The Bucha massacre: mapping a year of Kremlin denial
A year ago, in late March of 2022, Russian armed forces had lost the battle for Kyiv, which started with an air assault in the early hours of 24 February. Brave Ukrainian resistance forced Russian troops to withdraw from the town of Bucha as part of a broader retreat from the capital. Immediately, reports surfaced of dead bodies in the streets. Many were Ukrainian civilians killed in executions, their hands tied behind their backs. Macabre photos accompanied the accounts from local eyewitnesses. Since the massacre, multiple investigations, including a detailed UN report, have established Russian culpability for the attacks.
Here we examine what happened after the killings. Which tactics did the Kremlin engage from its playbook to try to confuse the world, escape responsibility, and soften the impact of what were truly horrific crimes?
Engage the Kremlin playbook: think of MH-17
What materialised was the Kremlin’s standard behaviour when caught red-handed. Deny, deny, deny. Blame others. Up the stakes with stories bordering on crazy fantasies. Never excuse. Never admit. Never repent. Never hold the individual officers on the ground responsible. Instead, make things up. Over time, pro-Russian propagandists used flimsy lies to build an elaborate architecture of transparent falsehoods.
The model example is the myriad falsehoods distributed after the downing of MH-17, a Malaysian airliner destroyed on 17 July 2014 by Russian forces, killing all 298 persons on board. The same with Moscow’s attempts to cover up after the horrific attacks on Mariupol during the spring of 2022. See our account here.
Say anything and everything, loudly
Initial Kremlin narratives about Bucha were often contradictory, with an almost slapdash feel. The likely aim was to create as much noise as possible in order to distract from the horror of the emerging reality inside the town, located just northwest of Kyiv centre.
In April-May 2022, pro-Kremlin outlets alleged that Ukraine must have staged the massacre. But state media commentators also asserted that Washington, London and Brussels staged it. Or the director of a Ukrainian music TV channel was the culprit.
According to Russian officials, state media, and key propagandists (see link here), whoever did it, the massacre was as fake as Western allegations concerning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons attacks. As fake as Srebrenica, staged, lacking evidence or just a heinous lie. Deny, deny, deny.
Soon after, outlets began to spread a remake of MH-17 stories, dreaming up bizarre, alleged ‘technical details’ to create the illusion of inside expert knowledge. Now the claim was that the corpses’ lack of blood and body stiffness showed that victims of the massacre were killed after the Russians left on 30 March. Even more wild: the bodies were alive. Allegedly, the corpses were actors placed on the streets for the photographers because they appeared to move. Or the dead-again bodies were those of pro-Russian Ukrainians that Ukrainian armed forces killed while entering the town, either by execution or perhaps by artillery fire.
But the bodies might also have belonged to pro-Russian ‘collaborators’ whom Ukrainian Nazis killed some time beforehand. Maybe the Nazis deposed of the bodies in a forest near Irpin and then later transported them Bucha to pose as Ukrainian civilians killed by Russia. Confused? Don’t know whom to trust? Who knows?
Why the crazy stories? enter conspiracy
Disinformation spreaders often use false and even contradictory narratives to distract from the clarity that a single well-researched and well-documented explanation can provide. The human mind is curious and attracted to scandals and rumours, searching for answers to the unexplained. So, the skilled manipulator keeps adding elements which attract attention and distract from the truth. The appearance of shifting and clashing stories is not accidental, but intended.
Often such stories tap into the universe of conspiracy theories. Doing so opens the gates for those searching for the deeper, hidden reasons behind problems and conflict. Conspiracy is built into the bones of much pro-Kremlin manipulation across most political themes. Dive into the more than 1,700 case examples in our database to probe the conspiracy universe.
Thus, through April 2022, pro-Kremlin outlets also offered reasons why Ukraine would stage such a gruesome fake performance using actors or corpses. Perhaps they wanted to derail a pending breakthrough in Russia-Ukraine negotiations? Or to justify new sanctions against Russia? Or to distract from footage of Ukrainians torturing Russian POWs? Or from US-funded military biolaboratories in Ukraine? ‘We smell a rat!
Lies, damned lies, and their descendants
Russian disinformation outlets aired this first generation of narratives in April and early May 2022, later turning them into a story alleging that Russia was incapable of committing any war crime. Therefore, evidence of other crimes was fake, too. The idea of a ‘fake Bucha’ became a template for discrediting all atrocities committed by Russian troops.
Some top Russian propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov went on the offensive, claiming to know ‘the true story of Bucha’. They also dismissed as ‘Russophobes’ any critics deploring the Bucha massacre or other atrocities, another classic trick in the Kremlin’s playbook.
For example, Russian missiles struck a shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk on 27 June. Pro-Kremlin media dismissed reports of the attack as a Ukrainian provocation similar to Bucha. In August, a commentator alleged that the West is fighting Russia through ‘psy-ops’ including the staged ‘Bucha massacre’.
In September, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive from Kharkiv that quickly liberated territories occupied by Russia. Moscow had trouble explaining how and why, but reports soon surfaced of mass graves discovered near the liberated city of Izyum. Some recovered bodies showed signs of torture. True to form, Russian propagandists shrugged off these reports as ‘Bucha 2.0’. We have published a debunking of the claims.
Withdrawal = ‘gesture of goodwill’ and who said killings?
Early in 2023, another narrative had its debut. Targeting mostly Spanish-speakers in Latin America and French-speaking audiences in Africa, this narrative is a cleaned-up reiteration of its predecessors, but with fewer contradictions. Its lies are also more outrageous.
Among its claims, the narrative alleges with an almost impressive mendacity that Russian soldiers were not driven out of Bucha but departed the town as ‘a gesture of goodwill from Moscow’. It also asserts that Ukrainian authorities have not provided ‘detailed and verified’ forensic reports of the civilian deaths, despite the many reports that forensic teams have written or are writing.
A perfidious past sets the stage for more lies
For years if not decades, pro-Kremlin disinformation has prepared its audiences, foreign and domestic, for the charge that Russia is never to blame but is always the victim of scheming Russophobes trying to harm its people, smear its history, and destroy its state.
The next time an atrocity is discovered, be ready for the storm of disinformation, but remain calm and reject Kremlin Newspeak. Remember Bucha. See for yourselves a brief visual account here.