanship, providing first aid on the battlefield, and operating reconnaissance drones. Their goal is to promote military service among Russian youth, thereby preparing future reserves who may be sent to the front lines after turning 18. Since the start of the war, Russia has conducted covert mobilization in various forms. Mid-year, the Russian Duma raised the maximum conscription age to 30 years (from 27) while retaining the minimum age limit at 18, despite previously announcing an increase in the lower limit to 21 years. The Russian authorities prohibited military bloggers, who are used for disinformation activities, from commenting on speculations about plans to reinstate military mobilization in Russia.
Russia also plans to organize mandatory military training in the occupied territory of Ukraine. The training aims to russify Ukrainian children, who, after extensive “brainwashing,” may be used for military or intelligence activities by Russia in the future. The courses will be conducted under the guidance of Russian National Guard servicemen, who recruit former criminals from the ranks of mercenaries of the Wagner Group, who later received amnesty from President Putin. Upon returning to Russia, many of them commit brutal crimes, including murders and sexual assaults. Russian occupiers continue kidnapping Ukrainian children, issuing them Russian passports, and forcing them to undergo nationalist-military indoctrination on Russian territory.
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