Russia's propaganda campaign aimed to prepare the public for the deployment of troops to the border with Ukraine was launched on February 1, seeking to portray Ukraine as an aggressive actor, which is supposedly getting ready to start a war in Donbas and Crimea.
Since February 1, the volume of Russian disinformation about the "escalation" in the occupied territories has increased significantly, as seen in a large-scale analysis of Russian media space done by Texty.
In the spring, such reports took up 10% of the total number of pieces posted on Russian news sites focused on Ukraine.
It is noted that the mainstream Russian resources at the reporting period started writing more often about "shellings", although they almost did not mention them earlier.
The difference was especially noticeable when analysts compared Russian sites (mainstream and those focused on Ukrainian topics) and leading Ukrainian news outlets. The topic of shellings is constantly and massively present on Ukrainian websites (reports on Russian hybrid troops opening firing).
Read alsoU.S. Mission to OSCE calls on Russia to explain pulling of troops to Ukraine bordersRussian websites, in turn, started noting the issue of shellings by Ukrainian Armed Forces back in February 2021. Already in early March, online news outlets operated by Russian proxies in Donbas announced that the latter would start opening pre-emptive fire. However, as per to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the Ukrainian media, they had been the first to open fire all along.
Content analysis of disinformation reporting shows that in February Russian websites usually simply accused the Ukrainian Armed Forces of shelling the occupied territories. In March, however, mentions of Ukraine's "offensive" began to appear. In the majority of reports, Ukraine is accused of plotting to implement a "brute force scenario" – not only in Donbas, but also in Crimea.
The journalists came to the conclusion that at first Russian audiences were being "warmed up" by more-intense-than-usual reports of the alleged shellings by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and then the propaganda flywheel started spinning to raise the degree of tension.
Describing Ukraine's attempts to retake Crimea, Russian mainstream sites, on the one hand, ridicule any diplomatic and non-violent attempts and decisions taken by Ukraine, and on the other hand, constantly hint that a "Ukrainian offensive" would inevitably imply a clash with the Russian army and give Russia an excuse to force a "land corridor to Crimea ".
Read alsoNo plans to return occupied land by force – Ukraine NSDCIt is noted that none of the high-profile Ukrainian politicians or officials ever mentioned the possibility of an offensive into the occupied territories. Kyiv's rhetoric has remained peaceful.
Meanwhile, disinformation actors keep reporting about the possible developments as follows: "the suppression of the military and command infrastructure of the Ukrainian Army with strikes on Bankova Street (President's Office), communication centers, airfields, railway junctions, and large industrial enterprises." That is, the reports suggest Russia's military strikes on densely populated regions of Ukraine, including the country's capital.
Various arguments are mentioned in reports on Ukraine: Biden's statement about "Putin the killer", sanctions against Putin's political ally Viktor Medvedchuk, and Azerbaijan's military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition to publications directly related to the military threat, in the period from February to the present day, there has been an increase in the number of reports that mention Nord Stream 2. All this, under one pretext or another, is used as an argument for pulling troops to the border with Ukraine.
Read alsoRussia needs all of Ukraine, but will the West interfere?The analysis stresses that the Ukrainian leaders have been denying the possibility of a military operation in Donbas and Crimea, so the Russian propaganda is forced to seek some exotic "explanations" for Moscow-driven escalation.