Russian information operations targeted Ukraine and NATO during the battle for Avdiivka

Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and state media pushed multiple narratives to undermine Ukraine and its western partners

Russian information operations targeted Ukraine and NATO during the battle for Avdiivka

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Banner: A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to a residential building heavily damaged by Russian military strikes in the city of Avdiivka, Ukraine, November 8, 2023. (Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via Reuters)

During the battle of Avdiivka (October 2023-February 2024), one of the most violent battles in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, Russian information operations utilized Telegram and state media to push multiple claims to undermine Ukrainian morale and Western confidence in its Ukrainian partners. An urban enclave dubbed the gateway to Donetsk, Avdiivka was targeted by Russia due to its strategic importance, as it is critical to regional power dynamics due to its ability to influence supply lines and serve as an administrative and logistic base.

Ukrainian forces mounted a significant defense to prevent the city from falling into Russian control but ultimately lost the city in February 2024, when Ukrainian troops were forced to fall back to avoid encirclement. Ukraine described this decision as a tactical withdrawal to preserve military personnel for future battles. Russian forces encountered significant resistance in Avdiivka, with Ukrainian defenses using the city’s fortifications to inflict large casualties and slow the attack before surrendering control. The significance of the battle of Avdiivka goes beyond its immediate tactical implications, as it reflects larger strategic goals and the persistence of Ukrainian troops, whose withdrawal can be partially explained by Ukraine’s depleting ammunitions cache.

The battle for Avdiivka began in earnest in early October 2023 as Russia mounted a substantial escalation after more than a year of sporadic clashes. Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed the capture of Avdiivka to the 114th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic Army Corps. This unit reportedly carried out further actions in the vicinity of Avdiivka after the city was taken. Unmanned aerial vehicles were also a key weapon in the battle. Ukrainian troops successfully intercepted several Shahed drones and a Russian Kh-59 missile over the Black Sea. Russia doubled down on air attacks, dropping hundreds of FAB glide bombs, resulting in substantial destruction in Avdiivka.

The seizure of Avdiivka has been compared to the loss Bakhmut due to the parallels in ferocity, tactics, and high death toll. These battles illustrate the brutality of warfare and the massive losses suffered on both sides.

The role of information operations in the battle of Avdiivka

During both the fighting phase and after the announcement of Ukraine’s withdrawal, Russia-aligned assets doubled down on spreading narratives on social media portraying Ukraine as the losing party due to its Avdiivka withdrawal. The DFRLab collected data from fifty-four pro-Russian Telegram channels that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) previously identified as spreading pro-Russian narratives and analyzed their content focusing on the period from October 1, 2023, to March 15, 2024. These channels published hundreds of messages spreading narratives targeting NATO and Ukrainian military leadership and predicting Ukraine’s defeat due to its insufficient weapons supply.

As seen in the chart below, the DFRLab found surges in messaging consistent with on-the-ground and political developments. The most popular messages, which reached an audience of more than one million, often mentioned narratives that depicted Ukraine as the losing party, portrayed NATO as aggressive, or spread the idea of “boundless” or “total mobilization.”

A line chart showing messaging activity during the battle of Avdiivka with surges in narratives about NATO, Ukraine’s amended mobilization law, Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi, and ammunition depletion.
A line chart showing messaging activity during the battle of Avdiivka with surges in narratives about NATO, Ukraine’s amended mobilization law, Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi, and ammunition depletion. (Source: DFRLab via Telegram)

In the period immediately following Russia’s offensive against Avdiivka, the pro-Russian Telegram channel Legitimniy posted a message boasting about Russia’s foreseen seizure of Avdiivka as “negating the entire result of the [Ukrainian] summer offensive operation in the Azov area” and claiming that “the loss of Avdiivka will hit Zelenskyy’s rating before the possible 2024 elections.” (The Ukrainian constitution forbids the organization of presidential elections during wartime.) The initial post received more than two million views. Later, Ukrainian pro-Russian military blogger Yuriy Podolyak reposted this message, reaching an additional audience of 1.6 million views.

Pro-Russian channel Legitimniy boasts about Russian military successes and Ukrainian defeat as Russian armed forces attack Avdiivka.
Pro-Russian channel Legitimniy boasts about Russian military successes and Ukrainian defeat as Russian armed forces attack Avdiivka. (Source: Telegram/archive)

As fighting stalled in late 2023, Legitimnyi alleged that Russia had inflicted heavy losses on Ukrainian armed forces and accused Ukrainian leadership of “keeping quiet about losses in Bankova Street,” a reference to the location of President Zelenskyy’s office in Kyiv.

As Russian forces closed in on seizing the city, the DFRLab observed another surge in narratives targeting Ukrainian leadership, specifically Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi. A Telegram post by the channel Rezident spread unsubstantiated narratives drawing a parallel with the seizure of Bakhmut in May 2023. “Syrskyi promised Zelenskyy to keep Bakhmut, but [Bakhmut] fell because of Wagner,” it wrote. “Now the new leader promises to keep Avdiivka despite the critical situation,” The post garnered approximately 700,000 views within the first 24 hours.

The Ukrainian fact-checking organization Detector Media debunked narratives targeting Syrskyi, including one claiming that his son would have “congratulated Russians on the capture of Avdiivka.” The Ukrainian media outlet UNN debunked another narrative claiming Syrskyi’s son lived in Russia. These narratives targeting military leadership showcase a continued effort to undermine Ukrainian support. In December 2023, the DFRLab identified inauthentic accounts attempting to defame Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on TikTok, which at the time was the largest disinformation operation uncovered on the video platform.

Pro-Russian Telegram channels target Ukraine’s mobilization reforms

As the battled for Avdiivka continued in December 2023, the Ukrainian government announced on December 26 that it had submitted amendments to the mobilization bill for parliamentary review. The DFRLab observed an increase in messages targeting Russian speakers in Ukraine, with pro-Kremlin Telegram channels posting approximately 2,900 messages containing the word “mobilization” between October 1 and December 31. In particular, observed a surge in references to mobilization in December, with forty-five channels posting 784 messages, particularly on December 26, the day the government announced the amendments. Ten channels accounted for more than 500 messages in that period, acting as the main spreaders of narratives about Ukrainian mobilization.

Chart shows that as Ukraine sought to amend its mobilization law, ten pro-Russian Telegram channels published more than 500 messages amplifying narratives about the amendments. (Source: DFRLab via Telegram)

On December 17, the Legitimnyi channel spread unverified claims in a post accusing Ukrainian leadership of lowering the age of conscription to twenty-three and claiming women would be drafted, reaching an audience of nearly 500,000. Further, the DFRLab found that this post appeared on fraudulent news outlets that the French disinformation watchdog VIGINUM had exposed in February 2024.

A screen capture of TGStat showing the reach of Legitimnyi’s post on December 17, 2023. (Source: TGStat)
A screen capture of TGStat showing the reach of Legitimnyi’s post on December 17, 2023. (Source: TGStat)

The cumulative views for messages mentioning mobilization posted during the period of December 19 to December 28 averaged 3.5 million daily views, with a peak of 9.2 million views on December 26 across seventy-nine posts. The primary narrative spread during this period alleged that there were disagreements between former Ukrainian General and Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valeryi Zaluzhnyy, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, and President Zelenskyy over the mobilization bill draft. Zelenskyy ultimately dismissed Valeryy Zaluzhnyy on February 8 and appointed Oleksandr Syrskyi as commander-in-chief.

Among the most protracted narratives spread from October 1 to December 23:

1. Conscription of women (“моблизация женщин,” 141 messages) – This narrative alleged that women could be drafted and sent to fight on the frontlines. At the time of writing, no “compulsory mobilization of women” had been mentioned in the latest installment of the mobilization bill passed by the Ukrainian Parliament on April 11, 2024.

 2. Total mobilization (“тотальная мобилизация,” 95 messages) – This term erroneously suggests that all Ukrainian men could be sent to the frontline, which is unrealistic.

3. Unlimited mobilization (“беспредельная мобилизация,” 39 messages) – Russian media used this term to describe the alleged forcible conscription of Ukrainian men, often against their will, to replenish the frontlines. The Russian word for “unlimited,” беспредельная, also implied that the mobilization lacks rules.

During the observation period, the DFRLab found that the narrative concerning the conscription of women began modestly but later increased in volume, with nearly 9,000 forwards on December 18, 2023. The “total mobilization” narrative peaked on December 26, 2023. The “boundless mobilization” narrative received the fewest shares of the three narratives.

Chart compares the cumulative number of times posts mentioning “total mobilization,” “women’s mobilization,” and “boundless mobilization” were forwarded on Telegram between October 1 and December 31, 2023. (Source: DFRLab via Flourish)

Russian narrative cites former US officials to allege that NATO is secretly sending soldiers to Ukraine

Since at least January 2024, pro-Kremlin channels have also spread a narrative that claims NATO either has soldiers already in Ukraine or that it is secretly sending its forces to the country. Various iterations of the narrative appeared at different stages of the battle for Avdiivka. The DFRLab analyzed Telegram posts from 48 active pro-Kremlin channels representing multiple networks. Ten of these channels belong to the “UKR Leaks” network managed by Vasily Prozorov, a former Ukrainian secret service employee who lives in Russia and supports the war against Ukraine. The remaining thirty-eight channels comprised three previously identified networks – Surf Noise, Info Defense, and Node of Time.

To establish credibility, the pro-Kremlin channels often cited US figures, such as retired officers, diplomats, or politicians. We found that one of the earliest claims related to NATO was posted on January 22, 2024, via a Telegram channel belonging to the UKR Leaks network. The post claimed that “NATO sends its soldiers to Ukraine privately” and cited an interview that former US diplomat Matthew Bryza gave to the private Ukrainian media outlet Espreso TV. In the interview, Bryza stated, “The limit is putting actual NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine. However, there are some members of NATO we’ve talked about sending not under the NATO umbrella but their own military capabilities to Ukraine.” The Telegram post was then reposted by other pro-Kremlin channels in multiple languages.

Following the claim attributed to Bryza, the channels amplified another statement from retired US Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, who said on X that “400 Americans have died in Ukraine” since the war began. The statement was used on Telegram as evidence that US “mercenaries” are fighting in Ukraine against Russia. The Kremlin-owned media outlet TASS also amplified it as proof that the Russian Investigative Committee’s claim that “US mercenaries” were fighting in Ukraine. MacGregor’s other statements were also amplified during the battle for Avdiivka, including allegations that Chief of the General Staff Oleksandr Syrskyi received orders from the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence services, or that “Washington [was] dragging NATO into a proxy war.”

Later, the narrative was augmented by claims originating from Russian state-run outlets RIA Novosti and Sputnik. On February 3, RIA Novosti reported that the United Kingdom had proposed to secretly send NATO forces to Ukraine, citing an undisclosed source. Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels translated these claims into English, French, Spanish, German, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish to reach a wider audience. Some of these posts relied on speculative comments made by retired US figures like US Army veteran Earl Rasmussen or retired CIA analyst Larry Johnson, whose statements are frequently cited by Sputnik.

Following the Ukrainian retreat from Avdiivka, the NATO narrative appeared in reports from TASS, RIA Novosti and in a statement from Igor Kimakovsky, the adviser to the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who claimed “NATO country insignias” were found on the uniforms of deceased soldiers.

The narrative purporting NATO’s alleged presence in Ukraine appeared to be somewhat successful in reaching a wider audience via translated content. We discovered that a Turkish Telegram channel, previously flagged by the DFRLab for spreading disinformation, shared a post alleging that NATO had been using the tunnels with which Russia gained control in Avdiivka to launch attacks on Donetsk.

Overall, pro-Kremlin channels published dozens of posts claiming that foreign mercenaries, including from Colombia, France, Finland, and South America, are fighting in Ukraine. The claims relied on reports from Kremlin media or other pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and comments made by individuals like Johnson, Nicolas Cinquini, a self-described former French intelligence officer, and Russian military analyst Alexander Artamonov.

Mercenary narratives spread to Russian activity against Kharkiv

In January 2024, amid Russian strikes in Kharkiv, the channels propagated unsubstantiated claims that French mercenaries were present in the city. On January 22, pro-Kremlin channels posted an alleged list of names of French mercenaries, originally shared by Anna Novikova, head of SOS Donbass. While French authorities denied the claims, the fact-checking organization Gwara Media found that the list spread online was comprised of names of volunteers who were not located in Kharkiv. One day later, when Russian missiles struck residential areas in Kharkiv, the channels denied that civilians were targeted, insisting that the school was the “right target” because it was “a location of Ukrainian armed forces” and “mercenaries.”  Allegations about French mercenaries were shared in several languages, including Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, and Polish.

To further the mercenary narrative, Telegram channels published a statement from Johnson, who is often presented as a US expert, alongside a video claiming to show “French mercenaries in Kharkiv.” The video dates back to November 2022. Telegram channels captioned the footage to mislead their audience into believing that “French mercenaries killed in the SMO [special military operation] zone were professional soldiers.”

Information operations about mercenaries were not limited to Telegram. AFP debunked another video that spread on TikTok which alleged that French troops are in Ukraine. AFP found that the original video was from Poland.

On April 26, Logically Facts reported that fabricated and misrepresented quotes from French President Emmanual Macron and an impersonated French government website were used in March 2024 to push the mercenaries narrative. Pro-Kremlin Bulgarian channels cited the same fake French recruitment website and treated it as a legitimate website to claim that France is recruiting 200,000 French soldiers to fight in Ukraine. The Ministry of Armed Forces of France warned users on X that it was a fake government website.

There are no signs that Russia will cease utilizing these narratives in the near term. If anything, Russia’s May 2024 push into Kharkiv Oblast serves as a new opportunity to expand these narratives in an effort to further undermine Ukraine’s morale and its Western partners’ confidence in it.

Cite this case study:

Valentin Châtelet, Sayyara Mammadova, and Ruslan Trad, “Russian information operations targeted Ukraine and NATO during the battle for Avdiivka,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 22, 2024,