Propaganda’s scalpel: How Russian lies fracture Ukraine

Throughout Ukraine’s independence, Russian influence has been amplified by Russian media, pro-Russian politicians, and linked Ukrainian media outlets. Manipulative information targeting Ukraine has become more systemic, aggressive, and targeted over the years.

The 2022 full-scale invasion escalated Russian disinformation further. While the war reduced openly pro-Russian actors in government-controlled territories of Ukraine, Russian disinformation became full-blown propaganda in occupied territories.

Russia aims to deepen the divide between Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territories and those in free Ukraine. This strategy seeks to undermine trust in Ukraine among residents in occupied areas and weaken resistance to the occupation. It also aims to pressure the Ukrainian leadership, amidst societal strain, to abandon efforts to liberate the occupied territories.

The new report Revealing Russian Influence in Europe by the Institute of Innovative Governance identified 105 active pro-Kremlin voices in Ukraine, mapping Russia’s network of influencers in media and digital platforms.

The report empowers Euromaidan Press to call out Russian influencers, increasing awareness and resilience. A case from free Ukraine demonstrates effective strategies against Russian propaganda. Meanwhile, Russia’s colonial policy in occupied territories sheds light on its imperial playbook.

In total, the report has identified 360 pro-Russian lobbyists active in Germany, France, Italy, and Ukraine. Their common goals are undermining sanctions on Russia and weakening support for Kyiv. For specifics on the web of Russian influence uncovered in Germany, France, and Italy, see Euromaidan Press’ past coverage herehere, and here.

5 Russian lies targeting Ukraine

Russia intensified its disinformation campaign against Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Crimea annexation, promoting anti-Western narratives and historical manipulations through key pro-Russian media actors. These included TV channels linked to pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, online outlets like Strana.ua, and social media accounts spreading five core false narratives about Ukraine:

  1. Ukraine is a fascist/Nazi state;
  2. Ukraine is Russophobic;
  3. Ukraine is a failed state;
  4. Ukraine is a Western puppet;
  5. Ukraine is historically Russian land.

The 2022 invasion escalated Russian disinformation with increased dehumanization, hate speech and genocidal rhetoric directly linked to violence. The war reduced overt pro-Russian actors in government-controlled Ukraine, but Russian state propaganda remains systematic in occupied territories through official channels, creating a divergent information landscape requiring further study, says co-author of the Revealing Russian Influence in Europe report Oleksandra Tsekhanovska. 

“In occupied territories, both long-standing and recent, Russian propaganda, not just disinformation, is systematically orchestrated through government and non-government channels, creating a drastically different information landscape compared to free Ukrainian territories,” Tsekhanovska told Euromaidan Press.

The researcher emphasizes that Western analysts often underestimate the depth and scope of Russian influence in Ukraine, lacking the full context to comprehend the situation.

“A person analyzing Russian disinformation, for example, in Paris, Berlin, or Rome, cannot comprehend the full context, depth, and scope of Russian influence in Ukraine,” explained Tsekhanovska.

The report aims to identify propagandists not yet targeted by Western sanctions, underscoring the importance of understanding the comprehensive nature of Russian disinformation in Ukraine.

Russian influence in the government-controlled territories of Ukraine 

Before the full-scale invasion, over half of Ukraine’s pro-Russian content came from TV channels ZIK, 112, and NewsOne, formally owned by Taras Kozak, an MP from the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life party and an ally of Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s closest associate in Ukraine. Medvedchuk, whose daughter has Putin as a godfather, was widely believed to be the true owner of these channels.

A pre-invasion monitoring report revealed 12 narratives promoted by these TV channels, aligning with key messages of Russian propaganda in Ukraine:

  1. Ukraine is a failed state;
  2. Ukraine is a fascist/Nazi state;
  3. Ukraine is a Western puppet;
  4. Medvedchuk is Ukraine’s only hope;
  5. Only friendship with Russia can “save” Ukraine;
  6. Russia is not a part of the occupation/war in Ukraine, there is a civil war;
  7. Ukraine is to blame for Russia’s annexation of Crimea;
  8. Zelenskyy betrayed his voters;
  9. Zelenskyy is a continuation of Poroshenko’s policies;
  10. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine consists of Orthodox splitters;
  11. The Euromaidan protests were a mistake;
  12. There is a threat of a coup in Ukraine.

The invasion dramatically shifted Ukrainian public sentiment, with pro-Russian positions becoming untenable.

Medvedchuk-related TV channels closed, but some linked political analysts maintained their stance. They became commentators for Russian propaganda on personal Telegram and YouTube channels led by former colleagues like Oleksandr Shelest and Max Nazarov.

These analysts include Denys Zharkikh, Kyrylo Molchanov, Olena Bronytska, Pavlo Karnazytsky, Glib Prostakov, Vasyl Stoyakin, Oleksandr Skubchenko, Vasyl Vakarov, Dmytro Perlin, Olena Markosyan, Andrii Mishyn, Dmytro Korniichuk, Dmytro Spivak, Kost Bonadrenko and others.

Pro-Russian media actors Anatolii ShariySvitlana KriukovaIhor Guzhva (owner of banned outlet Strana.ua), and Olesya Medvedeva (host of Strana.ua’s “Yasno.Ponyatno” YouTube program) have adopted an ambiguous post-invasion approach, criticizing the war while pushing milder pro-Russian messages on “Russophobia.”

Notorious pro-Russian blogger Anatolii Shariy, under Ukrainian sanctions and suspected of treason, has lived in the EU for over a decade. In 2012, Lithuania granted Shariy refugee status but later revoked it. In 2019, he created a political party that gained seats in several city councils.

Shariy’s audience has grown since the invasion, attracting those with mildly pro-Russian views who are skeptical of the Ukrainian government. His content now focuses on corruption allegations and discrediting the Ukrainian armed forces. In particular, he spreads fake news claiming that Ukrainian soldiers are selling Western weapons to the Russians.

Having been absent from Ukraine for over a decade, Shariy openly despises the country, portraying it as a failed state undeserving of statehood due to its leadership by a “semblance of a president.”

In contrast, individuals associated with Viktor Medvedchuk’s larger pro-Russian project have vanished from the public eye following his arrest and exchange to Russia in 2022. Medvedchuk’s NGO, Ukrainskii Vybir (Ukrainian Choice), had been a major vessel for Russian interests in Ukraine since 2012, advocating for Kyiv to abandon EU integration and join the Russian-led Customs Union.

Some individuals within this network were cooperating with Russia on the ground, with a Ukrainskii Vybir leader arrested in May 2022 for allegedly preparing to overthrow the constitutional order. Despite reduced visibility, this network remains a potential threat to Ukrainian statehood.

“Despite Russia’s narrowing scope in Ukraine after 2014, Russian disinformation adapted by finding new channels to spread key narratives, fake news, and manipulations. Adaptability and a systematic approach define Russian disinformation,” Tsekhanoska said.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) until 2022, has long been a channel for Moscow to exert destabilizing influence in Ukraine.