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Ukraine in 2021: Top FAKE NEWS & DISINFORMATION debunked by Veridica

Ukraine in 2021: Top FAKE NEWS & DISINFORMATION debunked by Veridica
©EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO  |   Ukrainian activists, one of them wearing Russian President Vladimir Putin mask, hold placards during their rally near the Dutch embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, 22 March 2016.

In 2021, Ukraine was at the heart of international talks in the context of Russia’s military threats, its continuous military build-up in the Crimean Peninsula and its attempts at turning the Black Sea into an internal lake. The primary objective of fake news about Ukraine was to manipulate public opinion in Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet states, as well as Romania, by attacking, both directly and indirectly, pro-European reforms and Kiev’s plans to join the EU and NATO, the situation of the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine, the country’s economic problems, etc. Most disinformation narratives had predominantly anti-Western undertones.

The publications generally monitored by Veridica were RIA Novosti, Sputnik, Ukraina.ru, Russia 1, but also other Russia state media. Disinformation narratives and fake news tried to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and prevent the building of a partnership between Kiev and its Western neighbors, to block the vaccine rollout in Ukraine and to sow distrust among Ukrainian authorities.

Top 5 narratives
  1. Ukraine is a false state that will collapse. Most of the false narratives promoted by Russia drew on the “false state” metanarrative. The press articles told Russian-language and Ukrainian-language readers that the two “sister countries” are closely linked, while the West’s efforts to `separate’ these two former Soviet republics will not yield any results. Ukraine cannot exist without Russia, as it is a product of the USSR, while the Ukrainian language is in fact a Russian dialect.
  2. NATO and the UE plan to destroy Russia. In most cases, the Kremlin-linked media used the conflict in Donbas to spark fear and frustration across Russian society. Throughout 2021, the Russian media wrote that the West wants a new war in Donbas in order “to prevent Russia’s development on the world stage”.
  3. The West encourages Nazi ideology in Ukraine. Ukraine’s refusal to celebrate a number of civil holidays traditionally observed in Russia or in the former USSR was interpreted by the Russian state media as “a flourishing of Nazism” in Ukraine. For instance, in the context of celebrating Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet People on May 9, as well as considering Ukraine’s refusal to acknowledge Moscow’s official discourse regarding World War II, the Russian media writes that the West encourages neo-Nazism, whereas in Ukraine Nazi ideology is part of the school curricula.
  4. Ukraine is turning into a Western colony while its people are starving. After pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and the new authorities in Kiev signed the Association Agreement with the EU, the Kremlin-funded media promoted either directly or indirectly false narratives about Ukraine allegedly being turned into an agrarian colony of the West, about Ukrainian children who are starving, and about Russia’s heroic intervention in this geopolitical space.
  5. Ukraine is persecuting its Russian-speaking population after the 2014 coup. The narrative in question is disseminated by Russian state media on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, Russia describes its actions in Donbas, Crimea, Transnistria, Ossetia or Abkhazia as having been determined by “political necessity” and “historical truth”. Russia sees itself as a liberator and the West as an occupying force. In fact, there was never a coup in 2014 in Ukraine: after Yanukovych fled the country in the wake of mass street protests, the country hosted presidential and parliamentary elections, recognized by the international community.
Top 5 FAKE NEWS
  1. The UN has condemned the crimes of Zelensky’s regime in Ukraine. The Russian media tried to manipulate public opinion by selectively using information from the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UN allegedly criticized Kiev for serious violations of human rights, arguing that Ukraine “kills its population”, “tortures people” and “restricts freedom of speech”. In fact, most instances where human rights were breached and which the UN analyzed in its report actually refer to Crimea and Donbas, which are currently outside Kiev’s control, something which the Russian media fails to mention. Furthermore, in the same report, the UN criticizes Russia for failing to comply with the recommendations of UN experts and praises Ukraine for observing these recommendations in part or in full.
  2. The West keeps hiding Ukraine’s responsibility for the downing of flight MH-17. Seven years after the Boeing 777 flight MH-17 was shot down over Donbas, a series of narratives were reiterated in order to exonerate the rebels who launched the Russian missile. The core narrative is that Ukraine bears responsibility for the tragedy, whereas the West has tried to conceal it.
  3. Students from Crimea and Donbas will be persecuted in Ukraine. Students coming to Ukraine from Crimea and Donbas risk being persecuted, according to a disinformation campaign launched by pro-Kremlin media. The purpose of such fake news was to prove to the inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula and of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk that Ukraine persecutes Russian speakers. Russia’s end-goal is to shatter Kiev’s efforts to retrieve and reintegrate these territories.
  4. Europeans call for the building of Nord Stream 3 and 4 to overcome the gas crisis. The media in Russia often resorted to generalizing a single opinion or a commentary in a publication regarding society or a group of states. While the gas crisis swept EU member states, causing prices to soar, the Russian government media promoted narratives about Europeans panicking and calling on Russia for help. The whole narrative was based on a single commentary (in an online article) that praised Russia and criticized journalists who blame Moscow for the EU’s energy crisis. There were other false narratives using the same pattern.
  5. Belarus acts in accordance with international norms, while Ukraine is Nazi and Russophobic. Belarus is merely complying with international regulations in dealing with the refugees on its borders with the EU. Unlike Ukraine, who is violating the international law and persecuting Russian speakers, Belarus’s efforts to ensure the security of migrants are legitimate to a fault. This false narrative was promoted both by the Russian and Belarusian state media, as well as by Moscow and Minsk officials.  
Top 5 DISINFORMATION
  1. Moscow is rallying troops on the Ukrainian border in order to defend itself against a possible NATO aggression. NATO and the USA might be planning a conflict in Donbass, according to a piece of disinformation carried by Kremlin-linked media. In fact, Russia is the one who again rallied troops on the Ukrainian border, threatening Kiev and the West.
  2. NATO will direct Afghan refugees to the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. In the context of the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US troops, the Russian media continues to promote a series of narratives about the refugee danger to Europe, blaming NATO for directing the migrant flow to Moldova and Ukraine.
  3. Ukraine “privatizes” the Russian language and does not allow the development of the “Galician language”. The "Galician language", spoken in western Ukraine, is different from Ukrainian, but the authorities resort to intimidation and blackmail to prevent specialists from revealing the existence of this language. The narrative appears in the Russian state media in the context of a string of analyzes on Russophobia in Ukraine and Kiev's attempts to "privatize the Russian language."
  4. The EU Association Agreement, a catastrophe for Ukraine. The EU and Ukraine reconfirmed their readiness to continue cooperation under the Association Agreement, in particular with regard to Ukraine’s economic and political integration. Also, the parties discussed several amendments to the provisions of the association agreement, which was an opportunity for a new disinformation campaign launched by the Russian press against Ukraine and the EU. "A catastrophe that’s been lasting for five years now, in every sphere of life", "a wrong foreign policy choice made by Ukraine" – are some of the reactions in the Russian press. Elements of typical narratives are present, such as: "fake state", "coup d'etat", "Russophobia", "poverty", etc.
  5. Russia is saving Donbas from the genocide organized by Ukraine and the West. The pro-Kremlin media presents the steps taken to strengthen ties with the separatist republics that Russia supports in Donbas as a measure to stop a so-called “genocide” committed by Ukraine and the West in the region. In fact, humanitarian aid Russia dispatched back in 2014-2017 was a perfect method of concealing weapons and ammunition delivered to the separatists. Political analysts and television stations often found that, in the early stages of the Donbas conflict, the hot phases of the clashes would start immediately after the provision of “humanitarian aid” using Russian KAMAZ trucks.
Most outlandish narratives
  1. The Ukrainian army is fed Russian-made potato mash. In early 2021, some news agencies published a story according to which Ukraine’s potato supplies have run out, and in order to feed its own army Kiev is buying potatoes and potato mash from Russia. The news has deeply confused public opinion. On the one hand, Kiev made it very clear it opposes Russian aggression in Donbas (the Ukrainian Parliament has recognized Russia as an aggressor state), while on the other hand this fake news released by the press portrays Ukraine as incapable of providing even the most basic necessities (food!) to its own army.
  2. The Fântâna Albă massacre was the work of Romanians. Apart from disinformation narratives promoted by Russia with regard to Ukraine, there have been more fake news created inside the Ukrainian political system. The Facebook page of the Chernivtsi Regional State Administration published a video about the Fântâna Albă massacre, which is an outrageous mystification of history. Thousands of Romanians who were trying flee the country in the wake of USSR’s annexation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, were killed by the NKVD. However, the video published by the Chernivtsi Regional State Administration claims there was only a total of 50 victims, overlooking the fact that these were Romanian ethnics. The video also labels the action “a planned and deliberate act of defiance by the Romanian secret service against the inhabitants of Bukovina”. The Romanian community reacted swiftly in social and print media, while Romania’s Embassy in Kiev insisted on “observing the historical truth in any attempt at describing the historical truth of the Fântâna Albă massacre”. Therefore, Ukraine seems to have owned up to its European track (and discourse) after the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and after signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in 2016. Despite all that, the discourse advanced by the media and the political class in Kiev is still pervaded by Soviet-era narratives that must should be immediately discarded.  
  3. The EU is oppressing Russian speakers to erase the memory of Russia’s great victory over Fascism. EU countries are tolerating the oppression of Russian-speaking communities because they want to erase the memory of the Soviet victory against the Nazi, the Russian media writes, quoting a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada, a member of the Party of Regions led by fugitive Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. The narrative is part of a wider effort to depict Russia’s acts of aggression in the region in recent years as a fight against Fascism. According to these narratives, in 1939 the USSR liberated Poland and saved it from the Nazi genocide, and then moved on to “liberate” the other states in Eastern Europe.
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