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France accuses Russia of fake news campaign after debunked mercenary strike

France’s defense minister has slammed what he called Russian fake news aimed at discrediting French nationals fighting alongside Ukraine.
Bohdana howitzer
The French CAESAR self-propelled howitzer is a staple of Ukraine’s artillery now. Photo: Defense Express
France accuses Russia of fake news campaign after debunked mercenary strike

France has accused Russia of an ongoing disinformation campaign targeting the country since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, according to a communiqué released Friday.

The campaign is part of Russia’s ongoing effort to undermine the West’s military support for Ukraine, with Germany’s special services reporting the country is also being targeted. Particularly, French weapons such as CAESAR howitzers and SCALP cruise missiles have become indispensable for Ukraine’s military operations.

The statement from the French government claims the Russian effort intensified following the French President’s reaffirmation of support for Ukraine in a 16 January press conference.

The alleged Russian fake news campaign continued afterward, with Moscow claiming to have killed French mercenaries in a 17 January strike on Kharkiv. The Russian Defense Ministry said it “eliminated” around 60 fighters, “most of whom were French citizens,” and injured 20 others.

The alleged Russian disinformation continued on 22 January with the circulation of lists of supposed French mercenaries killed in the attack on Russian Telegram channels. Some of these lists had already been shared in 2022, in the early weeks of the conflict.

However, three alleged French mercenaries named on Russian lists of those killed told AFP they are alive and deny being mercenaries. “For the Russians, I have already died twice,” said Franck, a 50-year-old volunteer fighter in Ukraine. Others also said they left Ukraine months ago. The French fighters call the claims “phony propaganda” meant to “discredit” them.

France rejects Russia’s implication that it recruits mercenaries. Under French law, mercenarism is prohibited. France uses the term to denounce Russia’s Wagner Group paramilitary accused of crimes in Africa.

Volunteers in Ukraine sign formal contracts and have the same pay and duties as Ukrainian soldiers, some pointed out to AFP. “In fact, it looks a bit like the Foreign Legion in France,” said Franck, who has fought alongside Ukrainians for nearly two years.

This disinformation campaign continued with the announcement on 24 January by Sputnik International of the destruction of a French-Italian SAMP-T air defense system delivered to Ukraine, says the communiqué.

None of this information has been confirmed by France. However, competent French state services have identified and are tracking Russia’s coordinated disinformation maneuver, including via pro-Russian information networks and state media like Sputnik News, RT, and RIA Novosti, to relay and amplify this false information.

France does not deny some citizens volunteer in Ukraine but condemns Russia’s disinformation effort.

“France is the target of yet another gross Russian disinformation campaign. Unlike others, France does not employ mercenaries. Faced with the intensification of French military aid to Ukraine, we expect this Russian intoxication maneuver to continue: we condemn it and are strengthening our system for monitoring these manipulations,” said Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu.

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