Donbas: Russia creating fakes on the ground

In early February 2021, Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian disinformation outlet, called upon the Russian leadership to violate the country’s obligations to international law, bilateral agreements and human decency:

Mother Russia, bring Donbas home!

Mother Russia, represented by the official spokespeople of the Kremlin and Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs quickly distanced themselves (and Mother Russia) from Ms. Simonyan’s pathos. While Simonyan is State employed manager and had the appeal broadcast on a State financed and controlled channel, the words were nothing but her own views. Not Russia’s policy on annexing neighboring countries.

Currently, Russia is massing sizeable amounts of military hardware, close to Ukraine’s borders., and the International OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reports a spike in incidents on the Russia-controlled territory. Russia is preparing for a large-scale military exercise, Zapad-21. Some analysts fear it might be a build-up for aggression against Ukraine, while the Kremlin denies any aggressive intentions:

The Russian federation moves its Armed Forces within its own territory at its own discretion. This should not worry anyone; this is not threatening anyone.

Analyzing troop movements is better left to military analysts, but analyzing disinformation on Ukraine for the last few weeks brings forward an interesting pattern. Kremlin disinformation operatives are carefully preparing the information space:

  1. “Bring Donbas Home!”

Ms. Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT and Sputnik, views her outlets as the Russian state’s weapons for information war. Her call to “bring Donbas home” can be viewed as a first step to prepare the information space. Parts of a neighboring country, recognized by Russia in international and bilateral agreements, are defined as “Russian”. Similar 2021 cases from the EUvsDisinfo database here and here. The people of Donbas are described as Russians, unjustly anguishing under a foreign yoke. Russia is their true “home”.

  1. Ukraine is Preparing a Genocide!

The pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem uses the term “genocide” rather generously, and rarely in line with the internationally recognized definition, in article two of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide, approved by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Almost any measure taken by a sovereign Ukrainian government on securing constitutional order could be “genocide”. Russian politician, former speaker of the Parliament’s upper house, Sergey Mironov, claimed, for instance, that the removal of a Soviet war monument in Estonia in 2007, was an “act of genocide against the Russian people”. Now, Ukraine is performing “acts of genocide against Russian compatriots in Ukraine”. Examples here and here. Usually as a stooge for the West. We see such a claim from Russian state TV here; state news agency RIA Novosti’s website here and state-owned broadcaster Sputnik here – all in less than a week.

  1. Ukraine is Preparing an Attack against Donbas!

Now, the term “genocide” is, apparently, used as the Kremlin disinformation outlets’ equivalent of “deeply concerned”. A stronger wording is an imminent attack. Russian state and nationalist media have been full of claims of Ukraine, massing up for a military operation against Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine. Examples here and here. Usually, Ukraine is pushed against Russia by outside forces – the US, NATO, Turkey. Nationalist outlets are sharing with great detail but scarce sources Ukrainian plans on an offensive against the ”peoples republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”:

NATO countries are moving military vehicles to Ukraine. This information has appeared on Internet; users are sharing screenshots showing transport aircraft from sites, following air traffic. According to such sources, a Lockheed Martin C 130J transport aircraft, belonging to the US Air Force has taken off from the Ramstein airbase in Germany and landing en-route in Seville in Spain for tanking. Later, a second C-17 transport aircraft landed at Kyiv.

  1. Ukraine is Shelling Villages, Killing Children!

The false statements are getting more and more detailed; the resolution of the false image becomes greater. The victim of the alleged Ukrainian aggression is no longer the abstract collective of “Russians in Donbas”, but individuals with names – and age:

A cynical, premediated, unprovoked, disgusting murder. 3 April, four year old Vladik Dmitriev was killed by an improvised explosive device, adhered to a drone. He ran out in the garden with his toys to play, while his grandmother lagged behind, putting on her shoes. That is why she remained alive and could hear the explosion.

The only thing the experts discuss is whether the device actually was a IED and not a real, factory made piece of ordnance of Western production.

An innocent child, killed in war. A tragedy. A crime. Highly emotional reporting circulated across the Russian state-controlled media and used by the speaker of the Russian Duma to demand the discussion of excluding Ukraine from the Council of Europe.

Russian and Ukrainian journalists have investigated the incident and established that the tragedy seems to be a forgery. For the Kremlin and the nationalist outlets, the concepts of “true” and “false” are not a matter of the factual circumstances of a statement:

The Liberals, who do not believe in the tragedy with the Ukrainian being responsible for the death of a boy, do not understand how dangerous the situation is when they are “preparing the agenda” on the instructions of NATO.

This approach is similar to the infamous “crucified boy” story the pro-Kremlin media spread back in 2014, to incite hatred against Ukrainians in Russian domestic audiences, and justify its armed aggression against Ukraine.

Gradually, the audience is prepared. The people of Donbas must come “home to Russia”. Ukraine is violating the rights of Russians, by a cruel fate appearing in a foreign state. Ukraine is killing children; opposition figures in Russia sides with NATO. Russia must act!

  1. “Since This Morning, We Are Returning the Fire”

Pro-Kremlin media has by now created a setting where Ukraine is the aggressor. Any kind of operation will be described as a defensive measure or as the measure in the line of Responsibility to Protect . Military action is justified, well in advance, prepared by a carefully set up information campaign.

There is no possibility to predict any outcome of the current saber-rattling. The military build-up is a documented fact. The disinformation campaign also. Margarita Simonyan reiterates her statement from February:

Russian people, living in Donbas, must live in Russia.

Margarita Simonyan, head of the Russian disinformation outlet

This time, her statement is not countered by the Kremlin spokespeople.

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