When gruesome videos and photos of bodies emerged from the Kiev suburb of Bucha, Kremlin-backed media denounced them as an elaborate hoax — a narrative that journalists in Ukraine have proven false.
Denouncing news as fake or spreading false reports to sow confusion and undermine its opponents are tactics Moscow has used for years and has honed with the rise of social media in countries like Syria.
In detailed broadcasts to millions of viewers on Tuesday, correspondents and hosts for Russian state TV channels said some photo and video evidence of the killings was fake, while others showed Ukrainians were responsible for the bloodshed.
“Among the first to surface were these Ukrainian footage showing a soulless body suddenly moving its hand,” read a report on Monday’s Russia-1 evening news. “And in the rear-view mirror, the dead seem to be rising.”
But satellite images from early March show the dead were left roaming the streets of Bucha for weeks. On April 2, a Ukrainian lawyer posted online video taken from a moving car showing the same bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. High-resolution satellite imagery of Bucha from commercial provider Maxar Technology, reviewed by The Associated Press, independently matched the bodies’ locations with separate videos from the crime scene. Other western media had similar reports.
Over the weekend, AP journalists saw the bodies of dozens of people in Bucha, many shot at point blank range and some with their hands tied behind their backs. At least 13 bodies were found in and around a building that residents said was used as a base for Russian troops before withdrawing last week.
Nonetheless, Russian officials and state media have continued to promote their own narrative and parroted it in newspapers, radio and television. A top story on the website of a popular pro-Kremlin newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, pinned the mass killings in Ukraine with a story claiming “further irrefutable evidence that ‘the Bucha genocide’ was carried out by Ukrainian forces”.
An opinion column published by the state news agency RIA Novosti on Tuesday suspected that the Bucha killings were a ploy by the West to impose tougher sanctions on Russia.
Analysts note that it is not the first time in its six-week invasion of Ukraine that the Kremlin has employed such an information warfare strategy to deny any wrongdoing and spread disinformation in a coordinated campaign across the globe.
“That’s just what Russia does every time it realizes it’s suffered a PR setback by committing atrocities,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of think tank Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program. “So the system works on autopilot, so to speak.”
Before the war, Russia denied US intelligence reports detailing its plans to attack Ukraine. Last month, Russian officials tried to discredit AP photos and reports of the aftermath of the bombing of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol that killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
Bucha’s photos and videos have unleashed a new wave of global condemnation and disgust.
Following his video appearance Tuesday before the UN Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi detailed the killings by Russian troops in Bucha and showed vivid videos of charred and decomposing bodies there and in other cities. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, dismissed it as staged.
On social media, a chorus of more than a dozen official Russian Twitter and Telegram accounts, as well as state-sponsored Facebook pages, repeated the Kremlin line that images and videos of the dead were staged or a hoax. The claims were made in English, Spanish and Arabic to accounts held by Russian officials or by the Russian-backed news outlets Sputnik and RT. Spanish-language RT en Español has sent more than a dozen posts to its 18 million followers.
“Russia has denied allegations of the killing of civilians in Bucha near Kyiv,” read a Sunday RT en Español post.
Several of the same reports attempted to discredit claims that Russian forces carried out the killings by pointing to a video of Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk, taken on March 31, speaking of the liberation of the suburb from of the Russian crew spoke.
“He confirms that Russian troops have left Bucha. No mention of dead bodies in the streets,” senior Russian official Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted Monday.
But before the Russian troops withdrew, Fedoruk publicly commented on the violence in an interview with the Italian news agency Adnkronos on March 28 and accused them of murder and rape in Bucha.
In an AP interview on March 7, Fedoruk spoke of bodies piling up in Bucha: “We can’t even collect the bodies because the heavy weapon fire doesn’t stop day and night. Dogs tear up the corpses on the city streets. It’s a nightmare.”
Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies while Russian troops occupied Bucha on March 18-19 supports Fedoruk’s account of dead bodies in the streets and shows at least five bodies in one street.
Some social media platforms have tried to curb propaganda and disinformation from the Kremlin. Google blocked RT’s accounts, while RT and Sputnik were banned in Europe by tech company Meta, which also stopped promoting or expanding Russia’s state media pages on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.
Russia has found ways to evade the crackdown with posts in different languages across dozens of official Russian social media accounts.
“It’s a pretty massive messaging apparatus that Russia controls — whether it’s official embassy accounts, bot or toll accounts, or anti-Western influencers — they have many ways to circumvent platform bans,” said Bret Schafer, who heads the information manipulation team at the Alliance heads for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.