Russian War Report: DFRLab releases investigations on Russian info ops before and after the invasion
On the week of the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the DFRLab released two new reports on narratives tracked used to justify the war both pre- and post invasion.
As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine—as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
DFRLab releases investigations on Russian information operations before and after the invasion
This week, our team at the DFRLab released two investigative reports on how Russia employed information operations before and after its invasion of Ukraine one year ago today. The first report, Narrative Warfare: How the Kremlin and Russian news outlets justified a war of aggression against Ukraine, examines how the Kremlin and its media proxies 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, we reviewed more than 350 fact-checks of pro-Kremlin disinformation published from 2014 to 2021 to identify recurring anti-Ukraine rhetoric, then collected more than ten thousand examples of false and misleading narratives published by fourteen pro-Kremlin outlets in the ten weeks leading up to the invasion. This allowed us to produce a timeline showing how Russia weaponized these narratives as its actions on the ground escalated toward war. When Vladimir Putin announced the invasion one year ago today, these narratives effectively served as his talking points, recurring more than 200 times during his remarks.
The second report, Undermining Ukraine: How the Kremlin employs information operations to erode global confidence in Ukraine, compiles some of our most important findings on Russian information operations identified over the last year in our Russian War Report. Once the war began in earnest, Russia expanded its information strategy with an additional emphasis on undermining Ukraine’s ability to resist in hopes of forcing the country to surrender or enter negotiations on Russia’s terms. This strategic expansion included efforts to maintain control of information and support for the war effort at home, undercut Ukrainian resistance, derail support for Ukrainian resistance among allies and partners, especially in the immediate region, and engage in aggressive information operations internationally to shape public opinion about Russia’s war of aggression, including in Africa and Latin America.
We will continue marking the first anniversary of the war next week with the publication of the DFRLab Cyber Statecraft Initiative report, A Parallel Terrain: Public-Private Defense of the Ukrainian Information Environment. A Parallel Terrain analyzes Russia’s continuous assaults against the Ukrainian information environment, not only striking though but attempting to contest and claim this environment in parallel with its conventional invasion. It examines how Russian offensives and Ukrainian defense move through this largely privately owned and operated environment, and how this war has highlighted the growing role that private companies play in conflict. This report will be published February 27.
—Andy Carvin, Managing Editor, Washington, DC
Putin reshares narratives used to justify war of aggression in anniversary speech
On February 21, Vladimir Putin delivered an address to the Russian parliament that regurgitated many of the same narratives previously used to justify the invasion of Ukraine, which we explored in our Narrative Warfare report. The speech attempted to depict Putin as innocent of the bloodshed he started one year ago today. Putin spoke of a self-sufficient Russia and urged entrepreneurs to give up investments from overseas. Putin also urged Russian parents to protect their children from the “degradation and degeneration” of the West, one of the recurring themes we documented in Undermining Ukraine. Putin also said that the Sea of Azov “again became Russia’s landlocked sea” and added that Russia would develop the ports and cities in the area; he did not provide a timeline for this endeavor, however.
Putin also announced the creation of a special fund to compensate and assist those involved in the war and the relatives of the dead and wounded, as well as an additional fourteen days of annual leave for combatants to be with family and loved ones.
Putin delivered his speech just hours before US President Joe Biden delivered an address in Warsaw.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Russia accuses Ukraine of plotting an invasion on Transnistria
On February 23, the Russian defense ministry claimed that Ukrainian armed forces were planning a provocation against the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria “with the involvement of the nationalist Azov battalion.” The ministry added that Ukraine plans to stage an attack by Russian forces in Transnistria as a “pretext to invade.” To accomplish this, Ukrainian soldiers would allegedly dress in Russian military uniforms. Several pro-Russian Telegram channels circulated pictures alleged to show military equipment along the border of Transnistria. These accusations are eerily similar to ones made by leaders the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Putin used as a pretext for Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In light of these allegations, the Moldovan government issued a statement on February 23 denying the Russian defense ministry’s claims and urged the population to remain calm and follow credible sources.
Later that evening, the Russian defense ministry released another statement claiming there was “a significant accumulation of personnel and military equipment of Ukrainian units near the Ukrainian-Pridnestrovian border, the deployment of artillery at firing positions, as well as an unprecedented increase in flights of unmanned aircraft of the Armed Forces of Ukraine over the territory of the PMR [Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic].” These claims were shared without any evidence. According to the statement, these purported plans represent a direct threat to the “Russian peacekeeping contingent legally deployed in Transnistria,” and Russia will “adequately respond to the impending provocation of the Ukrainian side.”
It should be noted that both statements referred to the unrecognized Transnistria region as the “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic,” the pro-Russia separatist name for Transnistria. Russian authorities previously referred to the area as Pridnestrov’ye, the Russian word for Transnistria, which tacitly acknowledged it was a part of Moldova, while “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic” implies it is an independent entity.
On February 22, Putin revoked a 2012 decree that contained a clause stipulating Russia’s commitment to search for ways to settle the Transnistrian conflict “with respect to Moldova’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and neutral status.” The Kremlin warned that relations between Russia and Moldova are “extremely tense,” accusing the Moldovan government of having an anti-Russian agenda. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov recommended that Moldovan authorities “be cautious” in their assessments of the Transnistrian settlement.
—Victoria Olari, Research Assistant, Moldova
Ukraine prepares for Russian offensive on Vuhledar as Prigozhin accuses Russian command of lying
Ukrainian intelligence reported on the movement of Russian convoys not bearing identification marks headed toward the Chernihiv region. The troops reportedly wore uniforms resembling those of the Ukrainian army. Ukrainian military bloggers also reported that a Russian reconnaissance drone was detected in the Sumy region. Low-res satellite imagery indicates there may be renewed activity at the Zyabrovka airfield in Belarus, located north of Chernihiv, as movement was detected on February 18. In February 2022, before the invasion, Zyabrovka served as the site of joint air drills with Russia. Poland-based Rochan Consulting also reported that S-300 systems facing Chernihiv were deployed last month.
On February 21, Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence, said that Russia intensified its operations earlier this month in the directions of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia. Skibitsky said Russia is concentrating military efforts on capturing Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Marinka, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar. On February 23, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense also reported on heavy fighting near Bakhmut, but said Ukrainian forces have managed to keep a key supply route in the western direction open despite Russia’s attempts at encirclement over the last six weeks. The UK ministry confirmed Vuhledar is under heavy shelling and said there is a “real possibility that Russia is preparing for another offensive in this area.”
On February 17, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced new commander roles, with Andrey Mordvichev leading the Central Military District (TsVO), Sergey Kuzovlev leading the Southern District (YuVO), Yevgeny Nikiforov leading the Western District (ZVO), and Rustam Muradov maintaining command of the Eastern District (VVO), which is responsible for operations in Vuhledar. Muradov is the commander who ordered the frontal assault on Vuhledar from February 8 to 10, which resulted in the defeat of the 155th Marine Corps of the Russian Navy. On February 20, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu presented epaulets to senior officers at the National Center of Defense Management in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the internal power struggle between Russian defense officials and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin continues. In a series of audio clips, he accused the Russian defense ministry of lying about supplying Wagner troops with requested artillery munitions, claiming soldiers received only twenty percent of the artillery ammunition promised to them. Prigozhin urged the ministry to fulfill its promises instead of “lying” to the Russian public. Russian military bloggers defended and amplified Prigozhin’s claims, accusing the defense ministry of failing to support Russia’s most effective forces.
On February 23, the Russian army shelled Liubotyn in Kharkiv oblast with a Tornado-S multiple-launch rocket system, resulting in damaged buildings. Damage was also reported in Lemishchyne and Morozova Dolyna, also in Kharkiv oblast, due to Russian artillery shelling. In Kupiansk, two people were reportedly buried under rubble after a Russian S-300 missile strike. Observers also reported explosions in Kramatorsk.
That same day, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced the “preventive expansion of security measures” along the country’s borders with Belarus and the Russian territory of Kaliningrad, where the first fortifications are already underway.
According to a Reuters report, the European Union will develop and implement a program for the joint purchase of artillery shells for Ukraine. This will enhance coordination and facilitate investment in new production facilities.
—Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria
Prigozhin’s verbal attacks on Russian army leadership shed light on how Russian authorities supported Wagner Group
As previously noted, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin published multiple audio recordings lashing out at Russian military leadership for not adequately supplying a Wagner Group division with artillery munitions. The audio recordings revealed the model of collaboration between the Wagner Group and Russian Army according to Prigozhin.
On February 20, in reply to a media inquiry by RT correspondent Konstantin Pridybaylo about insufficient ammunition supplies, Prigozhin said that “there is ammunition in the country” and “the industry is producing as much as needed, even with oversupply,” but “no decisions are made” to supply the Wagner Group. “No one understands where alleged limits are coming from, where procedures to receive [ammunition] are coming from, no one knows the ways one or the other documents are signed,” he added. “Everyone is showing me upwards saying: ‘You know, Yevgeny Viktorovich, you have complicated relationships up there….You need to go, apologize, and obey. Then your fighters will receive ammunition.’”
In another audio recording on February 21, Prigozhin went further, stating “The Chief of General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] and the Minister of Defense [Sergei Shoigu] are handing out commands to the right and left not only to not give ammunition to the Wagner Group, but also to not provide help via air transport….This is direct opposition that is nothing short of an attempt to destroy the Wagner Group. It can be equated to treason.” In another audio recording that day, Prigozhin said that “other divisions are in constant undersupply of ammunition.” He claimed that “a bunch of near-the-war functionaries” are “trying to twist intrigues” by “calling Telegram channels and telling them, ‘Do not publish Prigozhin. Write that he – I don’t know – eats ammunition or sells it to Americans.'” By the end of the day, the Russian Ministry of Defense denied that it was blocking ammunition supply to “voluntary assault squads.” In return, Prigozhin accused the ministry of lying about ammunition supplies to Wagner Group forces fighting near Bahkmut.
The next day, on February 22, Prigozin continued to pressure defense ministry decisionmakers to supply Wagner Group with ammunition by forwarding a graphic image showing dozens of dead men lying on the snowy ground, as well as a screenshot of an ammunition request dated February 17 addressed to Chief of Staff Gerasimov. In an audio recording posted around the same time, Prigozhin stated, “The final signature needs to be made by either Gerasimov or Shoigu. None of them want to make the decision. I’ll explain. The Wagner Group allegedly does not exist. Previously, we received ammunition via some military divisions that are allegedly taking Bakhmut instead of us. But there is no one else and everyone knows about it by now.”
He also mentioned that a call to “give shells to the Wagners” (“Дайте снаряды Вагнерам”) had been “launched on social media.” Wagner accounts on VKontakte and pro-war Telegram channels amplified variants of the slogan.
The DFRLab also identified a petition on Change.org with the slogan; it was deleted by February 24.
Finally, in an audio recording on February 23, Prigozhin announced, “Ammunition shipment begins…on paper for now, but the most relevant papers are already signed.”
—Nika Aleksejeva, Resident Fellow, Riga, Latvia