In 2018, the Russian government and state-controlled media pushed classic narratives on topics like Syria and Ukraine. But the year’s events forced them to come up with new twists on those old topics, while a new scandal, the Salisbury poisoning, forced Russia’s propagandists to fight on a completely new front.
Syria- New Chemical Attacks, New Accusations
In April, a chlorine gas attack in Douma, Syria, took the lives of several dozen civilians in one of the town’s apartment buildings. As usual, Russia’s Defense Ministry and state media worked quickly to deflect blame, pushing a counter-narrative that alternated between implying that the chemical attack was carried out by the opposition and that it was a staged hoax. Since an open source investigation found that the chlorine canister in Douma had been dropped from the air, and the rebels had no aviation assets, most Russian coverage of the event leaned toward the narrative that the attack was staged.
For example, a story on the Rossiya-1 state television channel featured an interview with Hassan Diab, a boy shown being treated for possible chemical exposure in a video posted after the attack. The 11-year-old told the Rossiya-1 reporter through an interpreter that there was no chemical attack and that rescue workers took him and other children to the local hospital to stage the aftermath of chlorine poisoning. Suspicious viewers in the open source intelligence community quickly determined the location of the interview -- the courtyard of the Syrian Army Officers’ Club in Damascus. Needless to say, Diab and his father may have felt those surroundings intimidating.
The same Rossiya-1 news segment featured photos of what it said were camera crews staging a fake chemical attack in Syria. The photos were quickly identified as having been taken on the set of a short film shot several years prior to the Douma attack. Nonetheless, the theme of staged chemical attacks took off among Russian officials and state media in 2018. On multiple occasions Russian state media reported that the Russian Defense Ministry had uncovered plans to stage and film fake chemical attacks in various locations around Syria. At times it seemed as though the Defense Ministry had extremely detailed information about where and when the chemical attacks would be filmed and staged, yet they did not explain how they got such accurate information and provided no evidence that fake chemical attacks were being staged in Syria. Interestingly, none of these imminent fake chemical attacks ever materialized, despite the Defense Ministry’s multiple warnings. Occasionally, official Russian state social media posted photos of film crews and actors, but on each occasion, the photos were identified as having come from a film production – in particular, the Syrian government-sponsored film Revolution Man. So while Russia provided no evidence for these staged chemical attacks, it has tried to pass off mislabeled photos to “prove” its claims.
Ukraine: MH17, Provocations at Sea, and "Holy War"
This year also saw Russian disinfo harping on two favorite themes from Ukraine -- new, contradictory theories denying blame for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, and claims that the Maidan revolution was a U.S.-financed “coup,” helped by mercenary snipers.
In the MH17 case, last December the Russian Defense Ministry channel TV Zvezda produced an “eyewitness” who claimed to have seen a Ukrainian a Buk surface-to-air missile system in the vicinity of where the Malaysian airliner was shot down. While this claim was easily debunked, it was in line with the current Russian theory, which is based on an “investigation” carried out by Almaz-Antey, the Russian state-owned company that manufactures the Buk. But in March this year, a Ukrainian Air Force captain, Vladyslav Voloshyn, committed suicide. Voloshyn had been named in an earlier Russian conspiracy theory as the military pilot responsible for shooting down MH17 – a theory which, among other things, contradicts other Russian claims about the airliner being downed by a Ukrainian Buk missile. Following Voloshyn’s suicide, Russian state media refloated conspiracy theories that the officer might have been murdered due to some connection to the MH17 case. Later on, Russian officials and media returned to the claim that a Ukrainian Buk was responsible for the tragedy that claimed 298 lives.
Another 2014 Russian disinformation classic that got a new twist in 2018 involved Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which President Vladimir Putin and other Russian authorities repeatedly referred to as a coup against Ukraine’s “legitimate” leader, former President Viktor Yanukovych. In reality, while it was indeed a revolution of sorts, it was not a coup, which is typically understood as an undemocratic change of power undertaken from within a country’s ruling elite. Evidence shows that Yanukovych was making plans to leave the Ukrainian capital before he signed a deal on February 21, 2014, that was designed to end the disorder in the streets. Yanukovych initially only left the capital, but when it became clear that his own party had abandoned him, he sought refuge in Russia, where he remains to this day.
A new chapter in the drama between Russia and Ukraine opened on November 25 of this year, when Russian coast guard vessels attacked and captured three Ukrainian naval vessels which were preparing to transit the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. As usual, the Kremlin propaganda machine sprang to life almost immediately. One Russian official denied that a Russian coast guard vessel rammed one of the Ukrainian boats despite video of the attack being widely disseminated almost immediately afterward. Later, Moscow denied that it had blockaded the strait to Ukrainian shipping after the incident, although this too was found to be untrue. Putin himself made several creative claims about the incident and its background, which Polygraph.info debunked.
In response to the incident, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko declared a state of martial law in ten regions of Ukraine. Russian media seized on this action, not only ignoring the fact that Ukraine’s parliament forced Poroshenko to greatly reduce the martial law regime’s time and provisions, but providing a false explanation of the motives behind the Ukrainian president’s decision. Once again, Polygraph.info provided the facts.
Salisbury: A New Front in the Information War
One 2018 scandal wrong-footed the Kremlin’s spin-doctors and had them working overtime. It began with the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, on March 4. While both survived and recovered from their encounter with the deadly Russian nerve agent known as “Novichok,” two British citizens in a nearby town were also poisoned when they came into contact with a discarded container that was apparently used to transport the chemical agent. Dawn Sturgess, one of the latter two victims, died as a result.
Almost immediately, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine went into high gear, floating dozens of alternative explanations as to who could have poisoned the Skripals. The EU vs. Disinfo organization counted nearly 37 different alternative narratives about the poisonings within the space of about two weeks. Polygraph.info documented another claim as late as May. Like many previous alternative explanations, this one accused Western authorities of deliberately poisoning the victims in order to frame Russia.
So far, apart from the number and rapidity of new alternative explanations, there has been little difference between Russia’s disinformation strategy on Salisbury and that used for Syria or Ukraine. But things took a bizarre turn after British authorities released names and photos of the suspected poisoners, and Russian state TV decided to bring the two out into the open. In an exclusive interview with Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT (Russia Today), the two men, known as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, said they were only in Salisbury as tourists. Their story about wanting to see the spire of Salisbury cathedral, only to be turned back by streets clogged with snow and ice (a description contradicted by photos and weather reports from that day) quickly melted under international scrutiny. Despite this, the Kremlin continued to deny involvement even as the two men were exposed as GRU agents Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin.
The United States: "A Hotbed of Russophobia?"
The United States imposed new sanctions on Russia this year connected to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the poisoning of the Skripals, also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats and closing properties operated by the Russian embassy in the U.S. According to Russian officials, however, the sanctions are simply the result of “Russophobia,” and have nothing to do with Moscow’s actions.
The Russian narrative concerning sanctions and their effects is particularly contradictory. For example, in April this year, Russia’s foreign minister accused the U.S. of trying to wage “genocide” via sanctions. Similarly, Russian officials have wrongly claimed that U.S. sanctions on Russia are “illegal.” However, the sanctions coin has a flipside -- on the one hand, they’re “illegal” and "genocidal"; on the other -- they’re totally ineffective and Russia is immune to their effects. The latter claims, like the former, are equally false.
A recent case of alleged “Russophobia” is that of Maria Butina, the Russian national who was arrested in the U.S. earlier this year on charges of acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government after trying to forge ties with the National Rifle Association. She agreed to a plea deal by which she would cooperate with investigators in the Mueller probe into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. Putin himself commented on the case, referring to Butina as a “poor girl” and feigning ignorance as to her identity. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also weighed in on the case, claiming that Butina was compelled into agreeing to a plea deal due to the conditions of her incarceration. Polygraph.info examined both claims.
Next Year in Disinfo
Ukraine, the U.S., Syria and sanctions are likely to dominate Russian disinfo in 2019. Still, as 2018 demonstrated, old narratives can suddenly be injected with new life when a headline-grabbing event takes place. The chemical attack in Douma was one such event in Syria, while the Kerch Strait incident was another, this time in Ukraine. With a presidential election set to take place in Ukraine in March and U.S. forces set to exit Syria even sooner, new narratives are likely to emerge from Moscow very early next year.