This bulletin is also available in Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Ukrainian
It is obvious that any missiles and artillery of Russia will not succeed in breaking our unity and knocking us off our path. And it should be equally obvious that Ukrainian unity cannot be broken by lies or intimidation, fake information or conspiracy theories.
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY
JULY 16, 2022
On February 24, 2022, millions in Ukraine awoke to a chorus of air raid sirens that had not been heard for 80 years . Russia had launched a full-scale invasion. Leading up to that fateful morning, and in the year since, Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem deployed an array of false narratives to deceive the world about the Kremlin’s neo-imperial intentions, portray its war of choice against Ukraine to the people of Russia as a necessary response to purported threats from the United States and NATO, and attempt to justify an unjustifiable war. The Kremlin routinely changed its false claims to distract from its battlefield failures and political isolation. This report will highlight five of the most salient false narratives deployed by Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem: 1) Russia was encircled by NATO before the February 2022 invasion; 2) Ukraine is committing genocide in the Donbas; 3) the Ukrainian government needs “denazification and demilitarization ;” 4) restoration of traditional values requires “desatanization” of Ukraine; and 5) Russia must fight in Ukraine to defend its sovereignty against the West.
False Narrative 1: NATO “encirclement” and Russia “is not the aggressor”
One of the earliest Kremlin-fabricated justifications for war is the false claim that NATO and “the West” are aggressors threatening Russia’s security. For months leading up to February 24, 2022, Russia demanded security guarantees including restrictions on countries’ joining NATO, a position which rejected Ukraine’s and other countries’ sovereign right to choose their own foreign policy. As Moscow amassed up to 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spread disinformation to cloud the Kremlin’s intentions, claiming Russia’s troops were not on the border with Ukraine while accusing the United States and allies of whipping up hysteria . President Putin falsely blamed NATO for the escalating tensions, claimed he was not planning an invasion , and accused the United States of using Ukraine as a “tool to contain Russia .” Aiming to deflect the blame, disinformation outlets linked to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) amplified the false claims, calling the warnings by the United States and NATO about the potential for a military offensive by Russia against Ukraine “western hysteria ” to “drag Ukraine into war .”
Over the year of war, the Kremlin shifted this disinformation narrative of Western efforts pushing for the war to one arguing that by helping Ukraine to defend itself, the United States and NATO are prolonging or escalating the war. Following a November 2022 NATO Ministerial Meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the “global majority” understands the threats posed by NATO, blaming the Alliance for allegedly pushing Ukraine to continue the war. Disinformation outlets, such as the FSB-tasked News Front and state-run Sputnik , both cited alleged “experts” who argued that by pledging further aid to Ukraine, NATO was “pouring oil on fire.” The SVR-directed Strategic Culture Foundation and Oriental Review warned that Ukraine will try to “drag NATO into a war within Ukraine’s borders” and claimed to have proved that NATO provoked the conflict in Ukraine.
The Kremlin resurrects this disinformation narrative whenever Ukraine’s partners announce more military assistance to Ukraine. The latest twist accuses NATO of Russophobia after the United States and Germany agreed to provide modern M1 Abrams and Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov parroted this narrative in January 2023 claiming, “NATO with maniacal persistence … consistently crawled up to the Russian borders, at the same time zombifying our neighboring countries with Russophobic horror stories.”
Russia spreads disinformation portraying NATO as the aggressor to obfuscate the facts. Russia alone started this war, not Ukraine. Russia is the aggressor, not NATO. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated to the United Nations Security Council on September 22, 2022, “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends .”
False Narrative 2: “Ukrainian provocations” and “genocide against Donbas”
While Russia promoted the myth of NATO aggression, it simultaneously attempted to falsely portray Ukraine as planning military action against ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. In January 2022, Russian Federation officials alleged Kyiv sent “half of its military personnel” to the Russian-occupied areas of Donbas and that Ukraine increased attacks on the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR). The Kremlin claimed Kyiv’s incursion into Russian-controlled Donbas was imminent, while Russia’s proxy authorities alleged Ukraine intended to use chemical weapons along the line of contact between Ukraine’s defending forces and the forces deployed in Ukraine by Russia and its proxies. The frequency of this false claim intensified following the U.S. revelation of the Kremlin’s plans to conduct a false flag operation in Russian-controlled Donbas to create a pretext for a further invasion. The United States pre-bunked this narrative on February 3 by exposing the Kremlin’s plot to use a video fabricated by Russian intelligence replete with staged graphic scenes of explosions, corpses, destroyed buildings and military equipment, and actors pretending to be mourners. Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem also falsely accused Ukraine of terrorism, alleging Ukraine was preparing a “chemical disaster ” and speculating Ukraine would conduct a “crushing strike ” on the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.
President Putin transformed this disinformation narrative into a pretext for war. In a February 15 statement , he falsely claimed “genocide is taking place in Donbas.” Following Putin’s statement, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case related to the allegations of “mass burials of civilians ” in Donbas. The Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda apparatus continued promoting false narratives accusing Ukraine of “genocide,” including through the “Tragedy of Donbas ” website, which according to the Washington Post , is run by Russia’s military intelligence service. Russian government-backed influence actors have leveraged a network of websites and blogs targeting Ukraine, NATO, the European Union, and the United States to amplify disinformation including efforts to spread this narrative .
Putin’s February 21, 2022 televised address cemented this unfounded narrative as a justification for war. Purporting to recognize the Russian-controlled so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent states, Russia ordered “peacekeeping” troops to deploy to Donbas. To demonize Ukraine in the eyes of the Russian public, Putin falsely accused Ukraine of committing “genocide” and discriminating against the Russian-speaking population in Donbas since 2014. He thus created a false pretext for the alleged necessity to “protect our own,” thinly masking his aggression as an operation to stop a non-existent “genocide.”
Independent media, counter-disinformation experts, and multilateral international human rights organizations have authoritatively debunked this narrative. The BBC’s fact-checking team pointed out “there is no evidence of genocide.” Polygraph.info discredited this claim by pointing out how Putin and other Russian Federation officials “had loosely used the term genocide” against Georgia during Russia’s 2008 invasion of the country. Polygraph.info further highlighted that “perhaps the closest incident [to genocide] was in 2014 by Russia’s forces in Slovyansk, where Ukraine’s forces who recaptured the city found a mass grave containing 20 bodies.” The Council of Europe , the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights , and the Expert Mission established under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism independently found there was no evidence that either ethnic Russians or Russian speakers are facing persecution at the hands of the Ukrainian authorities.
This narrative resurges whenever the Kremlin’s war of aggression runs into strategic setbacks. Narrative analysis of social media data on Telegram, conducted by the GEC, shows spikes in Russian-language conversation related to the “genocide in Donbas” around such setbacks. For example, the Kremlin dusted off this disinformation narrative in June 2022, a month marked by several strategic failures for Moscow. As the first High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) arrived in Ukraine and the EU granted Ukraine candidate status , the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced accountability efforts to “help identify, apprehend, and prosecute individuals involved in war crimes and atrocities” in Ukraine. The Russian Embassy in Washington fired back, repeating false Kremlin claims of Ukrainians allegedly carrying out a genocide against the Russian-speaking population.
The September start of Ukraine’s Kherson counter-offensive, the swift liberation of the Kharkiv region, and Russia’s subsequent mobilization announcements provided additional impetus for the Kremlin to resume this narrative. President Putin kicked off September with the disinformation-ridden remarks asserting that Russia was only trying to stop the “genocide ” allegedly perpetrated by Kyiv since 2014. In his September 30 speech announcing the purported annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions after the earlier sham referenda, Putin again falsely claimed “for eight long years, people in Donbas were subjected to genocide, shelling and blockades, subjected to a criminal policy to cultivate hatred for Russia and everything Russian” and accused Ukraine of “intending for Russian speakers within its borders the same fate as the ‘colonial’ West wants to inflict upon the entire world.”
The Kremlin purports to defend the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine against nonexistent “genocide.” Yet, for eight years Russia’s invading forces and its proxies have caused death and destruction in predominantly Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. Millions have fled Russia’s occupation of areas in Ukraine’s east and south. The destruction in Russian-speaking Mariupol is catastrophic. By March 2022, the U.S. government assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes by carrying out filtration operations and unlawfully deporting thousands of Ukraine’s civilians. By February 2023, leaning on the mounting evidence from Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine that have been liberated from Russia’s occupation, the U.S. government determined that members of Russia’s forces and Russian officials committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine, including torture of civilians in detention through beatings, electrocution, and mock executions; rape; and execution-style killings of Ukrainian men, women, and children.
Russia seeks to deny Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence and to suppress its history and culture. While Russia occupied Kherson, the city’s puppet authorities emptied libraries of Ukrainian literature and looted museums of cultural artifacts . Russia’s government has systematically and unlawfully deported at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to a network of facilities in Russia-occupied Crimea and across Russia, where they are “re-educated ” or put up for adoption across Russia. These children may never know they are from Ukraine . The Kremlin appears determined to deny Ukraine’s existence as a state, by attempting to erase its past — and its future .
False Narrative 3: “Denazification and Demilitarization”
President Putin invoked the Kremlin’s most persistent disinformation narrative in his pre-dawn February 24 speech launching the full-scale invasion . He said “the purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarize and ‘denazify’ Ukraine.” He leveled nonsensical accusations against the democratically elected government of Ukraine, calling them “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis who settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.”
Accusing Ukraine’s Jewish President Zelenskyy of neo-Nazism is absurd. But Russia’s claims are as calculated as they are twisted. For years, the Kremlin has methodically equated so-called “Russophobia” and neo-Nazism. The Russian government has repeatedly resorted to antisemitism to spread disinformation about Moscow’s war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has long been in the business of instrumentalizing the history of the Second World War to marshal nationalist sentiment at home while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. In January 2023, Foreign Minister Lavrov extended the “Support for Ukraine = Russophobia = neo-Nazism” formula by falsely equating the West’s helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia to Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Lavrov invoked Hitler’s genocide of the Jews to solve the so-called Jewish question, accusing the West of conspiring “to finally solve the Russian question .”
This narrative emerged prominently as Russia took heavy losses on the battlefield early in the war. Putin’s May 9 speech marking the Allied victory in World War II amplified this narrative, distorting history to justify his brutal war against Ukraine. Putin falsely claimed his war of choice was a “sacred” and “patriotic” act akin to the Soviet fight against Nazi Germany —referred to in Russia as The Great Patriotic War — or to any war in which Russia “defended itself.” Repeating his standard propaganda talking points, Putin accused the West of “canceling” traditional values, falsifying history, and promoting Russophobia. The Kremlin repeatedly manipulates and distorts history to exploit the people of Russia’s sense of pride for their sacrifices in the victory over Nazism. The Kremlin also consistently casts Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity as a “fascist coup .” These distortions of history serve a strategic purpose: to evoke patriotism and rally support within Russia for Putin’s war against Ukraine.
While the “denazification ” narrative was the justification of choice for Putin’s February 24, 2022 speech, apparently it did not resonate with audiences in Russia for long. GEC analysis of Russian-language online conversation shows an uptick in volume of online conversation involving this narrative in late February immediately following the speech. By March 2022, Russian officials gradually decreased the use of this version of the narrative. Throughout March, Russia’s and Ukraine’s delegations engaged in several rounds of negotiations to establish humanitarian corridors to help evacuate civilians and reach a cease-fire. The decrease in invocation of the “denazification” narrative possibly signifies that negotiating with Ukrainian officials while trying to “denazify” them was too much cognitive dissonance even for the Kremlin to sell.
Yet the reprieve from “denazification” was short-lived. The narrative surged to its highest point among Russian-language posts on Telegram in late March and early April. As evidence of war crimes and mass graves began to emerge in Bucha following the withdrawal of Russia’s troops, the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem responded to the global outcry to the grim revelations by first denying its forces’ involvement, then challenging the veracity of the reports and renewing the “denazification” narrative. Falsely accusing Ukraine of employing tactics that Russia itself uses, Russia’s Ministry of Defense falsely claimed that “the photos and video footage from Bucha are another hoax, a staged production and provocation by the Kyiv regime for the Western media.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry falsely alleged that there were “signs of video fakes and other forgeries.” Russia’s embassies and media outlets around the world amplified the easily debunked conspiracies, including false claims Ukraine used fake corpses which “reanimated” after the cameras stopped rolling. Despite ample evidence from the New York Times , Bellingcat , and the BBC disproving Russia’s claims and demonstrating its involvement, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine continued to try to hide the truth. Russia’s state media outlet RIA Novosti attempted to deflect attention by publishing an article that argued for the “denazification of the majority of Ukraine’s population, ” through “re-education, ideological repression… and strict censorship: not only in the political sphere, but necessarily also in the sphere of culture and education.” The article further advocated for the erasure of Ukraine as a state, including through “de-Ukrainization,” claiming “a denazified country cannot be sovereign.”
The farcical nature of this narrative does not limit its utility to Russia’s disinformation ecosystem. When compared with the Kremlin’s other four false narratives addressed in this report, “denazification” was most frequently used by daily volume of posts and continues to maintain the highest level of engagement as measured by reactions and shares. Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem returns to the “denazification” narrative to deflect responsibility whenever Moscow suffers strategic setbacks.President Putin shamelessly wielded this narrative again in his January 27, 2023 message on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He said “forgetting the lessons of history leads to the repetition of terrible tragedies. Evidence of this is the crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing, and punitive actions organized by neo-Nazis in Ukraine.” He followed the same storyline in his February 1 address marking the 80th anniversary of the battle for Stalingrad in World War II, when he accused the West of Nazism , saying “Now we are seeing that unfortunately, the ideology of Nazism — this time in its modern guise — is again creating direct threats to our national security, and we are, time and again, forced to resist the aggression of the collective West.” His rhetorical escalations followed an announcement a few days earlier that Germany and the United States will deliver Leopard and M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine to aid in its self-defense against Russia’s brutal onslaught.
Evidence of the Kremlin’s crimes against Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied areas is mounting as quickly as the Kremlin’s egregious lies. As of late January 2023, Ukraine is investigating nearly 67,000 suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity — such as summary executions, rape, torture, kidnappings and forced deportations, indiscriminate bombings as well as targeted attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Independent inquiries, media organizations , the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine , and Experts Missions under the Moscow Mechanism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all documented a pattern of members of Russia’s forces committing war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. These crimes against humanity did not occur in a vacuum. They are part of the Kremlin’s widespread and systematic attack against Ukraine’s civilian population. The Kremlin’s “denazification” disinformation narrative and methodical rhetorical dehumanization of the people of Ukraine have played a role in these unconscionable abuses. Survivors of Russia’s occupation of Bucha described Russia’s forces going door to door searching residential buildings as they “hunted for Nazis .” When Kherson city was liberated by Ukraine, witnesses recalled life under Russian occupation, “If the Russians hear you speak Ukrainian, they think you are a Nazi. They check social networks, tattoos, if you have Ukrainian symbols on your body, you are in trouble.”
False Narrative 4: Reframing the war from “denazification” to “desatanization.”
As the war reaches the one-year mark, the Kremlin’s attempts to justify its unjustifiable actions have extended to claims that it is fighting “Western Satanism.” Although Kremlin propagandists demonized Ukrainians as Satanists at least since April 2022, President Putin’s characterization of so-called Western values as “outright Satanism” in his September 30, 2022 speech propelled this accusation into an official narrative.
Putin’s Kremlin has appointed itself the guardian of “traditional values” against the depraved alien values it claims the West advances in Ukraine and supposedly tries to impose upon Russia. This narrative first emerged in April 2022, following the discovery of Russia’s atrocities in Bucha. As one of the most vocal proponents of the “Russkiy mir” (Russian world) concept, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill has preached that Russia is fighting in Ukraine for the “true independence” of the “Russian world” which he sees as the last bastion against the immoral, depraved West. This effort, he says, has “God’s truth ” on its side, and is holding back the “Antichrist ” against the “bogeyman” world power which opposes Russia. Kirill believes Ukraine belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church’s “canonical territory” despite the majority of Ukraine’s Orthodox believers reporting to belong to the independent autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine or being “simply Orthodox.” Kirill portrays the Kremlin’s actions as a “fratricidal” holy war that Russia must fight against those who want to turn Ukrainians from being “part of the holy united Rus” into a state “hostile to Russia.” The Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem has amplified Patriarch Kirill’s message through its many pillars. Public figures on state propaganda outlets began portraying Russia as “the embodiment of forces of good,” speaking of a “metaphysical clash between forces of good and evil” and a “holy war” that Russia must win. Kremlin proxy disinformation sites such as FSB-tasked News Front and the U.S.-designated Tsargrad , an asset in the malign influence network of the U.S.-indicted Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, went even further by describing Ukrainians as “Satanists.” Thus, the Kremlin added “holy crusade” to its list of false justifications for waging a brutal war and committing atrocities against the people of Ukraine.
The narrative resurfaced as Russia faced grinding setbacks on the battlefield through the summer and autumn. In July 2022, as the Russian government proposed expanding prohibitions on “propaganda” about “nontraditional sexual relations ” — a proposal Putin signed into law in December 2022 — prominent Kremlin figures portrayed Russia’s March 2022 exclusion from the Council of Europe as the failure of “efforts to impose foreign values and same-sex marriage” on Russia, even though the Council of Europe’s decision was based on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Military commanders from Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, run by U.S.-sanctioned strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, repeatedly proclaimed that Russia is fighting a holy war in Ukraine against the “army of the Antichrist” and “Satanic LGBT values.” In a September speech , President Putin attacked the West and its “dictatorship of Western elites” for “radical denial of moral norms, religion, and family,” labeling it “outright Satanism.” Putin implied Western countries conduct “monstrous experiments ” on children. Russia’s laws and the Kremlin’s rhetoric falsely associate LGBTQI+ persons with pedophilia.
Putin is not alone in his extreme remarks. Taking signals from the Kremlin, eccentric actor, former priest, and ardent Putin supporter, Ivan Okhlobystin screamed for “Holy War” during an October 1 rally at Red Square in support for Russia’s attempted annexation of four regions of Ukraine. Apparently stunning some in the audience, Okhlobystin shouted “Goyda!” (Гойда), an old Russian war cry purportedly used by Ivan the Terrible to call to his secret police . Okhlobystin continued his dramatic warning, “Fear, old world! Deprived of true beauty! True faith! True wisdom! Operated by madmen, perverts, Satanists! Be afraid, we are coming!” In late October, more Kremlin officials amplified statements calling for the “desatanization” of Ukraine, arguing the West was working through the promotion of Satanic cults to “reformat” Ukrainians’ minds against the traditional values embodied by Russia. Chechnya strongman Kadyrov urged Russia’s men to take up arms and wage “jihad ” against Ukrainian satanists, calling to “wipe cities off the face of the Earth ” in Ukraine. Credible reports indicate that Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters in Ukraine have committed atrocities .
As the momentum of Ukraine’s forces picked up with its Kharkiv and Kherson offensives, the “desatanization” narrative reemerged and intensified. As Russia continues to incur losses on the battlefield and in global public opinion, the Kremlin searches for a winning narrative, trying new ones, each one more absurd than the one before it. The Kremlin’s efforts to demonize Ukrainians as “Satanists” is simply a thinly veiled attempt to explain its losses to the people of Russia and justify more in advance. Seemingly irrelevant on the surface, the “desatanization” narrative dehumanizes the people of Ukraine and attempts to justify depravity and cruel atrocities against them.
False Narrative 5: “Defending Russia’s sovereignty” against the West
As Putin’s plans for sham referenda and a military mobilization collided with Ukraine’s counter-offensive in September 2022, the Kremlin rhetorically turned its war of choice into a war of necessity “to defend Russia’s sovereignty .” Only a year since the Kremlin presented its “security demands” to allegedly avoid conflict, it has come full circle, returning to the original disinformation narrative that the West is the real aggressor and wants to destroy Russia through a proxy war in Ukraine. Losing ground to Ukraine itself — a UN member state Putin dismissed as “not a real country” — is inconceivable.
As Ukraine’s forces liberated the Kharkiv region, the Kremlin’s central narrative became Russia fighting to defend its sovereignty against the West. On September 21, 2022 Putin falsely claimed the partial mobilization and the sham referenda were necessary to “protect the sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity of Russia.” Minister of Defense Shoigu and Chairman of Russia’s State Duma Volodin echoed the narrative that the mobilization was necessary because Russia is fighting Ukraine as well as NATO and the “collective West.” As Ukraine liberated the city of Kherson from Russia’s brutal occupation and as thousands of men fled Russia to avoid mobilization , Putin again blamed Ukraine and the West for the war. In his November 15 speech, Putin falsely insisted the war resulted from Western efforts to destabilize Ukraine, accusing the West of aiming to weaken Russia and painting the war as a defensive measure against sabotage.
In his 2022 New Year’s Eve address to the nation, President Putin painted Russia’s “special military operation” as an existential struggle to secure Russia’s “sovereignty” and “true independence.” Flanked by allegedly Russian Armed Forces personnel, some of whom may have been actors , in a departure from his traditional Kremlin backdrop, he recycled disinformation narratives about the hypocrisy of the West. Putin claimed “Western elites” pretended to help resolve “the conflict in Donbas” and “encouraged neo-Nazis” to continue “terrorist action against peaceful civilians.” He then accused the West of “lying about peace while preparing for aggression” and “cynically using Ukraine as a means to weaken and divide Russia.” He further alleged the West unleashed “a full-blown sanctions war,” but Russia prevailed. Finally, he claimed this “struggle” serves as an example for other countries in their “quest for a just multipolar world order.” Beyond the familiar motifs, Putin appealed to patriotism, stating that defending the Motherland is a “sacred duty” and that “moral and historical truth” is on Russia’s side.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reinforced this narrative on January 18, 2023 as he assessed the results of Russia’s diplomacy in 2022. He said, “like Napoleon, who mobilized nearly all of Europe against the Russian Empire, and Hitler, who occupied the majority of European countries and hurled them at the Soviet Union, the United States has created a coalition of nearly all European member states of NATO and the EU and is using Ukraine to wage a proxy war against Russia with the old aim of finally solving the ‘Russian question,’ like Hitler, who sought a final solution to the ‘Jewish question.’” In late January 2023, following up on media inquiries after the aforementioned press conference, Lavrov reiterated this narrative , saying “it has long been clear to us that the very existence of Russia as one of the basic, backbone elements in the vast Eurasian space is a problem for our opponents.”
In a particularly far-fetched version of this narrative, the Kremlin cast international partnership and cooperation on biological threat reduction in Ukraine as a threat to Russia’s sovereignty and Russians as an ethnicity. The Kremlin’s disinformation machine has mounted a full-scale assault on truth in multilateral organizations attempting to portray peaceful research in Ukraine as biological weapons experiments that train migratory birds and diseased bats to threaten Russia. In July 2022, Russia’s state media and proxy outlets took the “U.S.-run biolabs” disinformation to the realm of science fiction when they featured Russian officials claiming Ukraine’s soldiers were subjected to experiments that “neutralized the last traces of human consciousness and turned them into the cruelest and deadliest monsters” and “U.S.-controlled cruel machines.” These statements followed accusations in March 2022 by Russia’s Ministry of Defense that the United States was developing in Ukraine “ethnic bioweapons ” to target ethnic Slavs, such as Russians. These outlandish ongoing claims seek to stoke conspiracy theories and portray Russia’s war against Ukraine as an existential “fight for sovereignty” against the West, while distracting attention from the poor performance of Russia’s forces.
Another preposterous strand of this disinformation narrative claims Ukrainians are brainwashed by the West. In a January 30, 2023 interview , Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov accused NATO of deliberately “zombifying” Russia’s neighboring countries “with Russophobic horror stories” and mounting actions “aimed at destroying our historical and cultural code.” Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan amplified this narrative, saying that while it is hard for Russians to swallow fighting “brotherly” Ukrainians, “They [the West] took away the bitterness of fighting with Ukrainians or even for Ukrainians. It is now clear that perhaps it was inevitable that we are fighting with the West.”
In attempting to justify Russia’s 2022 invasion, the Kremlin falsely claimed the West refused to negotiate even as Moscow walked away from negotiations . Attempting to justify continuing the war, the Kremlin falsely claims the West seeks to dismember Russia and destroy Russian culture. To help the people of Russia accept the lie that Moscow rightfully attacked its neighbors, whom many Russians consider a “brotherly” people, the Kremlin says the West has zombified Ukrainians. In this distorted version of reality, Russia can argue it is not fighting “brotherly” Ukrainians, it is fighting “zombified,” “neo-Nazi,” “Satanist” Ukrainians. To make Russia’s losses palatable, the Kremlin pretends it is not at war with Ukraine but nobly fights in Ukraine to “defend its sovereignty” against the incursion of the West.
Conclusion: “Our Historic Lands”
The courage and resilience of the people of Ukraine, their absolute commitment to defending their country’s independence and democracy, the unity of effort among the United States and our allies and partners in supporting Ukraine’s self-defense, and the global condemnation of Russia’s aggression, have pushed the Kremlin to continuously dance from one disinformation narrative to another in an attempt to justify its war to the people of Russia and the international community.
Russia’s lies do not change the truth. The Kremlin chose to start this war, and the Kremlin can choose to end it.
Ukraine is an independent state and member of the United Nations. It has the sovereign right to defend its territory and choose its foreign policy. Russia’s war against Ukraine began in 2014 when Russia’s forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and led, funded, and trained proxies to instigate and sustain conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Democratic Ukraine is not overrun by Nazis or Satanists — the Kremlin created these myths to stoke fervor among its own population. Ukrainian citizens of all ethnicities democratically elected a Jewish President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the international community has recognized the legitimacy of his government. In the months before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the United States and others joined Ukraine in good faith diplomacy to explore ways to address Russia’s claimed security concerns without compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia chose war instead. Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, in blatant violation of UN Charter principles respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and refraining from the use of force. Russia brutally seized and occupied portions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson provinces, then held sham referenda and purported to annex them just as it claimed to have done Crimea in an attempt to realize the Kremlin’s predatory territorial ambitions.
All of Russia’s rhetorical contortions serve one goal — to mask Russia’s apparent effort to erase the sovereign, independent state of Ukraine from the map and subjugate its people . Buried in the lies are tell-tale signs pointing to the Kremlin’s true neo-imperial ambitions . Putin’s July 2021 missive declaring Russians and Ukrainians “one people ” and his February 2022 call-to-war speeches , filled with historical revisionism and disinformation denying Ukraine’s statehood and sovereign agency, gave the world a glimpse of his goals. The same lines are frequently repeated by the faces of Kremlin’s propaganda, such as Margarita Simonyan , who recently reiterated the fictitious claim that Ukraine was built by Russia and owes its might to Russia’s gifts . Putin’s vision to fulfill the imperial expansionist ambitions of Peter I and “return lost territories ,” and Kremlin officials’ unvarnished commentary reveal their actual intent. Kremlin officials indicated Moscow may also retaliate against so-called “Russophobia” and non-existent “genocide against Russians” in places other than Ukraine it considers its historic lands. Kremlin pundits have already speculated that Russia may need to “denazify” Kazakhstan , Moldova , and any other country allegedly harboring “Russophobia.” Leaving little doubt about his vision of the future, in a January 2023 speech Putin stated: “The goal, as I have said many times, is primarily to protect people and protect Russia itself from the threats that they are trying to create in our own historical lands adjacent to us. We cannot let this happen.”
No matter which narrative the Kremlin deploys at any given time in its losing game of disinformation roulette, Ukraine remains a sovereign, independent state recognized by the international community. Its brave people will remain steadfast in defense of their country and their democracy, and the United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.