As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union, the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report.
Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels twist IAEA director’s words to claim Ukraine is building a “dirty bomb”
The pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Readovka misrepresented comments made by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Rafael Grossi to claim Ukraine was producing a “dirty bomb.” The DFRLab previously analyzed similar claims made by Russian politicians and media.
In a statement made at Davos on May 25, Grossi expressed concern that an attack on the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, either cyber or physical, could accidentally release radioactive material. He said the IAEA is attempting to access the Zaporizhzhia plant, where 30,000 kilograms of plutonium and 40,000 kilograms of enriched uranium are stored. “We hope to go there to be able to prevent…a problem, or we end up finding that there are a few hundred kilograms of nuclear weapon-grade material going missing. This is what keeps us awake at night at the moment,” he said.
The Telegram channel Readovka shared a screenshot of a tweet published by Wall Street Journal journalist Laurence Norman, who cited Grossi’s comments about the volume of materials stored at the nuclear plant. Readovka used Grossi’s comments to suggest that Kyiv had used concentrated plutonium and uranium to produce a dirty bomb. The channel further implied that if materials were missing, it was because Ukraine had used them to build a dirty bomb.
The Telegram channel’s claim is paradoxical, because a dirty bomb is not the same thing as a nuclear weapon. Dirty bombs only require radioactive material to be placed alongside explosive material, which would spread radioactivity across the surrounding area, but not result in a nuclear detonation or anything approximate to one.
Energoatom, the state enterprise responsible for operating all of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, said, “Neither uranium nor plutonium, which could be used for military purposes, was and is not stored at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. But fuel assemblies are stored, but this is a completely different story.”
—Roman Osadchuk, Research Associate
Pro-Kremlin sources attempt to deny New York Times evidence of Bucha massacre
A recent New York Times article used CCTV footage, witness statements, and unreleased drone footage to confirm that Russian soldiers killed civilians in Bucha, Ukraine. Building on previous denials from Russia, the pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Агент Госдепа (State Department Agent) published three posts that attempted to debunk the New York Times’ new evidence.
The Times published a video showing “Russian soldiers leading a group of Ukrainian captives toward the courtyard where they would be executed moments later.” To debunk this footage, the Telegram channel asserted that it is “standard procedure” during a war to tie up the enemy and force them to another location. The channel also claimed that the video did not prove anything since no shots are fired in the footage. In addition, the New York Times partially relied on one of the captive’s bright blue sweaters to confirm the executions. In an attempt to debunk this, the Telegram channel asserted that the sweater seen in the footage of the corpses is purple, not blue. The drone footage has been zoomed in, which can result in color distortion.
In addition, the channel claimed that the drone footage is too blurred to identify the corpses correctly. Trees that are visible in front of the bodies, along with the drone’s movement, result in the ‘blur’ effect. However, there are frames in the footage where the bodies can be identified.
—Roman Osadchuk, Research Associate
Russia accuses Poland of occupying Ukraine’s territory
In an attempt to stir division between Ukraine and its supporters, Russia is waging a disinformation campaign accusing Poland of having plans to occupy Ukraine. Disinformation narratives have been spread by high-level Russian officials, including the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the deputy chairman of the Security Council, and the head of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), as well as Eurasian imperialist and far-right philosopher Alexander Dugin.
During Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to Ukraine on May 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that in response to Poland’s adoption of a law that will grant the Ukrainian citizens “almost the same rights and opportunities as Polish citizens,” Ukraine should consider adopting what he referred to as “a similar – mirror – bill.” Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Poland has granted three million Ukrainian refugees the right to live, work, and use social security benefits.
The Kremlin based its latest wave of disinformation narratives on Zelenskyy’s remarks. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, wrote in her Telegram channel that these are “not separatists, but the President of the country himself [who] transfers the rights on the territory of his state to the citizens of another country.” Zakharova also stated, “The Kyiv regime is actively throwing away its independence,” and was “legalizing the de facto seizure of its country…under the guise of preserving its own identity.”
While reporting Zakharova’s statement, Kremlin-owned RT included a section “reminding [readers] about historical claims of Poland on a number of Ukrainian territories.” RT also accused Poland of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Aleksandr Dugin, leader of the Russian nationalist fascist organization Eurasia Movement, also amplified the disinformation campaign, claiming that the integration of Ukraine into Poland is being prepared at an accelerated pace and that Ukrainians now have to choose whether they ultimately want to live in Russia or Poland. Dugin stated, “We will liberate the territory from Odesa to Kharkiv and annex it one way or another. This is no longer under discussion. Western Ukraine as part of Poland at first glance is acceptable. Ours belong to us, and the second half of the failed Ukraine goes where its authorities dreamed of.” Dugin also highlighted the risks of the outbreak of World War III. According to him, the presence of Polish troops in western Ukraine “will mean the direct participation of NATO” in the war; therefore, “the likelihood of using nuclear weapons in this case increases.”
Earlier in May, Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, accused the Polish president of “officially recognizing territorial claims in Ukraine.” This statement followed another accusation coming from the head of the SVR, Sergey Narishkin, who had claimed that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service obtained information about “the plans of Warsaw and Washington to establish tight military-political control of Poland over their historical possessions in Ukraine.”
—Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Washington, DC
Pro-Kremlin commentators push false claims about deployment of Polish battalions in Ukraine
On May 23, pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Wargonzo, run by Russian journalist Semyon Pegov, claimed without evidence that two battalions of Polish infantry, equipped with four Rapira towed anti-tank guns and armored personnel carriers, had arrived in Pavlohrad, Ukraine, located between Dnipro and Donetsk. The post stated that Polish infantry were being prepared to be transferred to Avdiivka, on the front line near Donetsk; it also asserted that it was unknown whether these were Polish regular soldiers or mercenaries. Viktor Baranets, military commentator at pro-Kremlin outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda, reiterated this claim on May 25, asserting that two Polish battalions had deployed to Ukraine, and that Russian intelligence had already found one of these battalions near the city of Dnipro. Baranets also argued that NATO might not help Poland if conflict between Russia and Poland ever erupted. Meanwhile on May 22, the Telegram channel Rybar wrote that Polish mercenaries had been spotted in Kharkiv. A number of pro-Kremlin Russian media outlets amplified stories about presence of Polish military in Ukraine; these claims were also amplified by several Polish Twitter accounts.
The Polish Ministry of National Defense responded by stating the claims were false. It also noted that Polish Army does not have Rapira anti-tank guns at its disposal.
—Givi Gigitashvili, Research Associate, Warsaw, Poland