Disinformation About Russia's invasion of Ukraine - Debunking Seven Myths spread by Russia
The following article presents a selection of the myths and disinformation pushed by pro-Kremlin channels since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. From its illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its ongoing military aggression against Ukraine, Russia has waged a sustained and coordinated state-controlled disinformation campaign targeting the Russian population, Russia’s neighbour countries, and the rest of the world, particularly aiming at influencing public opinion.
These most prevalent and dangerous myths — some of them outright lies — illustrate the Kremlin’s attempt to spread disinformation and manipulate information in order to justify its military aggression against Ukraine.
The article is an update and synthesis of previous work by EUvsDisinfo on the topic: “Disinformation About the Current Russia-Ukraine Conflict – Seven Myths Debunked” and “The Kremlin’s Playbook: Fabricating Pretext to Invade Ukraine - More Myths”
Myth 1: “The situation in Ukraine triggered this conflict. There is proof that Ukraine is committing atrocities against its Russian-speaking population in the country’s east. Russia has to intervene, not least because Ukraine and Russia are ‘one nation.’ Ukraine simply belongs to Russia’s “privileged sphere of influence”.
To galvanize domestic support for Russia’s military aggression, Russian state-controlled media have tirelessly sought to vilify Ukraine, falsely accusing it of genocide in eastern Ukraine, drawing groundless parallels with Nazism and World War Two, and fabricating stories aimed at striking a negative emotional chord with audiences.
There are many instances of such fabricated stories, best illustrated by the famous example of a Russian television report accusing Ukrainian forces of crucifying a young boy in eastern Ukraine in the beginning of the conflict. Fact-checkers were quick to prove that the story was entirely made up. Similar stories continue to be produced.
In reality, there is no evidence that Russian-speaking or ethnic Russian residents in eastern Ukraine face persecution – let alone genocide — at the hands of Ukrainian authorities. This has been confirmed in reports published by the Council of Europe, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the OSCE.
The often-used claim that Ukraine and Russia are “one nation” is one of the oldest and most deeply ingrained myths used against Ukraine. Even from a long-term historic perspective, this argument does not hold. While they have common roots dating back to Kievan Rus, which existed from the ninth century to the mid-13th century, it is just not true to argue that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation 800 years later. Despite long periods of foreign rule, Ukraine has a strong national culture and identity, and is a sovereign country.
The notion of an “all-Russian nation” with no political borders is an ideological construct dating back to imperial times and has been used as an instrument to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and national identity. Since 2014, the Russian government has cultivated this myth with renewed vigour in an attempt to rationalise and justify its military aggression against Ukraine.
Notions of “spheres of influence” have no place in the 21st century. Like all sovereign states, Ukraine is free to determine its own path, its foreign and security policies and alliances, and its participation in international organisations and military alliances.
To advance the idea that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s “sphere of influence,” Russian authorities and state-controlled media frequently claim that Ukraine is not a “real” state. State-sponsored Russian propaganda tries to misrepresent history in order to legitimize the idea that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s natural sphere of interests.
Myth 2: “Ukraine is conducting genocide against the Russian-speaking population in the East.”
By accusing the Ukrainian government of the deadliest of crimes against humanity, the Kremlin not only tries to portray Kyiv as the worst of villains, but also abuses the term that is clearly defined in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted in 1948.
Such claims have been unequivocally debunked by independent Russian media, among others. None of the multiple reports on the human rights situation in Ukraine, which are regularly published by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, or the reports on the human rights situation in Ukraine come even close to referencing genocide in Ukraine. Ukraine has sought an emergency order from the International Court of Justice to halt hostilities on its territory based on Kremlin’s ill-intentioned accusation of genocide.
Throughout the years, the pro-Kremlin media have used the word “genocide” liberally, to describe things that have nothing to do with large-scale human rights violations, thus undermining this term of international law itself. Examples include alleged water and visa “genocide” in Crimea and “genocide” of Ukrainians refusing to buy Sputnik V vaccine.
Myth 3: “Ukraine will use chemical, nuclear and other prohibited weapons against civilians in Donbas.
Ukraine has never produced, stockpiled or used chemical weapons. The US is also a signatory of the Chemical Weapons convention, and does not use chemical weapons.
The pro-Kremlin media have also accused the Ukrainian military of using white phosphorus ammunitions, banned under the Geneva Convention, while Telegram channels, affiliated with the Russian secret services, have spread rumours about homemade radioactive bombs. Pro-Kremlin media have recently claimed that Ukraine was developing nuclear weapons (a plutonium-based “dirty bomb”) in Chernobyl, but no source or evidence was provided. Such false narratives are promoted to evoke fear and act as emotion-triggers, denigrating the Ukrainian armed forces while justifying Russia’s attack on the Chernobyl nuclear plant and Ukraine in general.
The pro-Kremlin media has a long history of distortion of facts about chemical weapons, including denial of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime. The pro-Kremlin media has also been instrumental in obfuscating the facts about Russia actually using chemical weapons in the assassination attempt of Alexei Navalny and in the Salisbury poisoning.
Myth 4: “Ukrainians have been committing atrocities in Donbas.”
This has been one of the most prominent disinformation narratives used by the Kremlin to justify military invasion of Ukraine. For years, the pro-Kremlin media have used highly emotional and fabricated messages to incite hatred and fear of Ukrainians, in particular among the domestic Russian audiences. Following the infamous fabrication about a “crucified boy”, circulated by the pro-Kremlin media back in 2014, there have been wild allegations of Ukrainian armed forces organizing “human safaris” where rich Westerners could allegedly buy the right to kill civilians in Donbas (2018). Similar claims about alleged “sniper safari” were made as recently as February 2022. In the spring of 2021, Russian state media heavily promoted the story of a 4-year boy in Donbas allegedly killed by a Ukrainian drone. By all accounts, the reason of his death was a forgery.
Such disinformation messages are closely linked to a prominent disinformation narrative of “Nazi” Ukraine, cultivated by the Kremlin for years. Now, Russia has used “denazification” as a pretext to invade Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine is governed by a democratically elected government. Over 8 million Ukrainians died fighting Nazism in the World War II.
Myth 5: “The current tensions are the result of persistent aggressive behaviour of Ukraine and its allies in the West. Russia is defending its legitimate interests and is not responsible for this conflict”.
The fact is that Russia continues to violate international law as well as other agreements to which it committed. By illegally annexing the Crimean peninsula and committing acts of armed aggression against Ukraine, Russia, one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, has violated at least 12 international and bilateral treaties. These include the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the Charter of Paris, which guarantee sovereign equality and territorial integrity of States, the inviolability of frontiers, refraining from the threat or use of force, and the freedom of States to choose or change their own security arrangements.
In other words, Russia’s actions undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, are illegal. They continue to threaten the European security order at its core and put the international rules-based order at risk.
Myth 6: “The current crisis is the fault of NATO and the West. If they had honoured their promise not to enlarge the alliance, Russia would not feel threatened.”
Such a promise was never made, nor was it ever asked from NATO. Russian state-controlled media have often claimed that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was promised “verbally” that NATO would not expand beyond the reunified Germany. In fact, Gorbachev himself denied this claim in a 2014 interview, saying that, “the topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991.”
NATO members never made any political or legally binding commitments not to extend the alliance beyond the borders of reunified Germany.
The claim alleging that NATO promised not to enlarge fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the alliance. NATO, as a defensive alliance, is not “expanding” in the imperialistic sense. Decisions regarding NATO membership are up to each individual applicant and the current 30 NATO allies. Every sovereign state can choose its path and bordering states – in this case Russia – have no right to intervene.
Myth 7: “Because of NATO’s aggressive expansion, Russia is now ‘encircled by enemies’ and needs to defend itself.”
No country or alliance is plotting to invade Russia. No one is threatening Russia. In fact, the EU and Ukraine are staunch supporters of the established European security order. Remember that Russia is the world’s largest country by geography with a population of more than 140 million and has one of the largest armed forces in the world with the highest number of nuclear weapons. It is absurd to portray Russia as a country under acute threat. In terms of geography, less than one sixteenth of Russia’s land border is with NATO members. Of the 14 countries Russia borders, only five are NATO members.
There is also no argument that would suggest that military force is the only solution. There are several international organisations, bilateral agreements, and formats where Russia can engage in a collaborative and peaceful dialogue – for instance in the OSCE framework and arms control regimes. The EU keeps channels of communication with Russia open as an integrated part of the EU’s Russia policy of five guiding principles. There is no shortage of established formats for communication. However, as a sovereign country, Ukraine has every right to choose its policies and alliances. The notion that Russia should have a veto power over Ukraine’s sovereign decisions is baseless. In this regard, neither the EU nor NATO claim to have a veto on which states may be a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), because the EU and NATO are not party to that treaty.