From the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and throughout the conflict, Moscow has pursued a strategy of aggressive public dissembling, prevarication and disinformation aimed at creating an alternative reality to explain how events have unfolded on the ground.
In Russia itself, the rules for even talking about Ukraine have become Orwellian, with citizens now facing lengthy potential prison sentences for simply stating that their country is at war, let alone expressing opposition to it. (The Kremlin-approved term for the conflict is “special military operation,” not war.)
While Ukraine has also focused on using social media to showcase its military victories in the conflict and to spread the hortatory powers of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the information war fought by Kyiv has been largely reflective of that which can actually be documented.
In contrast, Russian state media and top Russian officials have repeatedly propagated an entirely false reality in which Moscow, not Kyiv, is faced with an existential military threat; where Ukrainians, not Russians, are committing horrific war crimes against Ukrainian civilians; where Ukraine is run by neo-Nazis; and where Russia’s war aims are proceeding entirely according to plan.
Here are some of the most flagrant falsehoods advanced by Moscow about Russia’s attack on Ukraine:
The massive buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border preceding the invasion was for ‘training exercises’
Beginning last summer, a spike in Russian military personnel and equipment amassing on Ukraine’s border set off alarm bells in Western capitals. Russia repeatedly and strenuously denied that the buildup was for anything other than routine military exercises. Moscow even continued denying its aim to invade Ukraine after troops it had sent to Belarus for joint military drills did not return to Russia after the drills’ conclusion.
As roughly 200,000 Russian troops swelled on Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders, and an invasion appeared imminent, Russian officials called US warnings about an attack “absurd” and “hysterical” just a few short weeks before Moscow’s aggression sparked the biggest land war in Europe since World War II.
Russia’s invasion is operating on schedule and according to plan
Moscow has repeatedly claimed that its “special military operation” in Ukraine is proceeding as planned. But this is demonstrably false. Russia’s original plan was to make a lightning strike on the capital, Kyiv, capture or kill Ukrainian leadership and force Ukrainian legislators to vote in a pro-Russia puppet government.
But that plan disintegrated amid fierce Ukrainian resistance, including a critical victory at an airport near Kyiv that foiled Russian troops from establishing a beachhead near the capital. Buoyed by these early victories, Ukrainians have managed to beat back Russia’s assault on Kyiv and other major cities such as Kharkiv, preventing Moscow’s forces, so far, from taking those major population centers.
Further undercutting the claim that the war is proceeding to plan, up to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far, according to NATO estimates, including over half a dozen generals. Ukraine has also claimed responsibility, via rocket attack, for sinking Russia’s Moskva cruiser, the flagship vessel of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and the largest military ship sunk since World War II. (Russia has said the vessel sank because of a storm after catching fire.)
Russia, having pulled its troops back entirely from Kyiv and its environments, has refocused its assault on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Moscow now claims that carving that region out of Ukraine to create an independent statelet — in reality a Russia puppet regime — was always its primary war aim. But this is a wholesale rewriting of very recent history in which Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that the central goal was the “de-Nazification” of the whole of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government is run by neo-Nazis
Putin’s attempts to link Ukraine with Nazism have also proved a stretch. Russia has claimed that the Ukrainian government is an outlaw state run by neo-Nazi extremists. In fact, Zelensky is Jewish and won election in 2019 as a moderate. And though Ukraine has struggled with corruption, its government is squarely mainstream in nature — and, in fact, far less right-wing than some European states like Hungary.
Russia’s reference to “neo-Nazis” seems to spring from the activities of the Azov Battalian, a Ukrainian militant group with neo-fascist leanings that was integrated into Ukraine’s national guard in 2014. But Azov affiliates make up a tiny percentage of Ukraine’s total military forces, and Azov’s own leadership you have sought to distance the organization from its more overtly neo-fascist past.
Moreover, Russia’s purported “de-Nazification” objectives ring particularly hollow since Russia has employed its own neo-fascist paramilitary operatives to fight in Ukraine, including the Wagner Group, which is closely connected to the Russian government, and the Russian Imperial Movement, which the US-designated a terrorist group in 2020.
The massacre in Bucha was staged (and if it’s not, Ukraine is to blame)
After Russian troops retreated from the Kyiv region, Ukrainian forces fanned out across the city’s suburbs, which had seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. What the Ukrainians discovered shocked them as well as much of the world: widespread evidence of war crimes and atrocities committed by Russian forces. Russian forces in Bucha appeared to have wanted only executed people it knew to be civilians, including women and children, and forced women into sex slavery.
Russia immediately offered a series of contradictory explanations for the scenes in Bucha: that Russian troops had left the town before the killings began (which was false); that the killings were staged (false); and that if the killings were real, the massacre was a “false flag” by the Ukrainians (also false).
In fact, the transference of blame to Ukraine for Russia’s own heinous actions has been a hallmark of the war. Russia also claimed that its attack on the Kramatorsk train station, which killed over 50 civilians trying to flee violence in Ukraine’s east, was committed by the Ukrainians themselves.
And Russia has a long history of attempting to commit false flag operations to misattribute blame for the war. In the run-up to the invasion, these included plans for a staged, or even real, chemical attack perpetrated by Russia in eastern Ukraine that US officials warned was going to be made to look like the work of Kyiv’s forces, in order to provide Moscow with a casus belli.
Moscow has also claimed, without any evidence, that the US is planning on using an army of infected birds to send bioweapons into Russia.
US officials have continued to worry that Russia will employ chemical weapons and blame their use on Ukraine.