Verified. Attack on Donetsk: RUSpropaganda Rhetoric, debunked

Written by Matt Wickham, analyst HWAG/UCMC

Propaganda Digest: This is our weekly analysis that exposes the most exaggerated, misleading, and outrageous rhetoric from recent Russian media sources, aimed at promoting critical thinking to better debunk the manipulation of Russian propaganda.

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At least 25 people were killed while shopping in the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk on January 21 as a result of artillery shelling. Local officials and Russian propaganda blame the Armed Forces of Ukraine, while Kyiv has denied all accusations. On social media, emerging messages hint at the possibility that the attack could be a false-flag operation orchestrated by Russia.

 Russian Narrative 1  : Revenge

Margarita Simonyan, RT editor-in-chief (466,000 subscribers), Telegram Channel:

“[Ukraine] struck Donetsk again. As is their habit—at the market on a Sunday. […] This is revenge. Against civilians. For their [Ukraine’s] problems near Artemivsk (Bakhmut), near Avdiivka. The shelling will stop when we shift our border deeper into Ukraine. Up to Kyiv”.

Solovyov, Russian propagandist (1,273,000), Telegram Channel:

“We will remember and avenge Western advisers who suggested hitting the Sunday market”.

The Voice of Mordor (164,000), Telegram Channel:  

“Eventually, a response will have to be given”.

Sergey Markov, pro-government political scientist (65,000), Telegram Channel:

The Ukrainian authorities represent a terrorist criminal regime that must be annihilated”.

Verified: Russia consistently conducts military operations with blatant disregard for civilian lives. This is evident in wars preceding their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, such as Syria, Chechnya, and Donetsk, in which innocent lives were exploited for Russia’s tactical advantages or twisted pleasure. The current war in Ukraine continues this pattern; take instances such as the mass executions in Bucha and Mariupol, where Russia used civilians as human shields. Not to mention the daily terrorist attacks on Ukraine.

For 10 years, Russia has been shelling positions of the AFU from the suburbs of Donetsk. The intensity of Russia’s artillery has been unprecedentedly high since October 2023, when the occupiers began an operation to encircle the Ukrainian garrison of the city of Avdiyivka, the town on the outskirts of Donetsk. At the same time, the Russians do not care that the counter-battery fire of the Ukrainian gunners can cause the destruction of the city’s civil infrastructure and the death of residents.

The ‘revenge’ narratives, launched by Russian top-propagandists (such as Simonyan and Markov) serve a few purposes:

1. To draw attention away from current failures in the Russian Federation, such as significant factory fires, successful Ukrainian drone attacks on military infrastructure (deeper into Russian territory), the Russian government’s inability to rectify heating issues for its citizens, with people taking to the streets and demanding the situation be rectified, and recent protests in Russia’s 7th most populous region (Bashkortostan) over activists jailing.

2. To instill fear in the Ukrainian population with Simonyan’s words, ‘To Kyiv,’ reposted by numerous propagandists, implying that Russia will advance on Kyiv again. However, with Russia’s military in ruins, such a move is currently unfeasible and merely rhetorical.

 Russian Narrative 2  : “Just Innocent People” – Emotional manipulation

Olesya Loseva, host at the state TV, (28,000) Telegram Channel:

People were just going to buy their groceries. And the Khokhlyat bastards () write in their TG crap channels that we shelled our own city with NATO caliber shells”.

Marina Akhmedova, Member of the Human Rights Council under the President of the RF (72,000), Telegram Channel:

“I avoid Donetsk markets and shop in Rostov when I visit. […] An inner voice says, ‘It’s calm here, but everything can change in a second,’ whenever I enter the market”.

Verified:The propagandist’s strategy aims to elicit emotional responses from the audience. Akhmedova attempts to humanise herself by expressing sympathy for the people of Donetsk who are being attacked. However, the rhetoric of “It’s calm here, but everything can change in a second” actually reflects the daily reality of Ukrainians’ for nearly two years, particularly those living closer to the frontlines.

Kremlin propagandists have consistently framed any market attack or blatant attack on civilians as Ukrainian, a tactic used since the war began. One notable instance occurred during Blinken’s visit to Kyiv, which coincided with a tragic market attack near the frontline. Russia falsely claimed it was a Ukrainian act, hoping to undermine Western support. This narrative, however, was spread well before any investigation took place and even before victims were attended to, raising the question of how Russian propagandists could confirm this attack as Ukrainian (on Ukrainian people). The logic simply doesn’t add up. Subsequently, it was later confirmed that Russian forces were responsible for the attack.

This pattern demonstrates Russia’s repeated use of such narratives when civilians are killed in missile attacks. Their goal is to shift the blame and reduce support for Ukraine.

 Russian Narrative 3  : “Nazis”

Maria Zakharova, Press Secretary of the MFA:

“Catastrophic day, a terrible strike by Ukrainian Nazis, and a large number of deaths. And, as always, the West will applaud. They hit this location while knowing that it had no strategic significance. They just needed a picture to show their success. Perhaps they [the West] consider civilian deaths to be a success”. 

Armen Gasparyan, propagandist, (201,000),Telegram Channel:

“The scum blamed Russia for yesterday’s shelling of Donetsk and expressed condolences to the families of those killed. Unfortunately, the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation does not allow you to say everything you want to say about this scum. Otherwise, there is no other way to express oneself.”

Radio Shame (107,000), Telegram Channel:

“The main Nazi said that today “Russian non-humans” dealt a particularly brutal blow to the Donetsk territory…  The Nazi [in response to Zelensky’s video], even without blinking an eye, “expressed condolences” to the relatives of the killed people”.

Olesya Loseva (28,000), Telegram Channel:

The chief Nazi said that ‘Russian subhumans’ had dealt a particularly brutal blow to Donetsk land. Zelensky even, without blinking an eye, “expressed condolences” to the relatives of the murdered people. Burn in hell!”

The Voice of Mordor (164,000) Telegram Channel:  

“He uniquely vile [individual/creature] accused Russia of yesterday’s strike on Donetsk. In principle, nothing else was expected, but he could have at least kept quiet. 

Verified:The Nazi label, often the propagandist’s convenient tool for rallying domestic support in Russia due to the nation’s strong connection to WWII and its role in defeating Nazi Germany, becomes an easily manipulable narrative. 

Long before 24.02.2022, Russia propagated the idea of Zelensky being a Nazi, despite having zero evidence to support this claim, and even with Zelensky having Jewish heritage. Putin argues that this narrative is a Western attempt to “cover up” the glorification of Nazism in Ukraine. 

The assertion that the West would ‘applaud’ is disinformation, serving as classic propaganda to portray Russia as a beacon of light in a world of darkness, rectifying wrongs. The condemnation of the attack by UN Security General Head Diplomat Anton Gurillees refutes any notion of Western applause for such an atrocity. Zakharova, like other propagandists, uses this narrative to undermine support for Ukraine in the West, especially during a turbulent year that sees presidential and parliamentary elections in Western nations and Ukraine being top of the agenda.

 Russian Narrative 4  : RUSpropaganda crusades against celebrity bloggers

Nastya Ivleeva, TV presenter and blogger, (540,000), Telegram Channel:

“Donetsk. A monstrous tragedy. No words”.

Alex Parker Returns (190,000), Telegram Channel:

This is […] a deliberate war crime by the “khokhly” (derogatory term for Ukrainians). Again, the “khokhly” do not consider Donetsk and its citizens as their own. In essence, they are conducting genocide against the loyal population of the Russian Federation”. 

Marden (233,000), Telegram Channel:

“To be fair, it must be noted that Nastya Ivleeva expressed at least human feelings towards the people who died in Donetsk. The main figure of the ‘naked party’, Ksenia Sobchak, nothing has changed at all after the scandal. Sobchak wrote, ‘according to Pushilin’s reports, 13 people died in Donetsk.’ Saying they were killed by unknown individuals – ‘a shell hit the Tekstilshchik microdistrict.’ Whose shell?—a mystery”.

Verified: After the scandalous ‘naked party’ organized by the immensely popular Nastya Ivleeva, a figure potentially reaching the level of social media popularity in Russia akin to the Kardashians in the US, the notion of a free and independent blogger in Russia has all but vanished. Perhaps, in a pre-COVID era, Russian bloggers posed a growing threat to the Kremlin, influencing the younger generation, which the Kremlin struggled to understand. However, following the recent scandal where Ivleeva faced substantial losses in terms of money, fame, influence, and respect, she now operates under the scrutiny of Russian authorities and the Kremlin to maintain her millionaire status and stay out of jail.

This marks the second instance where Ivleeva commented on a strike killing Russian civilians, the first being the strike in Belgorod in late 2023 (Both being after her reprimanding). It indicates an end to her silence (refusal to support the war) and her increasing alignment with the authorities, transforming into a parroted version of freedom. 

Nevertheless, propagandists remained dissatisfied with her ‘half-hearted response,’ labeling the strike a “monstrous tragedy with no words.” According to propaganda standards, the only accepted narrative is to brand it a terrorist attack, expressing sympathy and a call for revenge. Marden notes that Ivleeva was the only person from the naked party who commented on the events, as Ksenia Sobchak’s report did not meet the Kremlin’s standards-–not confirming the missile as Ukrainian.