international analysis and commentary

Russian disinformation in Europe: justifying violence and spreading propaganda

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The prevalence of Russian disinformation campaigns emerged as a concerning issue in EU countries in the 2010s. By capitalizing on modern communication technologies, Russia has effectively propagated a distorted narrative surrounding key events, such as the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas, reaching a peak with the 2022 war against Ukraine. Such disinformation efforts are designed to sow discord, amplify existing tensions, justify Russia’s actions, shifting the blame to others and eroding trust in democratic institutions.

Earlier examples of such massive attacks on public information sources outside Russia in an attempt to justify Moscow’s military actions abroad include events such as the deployment of Russian troops in Syria[1] on the side of Bashar al-Assad, the attack on Georgia (2008)[2], and occupation of the Georgian Abkhazia region (early 1990s)[3], the invasion of Moldova[4])[5]. The reasoning behind the named conflicts is not identical, however, the implemented actions by the Russian leadership, troops, and propaganda activists make them a solid pool of examples of how the Kremlin is involved in armed conflicts and how it tries to justify them.

A billboard with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Aleppo, Syria (2018).

 

More often than not, the Russian government decides to get involved in an already existing social or ethnic conflict in order to achieve social division, weaken the government of the country, the chosen target, in the name of gaining influence in the region and acquiring controlled territories. This tendency can be seen in the war with Georgia and in the war with Ukraine as well. Another argument for the Kremlin is their obsession with opposing NATO, Western countries, the United States of America and any other “enemies from outside”. Russia’s presence in the Kosovo Conflict, in Pridnestrovian region and the fight of Russian soldiers for the independence of Abkhazia (an annexed region of Georgia) were largely the result of planning to create so-called “buffer zones” in case of war. In other words, Russia’s post-Soviet leaders were constantly preparing for large-scale military action.

Which would certainly have been subjected to worldwide condemnation much earlier if the Kremlin had not invested billions in domestic and foreign propaganda. Misleading people’s opinion, including the global leaders, that is what granted the regime the time and the freedom to develop this dangerous geopolitical approach, especially towards neighboring countries. But there is a question, has been Russia trying to protect itself or it was always preparing to attack? Since there was no threat against Russia detected, the statement on this issues is: Russian leadership is primarily focused on the restoring the Empire control of so-called post-soviet countries and regions.

 

All these military conflicts share several semantic patterns in the propaganda disseminated by the Kremlin

The Russian approach consists in establishing peace by sending troops into independent states to protect the freedom of Russian-speaking people, Russians or “freedom fighters”. Perhaps, at first glance, this tactic may look inspiring and even heroic, but it amounts to military interventions in independent states, threatening constitutional order by supporting separatists and engaging in military action.

The conflicts in Georgia demonstrate the model of Russia’s military intervention and the development of separatism within another state that has no ethnic or other relation to Russia. Again, one of the frequent arguments was the defense of the Russian-speaking population and the defense of the Orthodox Church. However, Georgia is an Orthodox country, its people speak the Georgian language, which is not even part of the family of Slavic languages. Putin has repeatedly voiced his ambitions to build an empire, which means the destruction of independent states and the establishment of Russophile ideology, which led to the growth of racism among Russians even against citizens of the Russian Federation – like in the violent suppression of Chechnya. The defense of the Russian Orthodox Church, the defense of the Russian language, the attacks on civilians and cities under the pretext of defending values compose the main narrative that the Kremlin broadcasts year after year to justify aggressive military actions.

 

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

 

The main reason we cannot trust most of Russian sources today or pro-Russian media is that there is no diversity of media, as there are only state agencies or pro-Kremlin private media. Thus, you cannot verify any of these sources because they follow one pattern of storytelling and the same sets of information and expertise. support for the war, which is the goal pursued today by Kremlin propaganda.[6]

One notable instance of Russian disinformation was observed during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russian state-sponsored media outlets disseminated falsified reports, aiming to portray the annexation as a “reunification” process driven by the will of the Crimean population. Manipulating historical contexts and ignoring the presence of Russian military forces in the region, these disinformation campaigns sought to legitimize Russia’s actions while undermining the international response to the annexation.

It should be noted that the dissemination of disinformation is not always associated with blatant and direct lies. Often, for more critically thinking audiences, the narratives of false information dissemination offer conflict rhetoric. For example, when discussing the annexation of Crimea, Russia persistently uses the word “reunification”[7] and this word has also appeared in the international media from time to time over the past nine years. The semantic load of «annexation”[8] holds a sharply negative connotation, whereas “reunification” implies voluntary unification of groups of people or nations and the existence of a common historical legacy.

How does false information reach European audience since Russian propaganda primarily affects people within the country? It is important to note the direct spread of disinformation by media outlets that work for the Kremlin or sympathize with crimes committed under the Russian flag. However, it is also key to note how unprofessionally, or carelessly European media outlets turn to Russian outlets for their news sources.

 

The Russo-Ukrainian War, particularly the escalation witnessed in 2022, is fertile ground for Russian disinformation campaigns

As the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine started, the Kremlin-sponsored narratives of disinformation changed, focusing on a few main tropes: constructing the enemy’s image, creating historical and political myths to justify illegal and cruel actions against the people of the neighboring country, and white-washing Russia’s crimes.[9] Two of the central narratives of the disinformation campaigns are that Ukraine is not thankful for the support it receives from the West; that European money has been spent on an authoritarian and xenophobic project by the current leadership in Kyiv (the “Nazism” accusation), and that the level of aid being channeled will leave Western countries in an economic crisis.[10]

According to a report by the European External Action Service, Russian disinformation campaigns have seen a surge in their reach, with a notable increase in the dissemination of false narratives related to Ukraine. In 2022, disinformation related to these events accounted for approximately 40%* of all identified disinformation cases targeting EU countries. Moreover, an analysis by the NATO StratCom COE revealed that social media platforms remain a key conduit for disinformation dissemination, with over 65%**[11] of misleading content being propagated through such channels. These statistics highlight the pressing need for robust counter-disinformation strategies and increased media literacy efforts to safeguard the information space in EU countries.

 

Read also: The Russo-Ukraine-Western Intelligence War

 

Among the sources of disinformation and propaganda are official state media from Russia, some of which have been temporarily banned by certain platforms since the start of the Russian invasion. However, many websites that are not official arms of the Russian government and are not sanctioned by platforms, promote false content in support of Vladimir Putin’s government.[12] These sources include anonymous websites, foundations, and research sites with unclear funding, some of which may have undisclosed connections to the Russian government.[13] Some of the most influential sites known for sharing pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation are funded by the Russian government: RT, TASS, and Sputnik News, etc.[14] Right now, over 200 websites are detected as spreading Russian disinformation in the English language, more than 50 in German, 40 in Italian and 39 in French. It is important to underline that these sites are news related. Blogs and platform with random materials are not considered in these statistics.[15]

 

Government-funded sites adroitly exploit digital platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and TikTok, facilitating the propagation of deceptive narratives.[16]

The University of Adelaide, Australia, research data, as well as information obtained from open data sources (platforms such as NewsGuard, RAND, etc.) confirm that in 2022 pro-Russian accounts spreading disinformation about the war in Ukraine spent about $100,000 on Facebook advertising alone, and over 1,000 personal pages that were involved in spreading disinformation in Europe were identified (data for South and North America, Asia and Africa were not taken into account). Meanwhile, an analysis of the content and origin of the posts (about 5.5 million posts on X and 200,000 Facebook posts) shows that about 90% of the posts were published by bots that are clearly connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Troll Factory.

 

Some examples of fake news:

“Massacre in Mariupol”: Russian state-controlled media disseminated false reports of Ukrainian forces conducting a massacre of civilians in the city of Mariupol during the invasion. These reports included graphic imagery and testimonies, which were later proven to be fabricated and based on unrelated events from different conflicts.

 

This disinformation aimed to demonize Ukrainian forces and garner international sympathy for Russia’s actions. However, the real situation stands that thousands of civilians were killed in the city by Russian troops during almost three months of siege.[17]

While the Ukrainian media and governors tried to draw global attention to the Mariupol Theater attack, which killed between 600 and 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children, Russia was publishing fake articles on the Odesa fire claiming that pro-Russian nationalists were targeted and killed.

The screenshots were taken from the English site of Sputnik (Russian, pro-Kremlin media).

You may question, but is not the Odesa Massacre a true event? On May 2, 2014, in Odessa there were mass clashes between supporters of the Euromaidan revolution and a group of federalists. They led to shootings, which six people from both sides. Then, the protesters were close to the administrative building, which both groups began to pelt with Molotov cocktails. Some tried to take shelter inside the building, where a fire broke killing 42 more people and injuring others. Thus, fake news from Russia about the planned burning of pro-Russian activists by the Ukrainian government has no basis.[18]

“Chemical Attack in Donbas”: In an attempt to discredit Ukraine and justify its military intervention, Russia spread disinformation alleging that Ukrainian forces conducted a chemical attack on civilians in the Donbas region.[19] Pro-Russian media disseminated stories suggesting that Ukraine, in collaboration with American secret services, was preparing radioactive sabotage on the Donbas water supply. This disinformation, claiming such a scheme in a complex and interconnected water supply system, seems highly implausible, as it spans 260 kilometers, passing through both frontline areas and territories controlled by different parties.[20] However, international investigations and independent media outlets revealed that the alleged chemical attack was staged by Russian operatives, who manipulated video footage and testimonies to fabricate the incident.[21]

“American BioLabs in Ukraine: mosquitoes, pigeons and gooses are trained to kill and infect Russians”:[22] Russian disinformation campaigns have extensively propagated narratives concerning biolabs in Ukraine, employing sophisticated techniques to sow confusion and disseminate misinformation.[23] The disinformation alleges that Ukraine operates secret biolabs, often in cooperation with Western countries, with the sinister intent of developing and deploying biological weapons. Such claims have gained traction in certain circles, despite lacking credible evidence.[24] These narratives seek to undermine Ukraine’s reputation and foster mistrust among international partners.[25] In reality, Ukraine’s biolabs are primarily civilian research facilities dedicated to disease control and prevention, as well as public health initiatives. However, Russian disinformation continues to exploit this topic to further its strategic objectives, perpetuating unfounded fears and falsehoods in the information space.[26] Robust fact-checking and scrutiny of sources are vital to combatting these deceptive narratives and safeguarding the integrity of public discourse.[27]

 

As can be seen, the Russo-Ukrainian War has provided ample opportunities for Russian disinformation efforts to exploit information asymmetry, manipulate narratives, and create a fog of confusion surrounding the conflict. The examples of fake news demonstrate the deliberate and coordinated nature of these disinformation campaigns.

It is important to emphasize that disinformation about the ongoing armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine has seriously affected the European Union countries as well, spreading both on social networks and in media sources, influencing, among other things, the rhetoric of official media, when ambiguous interpretations of certain events or poor fact-checking leads to the publication of misleading information. The disinformation activity of Russian agents abroad has been recorded throughout the entire period of post-Soviet Russia’s existence, especially during elections in Europe and the United States, as well as during armed conflicts in which Russia was involved.

Thus, it is necessary to continue to raise public awareness of disinformation strategies, their channels and especially their negative implications for international security well beyond the borders of an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

 

 

On the same topic

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

Understanding Russian disinformation strategies inside and outside the country

 

 


Footnotes:

[1] Russia’s military action in Syria – timeline, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/14/russias-military-action-in-syria-timeline (Accessed 21.07.2023); Understanding Russia’s Intervention in Syria, URL: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR3180.html (Accessed 21.07.2023).

[2] The August war, ten years on: a retrospective on the Russo-Georgian war, URL: https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-august-war-ten-years-on-a-retrospective-on-the-russo-georgian-war/ (Accessed 22.07.2023); How a Five-Day War With Georgia Allowed Russia to Reassert Its Military Might, URL: https://www.history.com/news/russia-georgia-war-military-nato (Accessed 22.07.2023).

[3] Military occupation of Georgia by Russia, URL: https://www.rulac.org/browse/conflicts/military-occupation-of-georgia-by-russia (Accessed 21.07.2023).

[4] Transdniestrian conflict, URL: https://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/13611.pdf (Accessed 21.07.2023); Resolution Mechanisms of the Transnistrian Conflict, URL: https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/56253/ssoar-sp-rpsr-2006-4-vacaru-Resolution_mechanisms_of_the_Transnistrian.pdf?sequence=1 (Accessed 21.07.2023); Unrecognized Republic, Recognizable Consequences. Russian Troops in “Frozen” Transnistria, URL: https://www.usmcu.edu/Outreach/Marine-Corps-University-Press/MCU-Journal/Journal-of-Advanced-Military-Studies-SI-2022/Unrecognized-Republic-Recognizable-Consequences-Russian-Troops-in-Frozen-Transnistria/ (Accessed 21.07.2023).

[5] War With Chechnya Brutalized Russian Society, and Ukraine Is Paying the Price, URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/04/20/chechnya-russian-brutality-ukraine-war/ (Accessed 22.07.2023);  Russia’s 1994-96 Campaign for Chechnya: A Failure in Shaping the Battlespace, URL: https://www.canada.ca/en/army/services/line-sight/articles/2022/02/russias-1994-96-campaign-for-chechnya-a-failure-in-shaping-the-battlespace.html (Accessed 22.07.2023); War crimes and politics of terror in Chechnya 1994-2004, URL: https://www.msf.org/sites/default/files/2019-04/MSF%20Speaking%20Out%20Chechnya%201994-2004.pdf (Accessed 22.07.2023); The War in Chechnya: A Military Analysis, URL: https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/sa/sa_aug00bag01.html (Accessed 14.07.2023); Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000 Lessons from Urban Combat, URL: https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1289.html (Accessed 24.07.2023).

[6] Some of the data you can check through following links:
1. https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-60662712;
2. https://wciom.ru/analytical-reviews/analiticheskii-obzor/chechenskaja-voina;
3. https://www.rbc.ru/politics/15/02/2016/56c073989a7947700d64cad6;
4. https://www.svoboda.org/a/24196719.html;
5. https://www.hrw.org/legacy/russian/reports/2004/world/chechnya.html;
6. https://www.rbc.ru/photoreport/26/11/2014/5474be82cbb20f7c7ea9f7b1;
7. https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2018/08/08_a_11888485.shtml;
8. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/29414732.html.

[7] The following sources are Russian state-media which are spreading the propaganda worldwide: 1. History of Crimea’s reunification with Russia, URL: https://tass.com/russia/1423871 (18.07.2023); 2. President Putin says Crimea’s reunification with Russia was historic event, URL: https://tass.com/politics/1590455 (18.07.2023).

[8] Crimea: between annexation and reunification, URL: https://www.geneva-academy.ch/research/publications/detail/433-crimea-between-annexation-and-reunification (25.07.2023); Seven years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, URL: https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/seven-years-russia%E2%80%99s-illegal-annexation-crimea_en (25.07.2023); Russia’s annexation of Crimea, URL: https://kyivindependent.com/russias-annexation-of-crimea/ (25.07.2023).

[9] Ukraine conflict disinformation: worldwide narratives and trends, URL: https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/ukraine-conflict-disinformation-worldwide-narratives-and-trends/ (Accessed 20.07.2023); Ukraine War Resource Hub, URL: https://www.disinfo.weu/ukraine-hub/ (Accessed 20.07.2023).

[10] Looking for distractions and driving divisions, URL: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/looking-for-distractions-and-driving-divisions/ (Accessed 14.07.2023).

[11] * Data was collected through analysis of open sources and official reports of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union vs Disinformation (EU vs Disinfo) and the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (StratCom COE), see more: https://stratcomcoe.org/; https://www.eeas.europa.eu/_en; https://euvsdisinfo.eu/.

** Some of the examples had been collected through open data analysis of private initiatives such as NewsGuard.

[12] Doppelganger – Media clones serving Russian propaganda, URL: https://www.disinfo.eu/doppelganger/ (Accessed 22.07.2023).

[13] Ukraine and Russia, URL:

[14] Debunking misinformation: our shared responsibility, URL: https://www.state.gov/%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B7%D0%BE%D0%B1%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%87%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%B5-%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%B7%D0%B8%D0%BD%D1%84%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BC%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%B8/ (Accessed 27.07.2023); Faces of Kremlin Propaganda: Maria Zakharova, URL: https://www.state.gov/faces-of-kremlin-propaganda-maria-zakharova/ (Accessed 27.07.2023)/

[15] Centro di monitoraggio della disinformazione sul conflitto Russia-Ucraina: gli oltre 380 siti che diffondono disinformazione sulla guerra e le narrazioni false più diffuse, URL: https://www.newsguardtech.com/it/special-reports/centro-di-monitoraggio-della-disinformazione-sul-conflitto-russia-ucraina-oltre-100-siti-pro-putin-e-le-10-false-narrazioni-piu-diffuse/ (25.07.2023).

[16] Russian Disinformation Profits from Changing Social Media Landscape, URL: https://www.cartercenter.org/news/features/blogs/2022/russian-disinformation-profits-from-changing-social-media-landscape.html (28.07.2023); Russian disinformation surged on social media after invasion of Ukraine, Meta reports, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/07/propaganda-social-media-surge-invasion-ukraine-meta-reports (27.07.2023); Russian Disinformation Efforts on Social Media, URL: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4373z2.html (28.07.2023); ‘Grotesque’ Russian disinfo campaign mimics Western news websites to sow dissent, URL: https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-influence-ukraine-fake-news/ (27.07.2023).

[17] Witness to the Massacre in Mariupol, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/01/magazine/ukraine-mariupol-theater.html (25.07.2023); ‘It was a massacre’: Mariupol residents recall battle for Ukrainian city, URL: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/it-was-massacre-mariupol-residents-recall-battle-ukrainian-city-2022-04-29/  (23.07.2023); Putin’s Mariupol Massacre is one of the 21st century’s worst war crimes, URL: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/putins-mariupol-massacre-is-one-the-worst-war-crimes-of-the-21st-century/ (27.07.2023).

[18] WHO DISSEMINATES DISINFORMATION ABOUT THE 2014 FIRE AT THE ODESA TRADE UNIONS HOUSE, URL: https://mythdetector.ge/en/who-disseminates-disinformation-about-the-2014-fire-at-the-odesa-trade-unions-house/ (24.07.2023).

[19] DISINFO: UKRAINE USED CHEMICAL WEAPONS NEAR SOLEDAR AND BAKHMUT, URL: https://euvsdisinfo.eu/report/ukraine-used-chemical-weapons-near-soledar-and-bakhmut (26.07.2023).

[20] Fake: Ukrainian Military Attempt Chemical Attack in Donbas, URL: https://www.stopfake.org/en/fake-ukrainian-military-attempt-chemical-attack-in-donbas/ (26.07.2023).

[21] Without giving evidence, Russia says it probes Ukraine use of chemical weapons, URL: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/without-supplying-evidence-russia-says-its-investigating-alleged-ukrainian-use-2023-02-06/ (24.07.2023); Ukraine conflict: Russian chemical attack claim fact-checked, URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/61439398 (25.07.2023).

[22] Russian propaganda’s latest invention: Ukraine is “developing biological weapons” and using birds to deliver viruses. Share Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn, URL: https://kyivindependent.com/russian-propagandas-latest-invention-ukraine-is-developing-biological-weapons-and-using-birds-to-deliver-viruses/ (22.07.2023).

[23] Russia claims US did experiments with bat coronavirus samples in biolabs in Ukraine, URL: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/russia-ukraine-war/russia-claims-us-did-experiments-with-bat-coronavirus-samples-in-biolabs-in-ukraine/2530709 (24.07.2023).

[24] Debunking Russian Lies About Biolabs at Upcoming U.N. Meetings, URL: https://www.rand.org/blog/2022/09/debunking-russian-lies-about-biolabs-at-upcoming-un.html (26.07.2023).

[25] What are Russia’s biological weapons claims and what’s actually happening? URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-biological-weapon-claim-us-un-ukraine-bio-labs-explainer (20.07.2023); The Kremlin’s Allegations of Chemical and Biological Weapons Laboratories in Ukraine, URL: https://www.state.gov/the-kremlins-allegations-of-chemical-and-biological-weapons-laboratories-in-ukraine/ (25.07.2023).

[26] The Outcome Report of the Parliamentary Commission on Investigation into the Circumstances Related to Creation of Biological Laboratories by U.S. Specialists on the Territory of Ukraine, URL: https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/international_safety/regprla/1873584/ (23.07.2023).

[27] No sign of Ukraine bioweapons labs says disarmament chief, after further Russian claims, URL: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1114272 (25.07.2023).