Russian authorities have been trying to sow the seeds of a propaganda effort aimed at convincing residents of occupied territories that Ukraine is already divided, according to a new report from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
“Ukraine has already been divided,” the Russian occupiers said, according to the intelligence agency. “In the territory of the western regions, Polish zlotys were put into circulation, in most shops there are double price tags. There is nowhere to run from Russia. Ukraine is not what it used to be.”
The false information, which has been focused on Melitopol in Zaporizhzhia, according to the agency, is intended to inject doubt into residents of Ukraine nearly six months into the war, the intelligence agency said.
“The moves are aimed at undermining the moral and psychological stability of the Ukrainian-minded population remaining in the city,” the agency said in a statement.
Ukraine’s government urged residents to remember that Ukraine will not bow to Russia’s intimidation tactics, and that one day the territory will rid itself of occupiers.
“All residents of the occupied territories should remember: All Ukrainian lands will be freed, Ukraine will remain an indivisible and unitary state, and every occupier and collaborator will receive a well-deserved retribution,” the agency said.
The apparent propaganda effort is not an isolated incident. Russia has been waging an information operations war alongside its kinetic fight in Ukraine this year, too, in attempts to portray Ukraine and Ukrainian officials as the aggressors, and to curry support for Russia. In the days building up to the invasion earlier this year, Russia was preparing to run false flag operations against its own forces in order to claim a justification to attack Ukraine, an administration official told The Daily Beast in January.
In the months before the war began, too, Russian officials and Russian influencers spread and amplified narratives focused on painting Russia’s troop movements to the border with Ukraine as a response to provocation from the West and spreading anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization sentiment.
News of the apparent Russian efforts to convince Ukrainians that their country is already being divided up comes as U.S. officials warn that Russia has a plan to annex certain Ukrainian regions. White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby warned just weeks ago that Russia has possible plans to annex all of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, as well as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, just as Ukrainians work to mount a counteroffensive there.
In 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, Russia relied on spreading propaganda to reshape the narrative in its favor. Russia had throttled Ukrainian broadcasts in Crimea and replaced many of them with Russian broadcasts, enabling Moscow to spread pro-Russia narratives. And in March that year, when the referendum on Crimea showed support for joining Russia, only three in 10 Ukrainians outside Crimea believed the referendum reflected the truth while a majority of Crimeans polled as saying they thought it did reflect their views. (The referendum has widely been viewed a sham throughout the world; the United Nations announced the referendum was invalid in 2014, and nations, including the United States, have continued to reaffirm Crimea is a part of Ukraine and not recognize the peninsula’s annexation.)
The White House has warned that Russia may be redeploying the 2014 annexation playbook now.
“We're seeing ample evidence in the intelligence and in the public domain that Russia intends to try to annex additional Ukrainian territory,” Kirby told reporters in a July briefing. “Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an ‘annexation playbook,’ very similar to the one we saw in 2014.”
Russia’s plans may include coordinating “sham referenda” and claiming justification to annex territories, Kirby said. Already, Russia’s plan includes installing proxy officials in seized territories.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine again this year, Russia’s efforts to spin the narrative about the war have built up to a steady pace and have targeted audiences outside of Ukraine as well. The Biden administration has assessed that Russian disinformation proxies have been working to paint Western aid to Ukraine as the reason the war is dragging on and the reason there is a looming food crisis, in an apparent attempt to dilute U.S. support for Ukraine, according to U.S. intelligence, as The Daily Beast first reported.
The European Union has worked to ban RT and Sputnik in order the curb Russia’s spread of propaganda and misinformation, but Russia has found ways to skirt around them. Russia has leaned on diplomats to spread disinformation in the meantime, and has begun leaning on over 200 websites with no clear Russia ties to spread Russian propaganda, including claims that Ukrainian forces have staged Russian attacks, according to the Associate Press and NewsGuard.