In a new report, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) team analyzed upwards of 10,000 articles from Kremlin and pro-Kremlin media that used false and misleading narratives in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late 2021 and early 2022.
These narratives were used to:
- Provide a justification for the attack;
- Obfuscate operational planning; and
- Deny responsibility for the war.
Narrative Warfare: How the Kremlin and Russian news outlets justified a war of aggression against Ukraine
From the report:
“In the weeks and months leading up to Russia invading Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin media employed false and misleading narratives to justify military action against Ukraine, mask the Kremlin’s operational planning, and deny any responsibility for the coming war. Collectively, these narratives served as Vladimir Putin’s casus belli to engage in a war of aggression against Ukraine. To research this report, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) identified recurring pro-Kremlin narratives over two timeframes: the 2014–2021 interwar period and the seventy days leading up to the 2022 invasion. For the interwar period, we reviewed more than 350 fact-checks of pro-Kremlin disinformation. We then collected more than ten thousand examples of false and misleading narratives published by fourteen pro-Kremlin outlets over the seventy-day pre-invasion period. To understand how these narratives evolved, we cataloged them by themes, sub-narratives, and relationships to pre-invasion escalatory events. This allowed us to produce a timeline of false and misleading Kremlin narratives encompassing the year leading to the invasion, showing how Russia weaponized these narratives as its actions on the ground escalated toward war.
Our timeline documents Russian deployments to the Ukrainian border disguised as training exercises, then track how the Kremlin and leaders of the breakaway republics wove together their justifications, denials, and attempts to mask their activities. Pro-Kremlin outlets emphasized these narratives during key escalatory events, including Russia demanding unrealistic security guarantees from Ukraine and the West; separatist officials accusing Ukraine of shelling a kindergarten and employing saboteurs against chemical facilities; separatist officials evacuating civilians and calling for Kremlin intervention; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that surrendered Ukraine’s nuclear stockpile for security guarantees; and Vladimir Putin announcing the recognition of the breakaway republics.
We then dissect the text of Putin’s February 24 invasion speech. A DFRLab assessment of the speech identified more than two hundred references to hostile narratives that previously appeared in pro-Kremlin outlets over the prior seventy days.
Following our review of Putin’s speech, we break down our analysis of pre-war pro-Kremlin narratives in further detail. During the 2014–2021 interwar period, the three most prominent recurring narratives included the Ukrainian army and voluntary formations being brutal, Ukraine becoming a failed state after it followed Europe, and Ukrainians being Nazis. For the period representing the seventy days prior to the invasion (December 16, 2021–February 24, 2022) we analyzed and cataloged more than ten thousand articles by fourteen pro-Kremlin outlets. Among the primary narratives, we investigated were
- Russia is seeking peace (2,201 articles);
- Russia has a moral obligation to do something
about security in the region (2,086 articles);
- Ukraine is aggressive (1,888 articles);
- The West is creating tensions in the region (1,729
- Ukraine is a puppet of the West (182 articles).
The 2,201 articles containing the narrative that Russia is seeking peace ebbed and flowed in the news cycle, serving as a moral-high-ground argument masking Putin’s belligerent intentions and denying any responsibility for military action. They were most commonly found in stories regarding Russia demanding security guarantees, which comprised 1,768 of the 2,201 articles (80.32 percent). The most common sources cited within this narrative were Russian officials (1,570 articles), followed by Vladimir Putin (160 articles), reinforcing the narrative as the Kremlin’s position.
The narrative Russia has a moral obligation to protect the region’s security appeared in 2,086 articles, reinforcing Kremlin justifications for war. The DFRLab identified spikes on February 19 (262 articles) and February 21 (401 articles) as Kremlin rhetoric intensified prior to the recognition of the Donbas republics. As with the Russia-seeking-peace narrative, Russian officials were the most common source for the moral obligation narrative, cited in 1,620 articles. Articles cited Vladimir Putin on 133 occasions.
Ukraine is aggressive (1,888 articles) and served as an additional rhetorical tool to justify war and deny Russian responsibility. It appeared in large numbers in the days following separatist and Kremlin claims that Ukraine attacked a kindergarten and targeted chlorine tanks in the Donbas, with 395 articles on February 19 and 418 articles on February 21. Notably, Donbas officials were the most common source for this narrative (1,250 articles).
The West is creating tensions in the region that appeared consistently throughout the seventy-day pre-invasion time period, though it never reached the same levels as other overarching narratives on any given day. Pro-Kremlin outlets attributed the narrative most often to Russian officials (796 articles) and Putin (223 articles).
The DFRLab also identified instances in which pro-Kremlin media referenced weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and Nazis. WMDs were featured in 495 articles, the majority of which appeared the final week prior to the invasion. In contrast, articles referenced Nazis on 141 occasions scattered throughout the seventy-day period, peaking with twenty-seven articles on January 1, after a rally in Kyiv memorialized the late far-right Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera.
The fourteen Pro-Kremlin outlets routinely cited Putin, Kremlin officials, and separatist leaders, but they also cited each other. A total of 1,875 articles—18.4 percent of the entire archive—cited one or more of the other outlets, sharing a total of 2,502 references among them. Outlets cited TASS the most—a total of 982 times—followed by RIA Novosti (808 citations) and RT (216 citations). While the DFRLab did not detect any conclusive data-driven evidence of coordination between the fourteen Kremlin-approved media outlets, that does not mean that the outlets are independent. Our analysis suggests that these outlets, having navigated Putin-era politics for many years, understood Kremlin priorities and presented pro-Kremlin narratives in alignment with official statements and events as they occurred. It remains an open question, however, as to whether the Kremlin explicitly told the outlets to prepare their audiences for war.
What Next? Holding Russia Accountable and Preserving Evidence
The report concludes with a discussion regarding holding Russia and its proxies accountable for the war:
- While Russia’s pre-war propaganda and incitement to violence violate its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it remains a question whether those narratives would constitute a crime under international law.
- While international law does not prohibit disinformation and other “ruses of war”—though some legal scholars now argue that this position should be re-evaluated—Kremlin disinformation published in the lead-up to the invasion may be evidence of planning or preparing for an act of aggression.
- Additionally, disinformation narratives that started prior to the invasion and continued afterward may be evidence that Russian or Donbas officials knew the invasion was inconsistent with the United Nations (UN) Charter and constituted a “manifest violation” of it.
- This necessitates further work by the global research community to identify and archive these narratives, given the Kremlin’s vast propaganda ecosystem across traditional, digital, and social media.” (1)
OODA Almanac 2023: Disruption of Social Integrity and Cognitive Infrastructure Resiliency
We continue to track several thematics around the disruption of social integrity in the U.S. to include stress points like homelessness, crime, and under-reported risks like Fentanyl deaths. Fentanyl is of particular interest given the increasing number of deaths and the drug having strong ties to foreign illicit chemical supply chains including origination from China.
Cognitive infrastructure degradation and associated misinformation and influence campaigns also continue to be issues we will closely monitor in 2023 and beyond. Rather than build models for cognitive resilience including investment in education platforms, current initiatives are focused on platform banning which creates an environment of cat and mouse rather than addressing root causes. Our world is becoming a house of mirrors as years of misinformation and disinformation and attacks on the credibility of institutions have eroded trust. Lines between fact and opinion are increasingly blurred in the media and sponsored content playbooks dominate what were previously technology-focused platforms. Distractions are prevalent and new platforms including the metaverse will encourage withdrawal from reality anytime and anywhere. Even our best approaches to conversational AI demonstrate inherent tendencies to manufacture facts and create a faux authority to include manufactured citations. This will create unprecedented challenges and the development of new technologies and approaches.