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

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

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / julimail81
7 November 2023
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In October 2023, VoxCheck monitored 83 media outlets from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czechia, Italy, and Germany, and identified 790 cases of disinformation about Ukraine. The highest number of disinformation cases were found in Slovakian (166 cases), Hungarian (154 cases), and German (152 cases) media. In October, European media were most active in promoting narratives about the weapons provided to Ukraine by Western partners, Western control over Ukraine, and the narrative about discrediting the Ukrainian government.

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 123 cases of disinformation that can be grouped into 17 narratives. The pro-Russian media in Poland were most active in promoting narratives about the weapons provided to Ukraine by Western partners and Western control over Ukraine (19 cases in each narrative), as well as about bio- and drug laboratories in Ukraine (11 cases).

As part of the narrative about providing weapons to Ukraine, pro-Russian Polish media outlets convince readers that the weapons intended for Ukraine end up in the hands of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Therefore, they claim that American weaponry now aids militants in waging war against Israel. In addition, the weapons allegedly make their way to Africa, where they end up in the hands of the terrorist group “Boko Haram”. They also repeat the old fake claim that Ukrainian army commanders personally sell the provided weapons on the “black market”, from which it allegedly reaches the hands of criminal groups in EU countries. In this way, propagandists try to convince readers that supplying weapons to Ukraine is dangerous.

When discussing Western control over Ukraine, the authors of disinformation traditionally assert that Ukraine is a puppet of the United States and Anglo-Saxons, who make all important decisions on its behalf and artificially prolong the war to profit from it. The U.S. allegedly uses European Union countries, involving the “72nd Information-Psychological Warfare Center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine” to spread American propaganda. This is done to convince European countries of the necessity to continue the war. At the same time, the war is purportedly only a proxy conflict between NATO and Russia, and Western partners are aware that Russia’s victory is inevitable, yet they will continue to fight “to the last Ukrainian.” Therefore, according to propagandists, the “most humane” decision would be to cease supplying weapons to Ukraine and allow Russia to claim victory.

As for the narrative about biological and narcotic laboratories, pro-Russian Polish publications emphasize that Ukraine is allegedly involved in a secret American military-biological program to create new biological weapons. They use the unpredictable outbreaks of rare deadly diseases such as plague, Siberian ulcer, typhus, cholera, tularemia, and diphtheria, which supposedly occurred in Ukraine, as evidence that tests were conducted on Ukrainians. However, propagandists claim, citing allegedly White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby, that with the onset of full-scale war, the Pentagon was forced to relocate these laboratories to Poland. Therefore, now it is the Polish citizens who will suffer from these mentioned diseases.

Propagandists also spread the narrative that Ukraine’s and the West’s actions forced Russia to start the war (2 cases). They justified this by claiming that the Ukrainian army allegedly shelled the civilian population of Donetsk and its outskirts with grenades and cluster munitions for almost a decade, resulting in the deaths of over 14 thousand civilians. The authors of fakes assert that the United States incited the Ukrainian authorities to do this, as they allegedly “involved individuals who were detained in Syria when they were killing Syrians and trying to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for it.”  

Italy

In 13 Italian media outlets, we identified 58 cases of disinformation corresponding to 15 pro-Russian narratives. The largest number of materials were dedicated to justifying Russian aggression (14), Western control over Ukraine (6), and Ukrainian nazism (6).

Italian media quote Western pseudo-experts who tirelessly repeat that it was the actions of Ukraine and the West that forced Russia to start the war. They claim that the Maidan Revolution was allegedly a state coup organized by the United States, after which the Russian-speaking population suffered persecution and torture. References to Ukraine and NATO as an “existential threat” to Russia are also not omitted. These factors are meant to demonstrate that the unleashed “preemptive war” is “justified,” as Russia is doing it for survival. Any state leader would do the same. Meanwhile, Russia’s crimes, such as the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, are denied.

According to the authors of pro-Russian media, the U.S. is using the “conflict” in Ukraine to separate Europe from Russia. Meanwhile, the U.S. will take over the Russian share of the market, for example, in the supply of energy resources. The narrative of Western control over Ukraine is also pushed in materials about the escalation in the Middle East. They write that the American project “Ukraine” has failed, so the U.S. is now leaning towards Israel. Italian media propagate conspiracy theories, suggesting that Ukraine’s victory is impossible and a prolonged conflict is necessary to distract Russia. This way, the West allegedly hinders its actions. Therefore, “Ukrainian slaves must continue to sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of the Western empire.”

Accusations of Ukraine of Nazism were also traditionally voiced. Propagandists spread theories that fascism is at the core of Western imperialism. Furthermore, they claimed that fascism contributed to the association of “Western democracies and the corrupt neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.” NATO, they assert, has been arming and training Nazi battalions in Ukraine since 2014 in order to ignite a war “on Russia’s doorstep.” All of this is done to “weaken and dismember Russia in order to control its vast natural resources.” Additionally, due to the ban on religious organizations linked to Russia, the Kyiv regime is described as being “increasingly infected with nationalist extremism, Russophobia, and neo-Nazism.”

The narrative that the United States sabotaged negotiations between Ukraine and Russia is gaining increasing popularity. According to this narrative, the only ones who can regulate military actions against Ukraine are the Americans. In the peace talks in Istanbul with Rustem Umerov in March 2022, Ukrainians did not accept peace because they were not allowed to. It is claimed that if the U.S. did not hinder the negotiations, Ukraine and Russia could have stopped the war on terms that satisfied both sides. Overall, the refusal to negotiate is presented as a “loss for the West.”

There was a repetition of old fakes, particularly regarding “secret American laboratories” in Ukraine. They mentioned the fact that Victoria Nuland, the Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs of the United States, acknowledged the existence of biological laboratories in Ukraine conducting research on infectious agents. Conspiracy theories also circulated. Italian media quoted Ihor Kirillov, the head of Russia’s forces for radiological, chemical, and biological defense. He claimed that the involvement of the American government in the laboratory is hidden through third-party companies and non-governmental organizations, such as Metabiota, CM-Hill, and Eco-Health Alliance, which are involved in the construction of biological plants and supplying equipment for the Pentagon’s biological laboratories worldwide.

Germany

As part of the monitoring of 15 German media outlets in October, we identified 152 cases of Russian disinformation, which can be categorized into 21 narratives. The highest number of cases were recorded within narratives about the West using Ukraine for its own purposes (29 cases), Russia’s war with the West on Ukrainian territory (17), as well as the discrediting of the Ukrainian army and representatives of the Ukrainian government (16 cases each).

A number of German media outlets are repeating old fakes about the West, particularly the United States, using Ukraine to weaken Russia’s economy and military and to isolate it on the international stage. They claim that Ukraine was sold the “European dream,” and Ukrainians, “believing in empty promises,” are now paying for it by waging a war with Russia, which is actually just a proxy conflict. Some authors point out that the “Western curators of the Kyiv regime” realize the inevitable loss of control over Ukraine and therefore intend to “turn Ukraine into scorched earth” before it gains agency. However, propagandists contradict themselves, asserting in other propaganda media that Ukraine has already been sold to American investors, and there is no turning back.

Convincing readers that Russia is at war with the West in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin authors in Germany write about a protest in Berlin against the proxy war that NATO is allegedly waging against Russia. Supposedly, the protesters called on the German government to stop the war on October 3, the Day of German Unity. However, news about this can only be found in pro-Russian media, and it was not mentioned in any reputable news outlets. Additionally, the authors speculate that NATO will have to secretly intervene in its own proxy war, as the Ukrainian army is becoming exhausted. Citizens of NATO member countries suspect a hidden war by NATO against Russia and do not support it, feeling “fatigue and anger.” However, the governments of these countries do not take their citizens’ opinions into account.

In an attempt to discredit the Ukrainian army, propagandists are convincing readers that Ukrainian commanders are unqualified and that soldiers are sent to the frontlines unprepared, resulting in significant losses for the army. The authors also quote the Russian collaborator Volodymyr Saldo, insisting that Ukrainian soldiers “do not understand why and what they are fighting for,” and therefore refuse to go to the frontlines altogether. Some of them allegedly even buy death certificates in the darknet to avoid mobilization. As a result, Ukraine has started mobilizing women and “people with illnesses” and disabilities, as the Ukrainian army is purportedly on the brink of annihilation. Additionally, propagandists cite a statement from Oleksiy Arestovych claiming that the Ukrainian army is supposedly losing control of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, where fighting is still ongoing.

In the narrative aimed at discrediting Ukrainian authorities, we encounter new fakes: Volodymyr Zelenskyi allegedly owns numerous properties in Israel, Europe, and the United States, which the public has already started to learn about. It is claimed that he recruits members of ISIS into the Ukrainian army, promising them Ukrainian citizenship, and sells Ukrainian black soil to the international investment company BlackRock. Additionally, propagandists quote Sergey Lavrov, stating that Zelenskyi has become “tedious” to Western partners, and he will soon be removed from the position of president — a fake that we have been noting for many months.

Hungary

In 16 Hungarian media outlets, we identified 154 cases of disinformation about Ukraine, which we grouped into 20 narratives. Among them, the most prominent are narratives about the provision of weapons to Ukraine by Western partners (23 cases), Ukraine and the West’s refusal to engage in peaceful negotiations with Russia (18), and the narrative that Ukraine is not a democratic country (16).

The disinformation about the provision of Western weapons spread by Hungarian propagandists aligns with the false narratives from Polish pro-Russian media. They claim that Ukraine is allegedly selling Western weapons to Hamas, which is now being used against the Israeli army. Additionally, they assert that the provided weapons are ineffective and outdated, having no impact on the course of the Russo-Ukrainian war, but merely “prolonging Ukraine’s agony”. Furthermore, fake news creators argue that a significant portion of the weaponry has ended up on the “black market”, from where it will uncontrollably find its way to conflict zones around the world, only generating additional armed conflicts.

As for the narrative about Ukraine and the West refusing to engage in peace negotiations with Russia, the authors quote Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Szijjarto, alleging that “Europe continues to suffer from a war psychosis and even refuses to discuss the possibility of peace.” Moreover, the leadership of the United States purportedly “forbade” Ukraine from conducting negotiations with Russia for a peace agreement in the spring of 2022. Moscow, on the other hand, supposedly was and remains willing to negotiate with Kyiv, “as long as its legitimate security interests are respected.”

As part of the narrative that Ukraine is not a democratic state, pro-Russian authors in Hungary characterize the country as a “corrupt autocracy” and “the most corrupt country in the world.” According to their accounts, Ukraine also does not respect the rights of national minorities, including the Hungarian minority. Additionally, propagandists quote the former President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stating that Ukraine is “corrupt at all levels of society,” and therefore cannot be offered EU membership in the near future.

Hungarian pro-Kremlin media outlets also promote the narrative that supporting Ukraine does more harm to the West than to Russia (14 cases). They quote Elon Musk, who allegedly stated that the world has gone too far in imposing sanctions on Russia, and this could lead to World War III in the future. Additionally, authors, referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, insist that Western support for Ukraine is excessive and that, in combination with anti-Russian sanctions, it leads to a decrease in the standard of living and an increase in illegal migration flows in EU countries, and therefore it should be stopped.

Slovakia

As part of the monitoring of 13 Slovak media outlets for June, we identified 166 cases of Russian disinformation, which we grouped into 19 narratives. The most widespread among them are about the weapons provided to Ukraine by Western partners (23 cases), the impossibility of Ukraine’s victory (25), as well as the narrative that the actions of Ukraine and the West forced Russia to start the war (15).

Within the narrative about providing weapons to Ukraine, propagated in pro-Russian Slovak media in October, the emphasis was on portraying any arms deliveries as useless. The authors justify this by claiming that the Ukrainian army lacks the necessary skills for effective use of the equipment and weapons, and that providing them only prolongs the conclusion of the war, in which Russia will inevitably emerge victorious. Additionally, the authors of fakes assert that supplying equipment, including F-16 fighters, “will not save Ukraine,” but will instead create a “logistical nightmare” with complex maintenance and enormous operational costs. Moreover, they argue that the Ukrainian army still sells the provided weapons on the “black market,” indicating that they do not actually need them.

When discussing the impossibility of Ukraine winning the war, fake news creators refer to former CIA analyst and pro-Russian speaker Larry Johnson. As expected, in Johnson’s opinion, the war can only end on Russia’s terms: he compares Ukraine to the Third Reich and asserts that “the conflict will end like World War II: Ukraine will either capitulate or be destroyed.” Additionally, propagandists quote former U.S. Department of Defense advisor Douglas McGregor, stating that the Russian army is not advancing further into western Ukraine because “Putin actually does not want this.” However, in other media, McGregor allegedly claims that “Ukraine will have to accept the loss of Odesa and Kharkiv,” as Russia will soon annex them — a fake that has been repeated in pro-Kremlin media for many months.

In addition, Slovak propagandists spread the narrative that Russia was forced to start a large-scale war due to the actions of Ukraine and the West. They argue that the European Union, due to its “Russophobia,” failed to establish relations with Russia after the end of the Cold War, and Russia felt threatened by the potential NATO membership of Ukraine and sought to “protect” the population in eastern Ukraine from “forced assimilation.” In summary, as one of the authors concludes, it was Ukraine that actually started the war ten years ago with active support from the West, and the main goal of Russia’s “special military operation” is to end this war.

Slovak media also promoted a narrative about narcotic and biological laboratories in Ukraine (3 cases). Once again citing Larry Johnson, the fake-makers insist that drugs in the form of chocolate candies, special disposable systems, and syringes produced in Ukraine are being distributed in the Ukrainian army. This supposedly explains the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian army, as the effect of the drugs is that soldiers do not react to explosions and pain, making them particularly dangerous for the Russian army. Johnson suggests that Ukrainian soldiers use the same substances that Volodymyr Zelenskyi “takes.”

Czechia

In 14 Czech media outlets, we identified 137 cases of disinformation about Ukraine, which can be grouped into 18 narratives. The highest number of cases fall into narratives discrediting the Ukrainian government (49 cases) and about Western control over Ukraine (14), as well as narratives about weapons provided to Ukraine by partners and discrediting the Ukrainian army (12 cases each).

Czech pro-Russian sources, in an attempt to discredit or mock Ukrainian officials, traditionally spread the most fakes about Volodymyr Zelenskyi. They claim that he has allegedly lost the support of Ukrainians, sells black soil to foreign corporations, recruits ISIS fighters to fight on the side of Ukraine, and is overall a Nazi who “kills Romanian children,” mobilizing them for the Russian-Ukrainian war. At the same time, First Lady Olena Zelenska allegedly holds a Russian passport and has a “disgusting character,” which recently led to the dismissal of a consultant who worked at the American boutique “Cartier” and wanted to help Zelenska.

Propagandists also spread a narrative about Western control and use of Ukraine. They repeated old fakes claiming that Western partners are waging war against Russia through the hands of Ukrainians, trying to weaken Russia. Some authors also claim that both Ukraine and EU countries are controlled by the USA, which will prolong the “Ukrainian crisis” even if it threatens to destabilize Europe. In particular, fake-makers emphasize the lack of sovereignty in the Czechia, comparing it to Ukraine, which they allege never had sovereignty at all. When the Czechia joined the EU, they write, the country relinquished power to the United States, to which the Union is subordinate. Pro-Kremlin propagandists also try to set Czech readers against Poland, claiming that “even the Poles” have realized that only the Americans will benefit from the Russian-Ukrainian war, while the EU will be left with nothing.

As part of the narrative about the weapons provided to Ukraine by Western partners, fake-makers emphasize the alleged corruption of Ukrainians, which they claim leads to weapons ending up in the hands of criminals. They argue that the Ukrainian army directly and indirectly sells weapons to Hamas terrorists, a claim purportedly supported by the American congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who holds pro-Russian views. Additionally, they assert that Western weaponry sent to Ukraine is supposedly making its way to African countries “in commercial quantities,” implying that it’s not just about Russia providing captured weapons as trophies from the battlefield to frame Ukraine. Overall, the fake-makers state that Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported about a “leak” of weapons provided to Ukraine by partners a year ago, and the international community should have paid attention to her.

In addition, in the Czech information space, fakes were spread with the aim of discrediting the Ukrainian army. Pro-Kremlin publications claim that due to the unwillingness of Ukrainians to go to the front lines, the Ukrainian leadership has started mobilizing women of conscription age and men aged 16 to 65. Ukrainians are allegedly demotivated by the “defeat” in the counteroffensive and therefore do not want to go to war or are surrendering en masse, potentially leading to the collapse of the “Zelenskyi regime”. According to fake-makers, the successes in the counteroffensive are merely “Western propaganda”. Pro-Kremlin authors also repeat Slovak fakes that Ukrainian soldiers use heavy narcotics, but they note that these narcotic substances come from the U.S. military, where they were supposedly used by American soldiers during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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