Looking back at Russian disinformation about Ukraine in 2023

Looking back at Russian disinformation about Ukraine in 2023

By: john faerseth&
December 15 2023

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Looking back at Russian disinformation about Ukraine in 2023

(Source: Reuters/Freepik.com/Composite by Matthew Hunter)

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is nearing the end of its second year, propaganda and disinformation still play an important role in the ongoing war.  

Since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has attempted to frame the war – which it still insists is a “special military operation” –  as a necessary defensive response to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and required to “de-nazify” Ukraine and end a purported genocide against Russian speakers. 

Logically Facts has looked at some of the most common narratives in 2023, and what to expect in 2024.

Claim: The West controls Ukraine and uses it for its own purposes; the war in Ukraine is a proxy war 

According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, NATO uses Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Russia. (Source: RT/Screenshot)

On November 28, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quoted on the webpage of Russian state television RT (formerly Russia Today) that “NATO is sticking to its plan to contain Russia by sacrificing countless Ukrainian lives,” adding that “So far, the alliance has not abandoned its plans to contain Russia and slaughter the Ukrainian people as ritual victims in the fight against Russia.” 

Claims that NATO is using Ukraine as a tool to fight a proxy war to contain Russia have been voiced since the beginning of the invasion. They are connected to false claims that the 2014 Euromaidan revolution was a Western-backed coup, based on the fact that Western countries have backed Ukraine with weapons and intelligence since before the invasion started.

In fact, Western military support for Ukraine was limited before the 2022 invasion. Ukrainian and many European leaders were also skeptical of U.S. claims that an invasion was imminent. Most military aid to Ukraine began after the beginning of the invasion, with the discovery of atrocities in Bucha on April 4, 2022, as a turning point.  

Most importantly, Western backing would be of little use if Ukrainians were not willing to fight. The willingness to resist the invasion has been an indigenous response

Claim: Ukraine or Western countries are responsible for the war 

Russia continues to accuse Ukraine of genocide in the Donbas. (Source: X/Screenshot)

Somewhat connected to the claim that the war is a proxy conflict as well as the “Western-backed coup” narrative are claims that Ukraine or Western countries bear the responsibility for the 2022 invasion. These include suggestions that Ukraine was committing genocide in the Donbas. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Putin stated the need to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from an ongoing genocide as one of the reasons for the “special military operation.” Putin has also accused the West of turning a blind eye while 13,000 to 14,000 residents of Donetsk and Luhansk have been killed since 2014.

The Donbas conflict did claim between 13,000 and 14,000 lives between 2014 and 2022, most of them during the first two years. However, this includes all casualties on both sides, both military and civilian. According to the U.N., 3,500 of those killed were civilians, many of them on the Ukrainian side of the frontline. 4100 were Ukrainian soldiers, and 5,650 were Russian-controlled insurgent militants. 

The OSCE monitoring mission that was active in Eastern Ukraine from 2014 to 2022 found no evidence of mass targeted killings of civilians. 

Claim: Western countries refused to sign a treaty with Russia 

A claim that has gained more prominence in 2023 is that Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine due to concerns over NATO expansion. In September 2023, an article published on the website Consortium News claimed that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had acknowledged this during a speech on September 7, 2023, in the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

In fact, Stoltenberg referred to a well-known Russian draft treaty presented in December 2021, when Russia had already massed military forces on Ukraine’s borders. It stipulated that NATO would refrain from further enlargement, including the accession of Ukraine. In addition, Russia demanded guarantees that NATO would not deploy military forces and weaponry in Europe besides what was stationed there on May 27, 1997.

NATO deployed virtually no troops or equipment in any of the 15 states that joined between 1999 and 2023 until Russia occupied Crimea in 2014. After that, it began to deploy small, multinational battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland on a rotation basis. To accept the draft treaty would mean withdrawing these battle groups, making these countries vulnerable to Russian military threats. Also, reversing NATO’s open-door policy would require consensus among all 30 member states. The treaty, which received much media coverage when it was presented, thus had little chance of being accepted.  

In April 2022, Zofia Stemplowska, Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, wrote that when Russia talks about NATO “expansion,” it carries connotations of territorial annexation and obscures how difficult it was for many of the “new” member states who joined after 1999. It was also a decision made by the democratically elected governments of the countries in question. 

France and Germany were long opposed to Ukrainian membership, and several other member states also continued to be wary after the 2022 invasion. 

Claim: Ukraine is dominated by Nazis

According to the Russian authorities, the “de-nazification” of Ukraine remains a goal. (Source: Tass/Screenshot)

Claims about Nazis playing an important role in today’s Ukraine have been voiced since the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014, and the need to “de-nazify” Ukraine was part of the reasons Russia initially gave for invading in 2022. Putin also referred to the Ukrainian government as “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” 

However, with the exception of the short-term rise and fall of the Svoboda (Freedom) party in 2012-2014, radical right-wing parties in Ukraine have fared miserably in all Ukrainian elections since Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Also, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who won a landslide election in 2019, is of Jewish descent. Several members of his family were killed in the Holocaust. 

Ukraine as a Nazi state supported by the West still plays an important part in Russian propaganda narratives. (Source: X/Screenshot)

The Euromaidan was a broad movement representing a broad swathe of Ukrainian society. In March 2014, the BBC wrote that ultra-nationalists and their extreme right fringe were “a small part of the overall campaign - a subgroup of a minority.” While nationalists had a visible presence during the Kyiv protests, they were not the leading force in the protests, which were driven by frustration with how Ukraine was governed: the lack of democracy and the rule of law, violation of human rights, and rampant corruption. 

To contain the Russian-instigated separatism in Eastern Ukraine after the Russian occupation of Crimea, the new authorities turned to volunteers. Their much-profiled participation in the Donbas war gave fringe groups like Right Sector and the Azov Batallion visibility and fame, which has not translated into public support for their politics. 

Claim: Ukraine is deeply corrupt

Helped by a series of scandals, Russia has portrayed Ukraine as one of the world’s most corrupt nations and accused its government of capitalizing on the ongoing conflict. In December 2023, the BBC revealed that thousands of fake TikTok accounts had been spreading false claims that senior Ukrainian officials and their relatives bought luxury cars or villas abroad after Russia's invasion in February 2022.

Ukraine is currently rated as Europe’s second most corrupt country by Transparency International, with a score of 33. This is nine points below Hungary, which is ranked as the most corrupt in the European Union, and an increase of 8 points since 2013, the year before the Euromaidan. Russia is rated as the most corrupt country in Europe, with a score of 28. 

In March 2023, the Council of Europe Anti-Corruption Body, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), concluded that Ukraine's current level of compliance with its recommendations was no longer "unsatisfactory" and removed Ukraine from its anti-corruption watch list. It also wrote, "Wartime has led to the necessity of adopting martial law, a state of emergency and the adjustment of priorities. In such a context, it is remarkable that Ukraine has nevertheless continued its work to implement GRECO’s recommendations.” 

Claim: Ukraine is a hub of weapon trafficking

After the 7 October attack on Israel, former president Dmitry Medvedev accused Ukraine of selling Western arms to Hamas. (Source: X/Screenshot)

Following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, former president and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev claimed that “weapons handed to the Nazi regime in Ukraine are now being actively used against Israel.” The statement was published by the state broadcasters RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News. Several X users also accused Ukraine of selling Western weapons on the black market. 

While it cannot be disproved that a small number of weapons sent to Ukraine have made their way to Gaza, there is no evidence of Ukraine selling weapons to other conflict zones.

In July 2023, CNN wrote that some Western weapons and equipment intended for Ukrainian troops had been stolen by arms traffickers and criminals. Ukrainian intelligence services disrupted the plots, and the weapons were ultimately recovered.

CNN has reported instances where Russia captured Western weapons and equipment left on the battlefield by Ukrainian forces and sent them to Iran to be reverse-engineered to make their own versions. Military cooperation between Iran and Russia has deepened since the start of the full-scale invasion.

Claim: Ukraine is a center of illegal organ trade

According to a documentary made by the Russian state broadcaster RT and shared by Russian foreign missions abroad, Ukrainian law enables organ transport, and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed for organs since 2014. 

In fact, a law approved by the Ukrainian parliament in 2021 only canceled the need to notarize a person’s written consent to posthumous organ donation. Only adult, able-bodied citizens can consent. Since 2018, Ukrainian law has banned the removal of organs from soldiers who have died on the frontline and civilians who have died as a result of shelling. 

Since 2018, Ukrainian law has also specifically banned organ transplants from orphans. Additionally, organ transplants require a large number of doctors and equipment and are difficult to perform in a combat area. Since organs only remain viable for a short time outside the body, it is unlikely that they can be transported from the combat zone, especially since Ukraine’s airspace has been closed since February 2022.

Claim: Russia was ready to make peace with Ukraine in 2022

Davyd Arakhamia, who led the Ukrainian delegation during the talks in early 2022, did not say that Boris Johnson told them to reject a deal with Russia. (Source: X/Screenshot)

In June 2023, Vladimir Putin presented what he said was a draft treaty later rejected by Ukraine. In November, Russian state media misquoted Ukrainian politician Davyd Arakhamia as saying that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had persuaded Ukraine to reject a deal. However, in an interview on Ukrainian TV in November 2023, Arakhamia denied that Boris Johnson stopped them from doing anything. 

Russia did in fact, declare itself willing to talk during the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Its conditions included that Ukraine would lay down arms, renounce all intentions to join NATO, recognize the two republics as independent and Crimea as Russian territory, and agree to demilitarise and “de-Nazify.” 

Talks began in Belarus on February 28 and eventually moved to Türkiye. The Ukrainian delegation was led by Arakhamia. On March 29, Ukraine presented a ten-point "Istanbul Communiqué” offering far-reaching concessions, including abandoning NATO membership and agreeing to perpetual non-alignment in return for international security guarantees. The status of the occupied Crimean peninsula would be resolved bilaterally within fifteen years. 

On May 17, both Ukraine and Russia both withdrew from the talks. For Ukraine, this was connected to the military and political context: Russian forces had withdrawn from Kyiv, and evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha and Irpin had evaporated public support for a compromise with Russia, as well as galvanized Western support. 

What next? 

Given the current upsurge in opposition to continuing military aid to Ukraine, we can expect these narratives to continue in 2024, particularly those concerning a “proxy war” and Ukraine being hopelessly corrupt, to strengthen the support for these voices. 

It is also very likely that we will see an increase in narratives about Ukraine having lost the war, which may also be directed against particular politicians who have been strong supporters of Ukraine. 

Due to Russia’s attempt at depicting itself as an anti-colonial power, there will possibly be more narratives directed towards an audience in the global south. 

Finally, there is the prospect of potential cancellation of elections. According to the Ukrainian constitution, presidential elections are supposed to be held on March 31, 2024. However, given the continued martial law, occupation of Ukrainian territory, and the risk of mass missile attacks on polling stations, the elections may be canceled or postponed. 

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