The Panic Wizards. Here’s how a pro-Russian network organized the “coronavirus riot” in Novi Sanzhary, Ukraine

Women at the central bazaar in Novi Sanzhary do not want to deal with the press: “Your journalists have defamed us all! First they frightened us till we shat, now they wonder why we are outraged”. Seeing the press ID, the women shout and chase me away. Having skipped work, on February 20 they were at the epicenter of events, in the crowd surrounded by hundreds of National Guard soldiers and police.

This article was prepared by the joint efforts of Texty.org.ua and Liga.net.

Agents provocateurs in the crowd

Roman Savchenko, head of Public Order and Prevention at Poltava region police department, learned of people's intentions to close the roads at 10 PM, February 19: “We arrived at the place, we talked, we explained to people that this was not the final decision. We didn't know 100% whether they’ll come to us or not”

But the negotiations did not succeed, and at 7 AM on February 20 the road was blocked with agricultural machinery and cars.

“When I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, a man in green military uniform came up to me and said, 'So what? Let's fight and see who’s stronger?' He did not behave normally at all. Although he did not look drunk, — Roman Savchenko remembers. — Police officers got off the buses. And the citizens started moving towards the buses. Perhaps they feared they would be beaten. Although there were no cues, there were no handcuffs. The police were wearing body armor and helmets.”

Novi Sanzhary, February 20. National Guard soldiers did have arms

Novi Sanzhary, February 20. National Guard soldiers did have arms

The number of law enforcement officers in the streets of the village increased by the hour. The locals did not understand why such security measures were required: “What did armored vehicles come for? What, did we come with machine guns?”

People were outraged that law enforcement officers did not want to talk to them in a humane way, but used force instead, often unjustifiably. For example, when the bus with the coming people was stopped at a railroad crossing five kilometers from the village of Novi Sanzhary, the police broke the barrier in order to save thirty seconds.

“When the bus was approaching the crossing, a freight train was coming. According to safety rules, before lifting the barrier, you must wait until the train moves at least 500 meters away from the station. It takes less than a minute. But the police decided not to wait,” an employee of the station explains.

At this crossing, the bus was stoned. And the barrier was repaired in two hours

At this crossing, the bus was stoned. And the barrier was repaired in two hours

The activity of law enforcement officers further annoyed a group of people nearby. Angry women shouting began to throw stones at buses with Ukrainians and foreigners arriving from China. The result was a broken window and sensationalist headlines for the media around the world.

“If, for the protection of the rights and freedoms of Ukrainians, it is necessary to remove artificially created obstacles, the Ukrainian law enforcement system will remove these artificially created obstacles,” Ivan Varchenko, advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs, justified the officers’ behavior.

Law enforcement officers were not even stopped by the right of citizens to the inviolability of their private property. National Guard soldiers hacked a fence of a private house in order to take arrivees from China to the medical center.

Taxi driver Mykhailo tells how he was detained twice by the police: “Before the bus arrived in Novi Sanzhary, we stood peacefully by the bridge for two and a half hours. And when everyone learned that the bus was about to arrive, law enforcement officers stormed people. The police had tear gas, canes and firearms. And all we had were Ukrainian flags. The police took everything away. We then collected the symbols on the roadside. What a disrespect for the flag!”

Videos show law enforcement officers beating a journalist with a camcorder, beating activists, and pulling individuals out of the crowd.

“They wanted to take my phone, but I didn't give it away,” says Andriy, a participant to the event.

This meeting was not peaceful, as numerous videos testify. There were agents provocateurs in the crowd.

“There was an upstart who was disrespectful to me, he wore a mask that covered his face,” recalls Inna Koba, the head of the village council. “He was a provocateur who asked: “For what money did people come here? How much do police officers earn?” “He really wasn't ours. Other people said they were similar provocateurs”.

“I went to the post with some friends. I was beaten by thugs. They basically didn't care who to beat, they ground us like meat,” 23-year-old Serhiy adds.

There is still an ongoing debate in Novi Sanzhary on whether there were paid provocateurs in the crowd. Local people say that masked people received two thousand hryvnias, but they do not cite any evidence. So now the issue is being addressed by law enforcement, as a part of questioning witnesses and suspects in the case of police assault and involvement in riots.

Blind kittens

Now, National Guard soldiers are walking in small groups on the territory of the medical center “Novi Sanzhary”. Some guys don't even take off their disposable white masks during their service time: “My wife bought twenty pieces at the pharmacy at once. She gave me them to avoid being infected with the coronavirus,” the serviceman explains to me through a military fence, a little embarrassed. Despite the assurances of his chiefs, he gave in to mass hysteria.

Subsequently, I saw that this means of protection against respiratory infections is not easy to get. Medical masks are now in short supply at pharmacies of the town with the population of ten thousand people. And it doesn’t matter that the gauze bandage does not save from the coronavirus: thanks to the masks, people get an illusory sense of security.

“The police are wearing masks because they may need a psychological discharge,” Deputy Health Minister Viktor Lyashko explains to me. “The territory is completely safe, just as it is outside. Personal protective equipment is only required when visiting the observatory wards”.

The official confesses that he still has no ideas as to why people were drowned in fear, “though the Ministry of Health did everything possible to prevent panic not only in Novi Sanzhary, but throughout Ukraine.”

Deputy Minister of Health Viktor Lyashko and advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Varchenko during a briefing near the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center on February 23

Deputy Minister of Health Viktor Lyashko and advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Varchenko during a briefing near the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center on February 23

“We are also checking information that some elements of this panic were artificially created,” advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Varchenko filled in an awkward pause. “In time, we will inform the society as to who’s behind it all.”

Even a few days after the scandal-ridden operation of bringing the Ukrainians from China, government officials still cannot explain the logic of their actions in simple terms.

“Why did so many armored vehicles come to Novi Sanzhary on February 20?” I ask Varchenko the question which seriously worried the people of Poltava region.

“We have a law on the national police and a law on the National Guard of Ukraine ... Read them. Everything is written there”, he mutters dully.

“Which clause do you have in mind?”

“Take it and read it”, is the standard excuse.

— Can you explain in an accessible (!) language why armored vehicles were on the streets on February 20?

— Of course I can. When there is a conflict, or when you participate in mass events and are confronted by people with a different opinion, our law enforcement agencies have the task of standing between these people and preventing them from beating each other, destroying each other.

It's still unclear. According to Varchenko’s logic, military vehicles appeared because people with radically different views came out on the street, and clashes could occur between them. But on February 19 and 20, all activists had the sole (!) goal, to prevent buses with people who came from China to arrive at the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center.

A position similar to the activists’ position was also voiced by members of Novi Sanzhary local council who argued that “in Novi Sanzhary, the hospital is not provided with necessary equipment and chemicals and is not ready to provide full medical care for the treatment of patients with coronavirus” (a similar position was expressed in Mykulyntsi in Ternopil region, where there were also protests against the possible placement of evacuees).

On February 20, the head of the Novi Sanzhary District Council Gennady Suprun came out to people, stressing that he did not understand the actions of high-ranking officials: “There are two multi-storey residential buildings right near the fence of the medical center with more than 160 people living there. Why didn't officials think about them? Why did China build a new hospital in a week? Because that's where they think about people a little bit.

At the central entrance to the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center, the police are constantly patrolling

At the central entrance to the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center, the police are constantly patrolling

Suprun's emotionality can be understood: during the day before the arrival of evacuees from China, Poltava region was in an information vacuum, which was rapidly filled with rumors and scares.

Even the chairwoman of the Novi Sanzhary Village Council, Inna Koba, learned about the upcoming arrival of “Chinese infected with coronavirus” at 10 PM on February 19, and not from official sources, but from the Internet.

“The fakes started appearing that they bring people infected with coronavirus”, Inna Koba recalls that evening. “I decided to go to the sanatorium, although I did not know the situation. And people demanded explanations. So I call the head of the state administration Vladyslav Vasyuta, and he says that he is not aware that the bus will be coming here. Then I called the chief doctor of the Central district hospital Olga Hyria, she said that she also did not know what was happening. She called Lysak, the head of the department of health of Poltava region, and he was also unaware. And I didn't manage to reach the medical center at all.”

Inna Koba, chairwoman of the Novi Sanzhary Village Council

Inna Koba, chairwoman of the Novi Sanzhary Village Council

The woman communicated with the residents of the village until 2 AM. Even then, there were about a hundred people near the medical center.

“It was Armageddon. A flow of fakes”, says Inna Koba. “I ask, “how do you know?” — “The internet says, Facebook is buzzing.” I suggested waiting till the morning and holding an extraordinary session of the council, making a formal request to gather information from official sources. People said they didn't believe it. There were many young men shouting: “They paid you! You’re lying! What are you telling us?” “And even then, there were calls to burn the sanatorium! It was scary.”

In the morning after the arrival of the governor of the region, many questions remained unanswered. Having drowned in the sea of lies, the peasants no longer believed in his words or the words of the head of the village. Even the head of the Poltava Regional State Administration, Sinegubov did not know why it was Novi Sanzhary chosen for the placement of the evacuees from China. Similarly, the authorities could not say anything earlier during a similar panic in the Ternopil region.

“My family is my castle”

On the evening of February 20, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called the Novi Sanzhary events “a disgrace seen by the whole world” and “one of his life’s greatest disappointments in people.”

At the same time, he called the actions of police “very professional” and expressed his regret at the beating of ten law enforcement officers: “We must be more responsible. More honest. One must remain human in the most difficult conditions.”

“Why did people find out about the arrival of evacuees from Facebook?” journalists interrupted the moralizing minister.

“You do your job. And I'll do my job. Ask the Prime Minister about this”, Avakov snapped.

Similarly, the minister silently ignored questions from local residents about why the government had selected a medical facility located in the center of the village.

According to Prime Minister Oleksi Honcharuk, the final decision on where to send people arriving from China was made just a day before the airplane arrived. And, in his opinion, “this is absolutely normal from a security standpoint”: “The first thing we thought about was the safety of the people they would be bringing. And the safety of the people who will live around. Provocations, special operations and so on could occur.”

However, the Prime Minister's calculations turned out to be incorrect. The result of such a “safe” operation was a broken window of the bus that brought in people arriving from China, ten injured police officers, countless journalists and activists beaten by law enforcement officers, and Ukraine’s shame in front of the whole world.

As the government remained stubbornly silent about the details of the arrival of Ukrainians from the epicenter of the epidemic, messages began to appear in social networks about fifty people infected with the coronavirus coming to Novi Sanzhary. This information instantly spread throughout the village. And in just half a day, the people of the Poltava region were frightened to death.

Residents of the village of Novi Sanzhary say that they came out on the street because of simple fear

Residents of the village of Novi Sanzhary say that they came out on the street because of simple fear

“I learned about the arrival of people from China to Novi Sanzhary on February 19 from Instagram,” says 22-year-old Bogdan. “The message was in the form of a screenshot from Facebook. The message was that they want to turn our health resort into a quarantine area. I didn't believe it, but other Facebook users took it seriously. Even then, I’m walking down the street and an unfamiliar old man rides a bicycle and says to me in awe: “Did you hear that the Chinese are being brought?!”

Andriy, a Donbas war veteran, perceived the news about the arrival of “coronavirus-infected” people more seriously. In the presence of other activists, he recalls the events of the evening of February 19:

“It was seven in the evening. I opened the Viber. I read the news... I ask my wife what's going on. She tells me, “the infected people are being brought here.” I grabbed my head: “And what can we do then?!” At night, we started to gather near the medical center. Because what if those people are infected, then what?! There were Klyusivka, Zachepilivka, Lelyukhivka villages. And let them not say that we went out for money. My personal motivation was to protect my wife and children. My family is my castle”.

The screenshot from “Voice of Sanzhary district” NGO was disseminated in Viber groups and on the Instagram in the evening of February 19

The screenshot from “Voice of Sanzhary district” NGO was disseminated in Viber groups and on the Instagram in the evening of February 19

Overwhelmed with fear and distrust, the activists walked out into the street, where they were met with military vehicles and hundreds of National Guardsmen and policemen. And the more time passed, the louder the cries of “Shame!” were yelled towards the authorities.

Especially because all this time people have been receiving more and more horrifying messages.

Virtual curators

Serhiy Cherednichenko, an ex-deputy of the Poltava City Council and chairman of the Socialist Party of Ukraine, who was previously headed by the current pro-Russian deputy Ilya Kiva, was the first to speak about the hospitalization of evacuees from China in Novi Sanzhary. Cherednichenko's message appeared on the Facebook page at 10 am on February 19: “Ukrainians will be brought from China to Novi Sanzhary. To the sanatorium. No infection hospitals were found in Ukraine.”

Subsequently, Cherednichenko edits the post and sets a later publication time, 8:00 pm, to hide the fact that he became the first newsmaker. However, screenshots captured the real time of publication.

In his letter, the politician states that the district administration “has already received orders” but this does not coincide with the words of the head of the Novi Sanzhary district council Hennady Suprun who did not possess such information until the morning of February 20.

Serhiy Cherednichenko was the first to inform Ukrainians about the arrival of evacuees to Novi Sanzhary

Serhiy Cherednichenko was the first to inform Ukrainians about the arrival of evacuees to Novi Sanzhary

It is symptomatic that the post is picking up a record number of shares for this politician, 384. For comparison: usually Cherednichenko's posts have up to ten shares (anomalous sharing is one of the signs that the post is being disseminated by troll farms). But this time, the information spread to regional Facebook groups: “Poltava is the spiritual capital of Ukraine” (4400 participants), “Independent trade union of Poltava medical workers” (509 participants), “And in Poltava they say ...” (41 thousand participants), etc.

At 16:21, another powerful news feed appears on Facebook: a doctor at Vinnytsia Military Hospital on air of the NTA channel emotionally talks about the deplorable state of his medical facility and states that he is not ready to accept Ukrainians evacuated from China:

“For 30 years, we have not had a single training at Vinnytsia Military Hospital. Question: Why are we conducting training on the eve of the airplane's arrival? It could have been done three weeks ago. There is no logic. This causes distrust of the authorities. Nowhere in Europe do they hide the sick people’s dislocation.”

The video was shared by over 20 thousand accounts.

After seven o'clock in the evening, Viber groups start appearing where thousands of residents of Poltava region join.

For example, the “Novi Sanzhary” group was formed on February 19 at 10:16 pm. The first message was posted here by a user named or rather titled “Olenka”: “Infectious patients from China (50 people) are brought to the military sanatorium. We cannot afford to destroy our population, we must prevent numerous deaths. People, come on up, we all have children!!! We need to act immediately.”

The first message in the newly created “Novi Sanzhary” Viber group

The first message in the newly created “Novi Sanzhary” Viber group

Over the next few hours, over a dozen fakes and scares appeared in the group. Here are just a few:

At the same time, calls are made for radical action in the group every 10-20 minutes: blocking the roads (which was done), railway tracks, making Molotov cocktails, burning the hospital, and storming the state administrations.

During the first day of its existence, the group received about five thousand messages. They were read by over six thousand members of the group. 20 users were the most active, they regularly posted fakes and called for violence.

The group also constantly recommended to watch online broadcasts of “NASH” channel (owned by pro-Russian politician Yevgeny Murayev), “112”, “ZIK” (both TV channels are owned by co-chairman of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform — For Life Viktor Medvedchuk, the nepot of the President of the Russian Federation), and NewsOne (owned by Vadim Rabinovich, the their Co-Chair of the same pro-Russian party, Opposition Platform — For Life).

From time to time, citing these media, active users call for aggressive action. For example, on February 20 at 4:11 pm, a user named “Ivan Barylo” wrote: “Exactly a minute ago, on air at 112 channel, a way out was voiced. Burn the sanatorium”.

Subsequently, activists lit a large bonfire near the sanatorium, just in front of the central gate, so that buses with evacuees from China would not be allowed to enter the territory of the Novi Sanzhary Medical Center.

The phenomenal pace of growth in the number of members of the new Viber group has made us wonder: who created it and why?

Volunteer administrators

Throughout its existence and to this day, the Novi Sanzhary group continues to be updated with new messages. Three administrators are closely monitoring everything happening in the group: Slava, The Mad Beaver, and The Wild Bear.

Administrators say that the group is totalitarian, and therefore all the comments they consider unnecessary are mercilessly destroyed: “You’ll be wise when people infected with coronavirus are brought to your home. Create your own channel and be wise there” (in Russian).

Some users are annoyed because they do not understand how they ended up in this group: “Who added me to this group?!?! I'm coming out of this junk site for the third time!!! Remove me immediately, otherwise I will be forced to notify the Security Service about threat to national security of Ukraine! “ Natalka writes.

Even Inna Koba, the head of the Novi Sanzhary Village Council, does not know when and who added her to the group: “On February 20, I saw that I was a member of the group. And there are 5,000 unread messages. And interestingly, the administrator writes: “Is there Inna Koba, the chairman of the village council, in this group?”. That is, the administrator himself did not know that I was here. So, these administrators are not locals.”

To shed light on these questions, we asked the administrators of the Novi Sanzhary group where they received contacts of thousands of residents of Novi Sanzhary and surrounding villages. But they began to convince us that they were administering the group 24 hours a day because they... cared about Ukrainian society.

Screenshot of correspondence with the user “Mad Beaver”, an administrator of the group “Novi Sanzhary”. We also have screenshots of correspondence with other admins of this group

Screenshot of correspondence with the user “Mad Beaver”, an administrator of the group “Novi Sanzhary”. We also have screenshots of correspondence with other admins of this group

“Well, why do you need such information?” (in Russian) the administrator with the nickname “Mad Beaver” evaded the answer.

“This looks like the work of intelligence service” (in Ukrainian)

“What intelligence service? What’s this, delirium?” (in Russian)

“Why do you spend your time almost around the clock? What’s your benefit?” (in Ukrainian)

“Because people had to be supported, and the shit poured on them limited”, the admin summed up (in Russian) and deleted the correspondence (but we made screenshots).

The second administrator, nicknamed Wild Bear, explained the rapid increase in the number of subscribers to the group with “fear, panic, and chaotic reposts”. And he explained his own interest in administering the group by having free time: “I have been working online for the last three days, so I have an opportunity to read nonsense and panic.” (also in Russian)

But is this really so? Novi Sanzhary is a small town in the Poltava region where people speak Ukrainian, and young people cannot always speak Russian fluently. Therefore, the automatic Russian language of the group admins indicates that they are not local. However, judging by their answers, they don't even hide it.

Performance at request

After the “hot” phase of the conflict, the group continues to live. The number of users decreased over time, every second person removed themselves from the group. But videos and news links appear regularly in the chat. For example, videos from Ukraine TV channel, “60 Minutes” of Russia 1 channel, and probably manipulative and paid-for publications are published regularly, like messages that police spread fakes and act unprofessionally while investigating mass riots in Novi Sanzhary.

Besides, “Mad Beaver”, the administrator of the group, recommends reading the telegram channel “Dark Knight Vox Populi” with daily devastating criticism of all political forces except the pro-Russian ones, Shariy Party and Opposition Platform — For Life. Moreover, these two parties are mentioned only in a positive or a neutral way at the channel.

And the topic of the arrival of evacuees from China was covered by the “Dark Knight” in the same spirit as it was in the Viber group “Novi Sanzhary”. Allegedly, the coronavirus is about to spread all over Ukraine because of the incompetence of the Ukrainian authorities.

By the way, Poltava politician Serhiy Cherednichenko who started the panic, by a weird coincidence, turned out to be an ardent supporter of pro-Russian blogger Anatoly Shariy, as well as of pro-Russian politician Andriy Portnov.

He continues to pump it up: “Today we have shown to the world that we are not Europe. We are a third world country that fears its citizens.”

By the way, the same thing is reiterated by fake accounts in the groups “Novi Sanzhary” in the Russian social network Vkontakte:

“The shame of Ukraine!!!” yells in the comments of the group “Overheard in Novi Sanzhary” (3677 subscribers) Anton Berezhny (now renamed to Denezhny, “Of Money) from Moscow.

The fake ex-president Petro Poroshenko intervenes in the conversation: “People of Sanzhary who block the road, you are morons and not Ukrainians.”

“Residents of Sanzhary, the ones who arranged the circus, I have a question for you, when did you manage to turn from people into degenerative and backward pigs? You have disgraced the country before the whole world”, adds Valery Alferov from a page that looks fake.

Andriy Portnov, a famous pro-Russian politician, also speaks about the incapability of Ukrainian authorities. On February 20, “Strana.UA” website published an article citing his words.

What does Anatoly Shariy, the most popular pro-Russian blogger, say about the events in Novi Sanzhary? On his YouTube channel, on February 20, a video was released where people were outraged by the actions of law enforcement officers. The beaten man says to the camera, “How do they take our opinion into consideration? With their feet!”.

“Why didn’t they bring them to Mezhyhirya [residency of captive ex-president Yanukovych — TEXTY]? Why were they not taken to where all the profiteers live?” another man screeches.

“Shame! Shame! Shame!!!” people yell, and the speaker runs into the crowd.

After this episode, Shariy himself appears on screen to sum up the events of February 20: “How do you call it, the Day of Dignity or whatever? Day of Shame. I introduced this term in the morning. I think it will be picked up. It's a black day of the calendar. Day of Shame”.

So, it turns out that, on one hand, Anatoly Shariy calls the events of February 20 a shame. On the other hand, panic (which has led to this shame) was raised by the Telegram channels and Viber groups that support him.

It is also interesting to see how Anatoly Shariy and Serhiy Cherednichenko act synchronously in order to hide the traces of their participation in the information operation against Ukraine.

For example, Shariy posted a provocative movie about how the dirty PR of the European Solidarity Party works against him. A pro-Russian blogger made up a conversation with Andriy Portnov about receiving a tranche of money from Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, and for $150 he posted this fake in the Facebook group Euromaidan.

This is a standard manipulation technique: if you cannot refute information (about working for the Russian Federation), bring it to the absurd.

At the same moment with Anatoly Shariy's accusations, Cherednichenko declared his intention to address the Security Service of Ukraine with the statement that “the panic in Novi Sanzhary was pumped by Poroshenko’s bots and Soros’s nestlings”: “It only took us two days to explore all social and information resources! It was classic, according to the textbooks of grant-eaters together with Poroshenko’s bots” (By the way, one of the principles of Russian disinformation is called “Hide your hands”)

Meanwhile, in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, they are already guessing that the information campaign against Ukraine was intensified by interested parties. However, they still do not dare to speak out loud who the parties are:

“We see signs of political provocation, the scandal pumped from zero”, Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko said recently. “We are investigating who in social networks started calling for road blocking. Some politicians and provocateurs are trying to create a promotion for themselves. We will not allow this.”

Too late, though. They have allowed it.

misinformation eng coronavirus propaganda

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