A year ago, in late March of 2022, Russian armed forces had lost the battle for Kyiv, which started with an air assault in the early hours of 24 February. Brave Ukrainian resistance forced Russian troops to withdraw from the town of Bucha as part of a broader . Immediately, of dead bodies in the streets. Many were Ukrainian civilians killed in , their hands tied behind their backs. Macabre photos from local eyewitnesses. Since the massacre, , including , have established Russian culpability for the attacks.
Here we examine what happened after the killings. Which tactics did the Kremlin engage from its playbook to try to confuse the world, escape responsibility, and soften the impact of what were truly horrific crimes?
Engage the Kremlin playbook: think of MH-17
What materialised was the Kremlin’s standard behaviour when caught red-handed. Deny, deny, deny. Blame others. Up the stakes with stories bordering on crazy fantasies. Never excuse. Never admit. Never repent. Never hold the individual officers on the ground responsible. Instead, make things up. Over time, pro-Russian propagandists used flimsy lies to build an elaborate architecture of transparent falsehoods.
The model example is the myriad falsehoods distributed after the downing of . The same with Moscow’s attempts to cover up after the horrific attacks on Mariupol during the spring of 2022. See our account .
Say anything and everything, loudly
Initial Kremlin narratives about Bucha were often contradictory, with an almost slapdash feel. The likely aim was to create as much noise as possible in order to distract from the horror of the emerging reality inside the town, located just northwest of Kyiv centre.
According to Russian officials, state media, and key propagandists (see link ), whoever did it, the massacre was as fake as Western allegations concerning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s . As fake as Srebrenica, staged, lacking evidence or just a heinous lie. Deny, deny, deny.
Soon after, outlets began to spread a remake of MH-17 stories, dreaming up bizarre, alleged ‘technical details’ to create the illusion of inside expert knowledge. Now the claim was that the corpses’ lack of blood and body stiffness that victims of the massacre were killed after the Russians left on 30 March. Even more wild: the bodies were alive. Allegedly, the corpses were actors placed on the streets for the photographers because . Or the dead-again bodies were those of that Ukrainian armed forces killed while entering the town, either by execution or perhaps by .
But the bodies might also have belonged to pro-Russian ‘’ whom Ukrainian Nazis killed some time beforehand. Maybe the Nazis and then later transported them Bucha to pose as Ukrainian civilians killed by Russia. Confused? Don’t know whom to trust? Who knows?
End the crazy stories, enter conspiracy
The thing with disinformation is that multiple stories, even if contradictory, reinforce the felling of confusion or disbelief in one true, well-researched and documented explanation. The human mind is curious and attracted to scandals and rumours, searching for answers to the unexplained. So, the skilled manipulator keeps adding elements which attract attention and distract from the truth. The appearance of shifting and clashing stories is not accidental, but intended.
Often such stories tap into the universe of . Doing so opens the gates for those searching for the deeper, hidden reasons behind problems and conflict. Conspiracy is built into the bones of much pro-Kremlin manipulation across most political themes. Dive into the more than to probe the conspiracy universe.
Thus, through April 2022, pro-Kremlin outlets also offered reasons why Ukraine would stage such a gruesome fake performance using actors or corpses. Perhaps they wanted in Russia-Ukraine negotiations? Or to against Russia? Or from footage of Ukrainians torturing Russian POWs? Or from in Ukraine? There must be a rat here!
Lies, damned lies, and their descendants
Russian disinformation outlets aired this first generation of narratives in April and early May 2022, later turning them into a story alleging that Russia was incapable of committing any war crime. Therefore, evidence of other crimes was fake, too. The idea of a ‘fake Bucha’ became a template for discrediting all atrocities committed by Russian troops.
It may sound perverse, but there is a certain claim to ‘owning the true story of Bucha’. This makes top Russian propagandists, such as and others go on the offensive and mention Bucha proactively. In this tactic, critics mentioning Bucha or other atrocities are – which is another classic trick in the Kremlin’s playbook.
For example, Russian missiles reportedly in the Ukrainian city of . Pro-Kremlin media reports of the attack as a Ukrainian ‘provocation similar to Bucha’. In August, a commentator alleged that the West is fighting Russia through ‘’ including the staged ‘Bucha massacre’.
In September, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive from Kharkiv that quickly liberated territories occupied by Russia. , but reports soon surfaced of discovered near the liberated city of Izyum. Some recovered bodies showed signs of torture. True to form, Russian propagandists shrugged off these reports as ‘’. We have a debunking of the claims.
Withdrawal = gesture of goodwill and who said killings?
Early in 2023, another narrative had its debut. Targeting mostly Spanish-speakers in Latin America and French-speaking audiences in Africa, is a cleaned-up reiteration of its predecessors, but with fewer contradictions. Its lies are also more outrageous.
Among its claims, the narrative alleges with an almost impressive mendacity that Russian soldiers were not driven out of Bucha but departed the town as ‘a gesture of goodwill from Moscow’. It also asserts that Ukrainian authorities have not provided ‘detailed and verified’ forensic reports of the civilian deaths, despite the have written or are writing.
A perfidious past sets the stage for more lies
For years if not decades, pro-Kremlin disinformation has prepared its audiences, foreign and domestic, for the charge that Russia is never to blame but is always the victim of scheming Russophobes trying to harm its people, smear its history, and destroy its state.
- Publication date
- 3 April 2023
- Representation in Ireland