Secretly pro-Russian Telegram channels: What Russia wanted Ukrainians to think during Oct 10 attack

Secretly pro-Russian Telegram channels: What Russia wanted Ukrainians to think during Oct 10 attack

The network of Telegram channels posing as Ukrainian but supervised by Russian special services, including Legitimny, Rezident, Zhenshchina s kosoy, Olga Shariy, Anatoliy Shariy, once again exposed their Kremlin roots while covering the strikes Putin’s terrorists launched on the Ukrainian infrastructure on October 10. 

In this piece, the Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security analyzes the messages they circulated as part of a psyop attack that accompanied the missile strikes, with the aim of manipulating Ukrainians.  

These Russian channels infamously use the common propaganda trick, “60 to 40,” where part of the reports are visually pro-Ukrainian, while another part is imbued with disinformation. The orchestrators beyond these channels pose as extremely knowledgeable people who have their “sources everywhere, know the latest rumors, and offer explanations for anything that is happening. They also allegedly have a world-view “independent” of authorities, which attracts many who share this stance. They portray themselves as nonconformists and support an “alternative opinion.” These channels have succeeded in becoming popular among Ukrainian politicians a few years ago, until they were gradually exposed as Russian-directed.   

In early 2021, the SBU exposed some of these channels, revealing that they were in fact connected to the Russian military, namely, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation (formerly the GRU military intelligence). Their human asset network was established by the 85th Center, which is part of the agency. According to law enforcement, the network included such Telegram channels as Legitimny, Rezident, Kartel, Spletnitsa, and Cherny Kvartal. It also contained a number of regional channels created for local audiences which the Kremlin viewed as part of the alleged “Novorossiya,” in cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Odesa.  The headquarters was located in the heart of the unrecognized “Transnistrian Moldovan Republic,” Tiraspol, while the network employed “Russian spring activists” from Kharkiv and Odesa. Thus, the Russian doctrine of hybrid warfare was also implemented in Ukrainian smartphones.  

As exemplified by the psyop support of the “retaliatory strike,” we can see how the Russian propaganda covered the October 10 attack and what goals Russian special services tried to achieve. 

The analysis exposes the four main goals: 

  • Absolving Russia of responsibility and making Ukrainians believe Moscow is not to blame. 
  • Discrediting the Ukrainian authorities, alleging its malicious intentions or weaknesses, such as the faulty air defense system. 
  • Sowing panic, fear, and frustration among Ukrainians. 
  • Compromising volunteer movements and fundraising campaigns

Let’s look at how this was implemented in more detail.

Absolving Russia of responsibility

Let us go back to the acts of terror on October 10. To ensure their information support, Telegram channels pretending to be Ukrainian promoted the message that Russia is only acting in retaliation to "terrorist attacks," in particular, to the destruction of the Crimean Bridge. In fact, it is clear that it would have been nearly impossible to plot an attack of such a scale within the two days that passed since the destruction of the bridge. “Legitimny” channel hints that the Ukrainian authorities called this strike upon themselves: “Our source in the Office of the President shared that the Office expected more destructive strikes from the Kremlin as retaliation for the Crimean Bridge to use them to receive more air defenses from the West.” 

Another accompanying narrative, in line with the Orwellian “war is peace,” claimed that with these attacks, Putin is calling on Ukraine to start peace negotiations. 

It is also interesting how Russian psyop specialists tried to influence the way the Ukrainians perceive the attack right before it happened. They had tried to shift responsibility from Russia and onto some provocateurs or possibly the West. 

On October 9 at 23:00, “Legitimny” wrote: “There is a risk that Zelensky will be forced to raise stakes and a controlled provocation/tragedy will occur with hundreds of victims on live TV, etc. It is very easy to pull this off, a couple of Grad salvos that would provoke a catastrophe and mass deaths, as the culprit is always Russia anyway. Although these may be the same ‘unidentified snipers’ who were in Maidan Square, who incited hatred and carnage between protesters and authorities. Only now they have missiles instead of rifles, and there are now hundreds of such foreign groups in Ukraine who obey the ‘big guys from over the hill’ who absolutely don’t care about Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

The calculation is that some Ukrainians, who are inclined to fall for conspiracy theories, for example, that Putin’s Russia “is a normal country being attacked by the West,” may begin to think that behind the shelling and killings could stand some other, third party, rather than Russians. 

Discrediting the Ukrainian authorities

Pro-Moscow Telegram channels immediately rushed to criticize the air defense system, trying to shift the negativity to Ukraine itself. Legitimny: “This time, Vinnytsia oblast, a strike on Ladyzhyn heat and power plant using a kamikaze UAV Geran-2. How the air defense systems let this UAV get so much inland is a big question.” It is interesting that the message about the Ukrainian air defense system’s “failures” was one of the main narratives on Russian television spread by the propagandist Skabeyeva. 

Zhenshchina s kosoy channel: “Many people noticed that the condition of the Ladyzhyn power plant is somewhat miserable; not even doors were replaced in the past 30 years. Maybe Putin has decided to carry out his de-oligarchization of Ukraine?” We can observe how manipulators convince the trusting reader that it is our own fault that we are being killed, because things don’t work as well as they should. 

Propaganda presented the ban on sharing information about the precise locations of the strike as an illustration of the authorities’ malicious intentions. They alleged it was to hide from people the true scope of destruction. People are suffering, and the Ukrainian authorities are telling us from the bunker that everything is fine. What a disgrace! 

Rezident channel: “Russians did this in the daytime on purpose, so Ukrainians would see the results of the strikes. Because in 90% of cases, the Office of the President hushed up the results of strikes, giving the public false information that all missiles and UAVs were shot down. Keeping the masses under illusion.”

Sowing panic, fear, and frustration

Putin’s propaganda, masquerading as incognito do-gooders, fighters for the happiness of the Ukrainian working people, happily spread reports about panic among Ukrainians, queues at gas stations for fuel, news about a fake offensive from the Russian Federation and the departure of embassies. At 11:00 a.m. on October 10, Zhenshchina s kosoy channel wrote the following: “There have been rumors behind the scenes that the authorities were working on an option to announce the evacuation of Kyiv in the coming days, not later. Many are already talking about the offensive of the Russian Armed Forces. The embassies have already received verbal instruction to leave Kyiv, we are waiting to see who will start the move first. The problem is that the air defense of Ukraine cannot repel even 5% of a massive missile attack. It’s just overloaded right now.”

As we know now, on that day, the military shot down not 5%, but 50% of Russian missiles. 

Even the positive news about the promise to supply Ukraine with new air defense systems in response to Russian terrorist attacks was presented as another failure. “If someone thinks that now Ukraine will be given a sufficient number of air defense systems, they are deeply mistaken. They will give just enough so that Ukraine does not give up, but continues to ‘squabble’ with the Russian Federation, at the cost of its own destruction, deaths and chaos.” So, it is not Russia that is sowing death and chaos by attacking Ukraine, but someone else is doing all this, evidently. 

Experts have long noted that the Russians periodically create conflict situations in order to increase tension and chaos in societies. Another example is the video shared by the channel Zhenshchina s kosoy, which only shows that several women are aggressively trying to get into a shelter in a school and fight with teachers who explain they cannot let strangers stay with children. How are they commenting on this video? “Sometimes it seems that many people will kill each other sooner than some missiles. It is also impressive how some shelters are now for ‘chosen groups’ only… People have to help each other at such moments, and here, they are pushing each other to face the bullets, because somebody is inconvenienced. The country is in a complete mess, and the officials are making videos pretending that everything is fine…” This is clearly a low-grade manipulation aimed to shift the negativity from Russian terrorists to Ukrainians themselves.

Another message that was promoted during the attack was accusing Ukraine and NATO of planning to invade Belarus, forcing the latter to allow new Russian troops into its territory. All this happened against the background of Lukashenko’s statement of the same day about the joint grouping of troops. 

Discrediting volunteers and fundraising

In these examples, we see how the Russian special services attempt to devalue the volunteer movement of Ukrainians. The goal is to break Ukrainians’ will to resist and fight back against the invaders.

These narratives of the Russian propaganda were also analyzed in detail in the material by Detector Media “Fake Support of the Bombing of Ukraine on October 10, 2022”.

Odesa, Russian style

Putin’s regime extends its tentacles to regional “brands” as well. One of the channels developed by the Kremlin’s special services, “Tipichnaya Odessa” (Typical Odesa), is trying to ramp up the feelings of regional patriotism and pit the city against the rest of Ukraine, boosting separatism. 

From the covert promotion of pro-Russian and pro-imperial narratives in the previous years, Tipichnaya Odessa switched to almost overt Russian propaganda, for instance, accusing not Russia, which attacked its neighbor, of the deaths in Donetsk, but instead Ukraine and the West. 

The channel is trying to incite hatred towards Ukraine’s democratically elected authorities using manipulative emotionally-charged techniques.   

In addition to anti-Ukrainian content, the channel actively posts pictures and texts with the names of Russians from Odesa’s past, hoping that in this way they will be able to “erase” the crimes committed by Russians against Odesa in the residents’ memory.

Of course, propagandists have quite a lot of work to do, so the Tipichnaya Odessa channel and the new celebrity of Russian fascist propaganda Kots shared identical posts about Ukrainians shelling their cities themselves on October 10.

Pseudo-Ukrainian channels also exist to double down on the main Kremlin narratives. Here is how the “classics” of Russian propaganda about Ukraine hiding behind civilians was promoted on the Legitimny channel on October 10: “In the Office of the President, everyone is waiting for the Russian army to go for an attack on the front line. The timing is 10-15 days. … We did write that the West warned Zelensky about Russian preparing major forces, but the Office of the President did not and will not warn Ukrainians, for fear of traffic congestions. In fact, the Bankova [Office of the President] is simply using civilians as an obstacle for the Russians.”

In these examples, we see masked information perpetrators trying to make Ukrainians behave in ways that benefit the Kremlin. 

Namely: absolve Russia of responsibility for crimes, pit people and authorities against each other, sow panic, fear, and frustration, and discredit the volunteer movement. Therefore, Ukrainians should do the exact opposite of what the neo-fascist regime in Moscow is urging them to do. 

Other topics promoted by the pro-Kremlin network include a cold winter when Ukrainians will freeze to death, and attempts to slow down mobilization, particularly through lifting restrictions on border crossing. Many posts are dedicated to the narrative that Ukraine is the object of negotiations but not an independent actor. In addition, the Russian network regularly blames the deaths of civilians on Ukraine's air defense system, which, they say, hits residential buildings when trying to shoot down missiles. 

Detector Media has analyzed what messages this network of channels circulated since the very beginning of the full-scale war. “After almost a week of relative neutrality, Telegram channels gradually started going back to sharing disinformation and conspiracy theories. First, the channels actively published photos and videos from the front line, but often added manipulative statements such as ‘They claim that the Russians did it, but we cannot confirm it.’ They actively speculated about blowing up bridges, asking who would be rebuilding them. This was followed by stories discrediting the Ukrainian authorities, particularly Zelensky. Next was the discrediting of the Ukrainian Army and territorial defense units. As soon as in March, they quickly went back to usual conspiracy theories about ‘external management’ of the country. Every week, the level of disinformation was rising, and in June, the entire network went back to sharing ‘rumors’ filled with Russian disinformation.”

The key messages of Russian disinformation as of June 15 were “the West abandoned Ukraine,” “sanctions don’t work,” “the West is easing sanctions,” “division of Ukraine by the neighboring countries,” “the Ukrainian authorities never organized the evacuation of civilians on purpose, and when they did, it was ineffective.” They praised collaborators, saying they “gave up the city but saved the people.” They also talked about “bad Ukrainian refugees,” who are impolite and picky. Another message was that “the West does not like Ukrainian refugees.” In order to demoralize Ukrainians, they also spread the following messages: Russia is stronger and it will win,” “the Ukrainian authorities are lying about wins,” “Ukraine is running out of everything,” “the Ukrainian authorities have given up all grains,” “the Ukrainian authorities sell weapons they receive,” “Ukraine will not receive new weapons because the military doesn't know how to use it.” All of them were aimed at causing frustration so that Ukrainians would see no point in resisting. 

The network of Russia-operated “Ukrainian” channels is part of a large hybrid information war. According to the Kremlin’s plan, they, together with Viktor Medvedchuk’s channels, should plunge Ukraine into the bizarre world of Kremlin logic, fakes, and conspiracy theories, where no one can be trusted, and therefore, the truth does not exist, or rather, belongs to the most convincing liar. 

In turn, such channels are only a puzzle piece in the global picture of Russian disinformation, helping Putinism maintain its ambitions and dreams of victory and world domination. “They still believe in us — so we are doing the right thing.”

Naturally, Ukraine also needs to establish various platforms and media for Russian audiences and engage anti-regime Russians to run them. And while they will not be quite as popular at first (because the truth is rarely as exciting), they will be a good investment for everyone opposing the current Russian regime. 

In any case, Ukrainian society with its decentralization, networking, and self-sufficiency, will defeat the centralized structure of Putin’s propaganda along with its disinformation networks. 

Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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