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The winter of 2022-2023 has become one of the most difficult ones in the recent history of Ukraine for many of its residents. In September 2022, due to a counteroffensive, the Defense Forces of Ukraine liberated the areas of the Kharkiv region, with an area of about 6,000 square kilometers temporarily occupied by Russian troops. It was already the second tangible military defeat of the "second army of the world" after the retreat from the northern regions of Ukraine in April of the same year. After that, Putin’s leadership regime gave the order to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine with missile and drone strikes.

The first strikes on the Ukrainian energy system were made on September 11 in the Kharkiv region during the counteroffensive of the Defense Forces of Ukraine, and the systematic shelling campaign lasted from October 10, 2022, to March 9, 2023. According to the report of the international human rights organization "Human Rights Watch", as a result of these attacks, at least 77 civilians died, and about 300 more were injured. As a result of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian energy system was significantly damaged. Thus, according to UNDP, more than 51% of generation capacity (including 67% of thermal power) was destroyed, and 45% of high-voltage transformers were destroyed or damaged. According to the Kyiv School of Economics calculations, Ukraine's losses are estimated at approximately 8.8 billion dollars. These data are not final since the Ukrainian authorities do not advertise losses and damages until the war's end. However, it can be stated that the energy infrastructure of Ukraine suffered severe damage.

One of Ukraine's reactions to such occupiers' actions was the speech of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the phrase "Without you" (Без вас), with the help of which the head of state indicated that the majority of Ukrainians are ready to endure hardship for the sake of our country's independence and separate existence from Russia. Ukrainians [1] [2] [3] on the Internet scoffed at the attempts of Russians to write panic messages on social networks under the guise of Ukrainians and in the Ukrainian language (with the help of an unsuccessful Google translation) about "not enough urine to stand this flour" («нема сечі терпіти ці борошна), "electrofeeding" (електрохарчування), and others. Ukraine passed these tests and, in April 2023, even resumed its electricity exports to the European Union countries.

In July 2023, new propaganda messages appeared in pro-Russian anonymous Telegram channels, which pretended to be pro-Ukrainian, that Ukraine would face dire consequences of these [Russian] strikes this winter, even if Russia does not launch new ones. This claim has been steadily promoted over the past few months to intimidate Ukrainians and discredit our government. We analyzed the posts of pro-Russian anonymous Telegram channels over the past few months. On the eve of the beginning of the heating season, we will explore what propaganda tactics are used by Russian agitprop and what lies and manipulations they use.

Intimidation (appeal to fear) is a propaganda tactic in which propagandists use the feeling of fear or persistent prejudice to achieve the desired result. Accordingly, it will only worsen if one does not implement or support what has been proposed. Through intimidation of people, the occupiers expect to destabilize the internal situation in Ukraine and force the authorities to settle a peace agreement beneficial for Russia, which will involve the formal or actual withdrawal of our state from the territories temporarily occupied by the aggressors. Russian propaganda claims that allegedly only some agreements between Russia and the West twice saved Ukraine from "Kholodomor":

"Last winter, Russia had two climatic "windows", when it was able to bring the situation in Ukraine to "Kholodomor" with hundreds of thousands or millions of victims. In both of such "windows" missiles and drones were not used or used to a lesser extent, and it may be the result of conspiratorial agreements between Russia and the West.

Propagandists are predicting a "Kholodomor" and "complete blackout" for Ukraine this winter: "At the same time, it is quite likely that the Russian Armed Forces will continue to strike the critical infrastructure of Ukraine — all targets are scouted, and essentially any city can be left without light and heat for an unlimited time. It will be exactly the aforementioned "Kholodomor". Here is another quote: "We would advise everyone to prepare so as not to find yourselves hostage to a situation when there will be a complete blackout in the country, a worse one than last year."

Because Russia has accumulated and is accumulating a reserve of missiles for strikes on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine, in the case of some agreements with the West, spending millions on missiles would not make sense; it looks absurd. Key Western countries hold some informal consultations with Russia but are primarily concerned with preventing further escalation, especially in the nuclear sphere.

Russian propaganda intimidates the civilian population of Ukraine with slightly less apocalyptic scenarios: "Even without Russian strikes, in the coming winter, power outages may last for 8 or 10 hours." and "Thus, it is safe to say that this winter will be as tricky as the last one. Moreover, restoring it, even with Western funding, will be challenging if Russia continues to strike energy enterprises and infrastructure.

This tactic also includes fake messages, such as "It will soon become unbearable to live in Ukraine, and the number of victims due to the lack of electricity may be greater than nuclear weapons." However, despite these statements from the propagandists, the attacks on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine did not force the majority of Ukrainians to support "peace at any price" and territorial concessions of Ukraine in favor of the Russian occupiers. According to the latest poll conducted by KMIS, 80% of Ukrainians oppose territorial concessions to achieve peace.

"Scapegoating" is a tactic that mitigates the responsibility for those guilty of something by transferring it to someone else – the so-called "scapegoat". It is one of the main tactics of Russian agitprop, which propagandists use to justify the war crimes of the Russian occupiers. "Scapegoats" in Russian propaganda are mainly either the Western countries or the Ukrainian authorities. In this case, the latter ones are especially relevant. Back in the spring of 2023, propagandists were spreading fakes that allegedly the issues of the Ukrainian energy system were not caused by Russian missile strikes but by [Ukraine’s] inefficient governance. Now agitprop claims that Ukraine is not ready for winter: preparations for the new heating season in Ukraine are going too slowly and are on the verge of failure: the damaged energy infrastructure, outdated electricity, and heat distribution networks are not repaired, and fuel reserves are at a minimum level.

But propagandists even disagree about which state bodies are to be blamed for it. They have three key versions. According to the first, Denys Shmyhal's Cabinet is responsible for it: "Our source close to the President said that the Office of the President (OP) is dissatisfied with the preparations for the heating season, which the Cabinet has failed. Stocks of fuel, gas, and coal are at minimum levels, and only 20% of energy infrastructure repairs have been completed," as per Russian propaganda. A similar message is, "Surely, it is easy to blame everything on the enemy who destroyed everything with missile strikes, but you are fighting in a protracted war, and the level of [governmental] management is similar to a peaceful life."

The second version is that Ukraine’s Naftogaz is to be blamed for the upcoming failure of the heating season: "It turns out that as of today, Naftogaz's preparation for the heating season looks like a failure, although the circumstances for Naftogaz were conditionally favorable." According to the third propagandist version, Andriy Hota and Viktor Busko, members of the Supervisory Board of the state power generation company "Centrenergo" (Центренерго), who represent the State Property Fund of Ukraine, are to blame for this. Hota is also an adviser to the head of the OP, Andriy Yermak. Another alleged culprit is Oleksandr Fedoryshyn, the deputy head of the State Property Fund of Ukraine. Agitprop accuses them of sabotage, corruption, conflict of interest, and official misconduct and claims that the Security Service of Ukraine has already begun an investigation into their actions.

According to some Ukrainian media reports, the SBU has indeed started an inspection — but the reasons for it and the conclusions are still unknown. The Minister of Energy of Ukraine, Herman Halushchenko, stated that the country's energy system is ready for winter. In the absence of severe new damage due to [Russian] shelling, there are no plans to introduce restrictions on the electricity supply to consumers. The minister rules out the possibility of a long-term blackout, as Russian propaganda emphasizes: "If there are blackouts, they will be the result of attacks on our power system and will be temporary." Also, foreign media stated that the government of Ukraine has purchased 100 spare high-voltage transformers, which will be stored abroad for security purposes until they are needed.

Russian propagandists also consider businessman Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of Ukraine's largest energy company DTEK, responsible for the upcoming "difficult winter". He is blamed for his reluctance to involve his TPPs (thermal power stations) in the generation of additional thermal electricity, which will lead to an increase in the import of electricity from the EU countries, its price increase for people, and Akhmetov’s excess profits:

"At the same time, there is no shortage of power generation capacities, but there is a desire of private companies, primarily Akhmetov, to make money from importing electricity, use the thermal power plants minimally during the winter period, and shift additional costs onto the shoulders of businesses that will pay high prices for electricity. As always, ordinary Ukrainians will pay for the increase in the price of goods."

This tactic aims to demoralize ordinary Ukrainians and undermine their trust in the authorities and the effectiveness of communal services in critical conditions. Propagandists are promoting the message that Ukraine's municipal companies are not ready for new challenges, critical infrastructure will not survive, and this winter will be even more complex than the last one. That is why they are promoting fake messages that, allegedly, starting from October 1, Ukraine will introduce scheduled power outages. As we can see, this did not happen. Propagandists deliberately "forget" that severe damage to Ukraine's energy infrastructure was caused by missile strikes by the Russian occupiers, which were carried out in the fall and winter of 2022-2023. Before that, there were no issues with electricity generation and heating seasons in Ukraine.

Another example of this propaganda tactic is the manipulation of Ukraine's strikes on the Crimean Bridge. Russians question the need "to strike the Crimean Bridge" if Russia "destroyed half of Ukraine's energy infrastructure after that." One of the pro-Russian anonymous telegram channels mimicking the pro-Ukrainian one writes: “A pragmatic assessment of the GUR/SBU strikes on the Crimean bridge concludes that it had a short emotional effect and cries of victory from [Ukrainian] propagandists. In fact, after the first strike, Ukraine faced [1] [2] thousands of missile strikes on its critical infrastructure and weakened its industrial potential, doubling electricity tariffs. What will happen after another explosion on the Crimean bridge is difficult to imagine."

The first strike on the Crimean bridge happened on October 8, 2022, while the Russians have launched attacks on the Ukrainian energy system since September 2022. In addition, the Crimean Bridge is a vital transport artery for the Russian army’s supply for the occupation in Ukraine, and its destruction will create significant problems for Russians. The Russians were forced to retreat from the right bank of the Kherson region precisely because of the destruction and damage of their supply routes by the Defense Forces of Ukraine. The Crimean Bridge is a legitimate military target, as it was built on the illegally occupied Russian territory of Ukraine (Autonomous Republic Crimea) and Ukrainian territorial waters in the Kerch Strait. Therefore, all accusations of Russian propaganda regarding the inexpediency of strikes on the bridge are nothing apart from manipulations.

The tactic of "expanding the range of acceptable" is a propagandist method that relies on the gradual accustomization of Ukrainians to the fact that missile and drone strikes by the Russian army on the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine are an everyday phenomenon. Propagandists are trying to convince readers that shelling is standard practice, that it will happen, and Ukrainians need to get used to it: "At the same time, we cannot rule out new attacks by Russia on critical infrastructure facilities, which can make the already difficult situation many times worse," the propagandists write. "If the war turns into a protracted attrition format, the Russian army will continue to strike the energy and fuel infrastructure."

Agitprop compares the war in Ukraine with the confrontation between the Palestinian terrorist organization "Hamas" and Israel and tries to present Russia, a terrorist state, as "humane": "In light of these events, Russians can easily blow up the entire energy infrastructure in Ukraine, leaving Kyiv without electricity, and it will still be humane against the backdrop of Israel's actions."

Shelling and targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure are war crimes and gross violations of the Geneva Convention. It does not even consider the civilian population's victims, whom there were a lot. Ukrainians should be aware of this and not treat the shelling of civilian infrastructure as a normal phenomenon.

Russian agitprop uses another auxiliary tactic to expand the acceptable range. It is a multiple-repetition tactic. This topic’s propaganda is particularly prone to repetition, sometimes leading to identical posts, even without rephrasing the text, preserving the essence (rewriting).

The tactic of "ignoring the topic" is also used by Russian propagandists. After a not beneficial agitprop event, the propagandists silence or selectively highlight certain aspects. These tactics are used to downplay or minimize the negative aspects of a situation, divert attention from important issues, and create a false narrative. Propagandists hide information by only sharing news that supports their thesis while ignoring or blocking content that undermines them. It contributes to the emergence of the "echo effect". Accordingly, in part of these posts, Russian propagandists deliberately kept silent about the fact that the problems in Ukraine’s fuel and energy complex starred due to the terrorist attacks by the Russian army on the civil infrastructure.

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.

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