On April 5, journalists asked Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov about reports that a Ukrainian military drone caused an explosion in Donbas that killed a 5-year-old child. The report emerged from social media channels operated by Russian proxies who control eastern Ukraine along the Russian border.
A variety of pro-Moscow media outlets in Russia and Ukraine quickly picked up the story. On April 5, Russia’s Investigative Committee said it was opening a case. That is despite the fact that the incident in question purportedly took place in a foreign country where Russian law enforcement has no authority.
Russia denies any involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine despite overwhelming evidence that it supports separatist rebels and their self-proclaimed republics in the area.
Peskov told reporters:
"I don’t have verified information about the child’s death. However, I see no reason to question the reports that came from the self-proclaimed republics ... It’s certainly hard to imagine someone spreading fake news about the death of a child."
This is misleading: In fact, there are good reasons to question the news from Russia’s proxies in Donbas and Russian state media, since they have an established record of coordinating and fabricating false news, including disinformation that involves children.
First, there is the unsubstantiated case at hand – a 5-year-old allegedly killed by a Ukrainian drone. Although the story gained rapid traction in Russian social and state media, authorities of the rebel-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) released no names or personal details of the child or its family.
Initially, some sources reported that the incident happened in Oleksandrivka, a town near the front lines. However, the location later changed to another settlement called Oleksandrivske, and this became the official version given by the DNR authorities, as well as the Russian Investigative Committee.
This time, DNR and Russia’s investigators provided specific information about the incident – a home address in the town of Oleksandrivske, 2nd Dorozhnaya Street, 36. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM), which observes and records casualty incidents in eastern Ukraine on daily basis, did not report any such incident until April 6.
“On 2 April in Donetsk region (part of Donbas), a child died due to blast trauma and shrapnel wounds in non-government-controlled Oleksandrivske; and a man was injured due to shelling in government-controlled Krasnohorivka,” the OSCE SMM report stated.
Yet nothing in the report suggests the child was killed as a result of combat activity.
The choice of Oleksandrivske is significant because that town is approximately 30 kilometers from the front line. This puts it out of range for the type of makeshift attack drones used by both sides in the conflict – i.e., civilian drones modified to drop small explosive munitions or grenades.
Social media chatter from the territory reported that a child had been killed by an explosion, though not from a Ukrainian drone. On the Russian social networking site VK, a user named Valentina Iskritskaya responded to the story in a pro-DNR group chat:
“Yes, it happened yesterday, but not because of a drone. I am from this village. The owner had a mine, and his grandson found it. I do not understand why people are lied to. My condolences.”
Another VK user also said the victim's parents live in a nearby village and said their child was killed by a mine his grandfather had kept in the yard since 2014 or 2015, or early in the war.
In this case, "mine” could refer to a land mine or a mortar shell.
The Ukrainian volunteer counter-disinformation organization StopFake reported that it reached a person who has relatives in the village of Oleksandrivske. According to StopFake, the story the story matched the account in Iskritskaya’s VK comment: A man had collected and kept at home some kind of ammunition, and it exploded.
StopFake also found that pro-Russian sources circulated a misattributed photo that purportedly showed the victim. The child in the photo is clearly younger than five years old; a search revealed the photo is from 2014 and shows Ivan Yermilov, who, along with his father Vladimir, was killed in July 2014 by an artillery round that hit their house during fighting near Kramatorsk.
On April 6, Russian war correspondent Alexander Kots wrote about the latest incident for the Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. He said the child who was killed in the blast was named Vladislav Shikhov and was four years old, not five years old. Kots' story included photos of a boy that do not match the photos of Ivan Yermilov circulated on social media.
Kots offered no evidence to support claims that Shikhov was killed by a drone strike. He attempted to rebut claims that a drone could not have flown 30 kilometers behind the front lines, pointing out that rebels in Syria have used homemade drones that reportedly can travel much further. However, such drones are not known to be in use in the Donbas conflict.
As for Peskov’s inability to imagine fake news about the death of a child, no imagination is necessary. There have been two high-profile cases in which Russia’s proxies, aided by Russian state media, invented children who were purportedly killed by Ukrainian forces.
The most infamous of these was in the summer of 2014, after Ukrainian forces captured territory from Russian proxy forces. Russian state media interviewed an alleged “refugee” who claimed to have witnessed Ukrainian soldiers kill a mother and crucify her son.
In 2015, pro-Russian and Russian state media reported that Ukrainian shelling had killed a 10-year-old girl near Donetsk. A BBC reporter attempted to track down details about the girl (again, no names were given), and was unable to find anyone in the town where the incident allegedly occurred who knew anything about it or the putative victim.
The local morgue said it had not received a body. A member of a TV crew that reported the girl's death admitted to the BBC that the girl didn’t exist, with another crew member saying: “We had to broadcast it.”
Peskov’s comment comes against a background of rising military tensions in the region as Russia builds up its forces in Crimea and along Ukraine’s borders. As a result, the U.S. military’s command in Europe has raised its alert status to its highest level.