The Aggressive Ukraine and the Merciful Russia. Russian Media Monitoring Report, 1-30 September 2023
As the war is well into its second year, some Ukrainian websites have resumed spreading news which align with the key narratives of Russian propaganda and disinformation. This is a monthly digest of the news items published by the online media in the occupied territories and the Ukrainian websites which tend to manipulate public opinion.
Our analysis is limited to the news items from online media which operate in the occupied territories (further referred to as “occupation news websites”) as well as from news websites operated from Ukraine.
The term “trashy websites” means online media which cater for Ukrainian audiences and are known to publish biased and manipulative news reports.
This article is based on the analysis of more than 25,000 news items which appeared on trashy websites from Ukraine and approximately 16,000 reports from the websites operated from its occupied territories. We only considered the topics which resonate with Russian disinformation campaigns — i.e. those related to the problems faced by Ukraine in the second year of the full-scale war with Russia. Staying true to the basic principles of disinformation, most of the reports are based on the real events.
However, such news reports are seasoned with hysterical headlines, provide a distorted interpretation of events and constantly promote Russian propagandist narratives that Ukraine will definitely lose, is losing or has already lost this war; is a failed state in general and, therefore, its only option is to surrender to the mercy of the rich Russia, one of the global superpowers and political centers. Each news report adds to this manipulative construct.
Let us begin by looking at the websites operated from Ukraine.
Exorbitant Taxes and No Financial Aid for the Displaced
The trashy websites run from Ukraine seem to draw the readers’ attention to the political, social and economic issues stressing that the situation is dire and critical.
While most of these messages are based on real events, the problems are often hyperbolized and the presentation of the facts is biased. Some of the reports are intended to trick the reader into thinking that Ukraine is bound to be a troubled country in the state of permanent turmoil. Interestingly, Russia has been systemically promoting this narrative in Ukraine since 2019 when TEXTY began to monitor the key topics of Russian propaganda.
For example, the propagandists have been exploiting the subjects of business and welfare. The trashy websites shock the readers with clickbait headlines about growing taxes: “Exorbitant Fines and Late Fees: Ukrainians’ Eyes Brought Forward, Taxman Happy”(the translation reflects the original wording — editor’s note), “Simply Outrageous: Government to Collect Income Tax from Servicemen”, “From 5 to 100 Euros: Ukraine to Introduce a New Tax and You Will Pay It, Too”. The expression “eyes brought forward” is the automatic translation of the Russian idiom “your eyes pop out of your head”, a tell-tale sign of the Russian origin of the source.
Other headlines are no less dramatic: “A Black Day for the IDP: the Cabinet Revokes Payments for Thousands of Displaced Persons”, “From 1 January Some Ukrainians Will No Longer Receive any Pension”.
They report on pervasive corruption, corruption in the army, troubles in political life, and traitors in government authorities.
This is how the manipulators promote the idea that government officials have no sympathy for people's grief, and the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly unless the war is stopped.
Everyone Will Serve in the Front Lines
The September publications on the trashy news sites contained numerous manipulative reports on the mobilization in Ukraine.
According to their reports, European countries agreed to extradite those liable for military duty in Ukraine upon Kyiv’s request: “The draft-aged Ukrainians who fled Ukraine under fake certificates of exemption may be extradited home”. This headline stemmed from the words of David Arakhamia who had stated that Ukrainian citizens who are eligible for military service and who had fled the country could be forcefully returned to Ukraine. What the trashy news websites did not mention, however, was that the procedure would have to be first approved by the respective governments of the EU member states.
Although the representatives of some countries rejected such an idea immediately, the trashy news websites made their own accents by claiming that only a handful of countries had refused to extradite draft dodgers to Ukraine: “At the moment, only five countries refused to extradite Ukrainian draftees: Poland, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The Polish authorities made it clear that they were determined to extradite the draftees who had fled Ukraine illegally after 24 February”. While Polish authorities did not state anything of the kind, they did extradite certain Ukrainian citizens who had been charged with trafficking Ukrainians to Poland, not dodging the draft in their home country.
The manipulators also warned about upcoming widespread mobilization of women: “Women should prepare for mobilization”. They also claimed that military summons would soon be delivered on Viber and by SMS: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine has set course on comprehensive digitization: expect military summons on Diya, on Viber and by SMS “.
Ukraine and Its Neighbors
The manipulators also provided their own convenient interpretation of Ukraine's public conflicts with its neighbors over grain exports.
The trashy news websites blamed Kyiv for everything: “Earlier this year, Ukraine’s business reputation was tarnished by a huge scandal over the smuggling of Ukrainian grain to Europe. Following a thorough investigation, an international team of OCCRP journalists revealed how front companies registered to individuals diagnosed with mental disorders manage to ship trainloads of Ukrainian product off the books”.
They claimed Zelenskyy's team to be involved in the shady deals while the law enforcement authorities were turning a blind eye: “According to common gossip, the surnames of those who are lining their pockets sound very similar to Kubrakov and Arakhamia. While there were rumors of an ongoing investigation, the business is flourishing. Is Ukrainian law enforcement for real or is it only a joke? It seems that nobody has ever been made responsible for those things”.
The manipulators claim that the current government is acting so cheekily because they are confident the West will never turn its back on Ukraine: “Considering the fact that both Poland and Slovakia are democratic states, it is only a matter of time when their people choose somebody who is much more skeptical of Ukraine's behavior”.
The occupation news outlets combine the narratives spread by the trashy news websites with those which promote their own agenda.
Ukraine Is Shelling Peaceful Cities while Russia is Rebuilding the Infrastructure of its New Regions
The occupation news sites focused on accusing Ukraine of shelling civilians in the occupied territories and Russia: “The Kherson region was marked by outrageous provocations attempted by the criminal Kiev,” “Ukrainian militants targeted a minibus filled with people who were going to work with artillery fire”.
They insisted that Ukraine was also targeting its own cities. In particular, on 18 September The New York Times said that the attack on the market in the city of Kostyantynivka in Donetsk oblast killing at least 15 civilians and injuring more than 30 others on 6 September was “the result of an errant Ukrainian air defense missile” and a “tragic mishap”, not an intentional Russian strike. The media outlet came to such conclusions based on the results of its own investigation.
The Office of the President of Ukraine responded swiftly. In particular, the adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podolyak said: “The legal truth about the Kostyantynivka attack will be established after a thorough investigation. Yet, one thing is absolutely clear: it is Russia that invaded Ukraine, and it is Russia that is responsible for starting a war in our country”.
The article published by The New York Times gave the disinformation media a reason to accuse Ukraine of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. The propagandists compared the damage from the strikes and claimed that the international community had sided with Kyiv: “At least 16 Ukrainian citizens died in the city of Kostyantynivka from the explosion of a 9М38 missile fired from a Buk system on 6 September. The same air defense system was also used to down the Malaysian passenger aircraft in 2014”, “After the tragic crash of the Malaysian Boeing aircraft Kiev authorities acted the same: they did not allow Malaysian experts to examine the debris, they refused to join efforts with the investigators sent by Kuala Lumpur while the U.S. refused to share the imagery from their satellites”.
While Ukraine is being portrayed as the bad guy, the occupation news websites are convincing their readers that Russia is there to help. For example, they reported on restoration efforts: “The project is a collaboration of 26 federal subjects of Russia which agreed to invest into the restoration of the cities and districts” and humanitarian aid: “The money raised by kind-hearted Russians was later used to purchase portable X-ray machines and deliver them to Donetsk”. They also tried to impress the readers with enormous subsidies to their regions: “The new regions of Russia will receive hundreds of trillions of rubles in subsidies every year to secure their self-sufficiency in the near future” and discussed various social incentives.
Russia Wins Again
The September articles published on the websites operated from the occupied territories of Ukraine praised Russia's political achievements. The recent visit of the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Chen In to Russia received a lot of media attention. The authors repeated the propagandist narratives regarding the high propability of Moscow’s receiving military aid from North Korea.
They also contemplated Korean immigrants coming to Donbas and the whole of Ukraine to drive the restoration of the captured country: “Once the dust settles, we still have to restore Ukraine, and that will require a huge number of construction crews. Koreans are known for being disciplined and hard-working, a perfect combination for the restoration efforts. All major construction companies prize North Korean labor force — and for good reason!”
The propagandists wrote about the growing role of the BRICS organization dominated by Russia and China to become a major decision-making center to shape the entire world: “The sanctions against Russia imposed by the West are pushing BRICS members closer together”.
The disinformers interpreted Putin's contacts with Erdoğan as a sign of the Turkish leader siding with Russia and recognizing its influence on the international arena: “The Turkish leader seems to be aware of the political and economic insolvency of the OTC and its inability to compete with serious multinational players such as BRICS or the SCO. How else can you interpret his statements about his readiness to develop close cooperation up to the point of joining both organizations?”.
The EU Is Headed for Imminent Collapse
While the trashy websites blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the grain conflict between Kyiv and its neighbors, the occupation news sites claimed that it was the Europeans who were blocking the export of Ukrainian grain for their own economic benefits: “The ban was introduced in the spring due to a glut in the market and the fears of bankruptcy among local farmers.”. The writers argued that the EU members would not grant Ukraine membership, and that the capitalist and money-focused Europe was unable to support Ukraine in the long run, and that the rift between the allies in the second year of the war was clear evidence of the fact: “Poland and Ukraine are the kind of friends which need no enemies to have a conflict. Mind you, this is only the beginning”.
They claimed that Ukraine's disagreements with its neighbors reflect deeper conflicts within the EU. Some propagandists even insisted that the EU was headed for an imminent collapse. They claimed Western Europe to be exploiting Eastern Europe as their food supplier putting the Poles and the others at an economic disadvantage.
According to their version, Hungary’s position is yet another indication that the collapse is round the corner. The prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán is known to be a prominent mouthpiece of Russian propaganda. He advocates the lifting of the sanctions against Russia and calls for reducing the support of Ukraine. Furthermore, he is openly pessimistic about Ukraine’s chances in the war.
Viktor Orbán is one of Russian media’s darlings for being aligned with Russia in promoting his own national interests, and they hope that he may just as well be the one to lead the EU to its demise: “Like some other European countries, Hungary does not want to be a pawn in the great global game played by the United States. … Today, it is Hungary that has been leading the EU towards an imminent collapse”.
The corpus contains publications from 86 news websites in the occupied territories and Ukrainian-based online outlets which were found to be publishing a significant number of manipulative reports. The analysis covered a total of approximately 40,000 news items. Each paragraph was processed using an algorithm which defines its topic automatically. The resulting topics (i.e. groups with similar content) were short-listed by socio-political topics. The number of mentions of a certain topic was then counted for each publication. Our conclusions are based on the respective findings and contain quotes from paragraphs referring to each topic.
Trashy websites: ua-vestnik.com, newsua.biz, ukrainianwall.com, politeka.net, newsua.one, from-ua.com, ua24ua.net, kompromat1.info, newformat.info, kompromat1.news, korupciya.com, rkm.kiev.ua, tt.inf.ua, k-stenke.com, p-zona.com, akcenty.com.ua, taras-ua.com, uatime.net, lifedon.com.ua, tochkazoru.pp.ua, 368.media, navarti.in.ua, ord-02.com, newskraine.com.ua, agrimpasa.com, censoru.net, ukr.life, holosua.com, hit.miformat.info, crime-ua.com, rnbee.com.ua, pravda.rv.ua, dosye.com.ua, slovo.odessa.ua, beztabu.net, grom-ua.org, zarobitchany.live, popilnya.online, ukr.red, prportal.com.ua, tema.in.ua, intvua.com, xn--j1aidcn.org, doslova.com, news.lugansk.info, newnews.in.ua, likeme.pp.ua, sprotiv.org, euro-ua.com, tribunanaroda.info, ua-stena.info, bn24.biz.ua, nacburo.org, ekoinvest.pp.ua
Occupation news websites: e-news.su, ruinformer.com, politnavigator.net, sevastopol.su, antifashist.com, anna-news.info, crimeapress.info, naspravdi.info, kianews24, kafanews.com, dan-news.info, kerch.fm, dnr-pravda.ru, donbasstoday.ru, gorlovka-pravda.com, rusdnepr.ru, guberniya.info, 3mv.ru, vsednr.ru, c-inform.info, comitet.su, doneck-news.com, xvesti.ru, novosti.icu, dnr24.com, denis-pushilin.ru, time-news.net, sobytiya.info, delovoydonbass.ru, mir-lug.info, meridian.in.ua