The contrast in framing the “invasion” can’t be clearer than the Russian attempt to develop very tired attempts at false flags in contrast to US attempts at some information transparency. The sanctions have begun including a suspension in the German approvals for the Nord Stream 2, and some UK bank sanctions on Russian oligarchs.
The big picture: State media has pivoted from accusing the West of hysterical warnings about a non-existent invasion to pumping out minute-by-minute coverage of the tensions.
Zoom in: NewsGuard, a misinformation tech firm, identified three of the most common false narratives being propagated by Russian state media like RT, Sputnik News., and TASS:
The West staged a coup in 2014 to overthrow the Ukrainian government
- Ukrainian politics is dominated by Nazi ideology
- Ethnic Russians in Ukraine's Donbas region have been subjected to genocide
Between the lines: Social media platforms have been on high alert for Russian disinformation that would violate their policies but have less control over private messaging, where some propaganda efforts have moved to avoid detection.
Last week, ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's speech to the UN Security Council, a senior administration official told reporters that Russia had circulated a document to members that it called "a joint project of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and RT News Channel."
- It detailed allegations of supposed war crimes committed by Ukraine.
- "Each of these allegations are categorically false... and we should expect more false reports from Russian state media over the coming days," the official warned.
Be smart: Much of the disinformation being pumped out on Russian media is intended for a domestic audience whose support — or opposition — could shape how the conflict plays out.
- Experts have repeatedly called out how amateurish Russia's "false flags" appear to be, suggesting that Putin isn't particularly concerned about how the outside world will view the so-called evidence.
- For example, metadata from the messaging app Telegram shows that videos of pro-Russian separatist leaders ordering "emergency" evacuations from eastern Ukraine days were actually created days before.
What we're watching: Most major social media platforms have updated their policies to label state media accounts, which has forced Russian disinformation campaigns to adapt.
“Russia has a long record of doing this. It isn’t surprising,” Elliot Higgins, founder of the investigative website Bellingcat told the Guardian. He added: “What’s surprising is they haven’t got any better at doing it. In some ways they have got worse. It’s really dumb and lazy.”
Higgins said international audiences were mostly impervious to Kremlin disinformation. But he said domestic Russian viewers tended to believe fake TV footage, which was “theatrically” created for state propaganda purposes. This was especially true of the older generation, he said.
Over the past week Russia has churned out numerous false stories from what Ukraine’s foreign ministry Dmytro Kuleba called a “fake producing factory”. They include claims Ukraine is planning to attack separatist enclaves, and that it on Monday smuggled armoured vehicles and saboteurs across the border – supposedly recorded by helmet cam.
The Kremlin’s media goal is to create a pretext for invasion, Higgins suggested. As part of this strategy Russian TV has begun actively promoting information which suggests a vast humanitarian crisis is unfolding in eastern Ukraine. It has claimed residents have come under heavy Ukrainian shelling – something Kyiv says is not true.
The information has ranged from reports on increased bombardment to more outlandish “provocations,” such as attempted car bombing on Friday outside the separatist administration building in Donetsk. The same day the territory’s pro-Moscow leader, Denis Pushilin, released a video saying the situation had become so grave civilians had to be bussed out to safety and Russia.
Pushilin’s evacuation order was released on 18 February. Bellingcat, however, discovered from the video’s meta-data on the channel Telegram that it had actually been filmed two days earlier – last Wednesday. “It’s incompetence,” Higgins said. At the time the situation across the line of control between the Ukrainian military and separatists positions was calm.
A large part of Russian efforts to lay the groundwork for a Kosovo-style intervention in east Ukraine is to claim that the Ukrainian efforts to regain control of the territories in 2014 amounted to “genocide”. Putin has used the word on several occasions. He has also made comparisons to the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia.
“What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide,” Putin said last week. Russian diplomats circulated a document at the United Nations claiming Ukraine is engaged in “exterminating the civilian population” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Late on Sunday night Russia’s embassy in Washington sent a similar document to US journalists.
Putin’s twenty-year tenure in power has had a cumulative effect on his worldview. His assertiveness has grown in step with his strengthened grip on domestic power and his growing perception that he faces only limited international pushback. His personal resentment of geopolitical slights has grown and fed back into Russia’s national security dialogue. The influence of other forceful national security leaders has also grown. Putin has responded to internal challenges by seeking foreign policy distractions. The direction of his aims has always been consistent even if the vigor and rancor with which they are pursued has increased.
MOSCOW — On Sunday, police brutally dispersed a group of demonstrators who came to Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the traditional site of dissident rallies since the Soviet era, to denounce Vladimir Putin’s presumptive attack on Ukraine. The protesters, who included veteran human rights leader and former member of parliament Lev Ponomarev, were detained as soon as they unfurled their banners; some were taken into police custody and charged with violating Moscow’s strict ban on public demonstrations imposed under the pretext of the pandemic. (Needless to say, the ban applies only to opposition rallies. When Putin addressed 80,000 people packed into a stadium to mark the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, the authorities had no objections.)
The weekend protest was only the latest in the growing chorus of voices within Russia itself opposing Putin’s threats to Ukraine — a trend that has been underreported by international media, leaving many Westerners with the impression that everyone in Russia supports the war. This is certainly not the case. In recent days, the country’s leading cultural figures — who traditionally hold significant moral clout here — have spoken out against an attack on Ukraine. “Russia does not need a war with Ukraine or with the West,” read a statement signed by, among others, rock musician Andrei Makarevich and actress Liya Akhedzhakova. “Nobody is threatening us, nobody is attacking us. The policy that pushes for war is immoral, irresponsible and criminal.”