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Under the skin—Russian propaganda on the territory of Ukraine

Jan ‘Santa’ Trcka, a Czech volunteer, encountered the Russian disinformation at the very beginning of the conflict. Fot.Wiktor Świetlik
Jan ‘Santa’ Trcka, a Czech volunteer, encountered the Russian disinformation at the very beginning of the conflict. Fot.Wiktor Świetlik

Under the skin—Russian propaganda on the territory of Ukraine It seems that the Russians are finding it difficult to achieve their propaganda goals inside Ukraine, mainly due to the increasing success in cutting off access to Russian media, the intensive promotion of the Ukrainian language, the extensive network for combatting disinformation, the ongoing war and the emotions associated with it. However, their allies still are social media, war fatigue, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian propaganda reaches Ukrainians primarily through social media. Different types of messaging services, with Telegram being the major one, play a particular role. Russians mainly focus on instigating Ukrainian internal conflicts. There are many sensitive topics such as war, deaths, missing people, the economy, municipal charges, mobilisation. The Russians use a whole range of means: from bots, social media and websites pretending to be other media and fake foreign magazine covers. The major problem is that they produce fake news quicker than it takes to expose them before they appear in the infosphere.

Enemy in the trenches

Is Russian propaganda present on the frontline and among soldiers? Combat participants, soldiers of the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine, believe that in their formation its influence is very limited. Piotr Mitkiewicz, a Polish volunteer fighting since spring 2022, said that soldiers from his formation generally focus on their current tasks. Thanks to this they do not concern themselves with the entire situation on the frontline and are not distracted by dilemmas related to conflicting messages about the geopolitical situation or past events.
However, Jan ‘Santa’ Trcka, a Czech volunteer from Brno, who was on the frontline already in March 2022, encountered the Russian disinformation at the very beginning of the conflict. He and his group were in the vicinity of Yavoriv military base during the successful Russian attack on 13 March 2022. The first information indicated that the Russians had eliminated the foreign contingent by killing more than 180 foreign soldiers. This information was spread by some Western-language media, including Polish news outlets. But the result of the attack turned out to be less severe, although the Russians indeed managed, according to data reported later, to kill 35 soldiers (and about 25 civilians). According to several accounts, those killed were mainly soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces (detailed figures were not disclosed) and the process of the Foreign Legion formation was not interrupted.
Russian propaganda finds its way into the trenches of Ukrainian soldiers generally via messages received from families and friends. Nowadays, there are two main theses—in the Ukrainian version of Russian propaganda. The first one is that everyone is fed up with the war, and the second is that the war could have ended a long time ago were it not for the politicians. On top of that there is the old propaganda weapon—defeatism. That further Ukrainian military progress is impossible, the West (including Poland) is turning its back on Ukraine and the American public is fed up with supporting Kyiv. Narratives about 'liberation', the fight against fascism, Russia's historical reasons have been greatly reduced in relation to the Ukrainian audience, including among troops. In the face of what happened, the bombing of Ukrainian cities in particular was counter-effective.

Ukraine immersed in the "Russian world"

Until the annexation of Crimea and the detachment of Donbass in 2014, Ukraine in its eastern and central parts was an active participant in the ‘Russkiy mir’ (Russian world). It was a blurred mixture of Russian cultural, political and religious influence. The carriers were Russian traditional and electronic media, easily received throughout Ukraine.
The full-scale Russian information war began during the Euromaidan at the end of 2013. It was a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine, which began with large protests in Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv. Then the Russians used their influence to, firstly, turn their society against the Ukrainians. Secondly, in the areas they planned to annex, they wanted to undermine the loyalty of the people to their own country. It was an easy task. Eastern Ukraine was almost entirely Russian-speaking. The Russian-speaking population was also dominant in central Ukraine, including Kyiv. Moreover, Ukrainians and Russians were united by a specific Soviet and post-Soviet culture—a set of symbols, historical references and even through popular culture. Russian television was widely watched.
Over time, it became apparent that the Kremlin-dependent media began to include aggressive news and information programmes together with attractive entertainment programmes and films to influence Ukrainians.

Cut off Russian television

The ease with which the Russians took over the eastern and southern areas of Ukraine forced the Ukrainian authorities and civil society to properly address the issue of information warfare.
Ukraine attempted to disconnect some Russian TV channels back in 2008, under the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. However, this was eventually abandoned due to a pressure campaign by Russia and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
Following the annexation of Crimea, the most important Russian channels were finally disconnected by cable TV providers in mid-March 2014. But it did not mean victory in this part of the information war. Russian TV channels can still be received by residents of bordering and occupied areas, particularly vulnerable due to the ongoing war.
In May 2022, Ukraine terminated the possibility to use one of the most popular social media in the Russian-speaking sphere, Vkontaktie, and the search engine Yandex. They are both linked to the Russian government and have been actively involved in spreading Kremlin propaganda.

Difficult information battle in border areas

The effectiveness of Russian propaganda and disinformation in the occupied and border areas was reported by the head of Caritas of the Catholic Diocese of Kharkiv, Fr. Wojciech Stasiewicz. Due to his profession, he visited these areas and had meaningful contact with the locals. As he recalled, both Kharkiv and the border areas are almost entirely Russian-speaking. Those speaking Ukrainian are treated as outsiders. Also, the de-Sovietisation of public space was slower there.
In his view, in the occupied border areas that were liberated, Russian propaganda was, and continues to be, commonplace. Moreover, sometimes it is so effective that the percentage of the pro-Russian population rises. According to Fr. Stasiewicz’s experience, the Russians succeed in blaming the plight of locals on the Ukrainian state. Increases of prices of utilities are used as an example. The Russians are also aiming to undermine the authority of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who in the opinion of eastern Ukrainians is still 'their president'. In general, anti-Western sentiment and sentiments for the days of Viktor Yanukovich (the former Ukrainian president who, since his removal from office in 2014, lives in exile in Russia) when 'things were stable', are being reinforced.The words of the Polish priest confirm the rationality of the Ukrainian policy seeking to cut off access to Russian propaganda channels. Any citizen in contact with Russian media is exposed to the powerful influence of Russian propaganda. As Ft. Stasiewicz said, his interlocutors recounted that after a few days spent in front of a TV with Russian TV channels, they began to believe more and more in the content spread by the propaganda.
Russian propaganda is not always successful. In Ft. Stasiewicz’s opinion, Russian media put a lot of effort into turning Ukrainians against Poland and Poles, in some respects this action was completely unsuccessful. The Polish priest stressed that he encountered many signs of gratitude for the humanitarian and military aid as well as political support shown by Poland, with no animosity shown towards him for being a Pole.

Moscow Orthodox Church

Another symptom of Russian cultural and worldview influence in the Kharkiv area is the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church. While in areas under Kyiv's control, the clergy try not to discuss political issues, in areas occupied by the Russian army they have openly demonstrated support for the Kremlin policies.
However, the problem has not bypassed Kyiv. Since March 2023, there has been a conflict over the takeover of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, seen as one of the spiritual centres of the Russian Orthodox Church, from the Moscow Patriarchate. Orthodox clergy do not want to move out of one temple after another within the monastery complex, and confrontations are taking place between the clergy and their supporters and demonstrators opposing them. The latter argue that it is the last pro-Russian bastion in Kyiv, denounce its cult of the Russian tsars and the quiet but consistent support of Moscow. The Ukrainian state is seeking to take over the Lavra, but is treating the conflict with great caution, including holding negotiations with the groups of demonstrators.

Information terrorism

However, today in Kyiv, the main frontline in the fight against disinformation are social media. An innovative approach to the information warfare is presented by Andriy Shapovalov, Acting Head of the Centre for Countering Disinformation (CCD) at the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine. The institution was established after the Russian aggression on Ukraine. Previously, Shapovalov worked as a director of the Luhansk branch of public television. He said that during his work in Donbass he became well acquainted with the mechanisms of Russian propaganda.
The CCD is not intended to be another fact-checking centre, but a place to detect and analyse cases of information terrorism, which primarily does not necessarily involve releasing fake news, but the intentional generation of inauthentic traffic on the web. The centre's analysts, with the help of algorithms and artificial intelligence, monitor several thousand online sources and try to uncover such cases.
According to Shapovalov, the real problem is not citizens exercising their right to express opinions, even false ones, but the fact that Russian propaganda spreads content that is convenient for it, whether fake news or real but marginal events. The centre is cooperating with the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDC) and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to prohibit the sponsorship and the generation of artificial web traffic aimed at disinforming the public and deliberately causing tragic consequences, such as is written into the legal norms in the West.The centre's area of interest also includes cases of Russian soldiers committing crimes under the influence of propaganda spread by Russian media.

Russian propaganda gives Russians what they want

Eugen Fedchenko, co-founder of the social organisation StopFake.org, pointed out that after the outbreak of the war, the Russians have almost given up on pro-Russian propaganda, focusing on impersonating Ukrainian sources and being critical of the authorities and military command. They are also aiming at countries supporting Ukraine such as Poland and the US. They try to erode trust for organisations helping the army, accusing them of stealing collected funds, etc.
The main tool used for broadcasting Russian propaganda is Telegram, where Russians created channels impersonating people close to the authorities, representatives of military branches, etc. Sometimes they even use the Ukrainian language.On a daily basis, Fedchenko monitors Russian propaganda directed at Russians. According to him, even if Russian propaganda looks like something fundamentally unrealistic and absurd from a Western point of view, it reflects what Russians are and what they want. Fedchenko said that the Russians really want a revival of the Soviet Union or more broadly—the empire. They want Poland and Ukraine to be Russian colonies and believe that other nations standing in their way should be destroyed.

Jakub Biernat, Wiktor Świetlik
The authors would like to thank Rafał Dzięciołowski, President of the Supervisory Board of the Solidarity Fund PL, for his assistance during the collection of material for this report