How not to be poisoned by Russian lies | By Otar Dovzhenko
Stunning lie is psychological weapon of Kremlin that works even on those who feel protected.
Russia’s information war against Ukraine is not just fakes . In fact, fakes, that is, false messages based on fictitious or distorted facts, now clog the info space rather than directly affect the minds of Ukrainians. If you are sitting in the basement and your house has been bombed or looted by Russians, the fiction of the “medal for the capture of Crimea” which is allegedly already stamped by Ukrainian authorities planning an attack on the peninsula, is unlikely to convince you that the invaders are doing everything right. People who did not directly witness the fighting or left in the first days of the war are more likely to be affected but mostly those who consumed Russian propaganda products before the war. In addition, fakes debunk quite quickly and efficiently before they have time to take root. Therefore, most of the point lies are addressed to the domestic, Russian audience. If you are not surprised by plausibility of Russian fakes, then do not be surprised: they are simply not designed for you. And their target audience — Russians loyal to the government will accept any lie because it benefits them.
Of course, fake can be harmful — for example, forcing a person to make the wrong decision, demotivating it but for a cohesive nation struggling to survive, it’s like mosquito bites. And the inability of Russian propaganda to act totally — to intimidate, deprive Ukrainians of the freedom to win, sow chaos and confusion — became apparent in the early days of the invasion. Now Russian information troops, together with their bot-farms, are working to split Ukrainian society but also so far without much success…
But no, that doesn’t make us invulnerable to Russian lies.
It can be easily seen if you read a selection of versions of Russian propaganda about the “real” events in Bucha. From the “staging” of Ukrainian propaganda to the deliberate extermination by Ukrainian nationalists of people with opposition views, the fact-checkers counted a dozen Russian-generated explanations as to why the occupiers were not guilty of killing peaceful Ukrainians in the occupied cities. Borodianka, smashed by bombs, was also declared a “Ukrainian production”. And on April 8, you could watch the birth of lies live: immediately after the missile strike with the inscription “for the children of Donbas” on the Kramatorsk station, the Russians boasted of the successful destruction of “targets”. Soon after it became known that the “targets” were fifty killed and more than a hundred wounded civilians waiting to be evacuated, the invaders announced that the station was shelled by Ukrainian military. Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv — do not doubt — also, according to them, were fired by Ukrainian military to accuse the “liberation army”.
Russian lies are lies that take your breath away. The possibility of the existence of something so vile, inhuman and immoral does not fit in my head. Even years of research and preparation of propaganda do not help to calmly accept the words of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergiy Lavrov: “we did not attack Ukraine” in the third week of the bloody, brutal war of aggression waged by his state against Ukraine.
Russian lies evoke strong emotions — anger, resentment, hatred but also despair because someone in the world does not understand and believe (and someone will definitely believe). This lie attacks reality itself, trying to turn our world upside down. The British writer and media researcher Peter Pomerantsev aptly stated its goal in the title of his book: “nothing true and anything is possible”. This is sometimes called “postmodernism”, although other words for the letter “p” fit better. This is a situation ideal for achieving Russia’s geopolitical goals.
In our ordinary lives, we seldom face such a lie because all the people or organizations we deal with usually care about their reputation and realize that they will have to answer for their words. Russia has no reputation, no responsibility, no boundaries, no rules, no red lines.
The mechanisms and ideology of Russian lies have long been studied and described in literature and journalism. Everything Russia says today about its aggression against Ukraine is nothing new — for example, the strategy of refutation after the atrocities in Bucha repeats one another the strategy used by Russians to absolve themselves of guilt for the downing of a Malaysian plane in 2014. It may seem to you that you are protected from the action of Russian lies because you know a lot about it. However, Russian lies work like radiation or chemical weapons – even short-term, indirect, unconscious contact with them can be harmful to your psyche, well-being and will to live. There is no guaranteed protection against it but there are some good tips that can help prevent or reduce intoxication.
Don’t ask “how can this be believed?” Russian lies are not for you or other free people to believe. It can afford to be completely implausible. Many false versions of the MH17 crash claimed that it had been shot down by Ukrainian fighter jet piloted by military pilot named “Dmytriy Yakatsud”. “Yakatsud” is an arbitrary set of letters, not even remotely similar to the Ukrainian surname. However, in response to the argument that there is no such name, the designers of the lie denied: that’s not it, it can exist — and gave some crazy “etymological” theories. Each subsequent stage of constructing such a story takes us further from the reality in which it is known who shot down the plane.
Do not try to rationalize Russian lies, find logic in it. You will see a lot of overlaps, logical errors and contradictions, even within the supposedly coherent narratives. Today they report that they destroyed almost all Ukrainian aircraft, tomorrow they will say that Ukrainian aircraft are bombing peaceful Mariupol, the day after tomorrow — that it was actually American aircraft or a spaceship, and so on. This is one way of shaking up reality. Those who produce Russian lies do not want it to be whole and stick together — on the contrary, the more versions and the more they contradict each other, the stronger their product works.
Do not be surprised that the Russians accuse us of doing what they do. Yes, this is their usual practice. Sometimes Russian lies fail, and accusations emerge sooner than they take effect. For example, they started shouting that the Ukrainian army was shelling civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts when there was relative silence on the demarcation line. Only later did they come to their senses and start firing themselves. Regarding the events in Donbas, Russia has built a cumbersome false structure codenamed “Eight Years” to shift responsibility to Ukraine for what it and its allies did to residents of the Ukrainian region.
Deny it, but don’t get too carried away. Practice shows that it is impossible to completely bring the Russians to clean water — they will still stick to their lies, do not admit the truth and will not stop lying. What is their attempt to convene a meeting of the United Nations Security Council over the “provocation of Ukraine in Bucha” on the day when the whole world was.
Rebuttal is important only for people who are not sufficiently informed about the situation and therefore vulnerable to Russian lies. There are such people — for example, regular viewers of Russian television or completely “apolitical” Ukrainians who are not interested in the news and learn them from acquaintances. Such people should, in addition to refutation, recommend quality sources of information because the refuted lie will be replaced by a hundred new ones, and you will not marry all of them.
Do not delve into the details of Russian lies, if dissecting it is not your job. It may seem to you that a detailed study of all the fakes, messages and narratives that distribute Kremlin resources, their inventory and decomposition on the shelves is a chance to demonstrate Russian lies. In fact, you are only swallowing poisonous fumes but you are unlikely to change anything. At least a dozen fact-checker organizations and initiatives in Ukraine are engaged in such analysis on a daily basis. This does not stop the flow of Russian lies, although it helps to neutralize some fakes. But how, for example, can one deconstruct the Russians’ thesis that the responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Ukraine lies with the Ukrainian president because he did not capitulate? Unfortunately, syllogisms will not help here. In response to this, they are beating the scoreboard — what, in fact, is what the Ukrainian army is doing now.
Beware of conspiracy — this is one of the most effective tools of Russian lies. In different ways you will be asked to “think”, whether they are not hiding the real truth from you, whether you are not a victim of propaganda and deception. At one time, this technology made a constellation of pro-Russian telegram channels administered by Kremlin intelligence services based in Transnistria super-popular. All of them tried in different ways to put Russian aggression in brackets and look for the enemy “not in the Kremlin, but in Bankova”. Now all these “legitimate”, “residents” and “cartels” do not stop in words to position themselves as Ukrainian, but promote Russian-friendly theses and messages.
If you want to know “what do the Russians say about it?” — you’d better hold on. Rest assured: no matter what happens, they’ll get away with it and come up with a lie that will probably hurt you. You may see some reason for optimism in the incoherence, inconsistency, and improbability of this lie but it is better not to entertain vain hopes. And better not try to imagine yourself in the place of those who create, distribute and consume the fabrications of Russian propaganda. This is a hopeless and traumatic line of thinking.
Do not allow yourself to doubt the reality. Russian lies are trying to make you feel that reality can be anything and you can’t know the truth. However, you know for sure: until February 24, we were living in a peaceful country that suffered from Russian aggression and tried to restore its integrity through diplomatic methods. We were not “European Somalia” as Russia is lying. We were working, raising children, building houses, studying and dreaming of a peaceful future in our country. We did not threaten anyone’s safety and did not need any liberation or protection (especially the liberation and protection by destruction practiced by Russia).
It is more important to tell the truth than to repeat a lie. In general, both Ukrainians and the world community are more or less aware that Russia is constantly lying and does not know anything about it. It doesn’t make much sense to fight Russian lies, once again emphasizing its cynicism and inhumanity. Instead, it is important to tell your own story — true, based on facts, without fakes and manipulations. It’s true, unfortunately, lies cannot be defeated in an honest duel but it is important for those who observe, shape their attitude to the events in Ukraine, sympathize, help and bring our victory closer. When Ukrainian weapons and global economic sanctions do their job, the ear of clay will quickly crumble to dust.
The material was published in cooperation with NGO “Lviv Media Forum” with the support of the Ministry of Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.