Unmasking Propaganda: Aftermath of the Chernihiv Strike

Written by Matthew Wickham

On August 19th, Russia launched a Iskander-K cruise missile strike on Chernihiv, a neighboring oblast to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. This strike resulted in at least seven deaths, including a 6-year-old girl, and left 129 wounded. 

The strike was directed at the city center’s theater, which was concurrently hosting an exhibition of Ukrainian drones, an event Russian propaganda is manipulating to make it seem like a legitimate target. 

In the aftermath of this heinous strike, there has been a flurry of accusations and finger-pointing among Ukrainian officials regarding with whom the responsibility lies for allowing such an event to take place, but let’s not forget where the primary blame lies: with Russia and its network of propagandists. These propagandists have actively called for the genocide of the Ukrainian people, fueling hate towards Ukraine among the domestic population. Within this article we will analyze Yulia Vityazeva’s (Russian Propagandist) reaction to the strike and the methods used to manipulate the domestic Russian audience in its aftermath.

In the wake of the strike, it’s essential to highlight the role played by propagandists. Whether state-sponsored or independent actors, they are instrumental in shaping the domestic public opinion and driving narratives that serve the Kremlin’s interests. This event was no different.

1.Calls for Borscht?

I am receiving reports that there is Borscht in Chernihiv, a double portion

Yulia Vityazeva, Russian Propagandist

During the attack on Chernihiv’s city theater, Vityazeva’s initial response to the news is one of a celebratory nature, telling of ‘Borscht’ in Chernihiv, as seen in her Telegram immediately after the attack. This message exemplifies a deliberate tactic of ambiguity, however, its central purpose is clear: to dehumanize the enemy and downplay the event.

The use of ‘Borscht’ can only be assumed to be symbolic of the grim aftermath of a missile attack. Thus far, Vityazeva has refrained from explaining what she actually means when she reports of ‘Borscht’ in (location).

Why? The reference to Borscht, a traditional Ukrainian dish (though often disputed by Russians as theirs), is distinguished by its bright red color, lumps (potatoes and meat), and strands of boiled vegetables. And so one can only presume that Vityazeva uses it to resemble the aftermath of a violent incident, complete with blood and scattered bodies. This intentional vagueness allows her followers to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations, and diminish the severity, thus considering the death of innocent civilians as nothing more than a joke.

Furthermore, this manipulation can evoke emotions, such as sarcasm or unity among the Russian people – advantageous for the propagandist’s agenda. This is illustrated in the comments section under the post. Vityazeva’s followers reply by calling for ‘Three portions,’ or ‘with mushrooms,’ or ‘What a good borscht, so rich. These responses underscore how these tactics effectively shape the narrative and influence public sentiment.

2. Bonus card

Bonus: all ‘Ukrainian-trash media’ announced urgent collections for drones for a “retaliatory” strike against Russia. So in addition to political bonuses, they will also make money

Yulia Vityazeva, Russian Propagandist

In the quote, Vityazeva engages in dehumanization and name-calling by referring to Ukrainians as “trash,” aiming to vilify and delegitimize them in the eyes of the audience. By mentioning civilian victims and suggesting that Ukrainians are collecting funds for a “retaliatory” strike against Russia, Vityazeva aims to create a false equivalence between the actions of the two sides. This emotional appeal and false equivalence are designed to justify or downplay Russia’s actions while diverting attention from the civilian casualties caused by the Russian strike. Furthermore, hints at conspiracy and financial gain among Ukrainians contribute to a sense of suspicion and distrust. 

3. No Match Against Russia

“They would not hesitate to attack such an exhibition on Russian territory. And the presence of civilians wouldn’t stop them. But they just don’t have the means to do it.” 

Yulia Vityazeva, Russian Propagandist

In this statement, Vityazeva intends to instill fear in the Russian people, making the audience fearful of Ukraine and its potential retaliation. This scare tactic is used to justify Russia’s actions and provides a pretext for self-defense by portraying Ukraine as the hostile neighbor, the aggressor, even though it is Russia who just struck a civilian target.

Additionally, Vityazeva’s statement is a tacit admission that the theater attack was carried out by Russia with the knowledge that civilians would be present. Although not explicitly stated, this acknowledgement implicitly reinforces Russia’s military capabilities and willingness to engage in such actions, normalizing Russia’s actions by framing them as necessary.

Vityazeva underscores Russia’s superiority over Ukraine, fostering patriotism and national pride by depicting Russia as a formidable power compared to the ‘small’ Ukraine, a narrative propaganda has long pushed.

4.Blaming Ukrainian Air Defence instead of the Russian executants

“Zelensky lies yet again, claiming that the video depicts the consequences of our missile’s arrival. Locals, however, write in the chats that Ukrainian air defense was to blame for what happened. Because they shot down directly above the city center.”

Yulia Vityazeva, Russian Propagandist

Vityazeva’s rhetoric uses an ad hominem attack against Zelensky to further the Russian state’s agenda of discrediting him. Additionally, Vityazeva selectively highlights discussions from Russian telegram channels and ordinary citizens’ comments, conveniently omitting contradictory information, all while implying that these sources are credible despite their lack of military expertise, and, needless to say, no access to intelligence of the strike a mere 30 minutes post-hit. 

Furthermore, the propagandist shifts blame onto the Ukrainian Air Defense, concealing Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukrainian cities. Vityazeva purposefully overlooks the defensive nature of Ukrainian air defense (having to intercept missiles in the final stage of flight), and casts doubt on the accuracy of video evidence without providing any valid counterarguments. 

5. The Final Piece to the Puzzle

“It appears that the missile was deliberately shot down over the Chernihiv Theatre. […]Now Zelensky has a reason to cry in Sweden, demanding love, weapons, money, NATO membership, and other perks while avoiding awkward questions about a counteroffensive. The puzzle has been completed.”

Yulia Vityazeva, Russian Propagandist

Vityazeva employs misdirection and deflection to shift blame away from Russia, implying that the downing of the missile over the Chernihiv Drama Theatre was now a deliberate provocation by Ukraine. This further progresses from the narrative applied 10 minutes earlier when she put blame on the Ukrainian Air Defense, now suggesting it was Ukraine’s plan all along.

Furthermore, Vityazeva engages in character assassination by accusing Zelensky of using the incident for personal gain, seeking sympathy and support from foreign entities in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about Ukraine’s counter offensive. 

To Sum Up

In summary, the examination of Yulia Vityazeva’s propaganda tactics exposes a deliberate strategy of misinformation and manipulation, serving to divert blame from Russia while undermining the credibility of Ukraine and its leadership in the aftermath of the Chernihiv strike. And the Chernihiv case is one of the thousands of attacks that have been attempted to justify with similar tactics, which is a considerable part of the war crime itself.