The volume of Russian disinformation seeking to frame Ukraine as a threat to justify military action by Russia has more than doubled in the past week, Western officials have said.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, revealed there had been a two-fold increase in fake Russian claims during comments she made at a security conference in Munich on Saturday.
This includes a ramping up of output by Russian state-linked media of what Western officials believe to be reports on bogus provocations blamed on the Ukrainian military in an attempt to create pretexts for Russia to invade.
“This is an information operation co-ordinated by Russia,” a Western official told Sky News.
“Unfortunately for them, they are not as good as they think they are,” the official said, describing some of the material as “shoddy fakes”.
The Kremlin has a track record of using false information to create confusion and doubt when trying to avoid blame for an attack or to create an excuse to act.
It happened in the wake of the Salisbury spy poisonings in March 2018.
The UK blamed Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, for the attempted double murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
However, Russian officials, state-backed media and pro-Kremlin social media accounts generated dozens of – often conflicting – alternative explanations in an attempt to undermine the British accusations.
Russian disinformation has also targeted Ukraine for decades, aimed at trying to make Moscow look good and the West appear aggressive.
It increased in the run-up to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and has spiked again.
What kinds of claims are being made?
This month alone, Western officials have been tracking reports across Russian state-linked news outlets and pro-Kremlin social media accounts that are amplifying claims – without evidence – of attacks and plots blamed on Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists.
This includes an article on 1 February falsely reporting that the government in Kyiv was planning a “major war” in the separatist-held Donbas region.
Another article three days later erroneously alleged that British, US and Estonian journalists had travelled to Donbas to produce a fake video showing acts of aggression by Russia.
In one of the most recent suspicious claims, Russian news agencies on Saturday reported that a Ukrainian shell had exploded on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine.
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, took the unusual step of posting on social media that the allegation was false – evidence of an increasingly heated information war.
“We resolutely refute all accusations of any alleged Ukrainian shells falling on the Russian territory,” he tweeted. “Ukraine has never opened any such fire.”
Western officials cast doubt on videos shared online
Western officials also raised suspicion about a number of videos that have appeared online in what they suspect is an attempt by Russia to create the false impression that separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine is under threat from the Ukrainian government.
This included footage of an apparent car bomb exploding in Donetsk.
It was thought to have been shared online by a pro-Russian blogger on Friday, with reporting in Russian media outlets suggesting the explosion was linked to Ukrainian aggression.
Suspicion has similarly been raised about video statements by the separatist leaders in Donetsk and the other separatist-held territory of Luhansk, ordering an “emergency” evacuation of civilians in response to alleged Ukrainian military activity.
The statements were released on Friday but analysis by the investigative website Bellingcat of its metadata revealed they had actually been recorded two days earlier.
Western officials believe this is evidence that an escalation in hostilities was pre-planned.
‘Take any new Russian claims with a pinch of salt’
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, wrote on Twitter: “Russian back separatists have been caught red-handed fabricating the pre-text for a Russian invasion, so take any new Russian claims about anything with a big pinch of salt.”
One of the most widely covered pieces of what Western officials are calling a deception was a claim by Russia that a build-up of troops around Ukraine was starting to drawdown.
The comments were first made on 15 February and reported around the world.
However, British, US and other NATO officials have since said that the opposite is the case, with the number of Russian forces increasing and moving closer to Ukraine’s border.