Last week, our Disinformation Review covered the mad scramble of pro-Kremlin disinformation pundits to hide the scope and success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate Russian-occupied territories. This week the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem has undertaken equally heinous tasks – to justify Russia’s occupation Ukraine via illegitimate referenda and to distract from the war crimes committed by Russian invaders in the now-liberated territories of Ukraine.
Holding illegitimate referenda to justify blatant land-grabs is an old page from the Kremlin’s book on how to annex the territories of its neighbours. Russia used the same tactic in 2014 to attempt to justify the illegal annexation of Crimea. When Russian state-controlled disinformation outlets announced the intention to hold similar referenda in Russian-occupied territories in the Luhansk, Kherson, and Donetsk regions, it came as no surprise. In fact, EUvsDisinfo has followed pro-Kremlin disinformation peddlers’ attempts to prepare the information environment for such an announcement for quite some time now.
These so-called referenda will have no international legal force and have already been condemned in the strongest terms by world leaders including EU High Representative Josep Borrell. Still, the Russian state-controlled disinformation machine kicked into a higher gear to proliferate disinformation about the righteousness and necessity of these referenda. As expected, some disinformation narratives welcomed the ‘restoration of historic justice’ and claimed that the people want to join Russia, while others continued to peddle the well-known pro-Kremlin line of alleged genocide committed by Ukraine in these regions. There are also disinformation narratives claiming that the occupied territories are culturally Russian, or that the people of these regions can only feel safe if incorporated in Russia. But the overall pro-Kremlin disinformation message is singular – only Russia can protect you.
The urgency to announce the illegitimate referenda is not accidental. It is a deliberate tactic to escalate the situation and that became clear when the ruler in the Kremlin announced ‘partial mobilisation’ in a scaremongering statement laden with blatant lies and open threats.
No matter how much pro-Kremlin disinformation tries to obscure or spin it, the Kremlin’s move is quite transparent. First, hold illegitimate referenda to declare that occupied territories in Ukraine are now part of Russia. Then portray the Ukrainian counteroffensive to liberate the territories as an attack on Russia and use it as a rallying call for mobilisation.
This is not the first time that the Kremlin reverts to outright Orwellian Newspeak to attempt to distort reality to fit its geopolitical agenda. The Kremlin used it to launch the illegitimate and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine. It used it to rationalise the constant change of military goals in Ukraine. And it has used it to disguise incitement of violence and hate speech throughout Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine. Now, the Kremlin once again uses the same kind of Newspeak to sell its lies as the truth.
Bloody trail of retreating Russian invaders
On 15 September 2022, only five days after the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated the town of Izyum, the world learned what many had already feared. Several mass graves of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers murdered by Russian invaders were discovered in the nearby forests. Sights like this are starkly at odds with the Kremlin’s long-trumpeted disinformation narrative that Russia is liberating Ukrainians from discrimination and abuse. So, naturally, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem sprung at once into action to exercise the Kremlin’s cycle of death and lies.
They were quick with allegations that Ukraine is staging a ‘Bucha-like provocation’ and accused Ukraine of being a terrorist state. And, of course, in case the denial and deflection did not work, Russian disinformation outlets were just as quick to label the residents of Izyum as Nazis. However, while pro-Kremlin pundits scream about ‘genocide in Donbas’, the mortifying truth is that the Russian invaders are committing real atrocities, including setting up a ‘filtration system’ to forcibly and illegally deport hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to Russia.
Repeat the repetition
If there is one word to characterise pro-Kremlin disinformation, it is repetition. The cycle of denial, calling it a provocation, shifting the blame, or feigning righteousness has been repeated by pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets throughout the war. We saw this tactic when commentators tried to conceal war crimes in Bucha, to excuse the shelling of a maternity ward in Mariupol, to deflect the blame for striking the railway station in Kramatorsk, and to deny the attacks in Kremenchuk.
The one novel and by far most heinous element of pro-Kremlin disinformation about Izyum is unashamedly admitting to the crimes to instil fear and boast about Russia’s might. But the world sees that for that it is. Inhumane crimes against the innocent by thuggish and unrepentant invaders.
Also on EUvsDisinfo’s radar this week:
- Pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets falsely claim that the West is deliberately prolonging the war to hurt Russia. This is a long favoured pro-Kremlin disinformation message, falsely accusing the West of destabilising Russia. It attempts to present Russia as the victim and to undermine Western public support for weapons deliveries to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked aggression. Contrary to this allegation, Western nations did everything they could to prevent the war.
- Some Russian disinformation pundits now claim that Russophobic European politicians are to blame for the energy crisis and will freeze Europe in the coming winter. This is an increasingly popular pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative claiming that the energy crisis in Europe was caused by EU sanctions against Russia. In reality, the Kremlin is attempting to extort EU governments and create widespread public panic over energy costs and insecurity. In fact, EU member states have undertaken multiple countermeasures in order to increase the security of EU energy supplies. Despite the cuts of Russian gas flows, the EU is ready for the winter ahead.
- The pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem continues to spread falsehoods about nuclear security. The latest disinformation narratives include the unsubstantiated allegation that Ukrainian authorities want to provoke a nuclear war in Europe. This is not the first time the Kremlin’s manipulation and disinformation machine has drummed up fear of a nuclear disaster to advance its political and military goals in Ukraine.