Washington believes Russia’s continued invasion is all but certain and all Russia needs now is an excuse.
The past few days have seen a massive military escalation by Russian-controlled forces in Donbas, who have been shelling Ukrainian positions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Feb. 19 reported 1,500 ceasefire violations, the highest number this year.
There were also reports of explosions in occupied areas, including a car bomb in the city of Donetsk on Feb. 18. On Feb. 20, reports of a big explosion in Donetsk appeared in the media, with images of a smoke plume.
Simultaneously, Russia unleashed a tidal wave of disinformation, accusing Ukraine of being responsible for the shelling and explosions and accusing it of planning to invade.
Ukraine’s president, its military commander-in-chief and foreign minister have repeatedly stated that Ukraine has no plans to invade the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Russia massed over 150,000 Russian troop along the Ukrainian border and in the occupied territories.
While Russia has used propaganda as its vanguard in its hybrid war against Ukraine, it’s recently kicked into high gear. The volume of disinformation has jumped from 8,000 posts per day in December to more than 20,000 now, the LA Times reported, citing London-based disinformation-tracking firm Logically.
Much of Russia’s and its militants’ false claims have been crude, having little evidence or easily disproved. However, plausibility has never been the point of Russia’s disinformation, said Kseniya Kirillova, an expert on Russia who writes for the Center for European Policy Analysis.
"Russia is not worried about the believability of its excuses," she said, recalling the 2014 propaganda campaign about how Ukraine would set up concentration camps or the fake news from the same year that a boy had been crucified in the city of Sloviansk.
"It's important to make it plausible in the Russian audience's eyes,” as the Western audience wouldn’t buy it either way, she said.
Still, Kirillova believes Western experts and politicians got "so carried away with the search for an excuse for aggression that they don't perceive Russia's actions as already ongoing aggression.” The recent shelling has already killed and injured multiple Ukrainian soldiers.
President Volodymyr Zelensky berated world leaders at the Munich Security Conference, asking them where their sanctions were given Russia’s aggression and Western certainty that a deeper invasion will happen no matter what.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to spread the message that “genocide” is taking place in the Donbas. This rhetoric of “genocide” is very common and well-worn in polemics in former Soviet Union countries, according to journalist and scholar Matthew Kupfer.
The OSCE has rejected the Russian president’s allegations of genocide as “reprehensible falsehood.” The mission has “complete access to the government controlled areas of Ukraine and has never reported anything remotely resembling Russia’s claims.”
But the accusations and threats about supposed attacks on ethnic Russians, Russian speakers or Russian citizens who were given passports, seem to be intended for a Russian audience that distrusts Western organizations like the OSCE.
To drive home the likelihood of a supposed invasion, the occupation authorities even ordered a mass evacuation of civilians into Russia, except men aged 18-55, who were ordered to mobilize for possible battle.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Ukraine was responsible for the "first strikes" in the recent spike of artillery attacks and said that "Ukraine's excessive military build-up" and "possible provocations" could be dangerous.
Recently, a map started popping up on Telegram channels that cover the conflict, pointing out the supposed positions of Ukrainian forces and their supposed attack paths into the self-declared Russian proxy “republics” in Dontesk and Luhansk oblasts.
On Feb. 17, as the Russian-led militants’ shelling campaign kicked into high gear, a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, a town in Ukrainian territory, was struck, blowing open a hole in its wall and injuring three people, but not affecting any of the children inside.
Russian Telegram channels, followed by news outlets like RIA Novosti immediately started spreading the news that the shell was actually fired by Ukrainian troops and some insisted that the kindergarten was actually located in occupied territory. Pro-Russian content producers claimed it was part of a large-scale bombardment by Ukrainian forces.
A Telegram channel supposedly run by the self-proclaimed "Luhansk People's Republic" alleged that based on the blast, the projectile could only have come from the east, from Ukrainian positions. Watchdog organization InformNapalm fact checked this claim and said the projectile most likely came from the "LPR."
Later, some local information sources switched gears and accused Ukraine of supposedly falsifying the kindergarten attack. The occupation “authorities” have continued to accuse Ukraine of shelling multiple settlements in occupied areas.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba asked partners to condemn the attack, which Zelensky called “a big provocation.”
Russia continues to accuse Ukraine of what the militants have been doing – violating ceasefire with artillery. Russian media reported that a shell fired from Ukraine exploded in Russia’s Rostov Region, which borders Ukraine, damaging some properties, followed by a second explosion, this time caused by a Grad rocket. Photos of the remains of a munition accompanied these reports.
Russia's Investigative Committee said it has opened a criminal investigation into supposed shelling in Rostov. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Committee, ordered a criminal investigation to be opened into the supposed killings of civilians in occupied areas by Ukrainian attacks. The statement alleged that a 67-year-old civilian was killed by shrapnel in Donetsk and two more civilians were killed in Luhansk after heavy shelling. No evidence was provided and the identities of the victims were not disclosed.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny said that Ukrainian forces did not shell occupied territories or Russia.
Russia’s proxies have also claimed that Ukrainian forces attempted to blow up dangerous ammonia tanks at the Stirol chemical plant in the city of Horlivka. The militants accused Ukraine of plotting to strike oil and chlorine reservoirs.
The U.S. has been warning of this scenario for weeks, believing that a staged attack against Donbas’ chemical plants would be the major excuse Russia would need to order a large-scale invasion to proceed. In December, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu said that U.S. mercenaries may try to release chemical agents in the area.
The Defense Intelligence of Ukraine reported last month that Russian-led militants released toxic ammonia gas into the atmosphere on Jan. 14.
There are many more stories floating around on Telegram channels and other social media. Narratives include an accusation that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) would hunt down journalists, bloggers, and public opinion leaders in large Ukrainian cities, written by militant affiliate Oleg Tsaryov. Or a comment by Russian reporter Semyon Pegov, accusing Ukrainian forces of planning to blow up refugees going from occupied Donbas into Russia.
Traditional Russian media frequently pick these up and report them without verifying, according to multiple researchers who have studied disinformation.
Ksenia Illyuk of think tank Detector Media said that a famous tactic of Telegram channels and the media that re-report them is to present the news as someone's opinion or words from anonymous sources, to obviate the obligation to prove their assertions.
While it may be difficult to get away from fake news for people living in occupied areas, where access to independent media is restricted, people who have more options would do well to heed the advice of Eliot Higgins, the founder of investigative agency Bellingcat.
Russian-backed militants “have been caught red-handed fabricating the pre-text for a Russian invasion, so take any new Russian claims about anything with a big pinch of salt," Higgins wrote on Twitter.