In recent days, images began circulating in pro-Russian media of a burnt-out car on the side of the road along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
A social media channel for the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian-backed region of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, accused Ukrainian “saboteurs” of killing three civilians in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack early Tuesday morning outside Donetsk. Several videographers were then allowed on the scene. One captured high-resolution images of what appeared to be burned human remains inside the vehicle and posted them online.
A Grid analysis of the images calls into question the veracity of the separatists’ accusation. Grid showed the images to Victor Weedn, a renowned career forensic pathologist with experience examining victims of IED blasts and former chief of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. A close-up of one image, captured by Patrick Lancaster, shows a distinct cut, as if made by a bone saw.
“It’s a typical cut made to remove the skullcap as performed during an autopsy,” Weedn said after examining the images. He also noted that a small hole in the skull suggested a bullet’s exit wound, rather than a typical wound from IED shrapnel.
The evidence, he said, suggested a very different sequence of events: The person in the image had died sometime before, an autopsy had been performed on the body, the body was subsequently placed in the car, and the car was then torched. The other remains in the vehicle were too badly burned for conclusions to be drawn. In short, an elaborately staged event.
Grid reached out to the Donetsk People’s Republic for comment but did not receive a response.
“We’ve generally found allegations by separatists’ authorities about Ukrainian government attacks fall into two categories, unverifiable through a lack of evidence or verifiable fakes. This includes using already-autopsied corpses as props in false flag IED attacks, editing videos to alleged saboteur attacks and playacting incursions by Ukrainian forces into Russian territory,” said Eliot Higgins of the Netherlands-based online investigation outlet Bellingcat, which has been debunking pro-Russian propaganda efforts online.
This is one of many such alleged false flag operations circulating in pro-Russian media in recent weeks. Reporters have also discovered falsified accounts posting divisive content about Western countries and Ukrainian leadership.
All of this is only the latest chapter in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s elaborate campaign of disinformation — a mix of staged events, lies spread on social media and revisions of history spread by Putin himself. These culminated in a dramatic speech on Monday, in which he declared the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to be independent and ordered Russian forces to both areas. His speech used familiar propaganda tactics to promote a pro-Russian view of history and falsely accuse Ukraine of waging genocide against ethnic Russians inside its borders.
Experts told Grid that this was all many years in the making and Putin has been using a playbook that hearkens back to Soviet times.
“Russia, under Putin, has taken a line — which is familiar from the Soviet times — of Russia always being encircled, Russia always being threatened,” said Thomas Kent, a Russian media specialist, former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and author of “Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation.” “Russia always being the agent of peace, with Western countries and their military industrial complexes all targeting them. So, this is consistent with the Soviet period.”
How Russia is disseminating misinformation online
In the run-up to Putin’s declaration, Russian-backed separatists have been caught staging false flag attack videos that are then distributed in Russian-state news sources to justify a possible Russian invasion. Telegram, an app founded by two Russians now based in the United Arab Emirates, is a popular platform for news and information in Russia, and is where much of this information is disseminated.
Reporters have been debunking videos almost as quickly as they are posted online. One such example is a Russian state news agency TASS report published Monday about five “saboteurs” who were killed as they attempted to cross from Ukraine into Russia. The accompanying video was quickly debunked by Bellingcat’s Higgins and other online investigators who pointed out it was filmed within separatist territory near the border with Russia, not miles inside Russian territory.
“These are genuinely some of the most idiotic efforts at disinformation I’ve seen. I expected to be lied to, but I didn’t expect all those lies to be so blatantly dumb. I’m actually offended at the poor quality of this propaganda and feel bad for Russia for having produced it,” Higgins tweeted.
Investigators were able to debunk another Telegram video released days earlier by Russian-backed separatists, which showed an alleged sabotage operation targeting chlorine tanks near the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlovka. Online investigators pointed out that metadata embedded in the video showed it was originally created on Feb. 8, 10 days before it was released, and found the source of sounds added to it from another video.
“They have been sophisticated in crafting narratives, but once you get into the metadata of images or video, they fall apart. For once, they don’t seem to have kept up with the technology,” said Tom Southern, director of special projects at the Centre for Information Resilience, a London-based nonprofit which monitors social media for influence campaigns. “If I were Putin, I’d be furious about it.”
The disinformation takes place on both state-run media and online. Researchers from Stanford University’s Internet Observatory outlined themes and memes spread both on Russian state TV and on Telegram by unknown actors. Researchers also found evidence of inauthentic activity on social media. They detailed instances where forum accounts using inauthentic information and profile photos pretended to be Ukrainian while saying inflammatory things about other European countries. The researchers say that this is a tactic to sow division.
The disinformation is coming from the top
In his speech Monday, Putin attempted to cast the United States and Ukraine as military aggressors and accused Ukrainians of committing “genocide” against ethnic Russians inside its borders.
He alleged that the United States plans to put nuclear weapons in Ukraine and called on the Ukrainian government to “cease military action” against Russians in the territories. By all accounts except Moscow’s, military action along the border has been precipitated by Russia.
He also gave an account of history that glorified a unified Russia that includes Ukraine, questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine as a country, and argued that Ukrainians want to return to the Russian Federation. Independent polling has shown a consistent rise in anti-Russian sentiment within Ukraine.
President Joe Biden called the speech a “twisted rewrite of history” in his own speech on Tuesday and decried a “dramatically staged, conveniently on-camera meeting of Putin’s security council to grandstand for the Russian public.”
Putin is deploying a playbook similar to the one used in the buildup to the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. In both cases, the Kremlin claimed to be coming to aid beleaguered Russian residents.
For more than a year, a significant amount of disinformation has been aimed at Ukraine. According to Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Union, which operates EUvsDisinfo, a project aimed at debunking pro-Kremlin and anti-EU disinformation, more than a third of collected pro-Kremlin disinformation since 2015 has targeted Ukraine.
In recent days, Stano said, the website’s monitors have registered a significant uptick, on both state and social media, in coordinated messaging about a purported genocide against ethnic Russians inside Ukraine.
“It was so obvious that … the messaging is coordinated, reinforced also by the rhetoric from official sources,” like government leaders and spokespeople, he said.
“So it was clearly visible that they are preparing ground to create the sense of humanitarian disaster and attack aggression by the Ukrainians, and then, ‘We have to do something to protect them,’” he added.
In turn, Moscow blames NATO for instability in the region. Putin has said that the alliance’s eastward expansion is provocative and in violation of verbal agreements made at the end of the Cold War.
There’s a long history of Russia using such tactics
Russian disinformation tactics, dating back to Soviet times and KGB strategies, typically involve several themes. The throughline goes back to the Soviet era.
“It seemed that there was a lot of continuity in the types of strategies, that you can really classify pro-Kremlin disinformation in ways that were very similar to ways that analysts 30 years ago, 40 years ago, had classified that disinformation,” said Aaron Erlich, a political scientist at McGill University who has researched disinformation in Ukraine.
One is to undermine the country being targeted. In this case, Kremlin propaganda has suggested that Ukraine is uniquely corrupt, stockpiling weapons and committing ethnic cleansing.
Another is to disparage the West more broadly: in this case, NATO and other Western nations. Economic disinformation has historically been successful in this part of the former Soviet bloc, Erlich said, because of the region’s financial challenges.
That historical disinformation has been particularly prevalent in this conflict, Erlich said, which is largely geared to a Russian-speaking audience, many of whom would have grown up in the Soviet Union.
“Pro-Kremlin disinformation loves to disparage Ukrainians as Nazis or Nazi collaborators, and accuse people of being basically right-wing stools in various ways,” he said. More broadly, this category involves a reimagining of history from a pro-Russian perspective, he added.
According to experts at the Brookings Institution, the Kremlin has been operating a “divide and discredit” strategy. Most recently, this has included highlighting differences in how the EU and U.S. approach the crisis on the Ukrainian border and accusing NATO of building up its own military might at the border.
“This is part of a long-running strategy to weaken the trans-Atlantic partnership, undermine European cohesion, and disparage liberal institutions, including NATO,” the Brookings experts wrote.
Another long-standing Kremlin disinformation tactic is just distractions, Erlich said: “You distort and distract and give so many different versions and possibilities of things that it could have been, that … people just give up trying to figure out anything that’s true or false.”