Did Viktor Orbán just hint at Huxit?
2 February 2023
Following the news of the Bucha massacre, pro-Kremlin media in the Czech Republic used numerous false narratives to try and cover up the crime.
The Czech public was shocked when — following a Ukrainian counter-offensive that successfully liberated Bucha, a city in the Kyiv Oblast — photos and videos of Russian atrocities committed against the local residents started flooding the internet.
Following the release of footage by the Ukrainian army at the beginning of April, there have been calls from prominent international actors (like the United Nations and Amnesty International) to investigate the extra-judicial executions of civilians.
As of writing this article on the 25 April, the International Criminal Court has deployed a 42-member investigative team to Ukraine to collect evidence of possible war crimes.
Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) monitored Sputnik’s section on ‘Demilitarisation and Denazification of Ukraine,’ and specifically articles reporting on the ‘Bucha Massacre,’ to illustrate how Russian state-owned media report the atrocities committed by the Russian Federation’s (RF) army.
Generally, two narratives in the articles were identified.
First, Sputnik claimed that the massacre never happened and that it was all Western propaganda.
Second, it conceded that the massacre happened, but blamed the Kyiv government. These narratives were sometimes intertwined in the same article.
As supporting evidence of the claims, Sputnik used comments or official statements provided by the RF’s Ministry of Defense, or the regime’s key figures such as the Ambassador of Russia to the US, Anatoly Antonov, Director of the Investigative Committee of the RF, Alexander Bastrykin or Minister of Foreign Affairs of the RF, Sergey Lavrov.
All their claims have since then been refuted.
On 23 February 2022, one day before the invasion was launched, Sputnik started a new section on its website called the ‘Demilitarization and Denazification of Ukraine’. As the name suggests, this section publishes articles centred on the current conflict in Ukraine.
The date of the launch indicates certain pre-invasion preparation of Russian state-owned media for the military offensive. It was created specifically to report on the developments of the ‘special military operation’, to legitimise Russian actions in the eyes of its readers and to deny any allegations against Russia that may arise.
PSSI monitored the ‘Demilitarization and Denazification’ section for nine weeks from 23 February to 26 April. Overall, 737 articles were published in this section, with an average of almost 12 articles issued daily. The number of texts produced each week is depicted in the figure below.
Following the retreat of the Russian armed forces from the city of Bucha at the beginning of April, images of corpses lying on the streets with their hands tied began to surface. Subsequently, Russian authorities started denying Russian involvement in the massacre, claiming that all evidence concerning the atrocities committed was fake.
However, the claims of the Russian authorities have been debunked many times, and the authenticity of the footage obtained in Bucha after its liberation has been confirmed by renowned open-source intelligence investigative groups such as Bellingcat.
The ‘Bucha Massacre’ has become an infamous symbol of the invasion of Ukraine, and an important case study on the current Russian information war. The search function at Sputnik CZ’s website was used to single out articles about Bucha.
Specifically, the keyword and the ‘location tag’ Bucha were used to search for articles in the ‘Demilitarisation and Denazification’ section following the emergence of the first evidence of the massacre until the end of our monitoring period.
Overall, 23 articles reporting on the events in Bucha were identified. The first one was published on 3 April, and the last one on 19 April.
The first narrative firmly denied Kyiv’s statements about the civilian deaths in Bucha. According to Sputnik, the videos of Russian atrocities were fake and created by Ukrainian propaganda, and Russia was thus being framed.
It was narrated as a planned media action to discredit Russian actions in Ukraine.
Specifically, frequently reiterated was a comment of the RF’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) who claimed that the whole situation was a ‘provocation’ and that during the time that Bucha was under the control of the Russian armed forces, not a single local resident suffered any harm.
Another frequently cited claim by the MOD was that the Russian armed forces left the village on 30 March, and that ‘evidence about the crimes’ surfaced only 4 days later, which, according to them, was proof that the massacre was staged after they departed.
This narrative was also reiterated by the RF’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, who claimed that after the Russian forces retreated from the area, ‘during the next three days the mayor there spoke on television that the town was returning to normal life, the armed forces of Ukraine appeared there, showing the streets where there were no corpses. And three days later, they probably decided to organise a similar staging’.
However, these claims have also been debunked by independent fact-checkers on multiple occasions.
For instance, verification of the allegedly disputed sequence of events in Bucha was done through cross-checking of satellite imagery from varying dates in March with the video provided by Ukrainian soldiers in April.
The analysis of the fact-checking teams concluded the veracity of the video footage. The second narrative was contradictory to the first one.
Here, the events in Bucha were still called a ‘provocation’ and an ‘attack’ of either Kyiv or the West more broadly against Russia and its actions.
This time Sputnik acknowledged that the events in Bucha happened, but claimed that the Russian Federation could not be blamed for the deaths of the local residents. In other words, the fact that the massacre was real was no longer denied.
This narrative was supported by, for instance claims that the dead civilian bodies might be the outcome of Ukrainian shelling of the city.
In its newly established ‘Demilitarisation and Denazification’ section, Sputnik News actively reports the developments of the ‘special military operation’ and uses the platform to ‘debunk’ claims made by both Kyiv and the Western media.
In the articles examined, Sputnik stressed that Russia rejected all accusations of its involvement in the deaths of people in Bucha and that the footage that served as evidence of the atrocities was fake.
However, in the analyzed period, Sputnik also pursued a contradictory claim, stating that the dead civilian bodies were real and may have been victims of Ukrainian shelling of the city.
These claims were used almost interchangeably, sometimes in the same article. Therefore, it can be argued that the disinformation tactics of the Kremlin outlet were to cover up the truth about the ‘Bucha Massacre’ even if the narratives were contradictory.
Russian information war strategy concerning the atrocities committed in Ukraine follows the classical ‘4D Model of Disinformation Campaigns’.
In such a model the information gets dismissed, distorted, distracted, and dismayed by the disinformation actor in order to cover up an unfavourable story and respond to criticism.
The same strategy was, for instance, used during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or to cover up the MH17 Malaysia Airlines incident.
The EU took appropriate steps in banning Sputnik and RT’s domains in order to stem the tide of Russian disinformation narratives in the bloc.
The original piece with sources can be found on PSSI here.
This article is part of the project: New Propaganda and Disinfo in CEE which involves numerous partners from across the region and is supported by the International Visegrad Fund. Click here for more information on the project.
Picture: European Commission Newsroom, EU HR Borrell and President von der Leyen visit Bucha
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