Russian media campaign falsely claims Bucha deaths are fake

WASHINGTON (AP) — As gruesome videos and photos of bodies emerge from the kyiv suburb of Bucha, Kremlin-backed media outlets are denouncing them as an elaborate hoax — a narrative that Ukrainian journalists have shown to be false.

Exposing information as false or disseminating false reports to confuse and undermine its opponents are tactics Moscow has used for years and honed with the advent of social media in places like Syria.

In broadcasts detailed to millions of viewers, Russian state TV correspondents and hosts on Tuesday said some photo and video evidence of the killings was fake while others showed Ukrainians were responsible for the killings. bloodshed.

“Among the first to appear are these Ukrainian shots, which show how a soulless body suddenly moves its hand,” a report on Russia-1’s evening news said Monday. “And in the rearview mirror, we notice that the dead even seem to be starting to rise.”

But satellite images from early March show the dead were left on the streets of Bucha for weeks. On April 2, a video taken from a moving car was posted online by a Ukrainian lawyer showing those same bodies strewn along Yablonska Street in Bucha. High-resolution satellite images of Bucha from commercial vendor Maxar Technology reviewed by The Associated Press independently matched the location of the bodies with separate video from the scene. Other Western media published similar articles.

Over the weekend, AP reporters saw the bodies of dozens of people in Bucha, many of whom were shot at close range and some had their hands tied behind their backs. At least 13 bodies have been found in and around a building that residents say served as a base for Russian troops before they retreated last week.

Yet Russian officials and state media have continued to promote their own narrative, repeating it in newspapers, radio and television. A front-page article on the website of a popular pro-Kremlin newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, pinned the massacres on Ukraine, with a story that claimed “one more irrefutable proof that ‘the genocide in Bucha’ was perpetrated by Ukrainian forces”.

An opinion column published by the official RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday speculated that the Bucha killings were a ploy to get the West to impose tougher sanctions on Russia.

Dozens of bodies wait to be buried at a cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of kyiv, Ukraine, April 5, 2022.

Felipe Dana via Associated Press

Analysts note that this is not the first time in its six-week-old invasion of Ukraine that the Kremlin has used such an information warfare strategy to deny wrongdoing and spread disinformation in a coordinated campaign to worldwide.

“This is simply what Russia does whenever it admits it has suffered a public relations setback by committing atrocities,” said Keir Giles, senior consultant for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank. . “So the system is almost on autopilot.”

Before the war, Russia denied US intelligence reports that detailed its plans to attack Ukraine. Last month, Russian officials tried to discredit AP photos and reports of the aftermath of a maternity hospital bombing in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol that killed a pregnant woman and her child to be born.

Bucha’s photos and video sparked a new wave of global condemnation and revulsion.

A dead civilian with his hands tied behind his back lies on the ground in Bucha near kyiv, Ukraine, April 4, 2022.
A dead civilian with his hands tied behind his back lies on the ground in Bucha near kyiv, Ukraine, April 4, 2022.

Efrem Lukatsky via Associated Press

After his video appearance Tuesday at the UN Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listed the killings in Bucha by Russian troops and showed graphic video of charred and decomposing bodies there and in other towns. . The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, dismissed them as staged.

On social media, a chorus of more than a dozen official Russian Twitter and Telegram accounts, as well as state-backed media 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 on accounts maintained by Russian officials or by Russian-backed news outlets Sputnik and RT. Spanish-language channel RT en Español sent more than a dozen messages to its 18 million followers.

“Russia rejects allegations of killing of civilians in Bucha, near kyiv,” an RT en Español article said on Sunday.

Several of the same accounts sought to discredit claims that Russian troops carried out the killings by pointing to a video of Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk, taken on March 31, in which he spoke about liberating the suburb from occupation. Russian.

“He confirms that Russian troops have left Bucha. No mention of dead bodies in the streets,” senior Russian official Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted on Monday.

But Fedoruk had publicly commented on the violence before Russian troops left in an interview with Italian news agency Adnkronos on March 28, where he accused them of murders and rapes in Bucha.

In an AP interview on March 7, Fedoruk spoke of the bodies piling up in Bucha: “We can’t even pick up the bodies because the heavy gunfire doesn’t stop day or night. The dogs separate the bodies in the streets of the city. It’s a nightmare.”

Satellite images from Maxar Technologies as Russian troops occupied Bucha on March 18-19 confirm Fedoruk’s account of bodies in the streets, showing at least five bodies on a road.

Some social media platforms have tried to limit Kremlin propaganda and disinformation. Google blocked RT’s accounts, while in Europe RT and Sputnik were banned by tech company Meta, which also stopped promoting or amplifying Russian state media pages on its websites. platforms, including Facebook and Instagram.

Russia has found ways to evade the crackdown with posts in different languages ​​through dozens of official Russian social media accounts.

“It’s a pretty massive messaging device that Russia controls – whether it’s official embassy accounts, bot accounts or tolls or anti-Western influencers – they have many ways around it. platform bans,” said Bret Schafer, who leads the information manipulation team at the Alliance. for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Associated Press writer Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.

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