In prima parte a analizei we detailed the incident in the Kerci Strait in a chronological/sequential way. We continue with analyzing the primary disinformation narrations started by Kremlin in the Romanian speaking informational space. We will dismantle the most important, but first we talk a bit about the context.
For the beginning, we must clarify the fact that the disinformation campaign coordinated by Kremlin about the Kerch Strait, did not begin immediately on the 25th of November 2018, when Russia captured the three Ukrainian ships. In reality, the campaign started long before.
More than a year ago (on September 2017), the Russian press began to publish false information that “Ukraine deepens the Seabed for a NATO fleet in the Azov Sea”. In fact, this type of fleet does not even exist, but for Kremlin propagandists it does not matter.
At the beginning of summer in 2018, the Kremlin propaganda campaign intensified. The governmental controlled press communicated that „Ukraine infected the Azov Sea with Cholera”. In the end, it was proved that the news was a lie, given that World Health Organization and the Ukrainian Ministry of Health denied the existence of any cholera infection in the Region. au negat existența unei infecții de holeră în regiune.
Printscreen from The Insider which dismantles the fake narrations about the Ukrainian authorities to deepen the seabed of the Azov Sea for NATO carriers
Source: The Insider
In September 2018, Kremlin’s messages were already preparing the field for a future disinformation surprisingly anticipating „Provocations inspired by the West on the Azov Sea shore”, also declaring that the United States is planning “clashes between Ukrainian and Russian naval forces in the Black Sea since the 1990s”. “Proofs” were based on a video game which was seen by a Russian ex-soldier (as always, protected by anonymity).
All these disinformation messages have one reason: to show that Ukraine is the aggressor and that it is acting “aggressively” on Western commands. It was a convenient message for the disinformation planned by Kremlin, if we take a look at the illegal annexation of Crimea, or the false claim that is spread by the public television station Pervîi Kanal, which said the Azov Sea is an “internal Russian Sea”, and this would be Russia’s right to use military force against Ukraine.
At the beginning of November in 2018 (more precisely in the last week of the month), the pro-Kremlin propaganda referring to the incident in the Kerch Strait was redirected to the public in Ukraine. It seems that the objective for the disinformation designers was to spread among the general public attitudes of distrust towards the Ukrainian authorities and the EU Western partners, and also the US. They used manipulative and emotional statements such as “The West hopes to paint the Azov Sea with Ukrainian blood” and that „Ukrainian soldiers force children in Mariupol to dig trenches in their place”. Moreover, the captured ships were offered as a donation from the US and that for the incident Washington should be held accountable.
The most important false narrations used in the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign which preceded the incident that took place on the 25th of November 2018 in the Kerch Strait
Pro-Kremlin propaganda was used children in their campaigns to discredit the Ukrainian Army, when the same broadcasting station Pervîi kanal called a false witness that claimed to have seen the “crucifixion of a child” in Slavyansk central square. That time, the lie was dismantled easily by journalists who asked the residents of city if they witnessed such an incident. But in this case, being about many uncertainties, the big picture must be reconstructed from scarce public information and some of it even secret.
Still, it is worth trying to unravel some real facts that are offered by digital instruments.
“If one of you thought that this incident was unexpected, then you are wrong”, the European Commissioner for Security Julian King said, at a conference organized in Bruxelles by the German Marshall Fund. The European official is right, and we wish to add the fact that this campaign for distorting reality about the events in the Kerch Strait will continue also in 2019, being updated periodically through various channels, during the trials for the sailors held captive.
Until now, we succeeded in making a list of some of the most viral digital disinformation launched on social-media by Kremlin’s propagandistic mechanism. Here are some samples of disinformation in Romanian that the pro-Kremlin propaganda tried to infect us with:
#Disinformation_1: „I“The incident in the Black Sea, is of course, a provocation planned by the present authorities [from Kiev – author’s note] or even from the current president, in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine next year in March [2019 – n.a.]”[2019 – author’s notes]” (Vladimir Putin, Buenos-Aires, December 2018).
Argument: This disinformation was shared on multiple channels, including in the Western press, being partially borrowed by some experts from Romania, who tackle conspiracy theories. On the other hand, the “planned provocations” by Kiev was strengthened also by president Putin during the press conference at the G20 Summit in Argentina..
This disinformation narration starts with the false presumption that the Ukrainian authorities, led by president Poroșenko, planned the “provocation” in the Kerch Strait so that he could increase his reputation in the context of the upcoming presidential elections on 31st of March 2019. But, according to the instrumental psychological analysis, applied by the experts in this field, the Russian presidents’ declarations are not based on logical arguments, obvious being the pathological liar tendencies of his personality. Besides, LARICS has revealed numerous disinformation narratives launched by the Russian president on various occasions at conferences or international visits..
According to the data presented in a sociological survey in Ukraine, , president Prosenko’s reputation maintained at a rate of 7-11% even after the Russian-Ukrainian naval incident on 25th of November 2018. The numbers remained constant in the latest poll in January 2019: the president’s reputation never passed 8% (UISI „Soțialnyi monitoring”, on January 3rd 2019).
Besides, the incident on 25th of November 2018 couldn’t influence the citizens given that the sociological data shows that a significant percentage of the voters (approximately 35%) will choose a candidate or another with at least two months before the presidential elections. In terms of sociological theories, decision making in voting is a more complex mechanism and depends on many variables, not just military incidents.
The main disinformation narratives about the incident in the Kerch Strait identified by the East StratCom Task Force team
##Disinformation_2: : By declaring martial law in 10 regions that border Russia and the Transnistrian region (R. Moldova), Petro Poroșenko intends to cancel the presidential elections on 31st of March 2019..
Argument: This narrative was shared on Russian speaking news stations, such as Ramblerincluding Sputnik.md and reaching the Romanian speaking media in Romania and R. Moldova. Martial law did not overlap with the presidential elections in 2019 and did not affect the rights and individual freedom of the Ukrainian citizens. The presidential elections were announced by Verkhovna Rada and canceling the elections would be impossible under those terms with the exception of a massive invasion of the country and declaring state of emergency.
Dezinformarea_3: The Ukrainian ships refused to respond to the notices sent by the Russian ships.
Argument: The Ukrainian vessels did not intent to pass through the strait without communicating with the Russian commandment. At 11:08 (Ukrainian time), on 25th of November 2018, the three ships reached anchorage 471 (“area C” in the Russian-Ukrainian territorial waters) previously communicated by the Russian part. A confirmed fact by the interception presented by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine (2:12 minute), in which the “Berdyansk” gunboat’s commander tells “Bereh 25” dispatcher that: 1) the three Ukrainian ships intent to enter the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait and also; 2) they are ready to receive on board a pilot designated by the Russian part for passing through the strait.
Moreover, radio communication system on the Ukrainian ships was jammed so the commanders of the convoy could not keep in contact with the Ukrainian Naval Forces.
The route of the three Ukrainian ships on the days 24-25 November 2018
Source: BBC News
Disinformation_4: The three Ukrainian ships entered the Russian Federation’s territorial waters, entering forbidden space of the territorial waters. /em>
Argument: Disinformation was shared in the Romanian speaking informational space on the pro-Kremlin propaganda website Sputnik.md. While, in reality, the Ukrainian vessels did not enter the Russian Federation’s territorial waters sailed only on international waters heading towards the Kerch Strait. The convoy entered Russia’s continental territorial waters only after they received the location for anchorage (471 area) until obtaining the permission for passing the strait under Crimea’s bridge. They traveled in the area under theTreaty Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine on Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait (2003),which enables any ship under the Ukrainian flag to pass freely through the strait and sail on the Azov Sea, being recognized as Ukraine and Russia’s common “territorial waters”.
After the illegal annexation of Crimea, the two countries did not set out their marine borders and also the exclusive marine economic routes. Thus, as from a legal point of view, in the Crimea, Kerch and the Azov Sea case we can speak about rather “border protection lines” defined by the two countries and not “marine borders” between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
#Disinformation_5: Ukrainian vessels were making dangerous maneuvers and ignored any notices.
Argument: It is hard to reconstruct the entire maneuvering route and practically impossible to establish the extent of danger of these maneuvers made by Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait. What we can say is that the Ukrainian ships were trying to avoid, as much as possible, a collision with the Russian vessels, while the FSB Coast Guard received an order to take them by force during their entire time in the strait. The video recording and the interceptions confirm how dangers the maneuvers were made by “Don” and “Izumrud” which collided at a certain point.
#Disinformation_6: The three ships were captured on Russian territorial waters.
Argument: The Ukrainian ships, when they were captured (not detained), outside the territorial waters, partially on Russian continental waters and partially on international waters (at the 12-nautical mile limit from Crimean shore). Fact confirmed by the FSB press release regarding the coordinated attack on Berdyansk: 44°53’4N 36°25’7E, 10.68 nautical miles away from the Crimean shore and outside the Russian Federation’s continental territorial waters (17,86 nautical miles away from Krasnodar County’s shore).
Localizing on Google Maps the Ukrainian gunboat “Berdyansk” according to the initial coordinates provided by FSB on the 26th of November 2018 (via bellingcat.com)
Source: Google Maps
#Disinformation_7: The three Ukrainian ships seized by the FSB during the incident in the Black Sea represents 1/3 of the entire fleet of the Ukrainian Naval Forces.
Argument: The fake news was shared on various channels and broadcasting television stations controlled directly by Kremlin with the purpose of mocking the role played by the Ukrainian marine in the Black Sea.The Insider dismantled this disinformation. . Ukraine lost 80% of its military fleet after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and during the incident in the Kerch Strait lost 1/3 of its class Gyurza-M gunboats and not 1/3 of its entire military fleet. Experts also noticed the obvious similitude between the two statements made by the journalists on public television, which suggests that there is a real disinformation campaign started by Kremlin in CIS regions and also in the Western space.
#Disinformation_8: The Russian Special Operations Forces (Spetsnaz) successfully prevented an act of sabotage that would have started World War Three because the British and Ukrainian secret services were plotting to transport a SADM portable device to destroy the Crimean bridge.
Argument: This disinformation was launched on the English speaking informational space in Great Britain and was based on conspiracy theories and fictional stories. Later, the fake news (available now only on web archives) was distributed freely over the internet with slight changes, in the sense that the nuclear device was replaced by a “considerable amount” of dynamite. Obviously the conspiracy “authors” launched another theory that NATO might have an interest in destabilizing the region.
Printscreen of the disinformation website SouthFron.org about the British-Ukrainian “conspiracy” in transporting a portable nuclear device
Source: Web Archive
The fake story was first posted as a comment by an anonymous user, active on various news and blogs, followed by its spreading on other websites, including the YouTube video platform.
PrintScreen from the YouTube channel where the disinformation about the “NATO SADM transported by Ukraine”
Without any proof (factual data) that could support the narration, this type of disinformation can be classified as a “conspiracy theory” for sites, blogs and marginal forums.
This theory combines more recurring pro-Kremlin disinformation narrations:
- The North Atlantic Alliance is scared by the Crimean Bridge;
- The West is trying to start a world war;
- Kiev is incited by the West so it will provoke Russia to start an open war.
On another note, the Special Atomic Demolition Munition portable device was created by the American army in 1964 and withdrawn in 1989, never being used in any conflict. Back then, the weapon would have been used in case of a massive Soviet invasion, to destroy, irradiate and deny key routes on limited terrain such as the Fulda Gap (Germany). Now the weapon is outdated and also no longer compliant with the new battle standards. Also, as Foreign Policy mentions: “Today, visitors to the U.S. government’s National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, N.M., can get their picture taken in front of a SADM parachute container. The Special Atomic Demolition Munition has gone from being a deadly serious, if eccentric, weapon to an item of Cold War kitsch.”
#Disinformation_9: Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) members on the military ships hides a secret operation.
Argument: This fake story was shared on the Romanian speaking informational space as a result of the incorrect interpretation of the statement released to the press by the Ukrainian authorities on November 27, two days after the incident. The Institution’s Press Office also mentioned that the officers were accomplishing their order in “offering support to the Ukrainian Naval Forces by providing counter-information”.
At the same time, SBU claims that the detained officers are exposed to strong pressure. Fact confirmed by a video montage were three captured Ukrainian soldiers declare that they had violated Russia’s territorial waters and ignored the notices about leaving immediately. These types of declarations, staged and obtained under suspicious conditions by the FSB cannot be a valid argument for the Russian part.
Captain Vladimir Lesovoi reading the declaration from a paper. He is one of the Ukrainian soldiers captured Sunday evening by the FSB Coast Guard
The Russian part, through the declarations made by the Russian Ambassador at the UN, Dmitri Polianski, launched a counter-narration through which he aims to launch that the SBU officers present on the Ukrainian ships, were ordered to incite so that the Russian part would answer by force in the Kerch Strait. Immediately Sputnik.md backed up the narration through an article published on its websitemaking a reference to the FSB press release and a copy-paste “contextualization” aimed to highlight Kiev’s intention to provoke an incident in the Kerch Strait. Of course, not even today, the Russian part did not explain why the Ukrainian ships were not captured only after they left the strait at the 12-nautical mile limit and on international waters.
On another note, for dismantling this disinformation about the existence of a “SBU mission” in the Kerch Strait, we will use the argument validation by applying the non sequitur logical procedure:
1. If A then B.
2. Non A.
3. Therefore, non B.
1. If SBU member were on board the ships (A), then the ships where used for a secret operation (B).
2. SBU member were not on board the ships (A)
3. Then the ships were not used for a secret operation (B)
(The ships can be used in any type of operation even without the presence of SBU members on board)
Here, we can see that the argument is logically flawed because the conclusion does not result from the premise. Quod erat demonstrandum..
The disinformation technique “wolf cries wolf” was the best weapon in the Kremlin controlled mass-media in order to use the naval incident in the Kerch Strait. Many, if not most of the actions that Kiev was accused of doing where in fact planned and applied by Kremlin.
The interceptions published in the first part of our analysis demonstrates that Russia planned and organized this operation long before, implementing it pretty aggressively even when it comes to disinformation campaigns and internal propaganda.
The second technique used by Kremlin was the Red herring („hering roșu” – trad.) a metaphor used in expressing a diversion and creating a distraction from the original objective. The argument that the Ukrainian president introduced martial law after a simple “border incident”, under the conditions where state emergency was not initiated in Kiev, not even after military clashes stared with the separatists in the Eastern regions (Donețk și Luhansk), was used as a distraction of the international public opinion from the strategic objectives that Russia has in the region.
Disinformation campaigns had to distract the public from the fact that, immediately after the naval incident on November 25th 2018, Russia was making a significant diplomatic effort for the international recognition for the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea for the illegally annexed Crimea. Also, by blocking the Kerch Strait and establishing quasi-total control in the Azov Sea, Russia continues to exert pressure on the Ukrainian marine industry in the region, undermining through financial and commercial loses. And last but not least, Kremlin has intensively used its own “media Legion” to discredit the Ukrainian Authorities at an internal and international scale, reaching a point where it mocked the countries’ capacity to assure even its own security.
The third technique used in anti-Ukrainian disinformation campaigns was to spread many conspiracy theories, lies through omitting pieces of information and malicious narratives in order to create among the international public an effect called „gaslighting” (a psychological manipulation which intends to create doubts in an individual or a group of people making them question their own memory and perception of reality). In this case, reading the whole hypothesis and narrations launched by Kremlin, we will be distracted from the real problems and redirected to insignificant alternative “truths”, but necessary for propagandists.
Juxtaposing slander with disinformation is an example for using political communication as a hybrid form of informational aggression, which under given conditions of the naval incident, blends perfectly with the situation of direct confrontation strategy with another state at the border.
*Nicolae Țîbrigan is a member of the LARICS Expert Council
**Cristian Soareis part of the LARICS Internship Program 2019.