A year ago Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression against its peaceful neighbour Ukraine, showing the world the true face of the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions. Today, Ukraine is still fighting, still resilient, and still determined to prevail over Russian aggression.
Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — February 20, 2023 —
Russia prepared for its war against Ukraine by spreading myths about the country. Well before the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, a constant flow of disinformation paved the way for Russian military aggression. We have tracked and exposed pro-Kremlin disinformation throughout the war. In this overview, we will expose twelve predominant myths about the war actively spread by the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem.
Myth 1: a Russian victory is inevitable. Either Russia wins the war, or the conflict will lead to World War III. Western military support to Ukraine escalates the situation and prolongs the suffering. The only path to peace is Ukraine’s demilitarisation.
Ukraine’s remarkable resilience, resolve, and unbreakable fighting spirit have proven time and again that the Kremlin’s prospects in its war of aggression signal anything but victory. The world has shunned Russia, demanding an immediate cessation of offensives in Ukraine and the unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces beyond Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders. Since Russia launched its unprovoked ‘three day war’, Ukraine has successfully stemmed the invaders’ advance, turned the tide, and liberated considerable territory from Russian temporary military control. Ukrainian forces have also seriously eroded Russian military asset.
Ukraine’s perseverance in the face of overpowering aggression has shown us the true meaning of grit. Western military support to Ukraine is making a difference on the battlefield every day, helping Ukraine to uphold its right of self-defence, which is enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
Russian proposals for ceasefires or peace negotiations are not sincere, but merely PR stunts. When closely analysed, they reveal imperialistic Russian demands for Ukraine to surrender and give up more of its territory and sovereignty.
The true path to peace is the complete withdrawal of Russian forces beyond Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, and the complete abandonment of its aggressive policy. Russia started an unprovoked war in Europe in blatant disregard of international law, notably the UN Charter. Peace cannot be achieved by letting an unarmed Ukraine face a highly militarised Russia that denies its sovereignty and does not hide popular calls for genocide.
Myth 2: Russia is at war with the West. Ukraine is only a NATO proxy and a battlefield. Russia is defending itself against the aggressor Ukraine.
Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and Ukraine has been defending itself ever since. The false claim that Ukraine is the aggressor is a classic pro-Kremlin manipulation tactic to portray Russia as the victim and to distract audiences from its own aggression. While this narrative is transparently absurd for most of the world, for the increasingly insular information environment in Russia it serves as a rallying cry to mobilise public support for the Kremlin’s authoritarian policies.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative falsely claiming that Russia is fighting the West in Ukraine picked up steam after Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive against the Russian invaders. Pro-Kremlin pundits particularly like to deploy this narrative whenever Ukraine receives military support from its Western partners, or when Russia is losing its hold on temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine. Neither the EU, the West, nor NATO have declared war on Russia. The EU, the US, and many NATO member states provide Ukraine with military assistance to help Ukraine repel Russia’s unprovoked aggression, but they are not involved in any fighting.
Myth 3: Ukraine seeks nuclear weapons, attacks civilian nuclear infrastructure, and hides weapons in nuclear power plants. Ukraine is working on a ‘dirty bomb’. It would be legitimate for Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
While there is a lot to unpack here, the overall tactic is clear. Scaremongering seeks to exploit an audience’s rational aversion to nuclear weapons, and increasingly belligerent nuclear rhetoric targeting Ukraine has been a constant thread weaving through pro-Kremlin war narratives.
Despite the constant accusations from the Kremlin, there is no evidence that Ukraine has ever worked on creating nuclear weapons for use against Russia or anyone else. In fact, Ukraine has been a nuclear-weapon-free country since 1994 when it signed the Budapest memorandum. It is one of the few countries in the world to have relinquished a nuclear arsenal, having eliminated the weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia, on the other hand, has conveniently forgotten the commitment it made when it signed the treaty confirming that it would respect the independence, sovereignty, and borders of Ukraine.
The Kremlin is also quick to deploy nuclear narratives to deflect blame, to issue thinly veiled threats, or to resort to nuclear blackmail to support its aggression. Creating an image of a cornered yet nuclear-armed (as pro-Kremlin demagogues always emphasise) animal works to the Kremlin’s advantage.
Russia has used its accusations that Ukraine is attempting to create a ‘dirty bomb‘ as a pretext for greater escalation. Ukraine invited the IAEA to investigate the sites Russia has said are used for dirty bomb development. The IAEA has found no evidence that Ukraine is developing nuclear materials for use against Russia.
The claims that Ukraine is purposefully damaging its own civilian nuclear infrastructure are equally unfounded. In fact, Ukraine and the US have repeatedly tried to defuse tension around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russia has taken many reckless actions targeting this facility. It has placed military equipment and troops inside the premises, used its surroundings as a base for rocket and missile attacks, taking the de-facto control over the facility, and cut the link to its main power line multiple times. The IAEA has not confirmed any Ukrainian bombing or attacks on the power plant either before or after Kremlin accusations to that effect.
Myth 4: all of Europe supported Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, just as Europe is now supporting Nazi Ukraine. Russia is continuing the Great Patriotic War in Ukraine to rid the world of Nazis.
We have closely followed the Kremlin’s use of the ‘Nazi spectre’ narrative for years. The Kremlin has consistently used this convenient disinformation trope throughout the war to dehumanise and vilify Ukrainians. Putin’s portrayal of Russia as the modern tamer of Nazism is a classic example of projection – a way for the Kremlin to shift blame from its own destructive actions.
The accusations that the whole of Europe supported Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union are beyond bizarre. They turn history upside down. In fact, by 1942, the anti-Hitler coalition included 26 states, as well as the governments in exile of the occupied European countries. Russia’s invocation of fighting Nazism to trigger a strong psychological or emotional response is not only manipulative, it is outright ludicrous, particularly considering the Kremlin’s pivot to openly anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Myth 5: Ukraine is an artificial creation, not a sovereign state. Ukrainian lands are historically Russian. The people of those lands have freely expressed their political will to return to Russia and it is Russia’s patriotic duty to liberate and protect them.
Ukraine is a sovereign state with own identity and long history. Denying Ukraine’s statehood and sovereignty is another go-to disinformation narrative that pro-Kremlin pundits have peddled for years. When Russia sought to justify illegal land-grabs by staging sham referendums in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, it came as no surprise that the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem sprung to action once again to dispute Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Pro-Kremlin pundits have often used historical revisionism as a manipulation tactic to steer the public discourse toward supporting current Kremlin policies, including attempts to illegally annex temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine. Putin’s obsession with re-writing history has been equally well documented.
There was nothing free or democratic about the sham referendums. Voters were coerced into voting with armed soldiers going door to door to collect votes, in direct contradiction of Ukraine’s constitution. The entire process violated international law and was condemned by the UN resolutions on the annexation. The decision on annexation illustrate the imperialist nature of Russia’s warfare.
Myth 6: Russia is fighting in Ukraine against Western imperialism and neo-colonialism to create a multipolar world order where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
The Kremlin regime has long sought to publicly style itself as anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist. However, Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine exposed Russia’s own imperial and colonial ambitions vis-à-vis its neighbours in Europe, Caucasus and Asia.
By launching a war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, illegally annexing Crimea the same year, and starting a full-scale invasion in 2022, Russia has grossly violated international law and the UN Charter, threatening world peace, global security, and stability.
On 2 March 2022, the United Nations General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority, adopted a resolution rejecting the Russian Federation’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and demanding that Russia immediately withdraw its forces and abide by international law.
In October 2022, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia’s attempts to annex four temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine, following sham referendums.
The global condemnation of Russia’s military aggression against a peaceful neighbour shows that Russia is alone and isolated.
Myth 7: Ukraine has been committing genocide in Donbas for years and Russia had to intervene to protect the people. Ukraine also conducts false flag operations and stages atrocities to accuse Russia of committing war crimes.
Accusing Ukraine of committing war crimes and genocide is probably one of the most nefarious pro-Kremlin disinformation lies. A genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race. No such plan existed in Ukraine, and there has never been any evidence to support Russia’s claims.
One of the most prominent examples of Russia projecting its own crimes onto Ukraine concerned the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha. The accusation that Ukraine conducted ‘false flag’ operations to blame Russia is as shameless as it is untrue. In contrast, the war crimes of Russia has been already investigated in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and many other places.
Moreover, deliberate Russian attacks on civilians and infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and residential neighbourhoods, have been well documented, e.g. in Chernihiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv and elsewhere. According to the UN Human Rights Office, they could amount to war crimes.
Myth 8: Russia is fighting a holy war against godless Satanists in Ukraine to protect Christianity and traditional values.
While this might seem like a very far-fetched accusation, Russia has frequently referenced fighting a holy fight against Satan himself to justify its war against Ukraine. In the early weeks and months of the war, the Kremlin used allegations of Ukraine’s unholy allegiance with the forces of Hades to explain the lack of Russian progress on the battlefield.
Often, pro-Kremlin disinformation pundits, particularly Vladimir Solovyov, deploy this disinformation narrative in conjunction with unfounded accusations against Ukraine for allegedly attempting to destroy the Orthodox Church. This manipulative tactic picked up steam in 2019 when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was granted the status of an independent church and again in November 2022 when the Ukrainian government announced it would draw up a law banning churches affiliated with Russia.
Demonising Ukraine and its Western supporters as godless heathens goes hand in hand with pro-Kremlin disinformation that the West wants to destroy ‘traditional values’. Together, they portray Russia as the protector of these values. This disinformation narrative of protecting the threatened values is steeped in homophobia that often verges on outright hate speech.
Myth 9: the US funded, developed, and operated secret biological weapons development programmes in laboratories in Ukraine, testing biological weapons on the local population and arming Ukraine with biological weapons to attack Russia.
Fabricated stories of ‘clandestine US biolabs’ are a classic case of a conspiracy theory meeting a scaremongering tactic, often deployed by the Kremlin to distract and confuse. Initially used to hinder the US-Ukrainian partnership to reduce biological threats, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem repurposed an old disinformation campaign to justify Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation seeks to blur the line between biological weapons and biological research, instilling fear while discrediting Ukraine. Authoritative sources, including UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, have repeatedly debunked allegations about US-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine being used for military purposes.
Myth 10: the EU cannot survive without Russian energy resources. The US pushed the EU to enact policies that caused a global energy crisis because the crisis benefits US energy companies.
The Kremlin has a long tradition of weaponising energy in its foreign relations, and deploying disinformation is an integral part of this tactic. Only this time, Russia’s gambit to intimidate the EU by stopping gas flows blew up spectacularly in the Kremlin’s face. When Russia demanded that Europe choose between Ukraine and Russian energy, the European answer was unequivocal – Ukraine.
The EU and its Member States were quick to undertake multiple counter-measures in order to increase energy security, such as the REPowerEU plan and the “Save gas for a safe winter” plan, which consists of voluntary reduction of natural gas demand by 15%. EU underground gas reserves were filled by more than 95% of their capacity, much more than the 1 November, 2022 deadline set to achieve 80% capacity. Europe was ready to face this winter and managed to withstand Russia’s energy blackmail.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation also tries to drive wedges in transatlantic unity by painting a false picture of lost EU sovereignty. Specifically, outlets alleged that the US has subjugated the EU and benefits from turmoil in global energy markets. However, the diversification of energy supplies is a cornerstone of the EU’s energy policy. It helps to strengthen European energy security, to prevent monopolisation, and to introduce more competition to the energy market.
Myth 11: the EU caused a global food shortage by banning Russian agricultural products and fertilisers. Russia bears no responsibility of the global food crisis. EU is keeping all the grain from Ukraine, starving other countries.
By invading Ukraine, Russia effectively cut Ukrainian produce from global markets and exacerbated the global economic situation. Russia’s actions are fuelling high energy and fertilisers prices around the world, with a particular impact on Africa and the most vulnerable countries, but also increasingly affecting other regions and countries.
Globally, conflict, climate change, and the lasting impacts of COVID-19 are having devastating effects on food systems and the people who rely on them. Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, however, has significantly worsened these challenges and vulnerabilities.
By shelling Ukrainian energy, water and transport infrastructure, burning crops and stealing Ukrainian cereals, destroying Ukraine’s agricultural equipment and fuel storage and mining agricultural land, Russia has undermined long-term food production in Ukraine and its export capacities. In addition, Russia continues to apply export taxes and export quotas both on fertilisers and on cereals like wheat, meslin, rye, barley, and maize.
EU sanctions explicitly exclude food supplies and fertilisers: there are no sanctions on Russian exports of food to global markets. Anyone can operate, buy, transport, and ensure food and fertilisers coming out of Russia. Contrary to Russia’s disinformation, no EU Member State is blocking the donation of Russian fertilisers to countries in need.
According to the UN, the majority of food exports facilitated through the Black Sea Grain Initiative go to non-EU countries. Only 34% of this amount went to the EU. And 64% of exported wheat has gone to developing economies.
The European Union, alongside international partners, is at the forefront of global efforts to address food insecurity. Since the implementation of Solidarity Lanes and the Black Sea Grain Initiative, food prices have continuously decreased, returning to pre-war levels.
Myth 12: Western sanctions against Russia are illegal and cause global harm. They destabilise the global economy and drive up the cost of living for ordinary citizens around the globe. Sanctions have no effect on the Russian economy, and Russia has proven that sanctions do not work.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation about the EU and Western sanctions is an example of contradictions. Somehow sanctions are an illegal, unacceptable form of coercion, but they also have no impact on Russia at all. This disinformation narrative downplays the impact of sanctions for domestic audiences in Russia, and creates the false image that the West is collapsing. Internationally, the Kremlin wants to stoke unsubstantiated fears that Western actions against Russia have negative global consequences.
All EU sanctions are fully compliant with obligations under international law. Sanctions are reducing Russia’s means to finance the war and acquire key components for its military-industrial complex. The effects of sanctions are visible in all major sectors of Russia’s economy. In 2022, the Russia’s budget deficit has skyrocketed, increasing 14 times. The economy shrunk by up to 5% in 2022. Sanctions do work.
The international decision to cap oil prices aims at limiting price surges driven by extraordinary market conditions. It will drastically reduce the revenues Russia has been earning from oil since its invasion of Ukraine. The oil price cap will also serve to stabilise global energy prices while mitigating adverse consequences on energy supplies to third countries.
EU sanctions have important exemptions. They explicitly exclude food supplies and fertilisers. And although European airspace is not open to Russian aircraft, EU member states can authorise overflight of their airspace by Russian aircraft if that is required for humanitarian purposes.