Propaganda diary: огляд російської дезінформації в європейських медіа в травні 2023 року

Propaganda diary: a review of Russian disinformation in European media in May 2023

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / AlexKosev
16 June 2023
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In May 2023, VoxCheck monitored 86 media outlets from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany, and identified 1,118 cases of disinformation about Ukraine. The highest number of disinformation cases were found in Slovakian media (277), Polish media (248), and Czech media (163). The Kremlin narratives claiming that the West supposedly controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes, that Ukraine is a “terrorist state”, and that the Ukrainian and Western politicians forced Russia to start the war in Ukraine were most actively promoted in European media in May.

VoxCheck monitors the media in European countries (Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) and analyzes the disinformation narratives about Ukraine spread by these media. For the most part, the detected fakes and manipulations are consistent with the main narratives of russian disinformation campaigns. Every month, the VoxCheck team publishes a report on the monitoring results. All disinformation messages, grouped into narratives and their refutations, will be displayed on the “Propaganda diary” database website.

Poland

During the monitoring of 12 Polish media outlets, we identified 248 cases of disinformation grouped into 21 narratives. The largest ones included the narrative that the West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes (47 cases) and that Ukraine is a “terrorist state” (43 cases). We also recorded 17 cases of disinformation about Western weapons being provided to Ukraine by its partners, as well as discrediting the Ukrainian government.

This month, propagandists closely intertwined the narratives about Western control over Ukraine and the “Ukraine-terrorist” concept in their informational attacks. Commenting on the drone attacks on Kremlin, Polish media emphasized that such acts are orchestrated by the United States and its allies. They claimed that all decisions regarding the course of military actions by the Ukrainian side are supposedly made overseas, while the Kyiv government has no influence over them. In the meantime, the disinformers claim that Russia has not yet launched a full-scale offensive on Ukraine, but the United States continues to provoke it. Interestingly, the Polish media has increasingly highlighted the narrative of China joining the war in Ukraine. They suggest that Chinese involvement is transforming the conflict “from regional to global” and accelerating a Chinese-American clash. Furthermore, NATO countries allegedly deliberately fuel tension in their relations with China.

The peak of accusations against Ukraine of “terrorism” occurred in May due to drone attacks on Moscow. Polish media quoted Russian officials and ambassadors, labeling the attacks as “acts of Ukrainian terrorism” and echoing Kremlin-style propaganda by assuring that Moscow had everything under control: the drones were neutralized, and Putin continued to work calmly. Polish publications extensively cited threats from Russian and pro-Russian speakers, suggesting that drone attacks would be a “point of no return” for the Kremlin in the war in Ukraine. Additionally, to shape the image of “Ukraine as a terrorist”, Polish media used a Kremlin-injected claim that the “Transnistrian special services” reported an assassination attempt on the president of the republic organized by Kyiv.

Regarding the narrative about Western weapons, Polish media continue to write that it is the United States that prolongs the “meaningless war” in Europe by supplying arms to Ukraine. We documented the duplication of this message across several media outlets. Some fake reports aimed to discredit Ukraine as a recipient of Western military aid. For instance, disinformers repeatedly wrote about Ukraine reselling weapons on the black market. They mentioned that only 30-35% of military assistance reaches the army, while the rest is sold on the darknet. In one of the fakes, they point to the involvement of the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Kyrylo Budanov, in a corrupt scheme where Ukrainians supposedly sell Javelin anti-tank systems (USA), Panzerfaust 3 rocket launchers (Germany), FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS (USA), and so on. The propagandists claim that all the weapon resale schemes in the West are being concealed or ignored.

Italy

In May, we identified 148 cases of disinformation across 13 Italian media outlets, which can be categorized into 21 narratives. The highest number of cases was found within the narrative that Ukraine and the West were responsible for forcing Russia to start the war in Ukraine (25 cases), followed by the portrayal of Ukraine as a “terrorist state” (20 cases), and the narrative of the West controlling Ukraine and using it for their own purposes (13 cases).

In May, Italian media actively promoted the Kremlin narrative that Russia was compelled to start the war due to the actions of Ukrainian and Western politicians. They claimed that Western leaders openly speak about the goal of the war in Ukraine being the destruction of Russia. The media extensively quoted top Kremlin spokespersons, including spreading Putin’s statement that the war was unleashed specifically against Russia. Italian media also saw an increase in the number of cases mentioning China’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. However, the focus was more on whitewashing and justifying the aggression, suggesting that Moscow and Beijing are actually calling for the application of international law because Russia seeks security guarantees, while China seeks freedom for economic activities.

Italian media also used the information pretext of drone attacks on Moscow to reinforce the narrative of Ukraine as a “terrorist state”. However, they focused more on portraying it as an assassination attempt on Putin, who “remained unfazed and continued working as usual”. In most messages, the second part is contradictory: Putin was not alarmed, but propagandists predicted a ruthless response from the Kremlin in the form of heavy shelling of Kyiv or the beginning of a so-called “full-scale war” (both Polish pro-Russian resources and Italian media try to create the impression that Russia has not yet initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine). The drone attack on the Kremlin was even referred to as a “true casus belli” for the Russian military command.

The narrative of the “West’s control over Ukraine” was promoted by pro-Russian media by highlighting the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly urging Ukrainian military forces to counterattack and discussing his anticipated timeframe. They suggested that the United States eagerly awaits any achievements from Ukraine because they need to justify the billions of dollars spent on Ukraine domestically. The control of Kyiv by Washington was also mentioned when commenting on the drone attack on the Kremlin, suggesting that only the United States could make such a decision. Moreover, some sources attributed the responsibility to a specific political faction, the neoconservatives, claiming that certain senators publicly advocated for the assassination of Putin from the very beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this context, propagandists took the opportunity to praise Putin, suggesting that he exercises restraint in response to the attack to prevent the outbreak of a Third World War.

Germany

During the monitoring of 19 German media outlets in May, we identified 129 cases of disinformation, which were divided into 20 narratives. Among them, the most prominent were narratives portraying Ukraine as a supposed “terrorist state” (15 cases) and claiming that the West controls Ukraine and exploits it for its own goals (13 cases). We also recorded 12 cases of disinformation suggesting that Russia is allegedly at war with Western countries in Ukraine, as well as 12 cases aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian army.

In German pro-Russian media, it was written that Ukraine should have long been recognized as a “terrorist state” or a “terrorist organization”, and that “Ukrainian terrorists” are closely monitored by specialists from the CIA, MI-6, and experts from the Middle East. In the rest of the reports, statements from Kremlin spokespersons were mostly quoted, claiming that Kyiv sponsors acts of terrorism against Russians within Russia and worldwide, with all branches of the government involved in organizing terrorist attacks. Additionally, a number of media outlets disseminated a statement from the Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Internal Security Agency, allegedly warning of several attempted Ukrainian terrorist acts targeting Russian nuclear power plants. This was an attempt by propagandists to promote the fake narrative of Ukrainian “nuclear terrorism”.

When discussing the so-called “Western control over Ukraine“, German media also propagated the idea that the continuation of the war is orchestrated by the United States. As evidence, they pointed to increased military aid and the presence of American military advisors in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. German media also wrote about how the United States is expecting a Ukrainian counteroffensive, and if it does not happen in the near future or does not yield the expected results, Biden may “end the Zelenskyi project”, meaning remove the current political leadership of Ukraine from power. Additionally, propagandists spread the fake claim that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged that the “Kyiv regime” was created in 2014 with the help of weapons and military instructors from NATO to confront Russia.

German media traditionally disseminated numerous fakes with the aim of discrediting the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In most cases of disinformation, the focus was on Ukrainian soldiers in the territory of Kherson Oblast, alleging that they terrorize, loot, kidnap, and kill civilians. Such fabrications aim to create a false impression that Russian troops protected civilians in Ukraine and that the population was safe only during the Russian occupation of Kherson Oblast. A significant portion of the reports also mentioned the harsh treatment of subordinates by the command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including numerous cases of physical violence. German media also spread a fake story about the alleged sudden disappearance of Valerii Zaluzhnyi due to injury or even death.

Hungary

In May, we monitored 15 Hungarian media outlets and identified 153 cases of disinformation about Ukraine. These can be divided into 21 narratives, with the largest ones being the claim that Ukraine and the West forced Russia to start the war (21 cases), Russia is fighting in Ukraine against Western countries (16 cases), and the West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes (14 cases).

Hungarian pro-Russian resources, while justifying Russian aggression, still primarily focused on the alleged danger from NATO. It is noteworthy that although the peak of this narrative coincided with the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hungarian media continue to actively promote this myth. They also refer to the events of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, a Kremlin-fabricated fake claiming that the United States established its “Kyiv regime” at that time, which posed a threat to Russia and provoked the necessity of the invasion. For example, in one publication, they insist on not referring to Russian aggression as Putin’s war but considering it a “completely legitimate belated response from Russia”.

The second largest pro-Kremlin narrative in Hungarian media is that allegedly Russia is not at war with Ukraine but specifically with Western countries on Ukrainian territory. This narrative is promoted through statements from local pro-Russian speakers and direct quotes from key Kremlin propagandists. For example, the media widely spread Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s statement that peace in Ukraine can only be achieved through an agreement between Russia and the United States. They also propagate the notion that the “true nature of the conflict in Ukraine has not yet been clarified”. Regarding Russian speakers, the statements of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitrii Peskov were most widely circulated, claiming that the West in its war against Russia “will stop at nothing”. Concurrently, Hungarian media actively promote the figure of Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitrii Medvedev, disseminating his statements, such as the claim that the United Kingdom is waging an undeclared war against Russia, and sharing jokes from a Telegram channel.

Within the narrative of “Western control over Ukraine“, Hungarian media also attempted to portray Kyiv as demanding the continuation of offensives and attacks on new Russian territories, although such plans are “doomed to fail”. With reference to Orban, the media also wrote that military propaganda of the USA about the Ukrainian counter-offensive is being conducted in Hungary as well. Overall, the media suggests that the West has been planning to completely destroy Russia for years, and the “situation in Ukraine” was intentionally engineered by the West for this purpose. The organization of drone attacks by the Kremlin was also attributed to Washington in Hungarian media. They also did not overlook the factor of China, indicating that the US wants to use the conflict in Ukraine to weaken Russia completely in all areas, but China will not allow it.

Slovakia 

During the monitoring of 13 Slovak media outlets in May, we identified 277 cases of disinformation that can be divided into 25 narratives. The largest number of cases (35) aimed to discredit representatives of the Ukrainian government. Other prominent narratives promoted in Slovak media include portraying Ukraine as a “terrorist state” (34 cases), asserting that the West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes (28 cases), and claiming that Ukrainian and Western politicians forced Russia to start the war (28 cases).

Slovak media attempts to discredit President Volodymyr Zelenskyi of Ukraine above all. They write that there is growing dissatisfaction with his policies and corruption in Ukraine. According to propagandists, Zelenskyi faces the threat of physical elimination either from the military or from a “new Maidan”. After the drone attacks on Moscow, several Slovak sources immediately reported that Zelenskyi had left for NATO countries out of fear of retaliation from Russia. However, other representatives of the Ukrainian government also receive attention from pro-Russian Slovak media. For instance, the media reported that President’s advisor Mykhailo Podoliak threatened Europe with terrorism and war in EU countries if Europe stops supplying weapons to Ukraine during his appearance on Ukrainian television.

The narrative of “Ukraine as a terrorist” in Slovak media was also activated following reports of an attack by unidentified drones on Moscow. The media wrote that the Ukrainian attack on the Kremlin confirms the Russian intelligence’s claim about the Pentagon’s plan to transform the Ukrainian war from an open conflict, where “Kyiv no longer has money or soldiers”, into a guerrilla war and terrorism. After the attack, Slovak media spread threats from Russian propagandists, stating that there are no options left for responding to the “act of terrorism” other than the elimination of Zelenskyi and his entourage. They also attributed the responsibility for the attack to the United States, calling the country a “sponsor of terrorism”.

As for the Kremlin narrative that allegedly Ukraine and the West forced Russia to start the war, Slovak media wrote that since 2014, the US had been trying to set a “trap” for Russia in Ukraine by opening the doors for NATO membership, enhancing Ukraine’s military strength according to NATO standards, and supporting “radical nationalists” in Donbas. From one publication to another, the opinion was repeated that Zelenskyi could have prevented a full-scale war in Ukraine if he had declared that Ukraine would not join NATO. However, in some articles, it was also acknowledged that Russia did indeed violate international law by attacking Ukraine, but they claimed that Western countries seeking to defeat or weaken Russia by Ukrainian forces also violated international law.

The Czech Republic

In 14 Czech media outlets, we identified 163 cases of disinformation about Ukraine, which can be grouped into 21 narratives. The highest number of cases (48) were aimed at discrediting representatives of the Ukrainian government. The next popular narratives were the alleged control of Ukraine by the West for its own purposes (25 cases) and the widespread ideology of Nazism in Ukraine (21 cases).

In Czech media, similar to Slovak media, the primary attempt to discredit the political leadership of Ukraine was through fake news about Volodymyr Zelenskyi. They wrote, for example, that if the Russians manage to bring him to Donetsk or other occupied cities, he would face a “people’s tribunal” there. Czech media also reported on potential uprisings by the population or the military against the incumbent president, which were already threatening him due to the critical dissatisfaction of Ukrainians with the increase in corruption within Zelenskyi’s circle. The media also spread reports from anonymous pro-Russian channels stating that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were exhausted from combat actions, but Zelenskyi ignores this and limits himself to general statements. The supposed conflict between the political and military leadership, between Zelenskyi and Zaluzhnyi, was mentioned again, claiming that the Ukrainian government is unable to meet the front-line needs. Pseudo-experts in May even stated to Czech media that as a result, Ukraine would face defeat in the war within two weeks, after which Zelenskyi would flee to Cyprus.

Within the narrative of the alleged “Western control over Ukraine“, Czech media wrote about how the United States ruthlessly sacrifices the lives of people, civilian infrastructure, and the ecosystem of Ukraine in order to defeat Russia. Supposedly, in order to disrupt the advance of Russian forces, the United States is willing to detonate nuclear weapons in Kyiv, which would result in radioactive contamination of the entire Dnipro river basin and the coastal waters of the Black Sea. Additionally, Czech media propagated a statement by the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev, claiming that after a defeat against Russia, the United States does not plan to preserve Ukraine as a state because it is only needed by the United States as an object for ruthless exploitation of natural resources without a population.

In May, the number of fakes about Nazism in Ukraine notably increased in the Czech media. This is related to the fact that May 2 marks the anniversary of the tragedy in Odesa in 2014. At that time, clashes between Euromaidan supporters and pro-Russian activists, as well as a fire at the Trade Unions Building, resulted in the death of 48 people. These events became the basis for Kremlin myth-making about popular support for Nazism in Ukraine and violent reprisals against people with pro-Russian views. Pro-Russian Czech media literally reproduced these Russian fakes and wrote as if the “Nazi terror” in Ukraine began with this tragedy.

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