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WASHINGTON — When the United States last month warned of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and President Biden threatened President Vladimir V. Putin with sanctions if he launched an invasion, investigators noted an increase in social media posts accusing Ukraine of planning a genocide against ethnic minorities. Russians.
In one example, an arm of the Moscow-controlled broadcaster RT circulated a clip in which Mr Putin said events in eastern Ukraine “look like genocide”. News Front, which the State Department has called a disinformation outlet with ties to Russian security forces, followed Dec. 13 with an article stating that the United States did not consider the massacres a genocide.
In the months since Russia’s troop build-up began, Moscow and its online army of allies have advanced old arguments about Western Ukrainians joining Nazism, falsely accusing the United States of using proxy forces to deliver a chemical. attack, claiming that the planned Russian army According to investigators, operations were intended to protect ethnic Russians or to prevent NATO action.
US intelligence officials said Russia had produced a steady stream of disinformation about Ukraine since 2014. But they saw a surge in December and January as Moscow stepped up pressure on the government in Kiev.
The tech firm Logicically, a British firm that helps governments and businesses fight disinformation, tracks Russian-affiliated social media accounts, such as those of RT and Sputnik, along with Twitter accounts of Russian officials. Reports and articles accusing some Ukrainians of being neo-Nazis have increased dramatically since early November, Logicically said. The Moscow-backed information campaign accusing the United States of planning a chemical attack peaked on Dec. 21, the company said.
Much of the propaganda is aimed at a domestic audience in Russia and at pro-Moscow Ukrainians, said Brian Murphy, Logicically’s vice president for strategic operations. If Russia invades Ukraine, he said, it wants to ensure it gains the support of Russian speakers in the country as its tanks and artillery roll across fields or knock down houses.
“There are very few witch-keepers left in Ukraine,” Murphy said. “They are trying to bolster support in the separatist-occupied regions of Ukraine and within Russia.”
But the propaganda can easily go beyond a Russian-speaking audience.
Intelligence officials have said that while Russia is unlikely to change its mind much in Europe, its reports have gained traction in South America and Africa, clouding the waters over which country is responsible for Ukraine’s crisis.
Much like its efforts to divide the US electorate in 2016 by fueling debates about racism, guns and other divisive issues, Russia is trying to increase polarization in Ukraine to give it a tactical advantage, Murphy said.
The State Department said in a fact sheet last week that much of the disinformation echoed old themes, such as depicting Russia as a victim of US actions, depicting Western societies as on the brink of collapse because they have moved away from traditional values, and which Washington describes as the supporter of revolutions in the region.
Investigators have followed similar themes emanating from Russian accounts, including an increase in reports alleging NATO and Ukrainian forces are preparing to attack Russian speakers in Ukraine. According to Logicically, allegations of a NATO intervention in Ukraine first peaked in late December, before rising in mid-January.
Mr Murphy, the former intelligence chief of the Department of Homeland Security, said claiming NATO interference in Ukraine has long been a standard Moscow line of attack.
While it’s often difficult to keep track of where a particular piece of disinformation is coming from, researchers can spot when many Russian accounts start spreading the same story.
“It looks like a coordinated campaign,” said Mr. Murphy. “They come out around the same time with similar messages.”
The claim that the United States was preparing a chemical attack was originally made by Russia’s defense minister. But disinformation experts kept track of how different accounts reinforced it.
Versions of the statement were redistributed by both state media and websites that the US government has said are used by Russian intelligence agencies, such as News Front and the Strategic Culture Foundation, said Bret Schafer, the head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. , which detects disinformation and other efforts to undermine democratic governments. The timing of the messages was curious, he said.
A few weeks after the reports appeared in December, US officials said a false flag operation conducted by Russia could be used as an excuse to move troops into Ukraine in the name of protecting the Russian-speaking population.
Understand the escalating tensions over Ukraine
“It’s possible you could see last month’s Russian posts as an attempt to cloud the waters for their own impending operation,” Mr Schafer said. “Or, in classic propaganda terms, to accuse others of what you are guilty of.”
Larissa Doroshenko, a researcher at Northeastern University, said Russian disinformation tactics in Ukraine used both fake stories and stories that were true but irrelevant to current events to twist stories or hide true intentions.
dr. Doroshenko studied Russian disinformation surrounding the pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 and found that even then Moscow was using various means to spread stories.
“We’re focusing on the social media, but it’s a multi-platform approach,” she said. “It’s social media, but it’s also these so-called news websites, these propaganda websites, that present themselves to appeal to ordinary people.”
Putin secretly took Crimea, said Dr. Doroshenko. But the troop build-up near Ukraine has been anything but hidden.
She said the deployment of Russian troops and threats against Ukraine could be as much about fueling nationalist feelings as they are about muting domestic criticism of Mr Putin’s moves to target nonprofit organizations such as Memorial International, a human rights organization, or groups. affiliated with Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader.
“If you can create an external enemy,” she said, “all these issues of what is happening to civil society in Russia are not so important anymore.”