Victoriia Namestnik

Disinformation Analyst

Uliana Huliaeva


Українською читайте тут.

Detector Media has been monitoring the Ukrainian segment of social media since the commencement of the full-scale war and has been documenting instances of Russian disinformation on a daily basis. Over the course of nearly a year, our team of analysts has debunked over 1200 fabricated stories, exposed more than 400 instances of manipulation, and countered an equal number of Russian propaganda messages. In this article, we take a look back at some of the most absurd and comical examples, ranging from preposterous claims about xenophobic borscht and mobilized dogs to reports of the destruction of non-existent equipment.

There is a justification for everything

On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the commencement of a so-called “special military operation,” which was, in reality, a full-scale war against Ukraine. In the aftermath of this announcement, numerous justifications for this act of aggression began to surface in the information sphere, all of which had been concocted by Putin, Lukashenko, and the entire Russian propaganda machine over the course of a year. One of the most absurd claims was a phrase that was co-authored by Putin and Lukashenko: “Otherwise, Ukraine would have attacked Russia and Belarus.” This phrase went on to become a viral meme and was even recognized as a winner in one of the categories of the Russian disinformation hit parade organized by Detector Media. However, it should be noted that Ukraine has never had any intention of attacking another country and is instead striving to defend its people and its territory. If the mention of “Lukashenko” and “meme” in the same sentence brought a smile to your face and reminded you of the phrase “and I’ll show you...”, then you’ll undoubtedly appreciate this selection of memes.

During the second day of the full-scale war, Russian missiles were relentlessly demolishing residential buildings, and as a result, countless civilians were tragically losing their lives. Meanwhile, evacuation efforts were in progress to try and protect as many innocent people as possible. Despite this undeniable reality, propagandists were still trying to spin the narrative that Russia was not posing a threat to Ukrainian civilians. It was as though they were urging the Ukrainian people not to believe their own eyes and instead to trust their deceitful rhetoric.

The Ukrainian border guards had charted a very specific course for the Russian warship, and although it initially resisted, it eventually complied and moved accordingly. However, Russian propaganda sought to manipulate its audience into believing that the flagship of the Russian fleet, the Moskva, had not sustained any damage, or even if it had, that it had not sunk, or alternatively, that any sinking was caused by a storm rather than by Ukrainian forces. The propaganda machine faced a daunting task: it had to somehow justify to the Russian people how a country without a navy could possibly sink the supposedly “legendary” Moskva. Predictably, the propaganda machine failed in this endeavor, just as it failed in explaining the loss of the other 17 warships.

The main enemy is Zelensky

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been singled out as a particular target of the enemy’s propaganda campaign. The Russian propaganda machine is actively engaged in a sustained effort to undermine Zelenskyy’s credibility both within Ukraine and on the international stage.

Throughout both the initial days of the full-scale invasion and in the six months that followed, the Russian propaganda machine relentlessly spread false reports claiming that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv. In a subsequent iteration of this falsehood, propagandists added a more elaborate twist to the tale, claiming that Zelenskyy had been evacuated to a secret bunker in western Ukraine or possibly even to the border with Poland after a massive missile attack across the country. These claims were entirely baseless and unfounded, as Zelenskyy repeatedly recorded video messages from the streets of Kyiv and in front of the Presidential Office building throughout the year. Despite this evidence, propagandists attempted to discredit these videos by suggesting that Zelenskyy was using a green screen to simulate his presence in Ukraine and at the frontline while being somewhere else.

It is true that green screen technology has been used on occasion to make Volodymyr Zelenskyy appear as a hologram at various technology conferences in Europe. However, it should be noted that the Ukrainian President only made his first foreign trip to the United States in late 2022. Regrettably, Russian agitprop once again sought to smear Zelenskyy’s reputation by inventing the baseless claim that he had signed an act of surrender during this visit. According to this false narrative, an American official had purportedly asked for Zelenskyy’s autograph but instead presented him with a document of surrender which the president allegedly signed, admitting defeat in the war and signaling his intent to resign. This ludicrous claim is both absurd and unoriginal and bears no resemblance to reality.

According to the Russian propaganda machine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy had already announced his surrender in March of last year. In order to further this falsehood, propagandists resorted to using “deepfake” technology to create a video in which a poorly-drawn president of Ukraine was depicted as conceding defeat to Russia. In this video, Zelenskyy appeared to express the difficulties of governing the country and ultimately surrendered to the invading Russian forces.

The “difficulties” of mobilization

Even before the full-scale war broke out, Russian propagandists were claiming that the Ukrainian army was no match for their Russian counterparts. The Russians were so confident in their military superiority that they believed they would “take Kyiv in three days”. However, after encountering the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the propagandists were forced to change their tactics. Now, the Russians claim that they are not fighting Ukrainians but rather well-trained Western soldiers who are being secretly deployed to fight on behalf of Ukraine. Nevertheless, they continue their attempts to ridicule the Ukrainian army.

In another instance of Russian propaganda, fake news creators spread the false claim that pensioners were being mobilized in Ukraine as part of the country’s supposed “powerful reserves” for an offensive campaign. In order to lend legitimacy to this baseless claim, the propagandists manipulated quotes from an interview with the former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, Mykola Malomuzh. 

In a later instance of Russian propaganda, the propagandists began spreading false information about the mobilization of women and children in Ukraine. According to their claims, the Ukrainian government was motivating women to join the military with posters featuring a crying child and the slogan, “Mom, I don’t want to be a Russian.” They also fabricated stories about the Ukrainian president being willing to send anyone, including unborn children, to fight on the front lines.

In order to propagate this falsehood, Russian propagandists manipulated a quote from Zelenskyy and presented a video featuring a pregnant Ukrainian woman who claimed to have received a draft notice. However, it is evident that the woman in question received the notice by mistake, as women in Ukraine can only be mobilized voluntarily. The only exception to this rule is for medical workers, who are required to register for military service.

In yet another attempt to spread disinformation, Russian propagandists began claiming that Ukraine was mobilizing dogs for military service. They asserted that from February 1, 2023, dog owners were required to register their pets for military service, including breeds such as Shepherds, Labradors, Boxers, Rottweilers, and other “large, strong” breeds. The propagandists further suggested that failure to comply with this requirement would result in punishment for the dog’s owner. We thank the readers of Detector Media who left their comments under the refutation of this fake. 

Russian “victories” and Western weapons

Propaganda began telling about the “heroic victories” of the Russian army in the early days of the war. On February 25, 2022, videos and photos of the alleged Russian invasion of Ukraine - live attacks - were massively shared on social media. The video, which was viewed on Facebook by more than 110,000 viewers and shared more than 25,000 times, turned out to be footage of the video game Arma 3. It was removed from social media after Bloomberg News contacted Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. for comment.

Russian propaganda efforts during the early days of the war included claims of supposed “heroic victories” by the Russian army. On February 25, 2022, videos and photos purporting to show live attacks of the alleged Russian invasion of Ukraine were widely shared on social media. However, it was later discovered that one of these videos, which had been viewed by over 110,000 people on Facebook and shared over 25,000 times, was actually footage from the video game Arma 3. After Bloomberg News contacted Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. for comment, the video was removed from social media. 

Later, the propagandists used the game footage again, this time accusing the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) of passing off the game footage for actual combat. The propagandists claimed that Ukraine was experiencing such a heavy defeat that the authorities were attempting to fabricate footage in order to keep the population’s morale high. To support this false narrative, the propagandists may have created a fake Telegram channel for the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. 

According to the Russian propaganda machine, they had successfully “destroyed” all of the Ukrainian air defense at the outset of the full-scale invasion. Subsequent reports claimed that they had “destroyed” it two more times. After three months of fighting, the Russian General Staff made the assertion that they had destroyed 186 Ukrainian aircraft and 129 helicopters, 1,084 UAVs, and 3,373 armored vehicles. This would mean that the Russian forces had destroyed 30% more military aircraft and 25% more helicopters than the Ukrainian Armed Forces had before February 24. The same goes for the number of allegedly destroyed UAVs. 

For instance, Russian propagandists claimed to have shot down a Turkish Bayraktar drone that was purchased by concerned Lithuanians for 5 million euros within just 3.5 minutes of its use. However, it was later discovered that the drone they “shot down” was still in Turkey. Russian propagandist Olga Skabeyeva also contributed to this misinformation campaign by claiming on Russian television that the Russians had “destroyed” a thousand Bayraktar drones. This assertion was proven to be false, as some of the drones she claimed were destroyed had not even begun production yet. 

Russian propagandists also claimed to have been successful in their fight against the US HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems. They first reported the fake destruction of two vehicles, then claimed to have destroyed another one, and even presented burnt straw as evidence of the destruction of HIMARS missiles. Later, they continued to claim that several more units had been “destroyed”. As of December, journalists had counted 55 HIMARS launchers that the Russians claimed to have “destroyed” out of a total of 20 that had been delivered to Ukraine.

Russian propaganda in 2023 has continued the trend of falsely claiming to have “destroyed” Western weapons, including tanks. They claimed that the Russian military had destroyed the first American M1 Abrams tank near Soledar using an RPG-18 Mukha, despite the fact that the tanks had never been in the area. To illustrate this supposed victory, they used an old photo that was taken outside of Ukraine.

More recently, they also reported the “destruction” of the first German Leopard tank on the battlefield, even though such tanks had not yet been deployed to Ukraine. In place of a refutation, we suggest you watch the documentary video.

Pigeons, geese, mosquitoes, and all the rest...

Russian propaganda has devoted a significant amount of attention to the topic of biological weapons and alleged “American biolabs” in Ukraine. In the spring of 2022, propagandists claimed that the United States planned to use Ukrainian birds and mosquitoes to spread diseases to Russia. The Russian Ministry of Defense also claimed to have “findings” confirming the “development of biological weapons” in Pentagon-funded Ukrainian laboratories. This false claim was later repeated at the United Nations by Russia’s permanent representative, Vasily Nebenzya, who alleged that Russian invaders had discovered drones in Ukraine that could “spread mosquitoes infected with dangerous viruses.” 

Vasily Nebenzya’s claim is reminiscent of another false propaganda story, which claims that the United States has developed a drone capable of transporting “infected insects” to be used for military purposes. The drone supposedly would be used to destroy or incapacitate enemy fighters without risking US military personnel. According to one of the narratives, Ukraine was even supposed to use Bayraktars for chemical attacks. However, the Russian propagandists have not provided any credible evidence to support these claims. 

Also in spring, Russian propagandists revived an old fake story about the distribution of “tuberculosis-infected leaflets” by the Ukrainian military in the Slovianoserbsk District of the Luhansk Region in 2020. They claimed that “fake rubles” were scattered near a school in the Luhansk Region, which caused sickness to those who picked them up. They alleged that a local laboratory had tested the bills and found tuberculosis on them. While it is true that Ukrainian volunteers were regularly distributing leaflets using drones, the leaflets resembled ruble bills in order to grab residents’ attention quickly. However, these leaflets did not contain bacteria that cause tuberculosis, but rather greetings for the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The organizers of this campaign assumed that residents of the temporarily occupied territories might try to use these bills in stores, so Russian propagandists came up with a false story to “counteract” them.

Then, Russian propagandists shifted their focus from biological and chemical weapons to nuclear ones. In the early months of the full-scale invasion, they began spreading false stories that Ukraine was working on developing nuclear weapons and making a “dirty bomb.” This false narrative has been periodically reiterated throughout the year in different variations. One of the most absurd claims was that volunteer Serhiy Prytula and his charity foundation were collecting donations for the purchase of nuclear weapons. 

Nazis, fascists, and Stepan Bandera

One of the main reasons cited by the Russian authorities for their full-scale invasion was the so-called denazification of Ukraine. As part of their efforts to justify this narrative, Russian propagandists attempted to present various pieces of “evidence” of Nazism in Ukraine. For instance, they claimed that the Ukrainian coat of arms was a Nazi symbol, which is patently false. In reality, the trident symbol predated the rise of Nazism, originating in the Kyivan Rus era. Additionally, the Russians attempted to claim Ukrainian borsch as a Russian dish. When this attempt failed, they claimed that Ukrainians were engaging in “xenophobia, Nazism, and extremism in all its forms” by appropriating borsch. 

Russian propagandists have gone so far as to claim that Ukrainians are being raised as Nazis from childhood. To support this narrative, they circulated a photo of what they claimed were Lviv schoolchildren lined up to form a swastika on Hitler’s birthday. However, this photo does not show Lviv schoolchildren, nor was it taken in Ukraine, nor in 2022, and it doesn’t even depict a swastika. In reality, the photo was taken in the Russian city of Penza during an event where local schoolchildren and young people lined up with two 5s in honor of the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. Moreover, a video was shared on social media showing children allegedly singing the “unofficial Luftwaffe anthem” against a blue and yellow flag. In reality, the children were singing an interpretation of the popular German song “Sieben Tage lang” (also known as “Was wollen wir trinken”), which has nothing to do with the Nazi air force. Musicologists believe that this melody was borrowed from a Brittany folk song (Son Ar Chistr), which was sung during the production of apple cider. 

Russian propaganda has been relentlessly attempting to discredit Ukraine and its armed forces by spreading false information about the supposed use of Nazi symbols and ideology. They have claimed that the Ukrainian military uniform has changed to reflect the “reincarnation of Nazism” with the use of diamonds on shoulder straps instead of Soviet stars and the incorporation of the edelweiss flower, which is supposedly a Nazi symbol, into the symbols of units. Additionally, they have pointed out supposed Nazi symbols on Christmas tree decorations, helmets, Ukrainian armored vehicles, and even military awards. Moreover, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valeriy Zaluzhny, allegedly wears a “swastika bracelet”. The Russian propaganda machine has even claimed that even the Germans were asking the Ukrainian military not to use Nazi symbols during exercises in Germany. This claim is, of course, false, and all of the Russians’ supposed “evidence” is based on distorted facts, fantasies, and doctored photo and video footage

No account of the spurious association of Nazism and fascism with Ukraine would be complete without mentioning the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera. Various propagandists have claimed that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine declared Bandera a saint or that an icon of Bandera was created specifically for the Kyiv Cave Monastery. The propagandists have suggested that the center of the icon contained the coat of arms of Ukraine and that the upper corners of the icon featured the emblems of the Azov battalion. It is worth noting that in the spring of 2022, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov offered a bounty of 250 million rubles for the head of the “archenemy” Stepan Bandera.

A little more about Nazism

Russian disinformation campaigns have also attempted to portray Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a supporter of Nazism. In one instance, photos were shared on social media claiming to show Zelenskyy’s alleged new book in a transparent wrapper that resembled Adolf Hitler’s infamous Mein Kampf in style. The Russian propagandists alleged that Zelenskyy’s book was titled “My Struggle” in Ukrainian, the same as Hitler’s book. However, this was quickly debunked through digital image verification, which revealed fonts typically used in Russian church literature. Additionally, the propagandists claimed that Zelenskyy presented a Ukrainian flag adorned with SS runes to the U.S. Congress during his visit to the United States, and that he “made a gentle Nazi salute” near a German flag during a meeting with the leaders of France and Germany. 

According to propaganda, ordinary Ukrainians are also purportedly imitating the president by using Nazi salutes, even in their wedding photos. One widely shared photo on social media showed a bride and groom in front of a monument with a blue and yellow flag, seemingly making a gesture resembling a Nazi salute. However, it was later discovered that the flag in question was not actually the Ukrainian flag, and that the photo was taken in Novokuznetsk, Russia.

According to propaganda, Ukrainians are supposedly unafraid to use Nazi salutes during public events. For instance, propagandists claimed that Oleh Psiuk, the leader of the Kalush Orchestra band, used a Nazi salute to greet viewers during a Eurovision event. However, this claim was based on a manipulative screenshot shared on social media. When viewed from other angles and in the video footage, it becomes clear that Oleh Psiuk was merely waving his hand, and not making a Nazi salute.

Russian propaganda has also accused Ukrainian refugees who were forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict of being Nazis. They claimed that these refugees created a massive swastika in a field in the suburbs of Brandenburg, as a way of “thanking” their hosts for their hospitality. However, police investigations suggest that a local resident was responsible for creating the banned symbol. Neighbors reported that this individual had previously hung the Third Reich flag in the window of his house. German law enforcement officials have found no evidence linking Ukrainians to the creation of the swastika.

The propagandists also claimed that Ukrainian “Nazi refugees” are known for their love of showing off their tattoos, and shared photos on social media purportedly showing two Ukrainian men with Nazi symbol tattoos in Rijeka, Croatia. Some posts even went so far as to suggest that these images were proof of the justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it was later discovered that the men in question were actually Hungarians and members of the Hungarian neo-Nazi group Blood and Honor Hungaria.

We hope you had a good laugh. However, the greatest danger of such comical fabrications lies in the fact that they can distract our attention, lull our vigilance, and weaken our resistance to more sophisticated and subtle forms of Russian propaganda. When people see absurd claims about mobilizing dogs or unborn children, they may begin to believe that all Russian disinformation is primitive and easy to identify, which can make them more vulnerable to manipulation. However, we must recognize that not all Russian disinformation is so easily detectable, and that it can take many different forms. 

The enemy’s propaganda consistently disseminates its messages and narratives not only in Ukraine’s media space but also across numerous other countries. Research conducted by Detector Media has revealed that Russian propaganda is highly adaptable and can quickly adjust its messaging based on the changing circumstances. However, its primary focus remains constant: discrediting Ukraine and undermining its ongoing struggle. These messages are often deeply ingrained in media narratives and are not always immediately recognizable as originating from Russia. For example, the notion that there is no war in Ukraine because it has not been officially declared. 

Detector Media’s Disinformation Chronicles provides explanations for not only amusing but also complex disinformation cases.

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