Russia disinformation goes into overdrive amid Ukraine invasion

Russia disinformation goes into overdrive amid Ukraine invasion
In the build-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, videos had emerged on social media showing alleged provocations and killings by Ukrainian forces.
4 min read
24 February, 2022
The UK government has been called on to close RT [Getty]

For weeks, Western intelligence agencies have warned that Moscow might manufacture false-flag attacks to justify its invasion of Ukraine.

As if by cue, in the days leading up to the Russian assault, videos emerged on social media allegedly showing such "killings" and "provocations".

The videos have been proven fake by monitors, such as Bellingcat, but propaganda and disinformation will likely continue to be powerful weapons in the Russian arsenal during their invasion and occupation of Ukraine.

Similar tactics have already been deployed by Moscow in the war in Syria, eastern Ukraine, as well as during recent pro-democracy protests in Kazakhstan, which were brutally crushed with Russia's help.

Bellingcat is one of the monitors that has been tracking down and debunking some of these fake videos.

It has asked people sharing footage of Ukraine to source and credit the material for the interest of accountability.

Marc Owen Jones, an expert on disinformation and digital authoritarianism, has also been documenting war propaganda published by Russian government media outlets RT and Sputnik.

"Sites like Russia Today are attempting to feed stories that strategically assist Russia. For example, emphasising stories about Ukrainian soldiers laying down arms and surrendering is designed to sow fear among soldiers and emphasise the military superiority of Russia - suggesting resistance is futile," he told The New Arab.

"They also refrain from any suggestion that Russia is the aggressor, [using] terms like Russian 'special operations' or 'peacekeeping' in Donbas as opposed to invasion. Indeed, the RT Twitter account has been sharing lots of condemnations of the term 'invasion'."

He said that these media outlets are framing Moscow's invasion of Ukraine as a response to external aggression, which is being swallowed by some - but by no means all - people in Russia. 

"For example, [Russia] withdrew its diplomatic staff from Ukraine hours before the invasion claiming they were being threatened. In the build-up to the invasion Russian media frequently emphasised Ukrainian aggression as being the reason for an increased Russian presence in Ukraine," he said.

"Of course, it is absurd that someone would provoke Russia in such a situation, and such information is simply designed to legitimise an illegal Russian invasion."

He said that this discourse is even more pronounced on Russian state news agency Sputnik.

"Russia is always 'counter-attacking', as opposed to 'attacking', and they emphasise the accuracy of their weapons and that they do not target civilians. Meanwhile, they emphasise Ukrainian attacks on civilians," he said.

Meanwhile, Russia reportedly instructed its own media to publish only news from official sources, according to Reuters.

Map - Russia invades Ukraine

Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that these restrictions are likely to ensure that Russian media sell the line that Russian operations are defensive by protecting ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and curbing NATO 'expansionism'.

"Outside sources that would show that Ukraine is nowhere near joining NATO and Russia is killing civilians in Ukraine would undermine trust in Kremlin rhetoric," he told The New Arab.

"Hence the need for censorship. Putin’s approval ratings soared to 90% after the Crimea annexation and at a time of uncertainty about the economy and Russia's devastating COVID death toll, uniting the people around a Western-Ukrainian combined threat is compelling." 

There have been calls in the UK for the government to follow Germany's move and ban broadcaster RT.

Labour leader Keir Starmer told parliament on Tuesday that the Russian "campaign of misinformation should be tackled... broadcasting its propaganda around the world" should be stopped in the UK by banning RT.

Some have pointed out that the move might be counterproductive as it would lead the Kremlin to take a similar step against the BBC, which is followed by many more people in Russia than RT is in the UK.