«It will be like Chechnya»: russians promoting these narratives in the occupied territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions
Oleksiy Artyukh, the editor-in-chief of “Tribune”, was forced to leave his hometown of Rubizhne due to the fighting. However, he continues to receive information about the situation in the Luhansk region from various sources. Specifically, from local telegram channels and public groups. We spoke to him about how Russians and the LDNR groups spread fake news and outright lies through social networks, as well as how locals react to this propaganda.
Do you monitor telegram channels and Luhansk/Donetsk communities on social networks — both Ukrainian and Russian ones?
— I follow everything in order to convey objective information to people. In order to debunk fake news and propaganda, it is necessary to monitor the resources of the occupiers.
In the last month, according to your observations, which narratives were promoted, or which fakes were spread by the occupiers?
— The situation has not changed – the narratives include «atrocities of nationalists», «shelling of civilians» and the justification of their criminal actions. This was in recent weeks. There is a lot of talk about Donetsk, given the information that the allies are supplying new weapons to Ukraine. Attention is paid to howitzers 777. Even the locals understand that Donetsk is being shelled by the Russians themselves and they write about it a lot on social networks and in comments where they can respond. If they (Russians) destroy another school or hospital, they write that it was allegedly a provocation by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, for 8 years it was quiet and peaceful in these cities and now they lie in ruins, and our people are buried in trenches.
Today, the Russians called the destruction of school №6 in Avdiivka a provocation by the Ukrainian military. It was not them who allegedly fired at it from the Multiple Rocket Launcher System “Hail”, but the Ukrainian military who set it on fire. And, in principle, they try to transfer any blame for shelling by the occupiers to the Ukrainian side. If we talk about the Luhansk region (I monitor it more), it is a constant insult that «the Ukrainian military is leaving their positions», «they do not want to fight», «they surrender» and so on. At the same time, they often cheerfully report on the seizure of settlements. They «took» the same Rubizhne eight times. The situation is the same with Severodonetsk, although fighting continues there.
Maybe they think that they have already captured everything? Or do they need someone else to think so?
— Information is presented differently in different sources of the occupiers. That is, Kadyrov reports that Rubizhne was taken, and in half an hour the leader of the «LNR» group Pasichnyk writes that fighting continues. There are a lot of these types of contradictions.
Do people understand these contradictions?
— Most of the locals left their settlements. Part of the local population remains there, and they are in an information vacuum. If we talk about Rubizhne, Kreminna, and Severodonetsk, about the occupied parts of the city, then people do not have access to information at all. In addition to what the occupiers tell them, they bring their «republican» press. You know what kind of newspapers they are. Well, plus what their relatives tell them, but that’s if you can call them. However, this is a big problem. In the same Rubizhne, Ukrainian mobile communication is cut off and people call from the numbers of the operator who works on «squeezed» equipment, but the connection is very bad and, in general, everything is bad with the information there. As for the north of the Luhansk region — Svatove, Starobilsk, Troitskoe, Novopskov and so on — people have some opportunity to receive normal objective news and, in particular, they use Telegram for this purpose.
By the way, how did people react to Viber being blocked in the occupied territories? I know many people there who used this method of communication.
— Yes, a lot of people used it and people have a negative attitude towards it being blocked. Even if someone has pro-Russian views, when they start restricting some freedoms, something that affects the comfort of their life, no one likes it. Blocking Viber was not admired by anyone.
There is the north of Luhansk region and there is the industrial parts, Rubizhne, Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, where fierce battles take place and for people, the main task is to survive, and think less about information…
— Yes, the №1 task is to survive.
But what I was leading to — it seems that in the north they are not firing, and people allegedly have more opportunities to communicate, exchange information, and have more «air”? Does this all look deceptive?
— I spoke a lot and still communicate with the residents of the northern regions and almost none of the people feel safe there, because planes are constantly flying, heavy equipment is moving, and people are afraid to let their children walk outside the yard. I’m not saying it’s like that for everyone, but many people have a constant feeling of anxiety and people are trying to get out of there.
When you communicate with people in the occupied territories, what do they ask you first?
— The most common questions I hear from people who are in the occupied territories are: «Do you know when there will be a counterattack? Will they release us?” This is the main question. Also, many ask about prices.
To compare prices?
— Yes. It is no secret that I am now in Kyiv and people are asking me how much these or those products cost in the Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Is there a big difference between prices?
— There is a difference. Everything is very expensive there. There is inexpensive fuel, gasoline, bread, and some other products, but, in general, everything has become very expensive. People are desperate, because they don’t have a job either. All the occupiers promise that there will be work, that you will receive a normal salary, but no one gets anything. People are thinking about how they will live on.
Or how they will leave, which is more likely.
— Yes. And people keep leaving. Some of those who were there left through the territory of Russia and went to other European countries.
What are the most common fakes that Russians and their henchmen use to mislead people?
— They work on all fronts; they have a lot of resources. And it’s not just Russian TV channels or some pages on social networks. Even before the invasion, they made a network of local chats in Viber and Telegram. I worked more on the Telegram chats and tracked these things. These local chats were created on the type of «Rubezhnoe. Obsudzhenie» and when the invasion began, many began to join these chats frequently. These chats need some local information, and then people start joining these chats, and then censorship is introduced there.
If a person expresses pro-Ukrainian views, they are banned. However, many people just join, write nothing and just keep track of the information. Thus, thousands of people have been hurt by these groups and propaganda is being carried out. Administrators are very active, and they do not only throw in some news. They communicate with people, «process» them, and find dissenters. This applies to both the situation at the front and to the humanitarian situation. For example, there is a lot of destroyed housing in Rubizhne. Half of the city is not there at all, and in the other half, there is very serious damage. People ask if there will be any compensation for living conditions and these admins “process” them. They write that Russia will rebuild everything, «it will be like in Chechnya.» Many times, I have seen the theory that «it will be like in Chechnya». And when you look at the comments, you can immediately understand who is local and who is just working as a bot. You come in, and they are there from Arkhangelsk, Nizhny Tagil or somewhere else and they say: «We released you!», «You should be grateful for all this!» They tell the locals how badly they lived, and now they will live well. At this level, they do a lot of work.
When did you notice the creation of these groups?
— By February 25th, they were already there.
Isn’t it too late? I would think that maybe in a month, they should have created these types of pages.
— I think they may have been created before. They most likely were. It’s just that the content was maybe a little different. We have identified many administrators for these groups.
Are they local?
— Most often, these people live on the territory of the Russian Federation but have some connection with the cities to which they are assigned. They either left there themselves, but left 10 years ago, or they have some relatives living in the Luhansk region.
But this is a network. Are you sure?
— I am 100% sure that it is a network, because it has all the signs a network and we worked on this database — it is assembled and the actors are installed
Do you know any of those people personally or in absentia?
— Personally, I know one person. Not very well, but he’s from my city. I have seen him hundreds of times. He has photos on social media showing that he went to Luhansk. Well, even earlier. It is a possibility that he could have been recruited there.
Can you give an example of fake news that struck you as an outright lie?
— Yes of course. There are a lot of examples of fake news. But here’s what made me very indignant and left me speechless (not only me, but the whole city was outraged). It was on May 13 or 14. Don Kadyrov writes in his Telegram channel: “A military hospital was opened today in the city of Rubezhnoye, Luhansk region. Our dear brothers took part in the opening ceremony. Previously, an abandoned hospital was located on the site of the open hospital due to the lack of funds and resources. It is worth noting that in some offices of the abandoned medical institution there was functioning medical equipment, which will now properly serve the interests of soldiers and residents of Rubezhnoye. In the shortest possible time, the medical institution was supplied with water, and electricity, and the main points of reception for patients were restored and equipped.»
What is this about? This is the infectious diseases department of the Rubizhne hospital. This department was renovated at the expense of donors. It was modern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was based in the Luhansk region. I myself was there writing stories. And the chief doctor of the infectious diseases department, the chief infectious disease specialist of Rubizhne, Olga Martynenko, reacted to Kadyrov’s fake: “You are a bastard, and you are a liar. Thieves and looters stole everything. There are no concentrators, ventilators, mobile X-ray machines, video cameras, microwave ovens, or electric kettles. They left satisfied. Probably, they never seen a hospital like this. And how can you lie like that? They took other people’s things and still lied about what they did. The light in the departments is on thanks to the generator we had. All the equipment and furniture is ours, bought with the money of the government, the regional state administration, charitable foundations, organizations, and ordinary residents. You still read what they wrote, and it turns out that our department was abandoned due to lack of funds, and it was accidentally found, and then, during the inspection, high-quality equipment was found there. It’s in an abandoned building! And they restored the branch. Only the video begins with the display of a sign stating that the office has been renovated by UNDP, but they do not know such words! ”
This is a typical fake — when people openly lie. When the locals saw it, there was great anger because everyone understands the reality, compared to what the fake stated. As for medicine, the occupiers in Starobilsk presented doctors with UAZ cars, and Mayor Yana Lytvynova also reacted to this. She wrote that the entire primary school in the community was staffed with Dusters. Even rural areas had a regional station with new modern cars, and they planned to buy a resuscitation car for the secondary school for almost 2.5 million hryvnias. And now it is unknown where all the Dusters are and why they are instead driving a clumsy old UAZ. Then the Russians retransmit the story and tell them how it became better to live in Starobilsk after the «liberation». This is absurd.
Is there a difference in the quality or focus of content between the channels and communities that are run by Russians and those that are run by «LNR and DNR» crooks?
— As for those who are in Luhansk / Donetsk, I understand that in most cases there is a so-called «Ministry of State Security»… You must understand that for eight years, since 2014, there has been no freedom of speech at all. Therefore, these resources are, in principle, controlled by these so-called bodies. As for the content, they work very clumsily and they work with the content as a whole. Here is an example. Go to the social network «Vkontakte». In the «search» function and you can type the name of a settlement. Whether it is Rubizhne or Severodonetsk, you will see that a single piece of news can be posted in a day on hundreds of different sources.
I noticed this, by the way, when I was looking for some details, but there were no details.
— It was so before and now even more. Everything is retransmitted.
Valentina Troyan, IMI representative for the occupied territories