On March 15, Operativnye Svodki (Operational Briefs), a Russian Internal Affairs Ministry-affiliated Telegram channel, reported that a group of Ukrainian nationalists attacked and badly injured an elderly man in Sevastopol, a Ukrainian Black Sea city occupied by Russia since 2014.
“In Sevastopol, Ukrainian nationalists beat up a 70-year-old pensioner who pasted the letter Z on his car … the elderly man was hospitalized with numerous injuries and a dislocated leg, now he is being treated on an outpatient basis.”
The Russian military in Ukraine uses a white letter “Z” as an identifier, while back in Russia it has become a symbol of support for the onslaught against multiple cities that Ukrainian authorities say has killed thousands of civilians. More than 3 million Ukrainian civilians have fled the country.
In the lead-up to the February 24 invasion, pro-Russian news sites and President Vladimir Putin tried to plant the idea that Russian-speakers in Ukraine have been harassed, necessitating their liberation and the “de-nazification” of the country. The news item about the elderly man’s purported beating by Ukrainian nationalists fits that line of disinformation. At the same time, Russia has effectively shut down objective reporting about what is happening in Ukraine with a law that makes it a crime to call the war there anything other than a “special military operation.”
The man’s story was picked up mainstream Russian media, including the state-owned TASS and RIA Novosti news agencies and the Gazprom-owned newspaper Kommersant, among others. It also spread through social media platforms, becoming a viral topic.
The story is a fabrication.
Video from surveillance cameras inside the grocery store, posted a day later by the same Telegram channel, shows not a group of Ukrainian nationalists, but just one man walking in, slapping an older man in the face, pushing him away and then walking out.
There was no group of Ukrainian nationalists, and no severe beating. The Russian media later reported that the victim of the slapping was a 70-year-old veteran of the Soviet KGB security service and the FSB, its Russian successor.
Another video on Telegram, stamped with the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry’s logo, showed footage of a heavily armed Russian special forces team enter a flat and wake up a young man, who appears confused and disoriented. The young man then signs some papers at the gunpoint, is handcuffed and escorted to a jail. The elderly slapping victim, who purportedly was in the hospital being treated for his alleged severe injuries, also briefly appears in this video before walking out of camera view.
The video continues with footage from inside the jail, where the arrested man explains that he “was drunk” when he saw a “Z” on a car parked outside a grocery store, making him “very sad.” He says he walked inside the store, “slapped the elderly man in the face and run away.” He then apologizes “before the residents of Sevastopol, and the man I assaulted.”
“Please, forgive me, this will never happen again, I regret my actions,” the man says.
This video, first posted by Operativnye Svodki in Telegram, has also been shared across the Russian social platform and reported by the mainstream media.
The caption to another video of the arrest, also posted by Operativnye Svodki, states that when searching the flat of the alleged slapper, Russian forces “found and confiscated” Ukraine’s coat of arms. It also said that messages expressing “extremely negative views about the actions of the Russian armed forces during the special operation” had been discovered on his mobile phone. “This hideous crime has been swiftly punished,” the post reads.
On March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting journalists from reporting “false information” about the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Violators face up to 15 years in prison.