oDR: Feature

The painful traces of Russian propaganda remain in eastern Ukraine

Russian disinformation is still causing distrust and resentment among residents of Ukraine’s ‘second Mariupol’

Pavlo Bakhura Caleb Larson
11 November 2022, 7.00am
Izium, a key hub in eastern Ukraine, was liberated in September
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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

People in recently liberated towns and cities across eastern Ukraine are repairing and rebuilding, eager to move on with lives that were violently interrupted by the Russian invasion in February.

The physical destruction in some places is substantial, but many are finding it harder to deal with the emotional trauma and confusion Russian forces heaped upon them – particularly disinformation.

Russia fed a steady stream of propaganda into occupied areas, taking advantage of the information vacuum caused by their invasion. Their intention was to sow confusion and, above all, distrust in the Ukrainian authorities. They often succeeded.

Today, that disinformation is still a source of fear and resentment in Ukraine’s newly liberated areas – and it’s complicating efforts to return people’s lives to some kind of normality.

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Izium: evacuation rumours

openDemocracy recently visited the city of Izium, on the eastern edge of Kharkiv region, which was completely occupied by Russian forces in early April. For weeks, the Russians bombed Izium constantly, with Ukrainian officials claiming that Russia conducted 476 missile strikes against the city – the highest number of attacks on any Ukrainian city in the first five months of the invasion. Russia retained control over the city until early September, when Ukrainian forces conducted a massive counter-offensive, liberating Izium in the process.

Russia’s temporary occupation of the city appears to have left its mark, though – and not just in the dozens of destroyed buildings.

We found that some Izium residents seemed to share a hatred for the city’s mayor, Valerii Marchenko, who has been in his post since 2015 – and in 2020 was re-elected on a Servant of the People ticket.

They believe that Marchenko made a spurious claim in early April that 80% of Izium residents had been evacuated, but that in reality, they say, he abandoned the city to Russian forces.

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Hundreds of buildings in Izium were destroyed by Russian shelling

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The story that several Izium residents told suggests that Marchenko led a very small convoy of refugees out of Izium to safety, garnering the approval of president Volodymyr Zelenskyi and even a medal in recognition of his humanitarian action. Residents said they heard it on Russian-controlled radio.

But the ‘80% evacuation’ claim is itself false – and a ‘prime example’ of Russian propaganda’s success in occupied areas, explained Maxim Strelnik, head of Izium’s youth, sports and city projects.

In reality, Strelnik said, the mayor claimed that 80% of buildings in Izium had been damaged by Russia in early April, not that 80% of people had been evacuated — though Marchenko did indeed coordinate humanitarian evacuations from the city to safety.

The “Russians flipped the narrative”, Strelnik said, painting Marchenko as a villain by twisting his words.

openDemocracy could not find a trace of the Russian claim online.

Over the months Russian troops occupied Izium, occupying authorities regularly distributed propaganda newspapers to residents. These included two newspapers in Russian, The Izium Telegraph and the Kharkiv Z (‘Z’ is the symbol adopted by Russia to represent its war in Ukraine). These augmented the fake reality that the Russian military peddled over the airwaves on Radio Izium.

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Mass graves were found outside the city after Russian forces retreated

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(c) PixelPro / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Local government officials are aware of these accusations against Marchenko, said deputy mayor Volodymyr Matsokin, who explained that near constant Russian shelling against Izium made a complete evacuation of the city incredibly dangerous and next to impossible.

“By the end of February, the Russians were in villages near Izium, waiting for the moment when they could enter the city. In the first days of March, half of the city was quickly occupied, all bridges were destroyed – there was almost no way to move between the two parts of the city,” Matsokin recalled.

“Neither the police, nor the emergency services, nor [mobile] phone connection, not even the air-raid sirens were working,” he said.

The bombing of Izium has been compared to Russia’s attacks on Mariupol, the city on the Black Sea coast that was virtually flattened by Russian forces.

Despite the intense shelling, officials managed to organise a few evacuations. “For the last evacuation, we prepared 60 buses. We took 44 buses to Slovyansk,” Matsokin said, referring to the nearest unoccupied city, about 50km to the south-east, “but 16 of them left the city empty.

“People weren’t ready to make a quick decision. Everyone thought that the fighting would be over in a week or two. I had to personally persuade people to leave the city.”

By April, there was only one way to leave the city, via the road to Slovyansk. The rest of the city was controlled by Russia, under fire from Russian forces, or facing danger from Russian sabotage groups. Officials were running from one bomb shelter to another to inform people about the evacuation, Matsokin said.

Matsokin said that there were more attempts to evacuate residents, but almost all agreements with Russian forces broke down.

"Undoubtedly, Russians played on people’s emotions and uncertainty. Because March was very difficult for all residents here"

Volodymyr Matsokin

“This is the tragedy of Izium, that the occupation took place in this way. This affected the ability of the residents to leave. During one evacuation, despite an agreement with the Russians, they started bombing the evacuation convoy,” Matsokin recalled.

Part of the uncertainty over evacuation in March and April can be attributed to the fog of war and the inevitable confusion that arises from living in a warzone – which was magnified by Russian disinformation.

“Undoubtedly, Russians played on people’s emotions and uncertainty. Because March was very difficult for all residents here. There was nothing to eat, it was cold, there was no communication or way to receive any information,” Matsokin said.

Matsokin acknowledged it was easy to develop feelings of abandonment and the impression that residents ‘had been left behind’. “These experiences remain in people’s minds. And that’s why they start looking for someone to blame for why this happened,” he said.

Matsokin firmly refutes the rumour that the local government did little to help residents escape. Ultimately, he said, about 20,000 of Izium’s 35,000 pre-war population (about 58%) managed to leave, either on their own or on buses organised by the city.

But the damage done to the reputation of Marchenko, Izium’s mayor, remains – and is complicating his efforts to rebuild a shattered city that only recently regained running water, electricity and mobile phone reception.

The power of Russian propaganda

One local resident – who asked openDemocracy to refer to her as ‘Maria’ out of fear for her safety – explained that during the Russian occupation locals “lived in a complete information vacuum”.

News occasionally filtered into the city from those who managed to return – to check their homes or relatives – and via an extremely intermittent phone service. The only other option was to consume Russian-controlled newspapers and radio.

The 21 July edition of the Izium Z newspaper, for instance, is full of articles praising Russian humanitarian efforts.

One article asserts that financial difficulties experienced by residents before Russia’s invasion have evaporated: “Now there is no reason to worry about money: everything is provided for free by Russia.” Life under occupation has changed “for the better”, the newspaper claims.

“Izium cannot survive another occupation”

According to Izium’s local government, in April, the majority of the city had been destroyed by Russian bombing and mass artillery shelling. There was no power, no heating and no water in the city.

Other passages in the newspaper attack Ukraine’s economic prospects, casting the government in Kyiv as an American proxy. “All European support… to Ukraine is melting away daily,” Izium Z declares, adding “it is not Russia that suffers from the sanctions, but the Europeans themselves.”

Propagandists leveraged the Christian faith to demonise Ukrainian forces, praising Russian soldiers for their prowess on the battlefield and magnanimity toward “liberated” Ukrainians. “We are all Slavs, we are blood brothers, we are people who do not lose our humanity under any circumstances,” the newspaper claims.

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This Izium police office was used by Russian servicemen to detain local residents and Ukrainian servicemen

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The reality seems rather different. Last month, Ukrainian forensic investigators visited Izium. They combed through a local police station, looking for fingerprints and other evidence to tie specific Russian soldiers to crimes committed in the city during occupation, including numerous instances of torture and execution.

In September, Ukrainian officials said a mass burial site had been discovered outside the city, containing the bodies of more than 400 individuals, many of which showed signs of torture.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is still rolling eastward. Videos posted to social media show tearful yet exuberant Ukrainians grateful to be liberated from Russian occupation. And although those occupiers are now retreating, deep doubts remain in the hearts of some Ukrainians after months of Russian falsehoods. The Russians may have physically gone, but their disinformation remains.

Lyudmyla, a resident of Izium in her late 40s, worries about the post-occupation future and specifically about her husband. She is glad to be free of the Russians, but nervously asks if the information she heard on Radio Izium – that “Ukraine conscripts every adult male” – is true.

Since martial law has been declared, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are eligible for military service and unable to leave the country but conscription actually happens in waves, starting with people who have previous military experience. Although the authors assured Lyudmyla that universal male conscription is not in effect in Ukraine, she appears unconvinced.

She nods approvingly when shown a map detailing recent Ukrainian advances, but remains doubtful about her family’s future security in the city.

“Izium,” she says pensively, “cannot survive another occupation.”

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