The “Donbas genocide myth” in the making: a kindergarten shelling case study

Damaged building of the kindergarten-nursery #21 Kazka in Stanytsia Luhanska after a shell hit on 17 February 2022. Photo: Facebook / Операція об'єднаних сил / Joint Forces Operation  

Hybrid War

Russian media were busy while Russian proxy forces of Donbas attacked Ukrainian positions on 17 February: their aggressive actions were flipped into a story of Ukraine’s alleged “Donbas genocide.”

When it became clear that the shelled kindergarten was on Ukrainian territory, they did a U-turn and started claiming Ukraine staged the whole incident to discredit Russia’s proxy forces.

The propaganda campaign attempted to create a virtual reality, in which the escalation of Russian occupation forces in Ukraine would appear as a Ukrainian “cynical” attack on civilians. The Russian propaganda machine even tried to blame the Ukrainian military for shelling a kindergarten located in the government-controlled territory. Such propaganda efforts work towards backing the narrative of Ukraine’s “genocide against its own people,” consistently present in Russian disinformation, and lately promoted by Russia’s State Duma.

Ukrainian kindergarten and school hit as Russian-hybrid forces escalate hostilities all over Donbas

Commenting on the shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged all partners of Ukraine “to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation.” Later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack on kindergarten “a big provocation” and stressed that it’s important that diplomats and OSCE remain in Ukraine, calling their monitoring activities “an additional deterrent.”

Towards evening, the US Embassy to Ukraine wrote on Twitter in the attack on the kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska is Russia’s “heinous violation” of the Minsk Agreements:

Meanwhile, since the early hours of 17 February, Russian state-controlled media and their proxies were busy attempting to create an alternative picture of the developments, in which Ukraine was to blame, even though the damaged kindergarten was located in the government-controlled territory with its wall hit by an artillery shell facing the Russian-controlled territory.

Russian disinformation around the escalation

Since the beginning of the massive shelling all across the entire Donbas front line in the morning, the occupation administrations of Luhansk and Donetsk (“LNR” and “DNR”), multiple Telegram channels, minor local websites, as well as the Russian media had been working hard over disseminating disinformation about Ukraine’s alleged responsibility for the attacks.

In the early morning, the so-called “LNR Joint Center on Control and Coordination” wrote early in the morning that Ukraine ostensibly attacked four Russian-controlled settlements using artillery and mortars. The message was disseminated by RT, RIA Novosti, Gazeta.ru, Fontanka.ru, and other media.

Later the Donetsk occupation administration’s media outlet DAN reported that Ukrainian forces allegedly shelled the surroundings of nine settlements in “DNR and LNR”:

“The situation on the line of contact has sharply escalated. The enemy (i.e. Ukraine, – Ed.) is making attempts to unleash active hostilities. In order to protect the civilian population, our defenders were forced to return fire to suppress enemy firepower,” the cited report by “DNR people’s militia” reads.

The Russian state-owned information agency TASS reposted the “DNR” reports without any commentary on the topic, only adding additional context according to the Russian official picture of the general situation. Lenta.ru, RBK, MK, and other Russian media also produced news pieces based on the “DNR” reports.

While most of the Russian media used only “LNR/DNR” sources, some Russian media also presented the situation in the “it’s not that unambiguous” fashion, as RBC did in its article titled “Ukraine and the republics of Donbas accused each other of shelling.”

Later, the Luhansk occupation administration’s media lug-info.com published a statement by “LNR head” Leonid Pasechnik, who accused Ukraine of shelling civilians:

“Barbarously and cynically, the Armed Forces of Ukraine began in the early morning to inflict massive strikes on civilians in the LNR. The enemy did not stint on firing from 120-mm mortars and artillery. While the West is concerned about the so-called ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine,’ the army (of Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy is shelling the Donbas.”

Also, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Ukraine of aggravating the situation in the Donbas.

Despite the fact that Stanytsia Luhanska is under Ukrainian control, the propaganda outlet donbasstoday.ru accused Ukraine of the artillery attack on the kindergarten “near Luhansk,” citing a Telegram post by an “LNR MP” Yuri Yurov saying that “LNR capital” Luhansk was being shelled as residents of Luhansk’s eastern outskirts could hear shelling.

Telegram channels War Gonzo and Military Columnist shared a clip and an image from Stanytsia Luhanska's suburb, the settlement around the Kindrashevska-Nova railway station, stating that the settlement is located in the "LNR." The anonymous Telegram channel "Republic's Active" shared the same false narrative.

The popular online newspaper MK picked up the false narrative stating that "Ukraine bombed out a kindergarten in LNR." Lenta.ru also published an update based on Telegram reports which, by mistake or deliberately, ascribed the damaged kindergarten to the non-government-controlled territory.

The Kyiv-based propaganda watchdog StopFake debunked this obvious fake report, juxtaposing photographs of the kindergarten's interior and exterior published before the artillery attack with those published by JFO, and referring to a report by the humanitarian mission Proliska, a Facebook video of Ukrainian soldiers examining the damaged building, and debunking by fact-checkers Bellingcat and InformNapalm. InformNapalm also found that the shell that hit the kindergarten was presumably fired from the "LNR"-controlled territory.

Later, when it was obvious that the damaged kindergarten is located in Ukraine-controlled territory, the disinformation narrative changed.

The so-called "LNR People's Militia" accused Ukraine of producing staged materials about the destruction of civilian infrastructure to put the blame on the "people's militia,"

"It is noteworthy that the photographs published by Ukrainian propagandists show serious destruction of the walls, while the glazing of the building is completely intact. Anyone who has ever seen the damage to buildings from real shelling would say that these are staged photos," the "militia" speculated, referring to the photographs of the shelled kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska.

Komsomolskaya Pravda relayed the updated narrative, accusing Ukraine of faking evidence. So did Lenta.ru, the Russian defense ministry's Zvezda, and other media. Ridus.ru, in their material on the initial controversy in the Russian media regarding the shelling of the kindergarten, also claimed that the shelling was a Ukrainian fake.

Since 2014, major Russian media outlets have been relaying all reports by the occupation administrations of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moreover, many of the outlets additionally source their articles from anonymous Telegram channels, local groups in social media, and websites based in or administered from the Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine.

In this way, the Russian media legitimize among domestic and foreign audiences Donbas-related propaganda narratives, which are often based on obvious fakes like in the case of this "kindergarten in LNR shelled by Ukraine."

Goals of the propaganda campaign

The most obvious goal of the disinformation campaign was to reverse the perception of real facts by accusing Ukraine of what the Russian-hybrid forces have actually done. However, it also contains wider implications, such as underpinning the recurrent anti-Ukrainian narratives such as "Ukraine's genocide in the Donbas," creating a pretext for a possible Russian invasion, and even making talking points for the Russian mission to UN, who would have not much to be outraged about at the upcoming UN Security Council's meeting, convened by Ukraine.

Blame-shifting

The earliest accusations against the Ukrainian army emerged in the early morning hours on 17 February 2022, long before Ukraine's morning report on the shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska at about 10:30. By the time of the Ukrainian report, Russian media had already preventively picked up and spun the allegations against the Ukrainian military.

By the end of its midday communique, Ukraine's Joint forces Operation Staff said that the goal of the information warfare was to hide the actions of the Russian-hybrid forces,

"It should be noted that the enemy (i.e. Russia, - Ed.) continues to use its propaganda methods of waging information warfare in order to accuse the Armed Forces of Ukraine of shelling the civilian population, thus hiding their own insidious actions. Ukrainian defenders opened fire in order to stop the enemy's fire activity," JFO wrote.

Among other propaganda pieces, "LNR's" Luginform published today comments by Andrey Marochko, former "LNR people's militia" press secretary, in which he suggested,

"The Kyiv security forces fired at the Republics in order to provoke return fire and accuse the People's Militia of aggression," he said stating that Ukraine allegedly started the shelling about 4:00 in the morning.

Creating talking points for Russia at the UNSC meeting

The Ukraine Crisis Media Center's Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group believes,

"This apparently coordinated campaign is attempting to discredit Ukraine before the meeting at the UN Security Council initiated by Kyiv."

This idea is not as strange as it may seem. In the first years of the Russo-Ukrainian war, many local residents of the frontline areas often linked the sudden escalations to the upcoming meetings of the UNSC and the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine-Russia-OSCE), which regularly negotiates Donbas settlement issues. Curiously, the military activity often actually subsided after such meetings. However, this now mostly historic topic needs thorough fact-based research.

Such "talking points" for Russia in the UN can be not only the allegations of the escalation but also the Russian propaganda's recurring narratives, such as "Ukraine's genocide" against the local population in the Donbas, hyped up by the Russian media and the country's leadership.

Underpinning "genocide" and other recurring narratives

On 15 February, the Russian parliament's lower chamber Duma voted for an appeal to President Putin, urging to recognize Luhansk and Donetsk "people's republics" -- Russia’s puppet statelets in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas as independent states. The Duma's motion claimed that

“The actions of the Ukrainian authorities are quite comparable with a genocide of their own people.”

Russian Duma urges Putin to recognize Donbas puppet statelets. Is the Minsk peace deal dead?

Moreover, on the same day in his first face-to-face meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, Putin said,

“Let me just add that what is happening in the Donbas is genocide.”

Moreover, on 16 February, in order to substantiate allegations of genocide, the Investigative Committee of Russia opened a criminal case "on the discovery of mass graves of civilians in the territory of the Donbas," claiming that it received "data on impromptu mass unmarked graves, formed under the necessity outside specially designated places in connection with ongoing hostilities."

On 17 February, TASS has reported referring to Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, that the latter received "documents on crimes against civilians in the Donbas" sent by Russia, which asked to circulate the material in the Security Council. According to TASS, the spokesman also added, “We have no way to verify this [document]".

Accusing Ukraine of genocide without substantiation by any evidence has been one of the recurrent narratives of Russian propaganda and "LNR head" Pasechnik's today's words on "massive strikes on civilians" perfectly align with this narrative, hyped up by the Duma and Putin two days ago.

Also, Andrey Rudenko, a Donetsk correspondent of Russian State TV and Radio Company VGTRK, said on the air of the political show 60 Minutes on Rossiya-1 that local residents have allegedly been talking about the "genocide unleashed by Kyiv against them" for eight years now and confirmation for of this is the "thousands of people who died due to the fault of the Armed Forces of Ukraine."

Another popular narrative of the Russian propaganda is that Ukraine is ruled by "fascists," an example of pushing forward this narrative in today's disinformation pieces is the following passage by ex "LNR militia press-secretary" Marochko from his above-mentioned comment to Luginform:

"Firstly, I want to note that if we take the time of strikes, then, given the time difference (with Kyiv, - Luginform), the strikes were delivered almost at four in the morning. Here are some analogies (with the time of the attack of fascist Germany on the USSR, - Luginform). That is, most likely, at four in the morning an order came from Kyiv, and half an hour later this order was carried out by absolutely all Ukrainian brigades, sitting on our line of contact, each brigade committed a provocation along the entire line of contact!” Marochko said.

Pretext for a Russian invasion

On her trip to Kyiv, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has accused Russia of an attempt at creating a pretext for invasion,

"Reports of alleged abnormal military activity by Ukraine in Donbas are a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion," she tweeted. "This is straight out of the Kremlin playbook."

At his today's press conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has also regarded the Russian attacks in the same way,

"We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine," he said adding that amassed the biggest force in decades, Russian intelligence officers operate in Ukraine including the Donbas and "we have seen attempts to stage a pretext, the false flag operations, to provide an excuse for invading Ukraine."

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