Bombs and disinformation: Russia’s campaign to depopulate Kharkiv

Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, is currently the Kremlin’s number one target. Since the start of 2024, Kharkiv has been the primary focus of a Russian bombing campaign that has sought to capitalize of Ukraine’s dwindling supplies of air defense ammunition in order to terrorize the civilian population and destroy vital infrastructure.

The Kremlin’s goal is to make Kharkiv “unlivable” and force a large percentage of its approximately 1.3 million residents to flee. Moscow hopes this will demoralize Ukraine and pave the way for the city’s capture by Russian forces during a widely anticipated summer offensive in the coming months.

Putin is not relying on missiles and drones alone to do the job of depopulating Kharkiv. In recent months, Russia has also unleashed an elaborate information offensive that aims to fuel panic and uncertainty among the city’s embattled population via a combination of aggressive propaganda and destabilizing disinformation.

Kharkiv has been on the front lines of the war ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Situated approximately half an hour by car from the Russian border, the city was one of the initial targets of the invading Russian army and witnessed heavy fighting in spring 2022. Following Ukraine’s successful September 2022 counteroffensive, which liberated most of Kharkiv Oblast and pushed Russian troops further away from the city itself, the Kharkiv population rose from a wartime low of around 300,000 to well over a million.

With delays in US military aid creating growing gaps in Ukraine’s air defenses, Russia has intensified the bombardment of Kharkiv since early 2024. A series of strikes in March destroyed the city’s main power plants, creating an energy crisis that has led to widespread blackouts. In mid April, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov warned that the city was now at risk of becoming a “second Aleppo,” a grim reference to the Syrian city partially destroyed almost a decade ago following heavy bombing by Russian and Syrian government forces.

The extensive use of highly destructive glide bombs has further exacerbated the situation and added to the psychological strain on the Kharkiv population, with many attacks on residential districts taking place in broad daylight. One of the most recent blows was the destruction of Kharkiv’s iconic television tower, a city landmark and also an important element of local communications infrastructure.

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Russia’s escalating bombing campaign has been accompanied by a major information offensive. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is one of numerous senior Kremlin officials to encourage a mood of mounting insecurity among Kharkiv residents by publicly speaking of a coming campaign to seize the city. In April, Lavrov noted Kharkiv’s “important role” in Vladimir Putin’s plans to create a demilitarized “sanitary zone” inside Ukraine.

This message has been reinforced throughout Russia’s tightly-controlled mainstream media space. During a revealing recent lecture to Russian students, prominent Kremlin propagandist Olga Skabeyeva argued that patriotic journalists should portray the bombing of Kharkiv region not as evidence of Russian aggression, but as part of efforts to establish a “sanitary zone” along the Ukrainian border with Russia.

Statements from Russian establishment figures on the need to destroy and depopulate Kharkiv have been accompanied by a steady stream of similar chatter on social media. Since January 2024, there have been growing signs of a coordinated campaign to flood the online information space with intimidating and alarmist posts pushing the idea that Kharkiv will soon become an uninhabitable grey zone.

The role of social media in Russia’s information offensive against Kharkiv cannot be overstated. Platforms like Telegram, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter) have become battlegrounds for competing narratives and serve as platforms for carefully choreographed Russian propaganda. Groups of pro-Kremlin accounts frequently engage in the intensive promotion of key propaganda messages. These include the alleged hopelessness of Ukraine’s military position, the inability of the Ukrainian state to protect its citizens, and the likelihood of Kharkiv suffering the same fate as Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city with a prewar population of around half a million that was largely destroyed by the invading Russian army during the first months of the war.

Russia’s information offensive features a strong disinformation component. This includes the distribution of fake statements supposedly released by the Ukrainian authorities. On one occasion, Kremlin accounts spread disinformation that the Ukrainian government was calling on residents to leave Kharkiv urgently in order to avoid imminent Russian encirclement. In a separate incident, Russian sources pushed fake Ukrainian government reports stating that Kharkiv was on the brink of a humanitarian collapse.

These elaborate fakes are typically presented in a convincing manner and closely resemble official Ukrainian government communications. They have even been accompanied by detailed information about “safe evacuation routes.” Inevitably, many Kharkiv residents are fooled by this disinformation and become unwitting accomplices in the dissemination of weaponized Russian fakes.

Russian accounts have also taken genuine news reports and distorted them in ways designed to mislead the public and maximize panic. For example, a series of planned evacuations from specific front line settlements was repackaged by Kremlin trolls as a complete evacuation of entire Kharkiv region districts.

In addition to fake government announcements and deliberate distortions, Kremlin-linked social media accounts are also actively spreading misleading video footage. One widely shared recent video purported to show long lines of cars evacuating Kharkiv while proclaiming that an “exodus” of the “ruined” city was underway. However, this video was later debunked as archive footage shot during the early days of the invasion in spring 2022.

Russia’s disinformation campaign seeks to sow fear and confusion among the Kharkiv population, says local resident Nataliya Zubar, who heads the Maidan Monitoring Information Service. “Disinformation clouds people’s judgment, leading to emotional reactions and stress,” she notes. “This fuels instability and places additional strains on the limited resources that are needed for the city’s defense and to address the growing humanitarian crisis Russia is creating.”

Kharkiv officials and civil society organizations are well aware of Russia’s ongoing information offensive. Work is currently underway to debunk false information and reduce the city’s vulnerability to information attack. These efforts include methodically exposing false claims, while also informing city residents of Russian information warfare tactics and educating them on ways to detect and counter disinformation. The stresses and strains of the emotionally charged wartime environment in today’s Kharkiv make this is a particularly complex task.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities are developing a draft law to target the spread of deliberate disinformation via social media. This initiative mirrors similar undertakings in a number of other countries, but skeptics question whether legislative measures will prove effective against sophisticated state-backed information operations conducted across multiple media platforms.

Russia failed to take Kharkiv in the early weeks of the invasion more than two years ago. As the city braces for the possibility of a new Russian offensive in the coming summer months, local residents are equally determined to defy the Kremlin once again. In order to do so, they must withstand unprecedented aerial bombardment, while also guarding against the demoralizing impact of relentless Russian disinformation.

Maria Avdeeva is a Kharkiv-based Ukrainian security analyst and strategic communication expert.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: A Russian missile attack partially destroys the Kharkiv TV tower, Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine. (Photo by Ukrinform/Ukrinform/Sipa USA)