Moscow continues to put pressure on Ukraine by conducting various aggressive psychological operations (psy-ops) designed to ignite panic in Ukrainian society and disrupt military cooperation between Ukraine and the West. One of its latest such attempts actively combined a disinformation campaign with the Tsentr 2019 Russian strategic-operational military exercise.
From September 16 to 21, Russia conducted its largest military drills of the year—Tsentr 2019—which reportedly involved more than 128,000 soldiers and took place at six main training areas. Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members China, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan also participated in these maneuvers (RIA Novosti, September 16; see EDM, September 11, 18, 23, 25, 26). The drills again involved multiple Russian military units deploying to training areas directly from their bases.
Moscow exploited one such Tsentr-linked deployment by inserting it into a disinformation narrative about Russian engagement close to the Ukrainian border. Specifically, on September 19, a video (apparently shot on a smartphone) appeared on the Internet showing a long line of military equipment being transported along a road. The convoy included T-72B3 and T-72B3M main battle tanks, BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers, and artillery fire control vehicles. According to comments posted beneath the video, this deployment had been spotted near the village of Rodionovka, in Russia’s Rostov region, allegedly only 30 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border. The individual apparently shooting this footage can be heard emotionally exclaiming about Russia’s seeming preparations for war (Twitter.com/Kolym0224, September 19).
News stories based on this unverified video quickly went viral, spreading across Ukrainian media (Glavkom, September 20), with many outlets declaring it was evidence of Russia preparing a full-scale attack on Ukraine. However, volunteer open-source analysts linked to the international investigative community InformNapalm noticed some key incongruities that suggested the online video was a piece of disinformation. First of all, the convoy was spotted in the daytime (instead occurring under the cover of darkness). Second, it seems as if no military officials or authorities stepped in prevent the filming of this (purportedly) sensitive military transport. Moreover, the smartphone footage was curiously shot in such a way as to avoid capturing any visible geographic identifications or signage. And indeed, following closer open-source visual analysis of the video, the area on the film was identified as Rodionovo-Nesvitayska Sloboda, located near the Kadamovsky military training area. Thus, the convoy on the video seemed much more likely to simply be part of a pre-planned deployment connected to the Tsentr 2019 drills (InformNapalm, September 20).
Nevertheless, prior to the video’s refutation, news surrounding it managed to sow panic among some Ukrainian citizens. The timing of the episode is also important to note, spreading in the media just a week prior to the Ukrainian government’s upcoming negotiations in Minsk to resolve the simmering war in Donbas. A strategic aim of the “looming invasion” disinformation campaign, therefore, may have been to put pressure on Kyiv to accept the so-called Steinmeier Formula (see EDM, September 17, 24, 25, 26, October 3), which the Ukrainian delegation finally more or less endorsed on October 1 (YouTube, October 1).
A follow-on Russian psy-ops attack struck on September 25, this time with an apparent international focus. On the website of the local (Lviv region) Ukrainian news outlet Ratusha an article appeared reporting on the murder of a Ukrainian soldier, found dead near the Yavoriv international training center. (The story was later deleted by the website’s editor—see below.) According to a cited statement by the Ukrainian National Police, which was added to the article as a screenshot, a Polish soldier was suspected of the crime. This article also went viral, especially in Russian (NTV, September 25) and Ukrainian media (Znaj, September 25). But even more importantly, the story also gained some traction in Polish-language media, courtesy of the Polish edition of the Russian state–funded disinformation outlet Sputnik News (Sputnik News—Polish service, September 25). The Russian sources insisted that the alleged murder was deliberate. But, as in many previous cases, closer analysis revealed multiple discrepancies, pointing to the alleged news story’s underlying goal of sowing disinformation. Most importantly, the photo of the crime scene appended to the article was taken from the archive of the National Police of Ukraine that was actually of an accident in Odesa from 2018 (Dumskaya.net, January 4, 2018).
Following an investigation into the story’s veracity, the original article was deleted from Ratusha’s website. Its editor claimed the piece had been surreptitiously posted by a hacker (Zaxid.net, September 25). Assuming this is in fact how the piece appeared on Ratusha, that method of spreading false stories (the hacking of legitimate news outlets) represents the latest in a new pattern of modus operandi for Russian propaganda (see EDM, September 9). Subsequently, the National Police and the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine both published an official refutation of the fake news. But the article could still be found on some Russian websites (Inright, September 25).
Polish expert Michał Marek argues that this episode is notably similar to previous fake claims from supposed Lithuanian soldiers regarding the alleged negative behavior of their Polish colleagues (Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny, September 21, 2018). Likewise, the “killed Ukrainian service member” story echoes an earlier false online story about a Polish soldier purportedly killed by a member of the United States Armed Forces. This disinformation aimed to turn public opinion against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) deployments in Central and Eastern Europe (TVN24, September 28, 2019).
Russia continues to seek new methods of spreading disinformation. By their very nature, such attacks recognize no borders and target not only Ukraine but other European countries as well. The next step in that evolution could be the usage of “deep fake” video alteration technology, in combination with increasingly systematic hacking of mainstream media outlets—a prospect with seemingly much more powerful and dangerous repercussions for public opinion and Western policy.