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The Kremlin’s main target of disinformation…

December 16, 2021

Since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support to separatists in Donbas, Ukraine has remained one of the main targets of pro-Kremlin disinformation attacks. Out of 13,000 examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation recorded in the EUvsDisinfo database, nearly 5,000 target Ukraine.

Nearly eight years after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the Kremlin continues to be obsessed with using disinformation against Ukraine, its leadership and society. It is by far the most targeted country in the pro-Kremlin media globally.

These disinformation attacks have three main directions, according to a recent study titled “Evolution of Russian Narratives About Ukraine and Their Export to Ukrainian Media Space” carried out by Ukraine Сrisis Media Center:

1) disinformation aimed at the domestic Russian audience in order to create an image of Ukraine as an enemy and obtain a social mandate to implement Russia’s aggressive foreign policy;

2) disinformation aimed at the Ukrainian audience in order to divide and destabilize society and force it to peace on the Kremlin’s terms;

3) disinformation aimed at the international audience in order to legitimise Russia’s foreign policy, consolidate the Kremlin’s influence in the areas it considers its zone of influence, and achieve the recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory, leading to Western sanctions relief.

Russian media in the Crimea and Donbas, but not elsewhere in Ukraine

The reach and influence of Russian-state media in Ukraine has declined substantially since the pre-Euromaidan years. This is largely due to decisions taken by the Ukrainian authorities from 2017 onwards to sanction and block a selected number of Russian state-run outlets and two of Russia’s largest social networks. Three Ukrainian TV channels linked to the Kremlin were also closed in February 2021 after sanctions were imposed on their owner. But in parts of Ukraine it is still possible to receive terrestrial Russian TV and read and watch its online media.

In contrast to the rest of Ukraine, Ukrainian TV and online media are blocked in Donbas and Crimea, so people there have access only to pro-Kremlin media. Various organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders have reported on the deteriorating state of media freedom in Donbas and Crimea since 2014.

Most recent media reports about the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders promote manipulative narratives of the pro-Kremlin outlets in Russia and Donbas. The pro-Kremlin outlets in Ukraine allege that Kyiv is planning to attack areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists and drag Russia into hostilities in Donbas.

The Ukraine government said that was nothing short of “propaganda nonsense” to cover- up for Russia’s own plans. Russia also accuses NATO countries of “pumping” Ukraine with weapons.

Main pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives

The main aim of pro-Kremlin disinformation targeting Ukraine is to distort the facts about the three key events shaping Moscow’s Ukraine policy since 2014: the Euromaidan revolution, the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the armed conflict in Donbas.

Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s move towards closer ties with the European institutions, and its key demand is that Ukraine never joins NATO or has the military alliance’s offensive weapons on Ukrainian soil.

When Ukrainians deposed their corrupt pro-Russian president in 2014, Russia responded by invading and illegally annexing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, while Russia-backed separatists seized large swathes of Ukraine’s two eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas.

The Euromaidan revolution is portrayed as a coup d’état sponsored by the West.. According to this narrative, all subsequent domestic developments have served to please Kyiv’s Western paymasters and transformed Ukraine into a hotbed of Russophobia where Russian identity, language and religion are all trampled upon.

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea is justified with the same sham logic: rather than live under the new anti-Russian regime installed by the Euromaidan mob, the Crimean inhabitant overwhelmingly chose to ‘reunite’ with Russia via a ‘democratic referendum’, which was illegally organised in matter of days and in denial of Ukrainian legislation.

Above all, the narrative about Ukraine as a failed state, having no real institutions and being unable to provide its citizens with basic rights and freedoms, serves to discredit the Ukrainian statehood. This idea gives the wrong impression that Russian influence is desirable and necessary to help settle the “chaos” on the Ukrainian territory.

Last, Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine is painted as a ‘civil war’ against Russian speakers/ethnic Russians who refuse to accept the rule of the Nazi junta in Kyiv.

The Kremlin has been steadily promoting all these malign narratives about Ukraine for years, using all available tools. They are repeated by top Russian officials and broadcast on Russian TV channels – public and private, federal and regional. They are disseminated online – both through media and social networks, including via troll farms and bots.

Notably, many of these messages are aimed not just at Russian, but international audiences. Disinformation outlets seem to be compelled to convince people far beyond the Russian and Ukrainian borders. For example, EuvsDisinfo database contains over 140 examples of pro-Kremlin media claiming, in Arabic, that Crimea “chose” to tie its fate to Russia.

Eastern Partnership as a neo-colonial project

The European Union and the Eastern Partnership initiative are also prominent disinformation targets.

Pro-Kremlin disinformation typically focuses on trying to denigrate Ukraine’s European aspirations. The EU is portrayed as a malignant, egoistic Union whose only aim is to exploit Ukraine, extract its resources, and enlist its people as cheap labour rather than forge an equal partnership. Accordingly, the modern EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area are described as harmful to Ukraine and beneficial only to the EU – a blatant lie if one bothers to check Ukrainian growing trade statistic with the EU. This narrative also seeks to portray Russia as the only geopolitical actor capable of ensuring Ukraine’s development and prosperity.

COVID-19 Vaccination

Ukraine has also been subjected to a barrage of spurious claims about COVID-19 and vaccinations. Ukrainian audiences have been told, for instance, that their country is a ‘testing ground’ in the global vaccine race; that vaccination with Western produced is a means of population control; and that their government would rather see its own citizens die than approve Russia’s Sputnik V.

Although it is difficult to quantify the impact of pro-Kremlin disinformation on Ukraine’s vaccination rates, it is evident that Moscow is actively seeking to influence the Ukrainian public opinion on the issue and foment distrust in local authorities. A recent report by Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council offers a detailed look at how pro-Kremlin actors use Telegram – a popular instant messaging app – to set back vaccination efforts in the country. Moreover, the report notes the dissonance between domestic Russian narratives and those disseminated in Ukraine: inside Russia the former encourage vaccination as a necessary and safe measure against COVID-19, whereas the latter paint it as a potentially lethal infringement on civil liberties in Ukraine.