Spilnota Detector Media

Українською читайте тут.

From February 24, 2022, to April 2, 2023, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office recorded 77,900 war crimes perpetrated by Russians. Based on verified information from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 8.45 thousand individuals have lost their lives, and 14.16 thousand have been wounded as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine. In every report containing casualty figures, the UN highlights that the precise count of victims is “greater as the collection of data from some regions where heavy fighting has taken place has been delayed, and numerous reports are still pending confirmation”.

By examining messages about 12 Russian war crimes on Telegram, Detector Media outlines the tactics employed by propaganda to either deny or deflect attention from Russia’s crimes. The analysis is grounded on the messages from the Kremlin Hydra: 311 pro-Russian Telegram channels that Detector Media reported on in early January 2023.

Amidst the full-scale Russian invasion, news of deceased Ukrainians emerges almost daily, with Google searches for the term “diseased” seldom dropping below a tenth of the peak established in the initial days following the Russian invasion. The spikes in these queries align with the release of information regarding Russian crimes against civilians. As part of the research for this article, we started with the most popular Google searches containing the word “diseased”.

Peaks of Google searches with the word “diseased”

Select a red dot to learn more about the key topics of publications on each of the peak days

Explanation of the peaks

The share of the maximum number of mentions of the word “killed” in Google search queries

Prepared by Detector Media based on Google Trends data. The data reflects the number of search queries on Google from February 24, 2022, to April 4, 2023. Each data point represents the proportion of search inquiries relative to the highest volume of queries during the time frame depicted in the graph.

Some of the peaks coincide with the dates of the Russian military hitting military targets. However, in this article, we do not analyze cases such as the shelling of a training ground in the Lviv region on May 13 or the Desna training base in the Chernihiv region on May 17, 2022. Instead, we focus on crimes against civilians:

1) The first day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine (February 24, 2022);

2) Missile attacks on Kharkiv, including the shelling of Svobody Square in the city center (March 1, 2022);

3) The air strike on the Drama Theater in Mariupol (March 16, 2022);

4) Strike against the Kramatorsk railway station (April 8, 2022);

5) Reveal of the scale of executions of civilians in Bucha, Kyiv region (between April 1-10, 2022);

6) Strike against the Amstor shopping center in Kremenchuk, Poltava region (June 27, 2022);

7) Strike against the Officers’ House in Vinnytsia (July 14, 2022);

8) A terrorist attack in colony No. 120 in Olenivka, Donetsk region, where Ukrainian prisoners of war were held (July 29, 2022);

9) New facts about the executions of civilians and prisoners of war that emerged after the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian military in the Kharkiv region (September-October 2022);

10) Shelling of apartment buildings in Zaporizhzhia and the first massive attack on Ukrainian energy facilities (October 10, 2022);

11) Attack on the city of Dnipro (January 14, 2023). 

In order to prevent the dissemination of propagandistic claims, we solely cite primary sources and mention them only when absolutely essential. The data for analyzing Telegram messages was supplied by the TeleZip/Pravdorub Team.

Manipulating reality and inventing threats to justify the invasion of Ukraine

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, constitutes a crime of aggression, which, as per the Rome Statute, is deemed a war crime and falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. In order to justify this crime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed the tactic of repetitively invoking the propaganda trope that Russia is invading Ukraine to free it from the control of Nazis, who allegedly took over the country in 2014. The vision of a “bright future” that Russia seeks to achieve by invading Ukraine was crafted through the “false dilemma” propaganda technique. In other words, Russians were purportedly presented with a choice that wasn’t really a choice: either Russia “demilitarizes”, “denazifies”, and “halts the deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe”,; or Russia and the inhabitants of Russia-occupied territories will never be secure.

Propagandists also utilized the “beautiful people” tactic. One such instance occurred on February 24 and 25, 2022, when then-MP from the OPFL party and collaborationist Ilia Kyva, while in Russia, urged Ukraine’s leaders to surrender to the aggressor. Simultaneously, his fellow MP from the OPFL and collaborationist Renat Kuzmin employed the “mirroring” tactic to deflect the crime of Russian aggression, insisting on his Telegram channel that Ukraine initiated the war in 2014 with the removal of Viktor Yanukovych from power.

When announcing the invasion, Putin also advised the Ukrainian military not to resist their “Russian colleagues”, as they allegedly shared a common enemy in the form of “Ukrainian Nazis”. This suggestion resembles the propaganda technique of “recommendation”, wherein an influential figure counsels others to adopt his or her stance.

During the initial weeks of the Russian invasion, intended to culminate with the “capture of Kyiv in three days”, pro-Russian Telegram channels aimed to instill a sense of euphoria among Russian supporters: the Russian army was supposedly “encountering minimal resistance”, and settlements were allegedly coming under Russian control. Propagandists persist in employing the euphoria tactic today as they discuss the destruction of military equipment not yet in Ukraine or report on the seizure of settlements still being contested.

Crimes against civilians

The list of actions forbidden against civilians during military conflicts encompasses murder, torture, sexual violence, deportation, using civilians as shields against attacks on military targets, and more. The full list of actions prohibited by international agreements is specified in, among others: the Annex to the 4th Hague Convention relative to the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907, the 1949 Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of War Victims, its 1977 Additional Protocols, and the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

Russians also acknowledge these conventions, so in the initial days following the full-scale invasion, they attempted to convey that they were “exclusively targeting military objectives”. The “mirroring” tactic was employed to shift responsibility for any incidents involving civilian objects onto Ukraine. One of the most prominent attacks on civilians in the early days of the full-scale war occurred on March 1 in Kharkiv, when a Russian Kalibr missile, to which Ukraine had no access, struck Freedom Square. That same day, Russians claimed the missile was Ukrainian.

This approach of transferring blame from Russians to Ukrainians has been a staple of propaganda for years. For instance, Russia accused Ukraine of downing Flight MH17. Later, the European Court of Human Rights determined that two Russian citizens and one Ukrainian citizen had used a Buk anti-aircraft system against the civilian aircraft and that Russia controlled the part of the Donetsk region from which the Buk missile was launched.

On March 16, an airstrike targeted the Drama Theater in Mariupol, which served as a bomb shelter, with the word “Children” written on both sides. To deny this crime, Russians turned to the “primacy effect” tactic: they flooded the media with explanations for the event. For instance, in the first few hours after the airstrike, propagandists claimed that the Drama Theater was the Azov Regiment’s base, that “Russia did not shell that location”, that the Azovs “held civilians hostage”, and that they “blew up the theater themselves”. Regardless of which version you encountered first, it (falsely, of course) provided the impression of a thorough explanation for the incident and why Russia was not at fault.

Photo courtesy of Obozrevatel 

Propagandists also employed the “third party” tactic to justify the bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater. This technique involves an external expert corroborating the position advocated by propagandists. In the case of the Mariupol airstrike, “a captured Nazi from Azov confirmed it”. The statement claimed, “The headquarters of the Ukrainian militants is situated in the basement of the Mariupol Drama Theater, and the theater’s hall is filled with civilians, who are guarded by 12 Azov regiment militants to prevent them from escaping”. It would appear even more persuasive if the accusations against the Russians were refuted by an official institution, such as the Russian Ministry of Defense issuing a terse statement: “On the afternoon of March 16, no Russian air force missions were conducted related to strikes on ground targets within the city of Mariupol”.

Propagandists employ the same blend of “mirroring”, “version bombardment”, and “third-party” tactics to accuse Ukraine and deny Russia’s involvement every time a disaster happens, and evidence points to Russia’s responsibility. For instance, that’s how Russia tried to justify the shelling of the Kramatorsk train station on April 8, 2022. The Russians again tried to argue that the missile belonged to Ukraine, that there were no casualties, that the Kramatorsk train station was only used by the military, and that Russia does not use Tochka U missile systems.

A similar approach was adopted to dismiss evidence of the executions of civilian Ukrainians during the occupation of the Kyiv region. Initially, propagandists bombarded the public with alternative scenarios intended to demonstrate that Russians were not involved. Subsequently, they accused Ukrainians of fabricating the executions and finally pledged to provide the UN with compelling evidence of Ukraine’s guilt. They reiterated a similar set of messages after they retreated from the Kharkiv region and the executions of civilians there were brought to light.

Moreover, Russia employs a similar scheme to justify the deportation of Ukrainians to its territory. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Affairs Maria Lvova-Belova on charges related to this crime. The Russians deny any wrongdoing in this case. They portray the deportation of Ukrainians from the perspective of the “love bombing” propaganda tactic: as a means to rescue them from war. Russian officials promise benefits and streamlined paperwork processes for those who adopt children abducted from Ukraine.

Crimes against prisoners of war

The defense of Mariupol lasted from February 24 to May 20, 2022, until over 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from Azovstal’s premises. The rights and rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war are governed by international law, specifically the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Among the prisoners of war were members of the Azov Battalion, whom Russian propaganda had labeled as Nazis for several years. According to international agreements, these prisoners of war were entitled to humane treatment, food, medical care, and protection from torture, among other rights. In reality, this was not always the case. For instance, marine Mykhailo Dianov, who was injured in the arm while defending Azovstal, received “medical care” with rusty pliers during his four months of captivity.

Following the capture of the Mariupol defenders, Russian propagandists repeatedly suggested executing them. On July 29, 2022, an explosion took place in Colony No. 120 in Olenivka, Donetsk region, where Ukrainian prisoners of war were held. Propagandists employed the “mirroring” technique, alleging that the colony was shelled by Ukrainians. A day after the attack, they found a Ukrainian prisoner of war who supposedly confirmed these claims. By August 4, propagandists falsely asserted that if the foreign press remained silent about the explosions in Olenivka, then Ukraine was responsible. They then vowed that the Russians would investigate the cause of the explosion themselves. A month later, in early September, propagandists circulated photos of Nazi concentration camp prisoners in Buchenwald, claiming they were images of captured Azov fighters in Olenivka.

On March 15, 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. The report revealed that Russians executed not only active military personnel but also former combatants who had ended their service before February 24, 2023.

The most recent public execution of a Ukrainian soldier became known in early March 2023. He was shot after exclaiming, “Glory to Ukraine!”. This act constitutes a violation of the customs of war and the rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war. However, Russian propagandists refuse to acknowledge the crime and maintain that the video is fabricated.

For nine years, Russian propaganda has persistently fostered the belief that Russia is a victim of other nations. For some, this may seemingly justify the annexation of part of Ukraine and Russian war crimes. At present, the only way to stop this is to bring criminal cases against the Russian leadership and its citizens who committed war crimes to a conclusion and hold them accountable.

NGO “Detector Media” has been working for our readers for over 20 years. In times of elections, revolutions, pandemics and war, we continue to fight for quality journalism. Our experts develop media literacy of the audience, advocate for the rights of journalists, and refute Russian disinformation.

“Detector Media” resumes the work of our Community and invites those who believe that the media should be better: more professional, truthful and transparent.


Support us. Become part of the project!

Every day, our team prepares the freshest and independent materials for you. We would be extremely grateful for any support you may have. Your donations are an opportunity to do even more.

Support us