Editor's Note: An update is appended at the end of this fact check.
Chinese state media has recently reported on the alleged recovery of a laptop “with a licensed NATO registry number” from “one of the headquarters of Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group in Ukraine.”
A report on China’s state-run CCTV claimed the information released by the Russian Defense Ministry and pro-Kremlin separatist forces in Donbas provided evidence that, “NATO distributed weapons to deeply interfere in Ukrainian situation.”
“Donetsk civil militia leader [Denis Pushilin] said that a laptop containing intelligence information on Donbas and Crimea was found in the headquarters of the Ukrainian ‘Right Sector’ party, which has been controlled by civil militia. These messages carry the NATO logo,” CCTV reported.
"Civil militia" refers to the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), a self-proclaimed state and Russia-backed rebel group which declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014. Denis Pushilin is the current head of the DNR.
During a press conference on March 6, Pushilin commented on the DNR’s alleged acquisition of the laptop from Right Sector, and the information it contains.
“The militants of the [Ukrainian] nationalists battalions have a special level of security clearance from the North Atlantic Alliance [NATO]. This laptop contains a detailed map of the area with the location of our units.”
He also alleged the Ukrainian military planned to attack Crimea and Donbas in the spring of 2022.
“According to our intelligence and the testimony of prisoners, an offensive operation was supposed to begin on 8 March of this year,” Russia’s Sputnik news agency quoted Pushilin as saying.
“The facts indicate that the invasion was planned simultaneously both on the territory of the republics of Donbas and in Russia's Crimea.”
Neither the initial Russian reports or Chinese media have provided any corroborating evidence for this alleged plan to retake eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
When political commentator Maria Dubovikova, who routinely spreads Russian disinformation, first shared the story on Twitter, she was widely ridiculed.
Netizens took issue with details regarding the computer.
The laptop was scrutinized for how old it is, with many online commentators questioning whether it even worked. Political analyst Arieh Kovler, for example, identified the laptop as a 14-year-old Lenovo R500, which came with the long-discontinued Windows Vista operating system.
Others mocked the fact the laptop bears several stickers labeling it as a NATO computer, and had duct tape affixed to the bottom right side.
One online commentator said: “Surprised it doesn't say, ‘Secret NATO Computer’.”
Another wrote: “Hey, at least they went to the effort of making a ‘NATO’ asset tag sticker for it. A+ for effort, lads.”
Others noted that a laptop of that age “would fail security audits,” and otherwise be “incompatible with security systems used at NATO.”
Those criticisms aside, the laptop in fact was at one time NATO property.
A NATO official confirmed to Polygraph.info that while a review is ongoing into how the laptop ended up in the hands of Russian-supported forces, “initial findings are that this computer was sold as surplus several years ago in line with standard procedures.”
The NATO official said there “weren’t any classified files on the computer when it was sold.”
Responding to the report on March 6, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, David van Weel, said on Twitter:
"We don't work on 15 year old laptops at NATO. Then we would have just as bad information as you in this war of Russia against Ukraine and its innocent civilians.”
Still, there is no evidence that Ukraine’s military was mobilizing to recapture Crimea and Donbas on March 8.
Nor is there evidence NATO was collaborating with Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian political party and paramilitary movement, or that NATO gave Right Sector’s members “a special level of security clearance.”
Right Sector has long featured in Russian disinformation seeking to discredit Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan revolution, Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the Kremlin’s clandestine invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, freelance journalist Hanna Kozlowska reported that Right Sector “was the second-most mentioned political group in Russian mass media in 2014.”
Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, for example, apparently fabricated a story that Right Sector was “destroying” the local Jewish community in Odesa.
Analysts say, however, that Russian media have drastically overstated Right Sector’s capability.
“The Right Sector is a minuscule group of people who have no – and never had – meaningful resources to recapture either Donbas or Crimea,” Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the European radical right, told Polygraph.info.
Russian disinformation, which has long attempted to paint the 2014 Ukrainian Maidan revolt as a right-wing coup d’état, has falsely accused Ukraine’s security services of having created Right Sector. It has further alleged, without evidence, that the United States and NATO finance Right Sector.
The group has never had broad public support. In Ukraine’s May 2014 presidential elections, the Right Sector candidate only received 0.7% of the vote in the May 2014 presidential elections. Right Sector won just 1.8% of the vote in the October 2014 parliamentary elections.
All of Ukraine’s far-right forces united for the 2019 parliamentary elections, but still only won 2.15% of the vote — not enough to gain a single seat.
On its website, Right Sector says its military wing, the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, “fights against the subversive forces of the enemy in the rear, setting itself the task of liberating all Ukrainian lands from Russian occupation.”
Many Ukrainian militias that formed in response to Russia’s clandestine invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 have since been integrated into Ukraine’s armed forces.
For example, the far-right Azov Battalion has a regiment within Ukraine’s National Guard.
Like other militant organizations, Shekhovtsov said, “there was a very small group” within Right Sector that refused to join Ukraine’s armed forces.
In 2014, Right Sector former leader Dmitry Yarosh claimed the entire group (political and military wing) had 10,000 members. Outside, contemporary estimates on Right Sector’s membership or the size of its military segment are unavailable, however.
Update: Following publication, NATO was able to provide more clarity on when the laptop was sold and what information it contained.
"The laptop was only used for unclassified communication, that means that no classified material was ever handled/stored on it. It was sold as surplus, used stock in 2015 to a company that is specialized in the further use of such surplus equipment. At this point, no NATO data was on the laptop. We cannot verify the authenticity of the stickers, but it is possible that they were left on the laptop before its sale. Furthermore, the laptop was not sold with any documents," a NATO spokesperson said.