Russian narratives observed in the period 15-17 February that followed after Russia’s plan for a full scale invasion of Ukraine on 16 February was exposed in public.
Russia has intensified its use of disinformation and other forms of hostile information operations to support a pretext for further military invasion of Ukraine. FN monitoring has shown that the Kremlin, Russian hybrid forces in Ukraine, and Russian state-controlled media more than doubled their output on invasion pretexts over the past week. In order to provide a better overview, this analysis will present some of the key events around which the disinformation and hostile information operations directed against Ukraine and the West were recorded.
On 14 February Ukrainian President Zelenskyy posted a video message on his FB profile, while on 15 February President Biden briefed the American public on the latest developments in Ukraine. The spokeswoman of the Russian MFA Maria Zakharova gave a series of statements in the period 11–17 February 2022, related to the further Russian invasion of Ukraine. The reactions came as a result of President Biden’s statement on likeliness of Russian invasion of Ukraine and President Zelenskyy’s statement that there are credible indices for Russian invasion on 16 February. This was also commented by the Kremlin spokesperson Peskov on 15 February, in a form of an anecdote following a conversation with President Putin.
Based on the statement of President Biden that the invasion is very likely to happen soon, and of President Zelenskyy, that Russian further invasion on 16 February is to be expected, the Russian officials, in particular the spokespersons of the Russian MFA – Maria Zakharova, and Kremlin – Dimitry Peskov, had a series of statements that had a common denominator – sarcasm. The statements of MFA spokeswoman Zakharova can be systematized under several messages that aim to discredit the West through a plethora of headlines with key words such as: “immoral people”, “hysteria in the White House”, “the West needs a war”, “they lied, they are lying and will continue to lie”, “Zakharova slams the Americans” etc. The statement of Kremlin’s spokesperson Peskov who shared a conversation with President Putin, carried the message “did we announce the time of the attack?” that was initiated by the headline deriving from Zakharova’s statements, i.e. “please give us the schedule of our attacks so we can plan the vacation”.
Sarcasm as a form of communication is not uncommon in international politics. The statements of both Zakharova and Peskov indicate derision toward the Western allies. One of the features of sarcasm is that “[it] relies upon the shared meanings indicative of affiliation to embrace group members while commenting on unacceptable circumstances in anticipation of a realignment of behavior” (Ducharme, 1994). When analyzing these statements, two main intentions may be identified: (1) to maintain the social control over the narrative [primarily in Russia, but also on a global level] and (2) to buy time for realignment of the behavior [produce new narratives and false flag operations] to “soften the blow”.
To that end, Russia produced a new disinformation narrative – “pulling out of the frontline”. Namely, on 15 February it announced a withdrawal of some forces from its border with Ukraine, releasing video that purportedly shows military equipment being transported away from the border. Russia sought to present this as evidence that its massed forces are conducting regular drills, with those having completed their exercises returning to bases.
This was intercepted by OSINT researchers showing that it is not true that Russia is decreasing the number of troops and has a genuine intention to de-escalate the situation. The monitoring from OSINT analysts at DFRLab showed that the concentration of Russian forces and equipment on Ukraine’s border has in fact continued to grow. In addition, the DFRLab analyses show that the Russian camps are closing on to the Ukraine border, which is quite the opposite from what Kremlin tried to present. On 17 February the U.K. Ministry of Defense also confirmed that UK intelligence shows no evidence that Russian forces are withdrawing from Ukrainian border regions. On another note, on 20 February, the U.S. officials claimed that the estimation of the total number of Russian troops combined with Russian hybrid forces deployed around Ukraine could be as high as 190,000, which means that the whole contingent amassed at the Ukraine border represents roughly 75% of the principal combat units of the Russian Army.
A satellite image shows an overview of helicopter deployments at Valuyki, Russia on February 20. (Maxar Technologies)
Another attempt of realignment of the behavior [producing a new narrative] was captured on 17 February, whereas an information was circulated in international media and social media platforms that a kindergarten was shelled in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine. The Russian state-backed media promptly reported that the Russian hybrid forces in Luhansk [LNR] have proof that “the shelling came from the side of the Ukrainian forces”. The OSINT researchers, as well as the FN analysis showed that the nursery is located in the unoccupied Ukrainian government–held territory, thus the attack came from the direction of the Russian hybrid forces. Shortly after, Russian state media, including RT, claimed that the Ukrainian army had conducted the attack on its own territory as a false flag operation. This represents an attempt by Russia to imply that the false flag operation was actually performed by Ukraine, which is another feature of the Kremlin playbook. Speaking of Russian false flag operations the recent FN analysis published on this topic provide an overview of utilization of such operations in the past by Russia, in Georgia and Crimea.
This is well known tactics of the Kremlin playbook for hybrid war, influence operations and disinformation in which multiple and often contradictory explanations are being employed to flood the information space and confuse the audiences.
These two elaborated cases [with few others] are portraying the tools and mechanisms used by the Russian propaganda, which are used with a purpose to enable the Kremlin enough time to “realign the behavior” [produce new narratives and plan operations] in order to “soften the blow”. These Russian narratives observed in the critical period 15-17 February followed after their plan for a full scale invasion of Ukraine on 16 February was exposed in public.
Authors: Rosana Aleksoska and Darko Aleksov