international analysis and commentary

Russian disinformation about the Ukrainian conflict since 2014: fact-checking and recurring patterns


Today, one looks at information flows about the situation in Ukraine, of course, from the perspective of the current reality. However, it is fundamental to recognize that Russia’s armed aggression against the neighboring state began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. It is equally important to uncover the complex disinformation and propaganda spread by the Kremlin about the ongoing war. A question may arise about the legitimacy of gathering all the events into a single chain of cause-and-effect occurrences from 2014 to the 2020s. It may even be interesting to argue that there is no link between 2014 and the conflict that began in 2022 – because the annexation of Crimea was “peaceful”. As we allow in such “loose” interpretations of international law and reality, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of the quicksand of Russian disinformation. Then the question arises: Where is the truth? Let us search for it through a gradual verification of facts.

An activist holds a poster reading “Propaganda Kills” during a protest against the war in Ukraine by members of the Russian diaspora in Krakow, Poland

Are Russian-speaking people persecuted in Ukraine? Russian disinformation about Ukrainian Nazism

Let us start with one of the most popular narratives of Russian disinformation regarding the motives for the invasion of Ukraine: the oppression of the Russian-speaking population[1] and specifically Russians in Ukraine by the “Nazi” government that came to power during the allegedly neo-Nazi protests and the Euromaidan revolution (from November 2013 to 2014).[2] This narrative was actively used both during the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and later during the armed conflict in the Donbas region (currently occupied by Russian troops).


Read also: A state of mind: how conspiracy theories became the Kremlin’s ideology


More remarkably, an identical narrative was actively disseminated with the outbreak of war in February 2022.[3] This narrative is aimed at adding legitimacy to Russia’s armed invasion of the territory of a sovereign state and at justifying any war crimes or violations of international law ratified by both the former regime (USSR) and post-Soviet Russia.

So, once again, let us emphasize where the misinformation is and where the verifiable facts are. The Kremlin’s propaganda template for justifying the invasion boils down to these reasons:

– Nazism against the Russian-speaking population;

– Ethnic cleansing and persecution of Russians, Russophobia on the part of both ordinary Ukrainians and the state;

– Destruction and promotion of non-traditional values in “Russian regions”;

– Restrictions on the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church.

One of the facts that was actively instrumentalized by Russian propaganda as “confirming” in the theory of persecution of Russian-speaking Ukrainians was the decision of the constitutional court to suspend the law (in 2012) previously establishing the recognition as a regional language of any language spoken by more than 10% of the population. Before we move on to analyze the pros and cons, let us quickly note some important details that weaken this narrative of Russian propaganda. First, this law is not synonymous with a ban on the Russian language, as Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country with over 130 nationalities and small ethnic groups. Second, establishing the concept of a state language is a common measure in most countries, especially those with a predominance of one language-speaking ethnic group and a national language. Nevertheless, there is a question of respect for linguistic human rights, the protection of which is enshrined in several international documents signed by UN member states, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 2,10, 19, 26). Although the rights to personal use of non-state languages, their use in media and culture, use of languages in the family or language learning in educational institutions have not been restricted in Ukraine.

Turning to the facts, one should give examples of the life of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine from 2013 to 2023. It is also important to emphasize the demographic side of this issue (data obtained by analyzing 50 interviews collected specifically for this article  and statistical data from the resources listed below):

– Before the start of an open military conflict in the winter of 2022, the Russian language retained the role of the second state language, in the field of mass culture and everyday life, including in education and local politics.

– In the field of education throughout the history of Ukraine, there was no oppression of Russian-speaking people, since parents could choose between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking schools for their children.

– Higher education, in most cases was associated with the active use of the Russian language, from lecturing to writing dissertations and research.

– Most of the major cities of Ukraine were majority Russian speaking: Dnipro, Kharkiv, Odessa, Krivoy Rog, Berdyansk, Chernikhiv and others.


Survey respondent:
“Before the start of the war, Russian was spoken mainly by all cities, and only Western Ukraine and villagers spoke Ukrainian. Russian has been the second language in education, medicine, and everyday communication for the past 10 years. The State University of Krivoy Rog used the Russian language in the scientific field. Parents could always choose whether the child would go to a Russian or Ukrainian school.
To understand, they were all state-owned, that is, instead of persecution, the government spent budget money to create conditions for learning the Russian language. Children in kindergartens actively spoke Russian. And there was no rejection, they still understood both languages, and communication was always normal. Part of my family lives in Chernikhov, a city near Kiev, so this is practically a Russian-speaking city, they speak Russian themselves, but no one was persecuted. They study, work, defend Ukraine.
Do you know when people began to switch to Ukrainian? When Russia attacked in 2022. [They do it] In order not to hear the language of the occupier. “
© Katerina N., Early Development Specialist, Krivoy Rog, Ukraine


In 2014, Ukraine had a significant number of Russian speakers, particularly in the southern and eastern regions, including Crimea. Approximately 35-42% of the population in Ukraine reported Russian as their primary language, according to the last official census conducted in 2001.[4] It is worth noting that the statistic had changed between 2014 and 2018, with the percentage of Ukrainians considering Russian as their first or main language decreasing to 25-30%. With the current war-conflict (since 2022), the usage of Russian language publicly or in official communication is now below 20%.[5]

However, it is essential to note that the language dynamics in Ukraine are complex, with many Ukrainians being bilingual, proficient in both Ukrainian and Russian. The prevalence of Russian as a lingua franca in certain regions often resulted from historical ties and geographic proximity to Russia. More then this, for longest period Ukraine has been presenting a diverse set of spoken languages while the literature Ukrainian has always been standardized. What basically means that in some regions such as the Carpathian Mountains region speaks a peculiar mix of Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian words, while the central regions of Ukraine often use in oral speech a dialect called “surzhik”, which is an active Ukrainianization of vocalization of Russian words, active use of Ukrainian words and synthesis of the two languages, while the urbanized parts of the eastern regions of Ukraine often spoke exclusively Russian. Nevertheless, even in Chernihiv, Dnieper, Zaporozhe and Kyiv regions, about 45-50% of the population spoke Russian as their first language before the war.

Ukraine is a diverse country with a rich tapestry of ethnic groups. While Ukrainians constitute the majority, making up around 75% of the population, there are significant ethnic minorities. Russians form the largest minority group, comprising approximately 17-20% of the population[6]. Other significant ethnic communities include Crimean Tatars, Belarusians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians and Poles, among others. The country’s ethnic diversity has contributed to a complex societal fabric, with various communities retaining their unique cultural identities and languages.

The geographical distribution of ethnic groups is not uniform throughout the country. Ethnic Russians are more concentrated in the southern and eastern regions, while the western regions have a higher proportion of Ukrainians and other minority groups. Crimea, prior to the annexation, had a diverse population consisting of Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars, each with distinct historical ties and cultural legacies. However, we are looking at about 8.8-9.5 million ethnic Russians who have been living in the country since and applying this approximated number to the total population, they represent 20-22.5% of the population.

Moreover, the analysis of the interviews collected shows that before the outbreak of the war, attitudes towards the Russian language did not change. as the Russian language remains in active use by the media, for example, the UNIAN media agency publishes a large number of materials in Russian. Those 20% of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians also continue to reside in Ukraine, supporting the idea of civil institutions switching to the Ukrainian language. Nevertheless, in terms of legislative changes, there is no persecution regarding the use of the Russian language. The Russian language remains in active use on the frontline, as many officers (over 35 years old) speak Russian, and when we look at news reports from the frontline, interviews with military personnel and their families, we see that the representation of the Russian language in the media sphere remains high. However, most people independently prefer to switch to the Ukrainian language or dialect (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, common in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine). In war settings, there is a growing conscious desire to use less Russian in official and everyday communication, and there has been a voluntary rejection of Russian due to people associating Russian with the language of the enemy. Nevertheless, although the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine demonstrates a desire to speak Ukrainian, many retain communication in Russian, and Russian will remain in Ukraine at least until all people can learn literary Ukrainian. In this sample, more than 65% of respondents were Russian speakers, so those people who should have negative experiences argued the opposite, noting that they still speak Russian both at home and at work without any problems if they wish, but at the same time they would claim that they want to speak Ukrainian now more.

It is necessary to underline the fact that in February 2018, the Constitutional Court declared the language legislation enacted in 2012 as unconstitutional. This legislation previously allowed a language spoken by at least 10% of an oblast’s population to be recognized as a regional language, granting it usage rights in courts, schools and other government institutions. As a result of the court ruling, the law became invalid, and Ukrainian became the sole official nationwide language in the country.


This action is heavily used by Russian propaganda as an example of nationalistic persecution of Russian-speaking communities in Ukraine. However, it is a granted right for countries to have their state language, and many other countries have the same approach with only one official language, including the Russian Federation (aside of some Republics inside of Russia that use two languages in courts, schools and government institutions; for instance, Tatarstan Republic use Tatar and Russian languages). Other evidence of a lack of any type of persecution is the absence of mass protests, even though the right to gather and protest is granted by the Constitution. We may assume that the lack of large protests could also be a sign of the fear’s spread throughout society, fear of persecution and misunderstanding. However, there is a counterargument, as there are regions where the Russian-speaking population is an absolute majority, yet there have been neither protest movements nor persecution of the Russian-speaking population. We will not create space for myths or avoid reality, and we will nevertheless draw attention to the fact that during the period of the military conflict the growth of dislike for Russians or the Russian language increased noticeably among the population. Nevertheless, no changes violating the freedoms and security of citizens were adopted at the legislative level.

In practical terms, language laws imply an evolutionary transition, and the maintenance of language proficiency at the everyday and non-official level. Such laws are aimed at building the identity of Ukrainians whose rights were restricted during the USSR, not at infringing on anyone’s rights. This is not the first time we have seen attempts to justify the war by “fighting the good fight”. An important argument here would be to appeal to historical contexts. These arguments were actively used by the Soviet Union to attack Poland together with Nazi Germany in 1939; strangely enough, Soviet propaganda used identical arguments of “oppression of Russians and Belarusians” and “restriction of the rights of the Russian-speaking population”. In other words, virtually all tropes of Russia’s ideological narratives draw inspiration from Soviet propaganda.

The main complex of Russian disinformation and propaganda is built around the persecution of linguistic diversity in Ukraine. Thus, this idea is actively disseminated by Russian media (Russia 1, Channel One, Russia Today, Sputink, etc.)[7] and is included in the school curriculum in junior, middle, and high schools (targeting students between 6 and 19 years old) as part of specialized lessons “Conversations about Important Things”, which were organized at the personal initiative of Vladimir Putin, and are controlled by the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB)[8]. These lessons claim that Russian-speaking people are being persecuted and massacred on the territory of Ukraine, which is why the military operation was launched. The same false information is also leaked to the international media by spreading propaganda through pro-Russian information channels: accounts of official Russian missions and embassies, influencers, diasporas and media outlets.

Who is bombing Donbas? Russian disinformation about alleged genocide in Donbas by Ukrainian troops

Russia has claimed since 2014 that Ukraine has been bombing the Donbas territory, including peaceful areas, and killing civilians/separatists fighting for freedom. It emphasizes that the new, illegitimate government is opposed by Ukrainian citizens fighting for the freedom of the Russian language and their independence. Nevertheless, the conflict in the Donbas is developing alongside the annexation and occupation of Crimea.

So, who was fighting in Donbas? Let’s move on to sorting out the facts. Since the beginning of 2014, Russia has sent its mercenaries of the PMC Wagner to Ukraine.[9] Yevgeny Prigozhin himself said in an interview[10] that the Wagner group was created to bring armed forces to Donbas.[11] Along with the mercenaries,[12] both in Crimea and in Donbas, there were formations of Cossacks (a militarized group of people, which is a state institution of alternative armed forces; people are armed, perform police functions). In addition, regular Russian troops were also deployed there, but due to the fear of sanctions from Western partners, soldiers and officers were withdrawn from the register of the Russian Army and sent as volunteers together with equipment and ammunition to Donbas for defense and capture of new territories.[13] Moreover, Ukrainian troops, towns and villages were also shelled from Russian territory[14] – including the massive attack on cities and living areas in Donbas[15], where many civilians including children died.[16] Thus, we are talking about the introduction of tens of thousands of experienced soldiers armed and supported by Russia and artillery support for all operations directly from the Russian territory.


Read also: Understanding Russian disinformation strategies inside and outside the country


The data presented in the chart was collected through an analysis of open data. The full poll of the private and official Russian troops is not available, thus these statistics only partly illustrate the real situation. In any case, during last eight years, Russia sent about 63,500 to 65,000 armed, trained soldiers and mercenaries into Ukrainian territory, initiating armed conflict with the state and escalating the conflict throughout the entire period, also violating the human rights of civilians in the occupied territories. During the conflict, the total casualties exceeded 13,500 people, and about 3,500 were civilians, of which about 150-170 were children. Since Russia has never provided the data about losses, rejecting any accusation of supporting Donbas separatists with troops and weapons, it is hard to estimate the number of total losses. However, close work with open data (sites of local municipalities, Russian media and social media) shows that at least 2,000-3,000 have died among those who belonged to the armed forces of Russia. Given that there were at least four times more mercenaries, then the losses can be calculated accordingly, and it could be argued that during the conflict in Donbas, Russian losses amounted to between 5,000 and 8,000 people among soldiers, mercenaries, Cossacks, etc.


Thus, we can reach the conclusion that Ukraine, according to its constitutional right of sovereignty, protected by international laws, over the whole 2014-2023 period has been protecting its territories from the invasion of armed units of another country that threaten the safety of the civilian population, state stability and economic security.


Russia’s frontline disinformation since February 2022

Let us go through some of Russia’s false claims during the military conflict in Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022.

Mariupol has been on the frontline and under total siege since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022. Russia dropped aerial bombs on the city daily, shelled it from Grad reconnaissance anti-aircraft systems, and attacked it with tank troops. Today, the city is absolutely destroyed.[17] Significant destruction and mass deaths of civilians began before the well-known attack on the theater and were related to the bombing of residential areas and improvised shelters.

In addition, an Amnesty International investigation involving satellite imagery, radar data, and interviews with eyewitnesses and victims, confirmed that a Russian plane dropped two bombs on the theater at the same time.[18] There is also no doubt that this crime was motivated by the fact that after the destruction of many residential areas, the city administration recognized the theater as an official bomb shelter.[19]

An indirect confirmation of the attack on March 16th is also a missile strike (the strike was carried out by Russian missiles from Russian-controlled territory) on a maternity hospital, again in Mariupol, where there were casualties including medical staff and patients. In addition, to capture the city, Russia leveled factories where the remnants of the Ukrainian armed forces held positions, eliminating protective areas for civilians who were hiding there from the bombing. Despite requests to cease artillery fire and organize humanitarian corridors, Russia continued carpet bombing.

In other words, one of the characteristic patterns of Russian disinformation is the accusatory materials against Ukraine in the state Russian media at the time of an attack, immediately after or even before an attack. Any denial cannot come ahead of news reports from Ukraine. In other words, a certain sequence is needed to verify each piece of news, in a painful and slow process.

Summing up the discussion, in light of Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, commencing with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the proceeded analysis and provided data underscore the critical importance of discerning the disinformation and propaganda perpetuated by Russia during the ongoing conflict. For instance, examining central narratives, such as the alleged persecution of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, the text reveals the recurrent deployment of these narratives to legitimize Russia’s military intervention, both in Crimea (2014) and the Donbas region (peak of the conflict reaches in 2016-2018). Through a meticulous factual analysis of the years 2013 to 2023, drawing from interviews and statistics, the complexity of language dynamics in Ukraine emerges, with many Ukrainians being bilingual, and the assertion that Russian was actively utilized before the conflict is substantiated. Acknowledging Ukraine’s ethnic diversity, where Russians constitute around 17-20% of the population, geographic variations are noted. Moreover, the discussion on language legislation emphasizes that Ukraine’s decision to declare Ukrainian as the sole official nationwide language in 2018 was not an act of persecution but rather a legitimate exercise of sovereignty.


Read also: The Russo-Ukraine-Western Intelligence War


Shifting focus to the Donbas conflict, it is crucial to address Russian claims of Ukrainian bombing and civilian casualties; this heavily abused by Russian propaganda topic cannot survive a critical analysis though. Because there is a plenty of proofs, including official statements of Russian government which providing the involvement of Russian mercenaries and troops in the Donbass conflict from the earliest stage (since 2014-2016). Finally, in response to recent disinformation patterns in the ongoing conflict, such as the bombing of Mariupol, the investigation highlights the imperative need for rigorous verification of news reports since there are solid evidence such as Russian missiles and Russian occupation of the city which prove the attack being committed by Russian troops, intentionally. In sum, this comprehensive analysis presents a compelling case against recurring Russian disinformation narratives and ultimately supports Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and self-defense while exposing and countering Russian disinformation campaigns.





[1] “Disinformation About Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Debunking Seven Myths spread by Russia”, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023).

[2] “Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center: 382 Websites Spreading War Disinformation And The Top Myths They Publish”, URL: (Accessed 14.07.2023).

[3] “Russophobia” Term Used to Justify Moscow’s War Crimes in Ukraine, Historian Tells Security Council”, URL: (Accessed 15.07.2023).

[4] The last official census in Ukraine was conducted in 2001, and it provides data on the language preferences of the population at that time, including the number of Russian speakers, URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023); United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, URL: (Accessed 09.07.2023); International Organization for Migration (IOM), URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023)

[5] 6th National Poll: Language Issue in Ukraine (March 19, 2022), URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023).

[6] 6th National Poll: Language Issue in Ukraine (March 19, 2022), URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023).

[7]Moscow started a special military operation in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 after the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk asked for help in protecting their citizens against increased attacks from Ukraine.”, URL: (Access 14.07.2023); “Hatred for Russia as evidence: Russophobes need to be imprisoned “, URL: (Access 14.07.2023); “In the Rada [the Ukrainian Parliament] called Russophobia the only possible policy for Ukraine”, URL:  (Access 14.07.2023); “Lavrov [Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia] said that the planting of Russophobia began long before 2014”, URL: (Access 14.07.2023); “How Russophobia and Nazism Sprouted in Ukraine”, URL: (Access 14.07.2023); “How Ukraine became a Russophobic state”, URL: (Access 14.07.2023).

[8] Iashchenko, I. (2022) Nationalistic Propaganda as a Strategy for Patriotic Upbringing in Russian Education. Nuovi Autoritarismi e Democrazie: Diritto, Istituzioni, Società (NAD-DIS), V. 4 N. 2, pp. 11-19. DOI 10.54103/2612-6672/19960.

[9] “Russian Volunteers in the Ukrainian Conflict”, URL: (Accessed 14.07.2023).

[10] Prigozhin spoke about the creation of PMC “Wagner” in 2014, URL: (Accessed 14.07.2023); Prigozhin recognized the creation of the Wagner Group in 2014, URL: (Accessed 14.07.2023).

[11] Hidden source from officers of the Cossacks of the Kuban region, Russia, as well as an official speech of the head of Cossaks of Russia in 2019, in the Russian City of Samara.

[12] DNR: Four thousand Russian volunteers are fighting in Donbas. URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023).

[13] “A rat in our ranks”: the Russians who fought in Donbas were betrayed. A former FSB officer told about the data leak of thousands of volunteers from Russia”, URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023).

[14] Marinovka border checkpoint was shelled with rocket artillery from the territory of Russia – SNBO, URL: (Accessed 12.07.2023).

[15] “Human rights defenders’ report: Donbas was shelled from Russian territory in 2014”, URL: (Accessed 10.07.2023).

[16] “Who is to Blame for the Deaths of Children in Donbas?”, URL: (Accessed 12.07.2023).

[17] Amnesty: The strike on the Mariupol Drama Theater is a Russian war crime, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023); “AI: The bombing of the theater in Mariupol is a war crime”, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023).

[18] “Ukraine: “Children”: The attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine”, URL:    (Accessed 11.07.2023) ; “UKRAINE: DEADLY MARIUPOL THEATRE STRIKE ‘A CLEAR WAR CRIME’ BY RUSSIAN FORCES”, URL:    (Accessed 11.07.2023); “Ukraine: US transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine undermines international efforts to safeguard civilians from indiscriminate weapons”, URL: 11.07.2023).

[19] “Russian forces do not attack civilian targets in Ukraine.”, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023); “Disinformation About Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Debunking Seven Myths spread by Russia”, URL: (Accessed c11.07.2023); “Inside the Kremlin’s Year of Ukraine Propaganda”, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023); “Russia-Ukraine Disinformation Tracking Center: 382 Websites Spreading War Disinformation And The Top Myths They Publish”, URL: (Accessed 11.07.2023).