Russian War Report: Russian conspiracy alleges false flag at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant
Allegations of a supposedly US and Ukraine-planned false flag operation on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant spread across social media ahead of the NATO Summit.
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.
Russian missile strike in Lviv kills ten civilians, injures dozens
At least ten people were killed and thirty-seven injured in Russia’s July 6 attack on Lviv, in western Ukraine. Regional Governor Maksym Kozytskyy said that a Russian missile struck a residential building in the city, destroying more than fifty apartments.
Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to launch offensive actions in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Ukrainian forces reported thirty-eight combat engagements against Russian troops near Novoselivske, Novohryhorivka, Berkhivka, Bohdanivka, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka. In the direction of Lyman, Russian forces shelled Nevske, Bilohorivka, Torske, Verkhnokamyanske, and Rozdolivka in Donetsk. Russian aviation conducted an airstrike in Bilohorivka. Russia also attacked villages in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, including Levadne, Olhivske, Malynivka, Huliaipole, and Bilohirka. On July 6, Russian troops shelled Chervonohryhorivka and Nikopol, damaging civilian infrastructure.
On July 5, reports from Russian military bloggers suggested that Ukrainian forces had advanced southwest of Berkhivka, west of Yahidne, and southwest of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian army said it conducted offensive operations south and north of Bakhmut and is moving on Bakhmut’s southern flank. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the Ukrainian army conducted offensive operations near Lyman, Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka front, on the border between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, and in western Zaporizhzhia.
The Ukrainian army appears to have launched a coordinated attack on Russian army logistical and communications hubs. On July 4, Ukrainian forces reportedly struck an ammunition depot in occupied Makiivka, Donetsk. Russian sources claimed without evidence that Ukraine had struck a hospital. Former Russian army commander Igor Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, said the attack demonstrates how Ukraine regularly launches missile strikes against Russian rear targets. Other unconfirmed reports from July 5 indicate Ukraine may have struck Russian positions near Debaltseve. Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces hit Russian positions near Yakymivka in the Melitopol area and attempted to strike Berdyansk in the Zaporizhzhia region.
New narrative accuses US and Ukraine of planning false flag attack on Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
Ahead of next week’s NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, allegations that the United States and Ukraine will launch a false flag operation on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant are spreading on various platforms, including Twitter, 4chan, and Instagram. The allegations seemingly aim to create panic and, in the event of a future attack on the plant, establish a narrative the West and Ukraine are to blame.
On July 3, a post appeared on 4chan from an anonymous user who introduced himself as a US Marine Corps veteran now working for the government in electronic espionage. The user claimed that the Ukrainian and US governments are working together to bomb the Zaporizhzhia power plant. According to the conspiracy theory, after the false flag operation, the United States will be able to use “nuclear warheads” against Russia. At the time of writing, the post had been deleted from 4chan. However, similar posts remain on the platform.
However, the false flag claims did not originate on 4chan. Russian Twitter accounts posted similar claims building the false flag narrative. After the 4chan post, the claim circulated again on Twitter.
A similar narrative was also shared by Renat Karchaa, an adviser to Rosenergoatom, a subsidiary of the Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom. Karchaa claimed on Russian state television channel Russia-24 that on the night of July 5, the Ukrainian army would attempt an attack on the Zaporizhzhia plant. Without evidence, he accused the United States and the West of planning a false flag incident to damage Russia’s reputation. The claims were further amplified by Russian state media outlets.
The allegations escalated on social media after July 4, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeated Ukraine’s concerns about the status of the nuclear power plant. In an address, Zelenskyy restated that Russia plans to attack the plant and that Russian troops have placed explosive-like objects on the building’s roof. In June, Ukrainian military intelligence made similar claims when it reported that the plant’s cooling pond had been mined by Russian troops.
On July 5, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that it was aware of reports that mines and other explosives had been placed around the plant. The IAEA said their experts inspected parts of the facility and did not observe any visible indications of mines or explosives. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi added, “The IAEA experts requested additional access that is necessary to confirm the absence of mines or explosives at the site.” On July 7, the IAEA announced that Russia had granted its experts further access, “without – so far – observing any visible indications of mines or explosives.”
—Sayyara Mammadova, research assistant, Warsaw, Poland
Former employees share details about Prigozhin’s media group and troll farms
Several independent Russian media outlets published stories this week interviewing former employees of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Patriot Media Group, which dissolved on June 30.
In a video published on Telegram, Yevgeny Zubarev, director of Patriot Media Group’s RIA FAN, said the goal was to “work against the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny and others who wanted to destroy our country.” Zubarev confirmed key details previously reported by independent Russian journalists at Novaya Gazeta in 2013 and the now-Kremlin-controlled RBC in 2017 about the existence of paid commentators and the creation of Prigozhin-affiliated media outlets. Zubarev added that, after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 re-election, the group hired “foreign affairs observers.” The timing corresponds with attempts by Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency to meddle in the 2020 US presidential election.
Further, independent Russian media outlets Sever.Realii, Bumaga, and Novaya Gazeta interviewed former employees of Prigozhin’s media group. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the former employees confirmed that Prigozhin’s “troll factory” and “media factory” conducted coordinated information attacks on opposition leaders, published fabricated or purchased news “exclusives,” praised Putin, and deliberately ignored particular individuals who criticized Wagner Group. Bumaga and Sever.Realii described a smear campaign against Saint Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. In 2019, Prigozhin’s media group supported and promoted Beglov, but in 2021, Prigozhin reportedly launched a smear campaign, as Beglov allegedly prevented him from developing a waste collection business in the city. Novaya Gazeta’s report also provided evidence that Prigozhin’s troll farm activities extended beyond Russia, with employees portraying skinheads and fascists in the Baltic region, specifically in Lithuania.
In recent years, additional revelations about Prigozhin’s media group have come to light. For example, Bumaga reported that prospective hires had to pass a “lie detector test” in which “security service specialists” asked candidates about their attitudes toward the opposition and Alexei Navalny in particular. Once hired, employees were closely surveilled. One former employee Bumaga interviewed characterized the atmosphere as being in a “closed military company.” Both Bumaga and Novaya Gazeta’s interviewees said that most of the employees did not believe in the mission. In one example, an employee left after refusing to launch a smear campaign against Ivan Golunov, a journalist at the independent news outlet Meduza who was detained in 2019 under false pretenses. Bumaga, citing an unnamed former employee, also reported that at one point an employee had hacked the system, erased a database, and fled to Poland. The same interviewee claimed they employed two Telegram administrators who also administered pro-Ukraine channels.
—Nika Aleksejeva, resident fellow, Riga, Latvia
Kremlin-owned RT offers jobs to former employees of Prigozhin’s troll factory
RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan offered to hire employees of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Patriot Media Group, which reportedly housed his troll factories. In the latest episode of the program Keosayan Daily, Simonyan praised the work of “Wagner’s media empire.” She said their work “was super professional” and that anyone left without a job can join “them,” referring to Russian propaganda outlets. She added, “We know you as professional colleagues of ours.”
The fate of Patriot’s former employees is being actively discussed in Russia. According to Russian outlet Novie Izverstia, Pavel Gusev, editor-in-chief of the pro-Kremlin outlet MK.ru, volunteered to help find jobs for former employees of Patriot. In addition, the chairman of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Union of Journalists of Russia stated that the union would contact the heads of media outlets to help find opportunities for dismissed employees and would provide additional informational support.
—Eto Buziashvili, research associate, Tbilisi, Georgia