Spilnota Detector Media

Petro Burkovskiy


Anastasiya Polishchuk


Trump Campaign, Glorification of Vladlen Tatarsky, and the US Intelligence Leak/

The review for the second half of March can be found here.

US Data Breach

On April 7, 2023, The New York Times reported that classified US intelligence documents, including plans to strengthen Ukraine before a counteroffensive, had been made public on the Internet. As it turned out later, hundreds of pages of intelligence data had been lying around for several months in Internet chats and Discord forums.

The data breach became a prominent news item in the Russian media. Seizing this chance, the Kremlin diverted attention away from its shortcomings in Ukraine and reiterated the supposed incompetence of Joe Biden as the US leader.

We have pinpointed several central themes disseminated by Russian propaganda channels.

  • "No successful offensive by the Ukrainian army"

A majority of the reports stated that the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ counteroffensive would inevitably fail due to the American intelligence leak, leading to occupied territories remaining unliberated and diminished US support.

In essence,  the intelligence leak was an accidental event that Russian propaganda seized on, using it to plausibly deny Ukrainian troops’ success and dampen public expectations regarding the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The message intensity indirectly suggests that Russian authorities are apprehensive about losing control over the dissemination of negative information and are preemptively establishing an “information blockade” in anticipation of a potential Ukrainian offensive.

“With the loss of Western support, Ukraine will no longer be capable of withstanding on the battlefield. The exposure of secret Pentagon documents could prompt Western allies to reevaluate their policy towards Kyiv authorities. The expert did not dismiss the possibility of a total cessation of military assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces” (360 Podmoskovye TV channel, 14 April)

“The public is being primed for an uncomfortable truth. In the United States, they are informing esteemed voters in advance, conditioning public opinion for the truth: ‘Guys, we won’t be able to defeat the Russians this year; there will be no victorious Ukrainian army offensive, as we previously reported, nor will Crimea be seized. It’s just not going to work. This holds true even in the context of information warfare. They’re laying the groundwork, and for good reason, since the presidential elections will take place in the fall of 2024’” (Tsargrad TV, 18 April)

Amid Russia’s disheartening battlefield situation, propagandists exploit every chance to assert future military superiority. As a reminder, Ukrainian officials have declared that even the accurate information in the leak is now outdated.

“Russian intelligence can glean significant information about the condition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the intentions of the Ukrainian General Staff due to the recent Pentagon leak” (Gazeta.ru, 08 April)

“What’s the benefit to us? ...the existence of such documents, which more or less accurately represent the situation due to the relationship between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and their NATO masters, is valuable for the Russian military. Even if they contain tactical and operational inaccuracies, misstated dates, figures, supplies, or echelons, they still represent a plan. Therefore, by examining its structure, we can clearly determine whether it is nearing completion” (Argumenty I Fakty, 08 April).

To reinforce the propaganda messages, Russian media outlets reproduced statements from foreign “credible sources,” such as various “American experts” and “retired military officers.”

For example, in the first half of April, former US Secretary of Defense Douglas McGregor played this role: “Ex-Pentagon advisor and retired Colonel Douglas McGregor stated that the Ukrainian state might dissolve by year’s end due to the challenging circumstances within the country: ‘I am uncertain if Ukraine will continue to exist as a nation-state by the end of 2023. The internal situation is dire, and the losses are immense’” (RIA Novosti, 08 April).

Regional media also examined the incident through the lens of Ukraine-NATO relations. For instance, Ufimskiye Zametki (Ufa Notes) on April 16 observed that “the disclosure of classified US Department of Defense documents was an attempt by Washington to caution Ukraine about the futility of perpetuating the conflict with the Russian Federation. The ‘leak’ can be construed as an indirect signal to Ukraine that it is unprepared for a counteroffensive and active combat with any positive outcome.”

  • "NATO and the US wage war on Russia through Ukrainian hands”

Initially, Russian media eagerly focused on the technical and quantitative aspects of the leak regarding US military aid to Ukraine. This approach reinforced the Kremlin’s narrative about “NATO’s war on Russia” occurring on Ukrainian soil: “Russia harbors ‘not the slightest doubt’ that the United States and NATO are either directly or indirectly engaged in the Ukrainian conflict. This involvement is steadily escalating,” Peskov noted, adding that this complicates matters but cannot influence the ultimate outcome of the special operation” (TASS, 07 April).

The “war with the West” remains a crucial component of the information campaign designed to cultivate animosity toward all things American and European and to isolate the Russian population entirely.

“The exposed data prove that the United States is implicated in almost every facet of the war, except for American troop deployment. The leak of classified documents from US intelligence agencies has laid bare the extent of US involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, despite President Joe Biden’s administration denying any engagement in a proxy war with Russia” (Izvestiya newspaper, 12 April).

However, within a week, the Russian media’s coverage of the US intelligence leak shifted dramatically. The primary argument became that the disclosure of information on Ukraine’s counteroffensive was an “information and psychological operation” intended to undermine faith in the Russian military and leadership:

“The exposure of confidential military documents concerning US and NATO plans to reinforce the Ukrainian armed forces prior to Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive in the spring may be part of a deliberate disinformation campaign” (REN-TV, April 13).

Another intriguing narrative employed by the Russian media involved promoting discussions about the Biden administration’s lackluster performance and disorder in the White House and Pentagon. In this regard, the Russians quickly found allies among Donald Trump’s supporters.

RIA Novosti was the first to (selectively) publish Western readers’ reactions to the online leak of classified information. Commentators expressed dissatisfaction with the level of support for Ukraine and the overall performance of the US leader, and the media outlet gathered the “best” remarks about Joe Biden and his administration’s competence:

“‘This is the result of having such an inept administration led by President Joe Biden,’ the comments highlighted.

’Nothing a couple billion dollars can’t fix, right, Joe?’ a user questioned.

’It’s time to be done with Zelensky, and it’s time for Ukrainians to mature and negotiate with the Russians,’ one commenter suggested.

’This demonstrates that the Biden regime cannot be trusted with anything secret or confidential,’ readers concluded” (RIA Novosti, 10 April).

Donald Trump later directly accused his 2020 election rival of disclosing classified information, seizing the opportunity to underscore his opponent’s failures before the upcoming 2024 election:

“Donald Trump labeled the leak of classified Pentagon documents as the ‘most disgraceful’ in history, suggesting that current White House occupant, Joe Biden, may be responsible” (REGNUM, April 13).

Donald Trump and the Upcoming Presidential Election

In early April 2023, a resurgence of attention towards Trump emerged among major Russian media outlets in relation to allegations of financial fraud, with approximately 1,000 mentions, as per Semantrum data. What purpose did the Russians have for invoking the former American president?

  • Firstly, they cited Trump's criticism of Joe Biden's administration for supporting Ukraine:

“Donald Trump recently asserted that the conflict in Ukraine ‘must end immediately.’ According to the former US president, he could resolve the situation in Ukraine within 24 hours. However, for that to happen, he needs to be re-elected as president” (NTV, April 15);

“The politician emphasized that under his administration, Russia would not have initiated a special military operation in Ukraine, and China would not have contemplated reclaiming control over Taiwan” (Ukraina.ru, April 13);

“Former US President Donald Trump allegedly seeks to retaliate against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for refusing to investigate the current US president’s son, Hunter Biden” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 15).

They also debated the extent of American aid to Ukraine:

“If at least 5% of teachers willingly arm themselves and acquire weapon-handling skills to counter criminals, we will curtail the issue of school shootings, and it will vanish... If we sent 120 billion dollars to Ukraine, then we can surely allocate one-tenth of that amount to safeguard American children and schools.”

  • Secondly, Russian media endeavored to persuade audiences that Trump has a strong chance of defeating Biden in the 2024 elections:

“Pence was jeered while Trump was applauded at the National Rifle Association convention. The former US vice president, who criticized Trump for the assault on the Capitol by his supporters on January 6, 2021, received scarce applause during his speech, only to be met with disapproving boos once he finished. In contrast, former US President Donald Trump received a warm welcome on the same stage. He also proposed arming American teachers, which he claimed would be cheaper than supporting Ukraine.”

Propagandists maintained that the recent charges against Trump only bolstered his popularity. The former US president remains a favored figure in the Russian media.

At present, Donald Trump actively disseminates messages portraying himself as the sole hope and “savior” of the United States, arguing that under Joe Biden’s leadership, the nation has transformed from a global frontrunner to a mediocre country plagued by significant economic issues. Some of this propaganda seeps into Russian media:

“Donald Trump accused the US authorities of creating an unprecedented danger for the nation” (REGNUM, April 15);

“Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Trump believes that President Joe Biden’s administration’s incompetence will precipitate World War III. Trump expressed anxiety over the potential use of nuclear weapons, as Biden acknowledges the conflict in Ukraine and the risk of a nuclear standoff between Washington and Moscow” (REGNUM, April 15);

  • Thirdly, Trump is depicted as a pro-Russian politician:

Trump’s claims that he could “end the war between Russia and Ukraine in a day” are interpreted favorably by Putinists, who extol the politician as a staunch ally of Russia.

Several media outlets mentioned the questionable invitation of Trump and Elon Musk to the occupied Crimea: “The Crimean parliament’s head, Vladimir Konstantinov, extended an invitation to former US President Donald Trump and American entrepreneur Elon Musk. ‘He will arrive as one person and depart as another,’ the speaker added, “and many issues will be resolved differently after his visit.” (NTV, 15 April).

All this news is designed to persuade ordinary Russians that “Russia will inevitably triumph,” “Putin is unfailingly correct,” and “America fears Russia.” The Russian populace is led to believe that “victory is imminent” and “Trump will return and restore order in the United States.”

Execution of a Ukrainian Soldier

On April 11, Ukrainian society was deeply disturbed by the video footage depicting the execution of a Ukrainian soldier. Russian Telegram channels initially disseminated the video, in which the invaders humiliated and decapitated the soldier, and later, media outlets worldwide picked up the story.

Western countries’ reactions were swift: UN Secretary-General António Guterres, EU diplomat Josep Borrell, and Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić, among others, expressed their horror at the video and called for the crime’s condemnation.

Conversely, the execution was scarcely mentioned in Russian media. From April 11 to 16, the number of such reports in major Kremlin media barely surpassed 15.

  • Wagner PMC's response to crime allegations: "Yevgeni Prigozhin denies that the Wagner PMC beheaded the Ukrainian prisoner of war: 'I have already stated that the video doesn't in any way identify the Wagner PMC or the Bakhmut location. <...> It's absolute nonsense. It bears no resemblance to reality.’" (Republic.ru, April 14).
  • Aggressive reactions from the Kremlin at the highest level: "The Russian Embassy in Moldova condemned the 'hasty and indiscriminate' accusations leveled against Russia by the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration following the release of a video showing the execution of an alleged Ukrainian soldier near Artyomovsk" (Gazeta.ru, April 15).
  • Diverting attention to purported crimes by Ukrainian troops: "The embassy also inquired why the Moldovan Foreign Ministry failed to respond to similar instances of war crimes committed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces against the people of the Donbas, as confirmed by an independent international UN commission" (Gazeta.ru, April 15).

Regarding the terminology and keywords that can be employed to find information about the execution (humiliation, head cut off, beheading, decapitation, Enthauptung), Russian media only reported the “decapitation” of the UOC-MP in Kyiv: “Another metropolitan arrested in Ukraine; persecution of the UOC persists. According to the bishop himself, he was arrested to decapitate the diocese, and parishioners are being subjected to aggressive coercion” (E-News, April 14).

“Everyone understands that the UOC is under attack in the country, and the criminal case against him is ‘merely a component of this assault.’ He did not dismiss the possibility that the investigation was not independently seeking such a restraining measure for him, but rather on orders from higher up ‘to decapitate and immobilize the leadership of the Cherkasy diocese’ and then ‘to carry out the same actions as those in western Ukraine.’” (Ukraina.ru, April 13).

It is crucial to note that on April 10, the day before the video of the tragedy was released, Discover 24 reported that “Ukrainian Armed Forces decapitated foreign mercenaries to impede identification. Kyiv is adopting such measures to conceal the already evident fact that soldiers from Western regular armies are participating in the conflict under the guise of ‘volunteers.’ If identified, the Russian Armed Forces would possess evidence, so foreign corpses are decapitated to hinder identification as much as possible.”

In spite of the video’s publication and dissemination, Russia consistently denies any involvement in the execution of the Ukrainian prisoner of war or any intent to intimidate the audience.

Characters of Propaganda

Vladimir Putin

Customarily, Vladimir Putin tops the list in the Russian media landscape’s rankings. In the first half of April, according to Semantrum, the media cited the Kremlin leader 5,039 times. The principal themes of Russian propaganda include:

  • Russia's peace-seeking ambitions. The media assert that Russia has aimed to end the war almost since its onset, but the West has been obstructing it. "President Vladimir Putin emphasized that Russia is not trying to fuel the Ukrainian conflict but to conclude it. However, Western nations persistently call for continued fighting, increased arms supplies, and the training of Ukrainian soldiers on their territory. Moscow countered, stating that Western military assistance spells trouble for Ukraine and only prolongs the conflict" (RIA Novosti, April 14);
  • Fostering relations with friendly nations. After deeming Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow a "triumph" for Russia in late March, this month, Putin signed new agreements with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad regarding close and effective cooperation in the legal domain (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 14).

Russian media also persist in discussing the supposedly improving neighborly relations between Russia and China: “Chinese President Xi Jinping has held ‘countless’ conversations and meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin” (TASS, April 14);

  • The assertion that "the policy of containment and weakening Russia is a long-term Western strategy, and sanctions have dealt a severe blow to the global economy as a whole" (RIA Novosti, April 13). Putin claims that the West's primary goal is to "worsen the lives of millions of Russians." He also announced that "Russia will resolve all the problems the West creates for it." This statement perpetuates the demonization of countries supporting Ukraine and shifts the focus from Russia's economic losses to "impacts on the entire global economy."
  • Emphasizing Russia's alleged economic achievements. Apparently, Russia is "experiencing positive trade dynamics" and consistent GDP growth trends in April. "During a meeting between Vladimir Putin and the government, several medium-term assertions were made about the economy's state and its short-term prospects. There is a high positive trend in trade, oil revenues to the budget are anticipated to grow from the second quarter of 2023, and GDP is projected to experience positive growth from April, improving the overall macroeconomic forecast for 2023" (Kommersant.ru, April 11).

Volodymyr Zelenskyy

As in previous months, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the second most mentioned person in Russian media, with 1,762 mentions in the first half of April.

  • Response to the Ukrainian president's social media posts. On the eve of Easter, Putin's bots and "armchair troops" became more active on Twitter. "In his post, the Ukrainian leader labeled Russia an 'evil state,' accusing it of purportedly committing crimes on the eve of Orthodox Easter. He also added that victory is Ukraine's duty to its humanity, and therefore, in his opinion, the Kremlin must lose." Among the user responses in the comments (mostly repetitive), we highlight the following statements:
  1. "Evil is the United States and Zelenskyy himself."
  2. "Sadly, the truth is that you are Ukraine's greatest traitor and destroyer!"
  3. "Your time is running out. Grab the money and flee before it's too late."
  4. "You have already lost in Artyomovsk [Bakhmut]. What's next?"
  5. "You could have resolved this crisis today, but you chose not to" (all references above are from RIA Novosti, April 14).
  • Sanctions against Russian athletes. On April 15, the majority of references to Volodymyr Zelenskyy pertained to the imposition of sanctions on several Russian sports figures. The athletes on the list were bewildered about "how they got there." "European Championship bronze medalist... Diniyar Bilyaletdinov has no clue why the Ukrainian leadership decided to impose sanctions on him. 'I have no idea why I'm even on the list. Frankly, I don't really care.’" (TASS, April 15).

Conversely, particularly fervent Russian patriots claimed that the sanctions indicated they were “feared.” Footballer Veniamin Mandrykin stated he was “...against the Nazis. If I could walk, I’d volunteer for the war, but as it stands, I support our army through the People’s Front. I provide financial aid. I couldn’t care less about these sanctions. If anything, I’m pleased. It means they’re afraid’” (Gazeta.ru, April 15).

  • In April, news coverage of Bakhmut decreased significantly, with only 115 mentions in major Russian media. A common thread across these reports was: "Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, eager to appease his Western allies, is willing to sacrifice the military in Artyomovsk; otherwise, losing the city would tarnish the Ukrainian Armed Forces' reputation" (REGNUM, 14 April).
  • During the first half of April, the "favorite" of Russian media, American journalist Seymour Hersh, once again spoke about the war against Ukraine. This time, the focus was on the statement: "Volodymyr Zelenskyy purchases Russian fuel, which is funded by American taxpayers" (RIA Novosti, 12 April). Hersh also alleged that American military aid to Ukraine was being misappropriated by Zelenskyy and his administration: "Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Seymour Hersh claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his circle have embezzled approximately $400 million allocated by the West to support the country" (TASS, 12 April).

Vladlen Tatarsky

In April, there were 1,535 mentions of Maxim Fomin, better known as Vladlen Tatarsky. Russian media covered his assassination in St. Petersburg:

  • "Tatarsky's assassination is an act of terrorism by the Kyiv regime"

Propagandists underscored the “terrorist nature” of the Ukrainian authorities and linked Tatarsky’s assassination to prior “incidents.” “Kyiv employs terrorist methods to deal with undesirable journalists. Consequently, four Russian journalists were killed during a special military operation, including Daria Dugina, Vladlen Tatarsky, Sergei Postnov, and Oleg Klokov... The Kyiv regime’s default problem-solving method is murder and terror, a strategy Ukraine’s leadership had adopted long before the Maidans swept across the nation” (Ukraina.ru, 15 April).

NTV also alleged the existence of a “Kyiv hit squad,” adding that this was not the last massacre of Ukraine’s enemies. The channel claimed US intelligence was involved in the assassination (in light of Mike Pompeo’s meeting with President Zelenskyy) and that the Pentagon orchestrated the assassination attempts on Russian propagandists (NTV, 10 April).

Two weeks after the incident, the FSB declared that the attack’s organizer was Donetsk region native Yuriy Denisov, who is portrayed in the media as an “unstable, aggressive person” and a “terrible man” (REGNUM, 14 April).

“The FSB reported that the organizers of the murder of military serviceman Vladlen Tatarsky in a St. Petersburg cafe were Ukraine’s special services and ‘their agents,’ including Russian oppositionists abroad. According to the service, the murder was planned by Ukrainian citizen Yuri Denisov, who handed over an explosive device to Daria Trepova through a delivery service and an intermediary” (RBC.ru, April 15).

Russian Channel One also linked the attempt to the “Kyiv regime.” “Russian intelligence services have identified a citizen of Ukraine, Yuriy Denisov, who had been following the military correspondent for a long time and was preparing a terrorist attack with Daria Trepova. He acted on an assignment from Kyiv, handed over an explosive device to his accomplice, and then fled Russia” (13 April).

  • "Western Hypocrisy"

Maria Zakharova accused Western nations of “hypocrisy” in their response to the death of the “military correspondent.” She asserted that the West “remained indifferent” to the murder and attempted to “transform the aggressor into a victim.” “She accused Western countries of not expressing sympathy or compassion for the death of the military correspondent, but instead of ‘creating a victim’ out of terrorist Daria Trepova” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, 08 April).

  • Glorification of Vladlen Tatar as a casualty of the war against Ukraine

“A mural featuring war correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky was created on a building in downtown Nizhny Novgorod to commemorate him... The image also bears the inscription: ‘We have no right to lose this war’” (RIA Novosti, 13 April).

Numerous references were made to awards, murals, and other “memorial” events.

Yet, Yevgeni Prigozhin surpassed all: on the day of the propagandist’s death, he announced that a Russian flag flew over “legally annexed” Bakhmut in Tatarsky’s honor. “Yevgeni Prigozhin said: ‘We have raised a Russian flag with the inscription ‘In fond memory of Vladlen Tatarsky’ and a flag of the Wagner PMC on the city administration of Bakhmut’” (REGNUM, 03 April).

Russian media also disseminated details about Tatarsky’s burial site (inviting people to “bid farewell” to the military correspondent) and even potential pilgrimage routes. The headlines of such messages were tragically comical: “He was larger than the war” and “He reached hearts with the truth. Farewell to Vladlen Tatarsky” (Kommersant.ru, 09 April; Argumenty I Fakty, 09 April).

“US Biolabs in Ukraine”

Occasionally, Russian media report on the alleged presence of “American biolabs” and “NATO bases” in Ukraine. In April, RIA Novosti revived this Kremlin narrative, alleging that the US was constructing additional biolabs and that Ukraine would soon deploy biological weapons on the battlefield. Kremlin media also announced provocations by the Ukrainian Armed Forces:

“On Saturday, the Interagency Coordination Headquarters of the Russian Federation for Humanitarian Response in Ukraine reported that Kyiv planned to stage a provocation in the Sumy region and blame Russia for using toxic substances. It is noted that Kyiv intends to transport the bodies and remains of deceased Ukrainian servicemen from morgues to dummy positions, whose deaths were allegedly caused by fire from ‘Russian’ artillery ammunition loaded with ‘toxic substances’” (RIA Novosti, 08 April).

“Kyiv regime aims to treat the area and the remains with a toxic substance so that invited experts from Western countries, currently on Ukrainian territory, can document the supposed ‘use of ‘chemical weapons’ by the Russian armed forces” (RIA Novosti, 08 April).

“The United States has recommenced the program of building biolaboratories in Ukraine and is broadening the scope of training for Ukrainian biologists. The Pentagon will continue research at biological facilities in Ukraine and other countries due to the international community’s ambiguous reaction and reluctance to challenge Washington” (RIA Novosti, 07 April).

The extent of Kremlin cynicism remains astonishing:

“It is claimed that Ukraine plans to execute this action to divert the international community’s attention from the numerous war crimes committed by the Ukrainian army and nationalist militants, as revealed by the UN” (TASS, 10 April).

Photo: Getty Images

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