It has been more than 15 months since Russia launched its 3-day “special military operation” against Ukraine. As Russia’s war of aggression keeps dragging on with no victory in sight for the invaders, the Kremlin needs to keep coming up with new excuses on why nothing is going according to plan.
One of the juicier claims that recently came out(opens in a new tab) of the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem is an idea that Ukrainian soldiers use drugs that turn them into modern-day berserkers: “The substances made the soldiers imperceptible to small arms bullet strikes. A bullet knocks him off his feet, but he gets up and carries on walking like there is no pain – so powerful are the drugs”. This came hand-in-hand with a claim that Ukraine has been running military pharmaceutical programs and developing psychoactive drugs for combat use for years.
Russia’s claims about miracle drugs are anything but new. Last August, the chief of the Russian army’s radiation, chemical and biological protection force alluded(opens in a new tab) that Ukrainian soldiers use drugs that, as a side effect, cause excessive aggressiveness, explaining their “extreme cruelty towards the civilian population”. Similar unfounded allegations were also made(opens in a new tab) during the Orange Revolution.
The fog of war machine
Sowing confusion and demoralizing one’s enemy is an integral part of wartime propaganda. In efforts to demonstrate Russia’s alleged military might and dishearten Ukrainians, pro-Kremlin outlets often spread ludicrous claims about Ukrainian top brass. For example, pro-Kremlin voices have repeatedly claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fled(opens in a new tab) Ukraine, that he committed(opens in a new tab) a suicide, or that he has(opens in a new tab) a body double.
Recently, the head of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov was locked in such crosshairs. On 3 June, a message referring to a supposed news article from telegraf.com.ua(opens in a new tab), a Ukrainian news outlet, reporting on the alleged death of the Budanov, was posted(opens in a new tab) on Telegram. Within the next 48 hours, the post was re-shared on Telegram by at least 16 channels and quoted by at least another 20. The story was also pushed(opens in a new tab) to Twitter. Two days later, on 5 July, an article reporting on the rumor of Budanov’s death was published by RIA Novosti(opens in a new tab). That article was in turn quoted by several other well-known Kremlin-controlled disinformation outlets, such as the News Front(opens in a new tab). The story was quickly debunked(opens in a new tab) by no one else than telegraf.com.ua itself, but we can be all but sure that similar claims will keep heading our way from the Kremlin and their proxies.
Forgery and fakery are one of the quintessential instruments of the Kremlin’s information manipulation toolbox. Just this Tuesday, the French Government exposed(opens in a new tab) a vast and sophisticated information manipulation campaign against France involving Russian actors. Among other things, the campaign consisted of creating fake web pages hijacking the identity of national media outlets and French government websites as well as creating fake accounts on social media. The campaign unmasked by France seems to be the second wave of the Doppelgänger operation, which was uncovered(opens in a new tab) last year by EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based NGO, and Meta.
Recently, another interesting case popped up on our radar. On 8 February, Europress, a website that claims to be the “Official European News Website”, was registered(opens in a new tab) under the domain euro-press.net(opens in a new tab) by an anonymous entity. As all too often in similar cases, Europress does not disclose any information on its authors, funding, affiliation or location.
Things took an interesting turn just a few days after the website was registered. Namely, from 10 March to this day, around 7,000 articles originally published by the international edition of Sputnik, sputnikglobe.com (formerly sputniknews.com), have been re-published on the site. Currently, the website seems to exclusively re-share articles from Sputnik.
The website is very likely automated and depends on web crawlers, as most of the articles are published more(opens in a new tab) than(opens in a new tab) once(opens in a new tab) at different times, often within the same day. This seems to be an attempt to increase the visibility of the website itself and its content on search results. At this point, it is early to say whether there is a direct link between Europress and the Russian information manipulation ecosystem, but it is well worth keeping an eye on, as Russia has both a motive and the means to conduct such an operation.
Article and pictures first time published on the EUvsDisinfo web page. The article was prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.