- Elise Thomas
Explainer: The anti-Ukraine "report" spreading on Telegram
In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a document purporting to show "the whole truth about Ukraine's crimes in the Donbass" began steadily creeping across the internet.
The unfounded claims made in the report present crude early versions of the disinformation and conspiracy narratives which have since between deployed by Russian state-linked actors seeking to justify the attack on Ukraine.
The document appears to have originated from a Telegram channel which has been suspected of having ties to Russian security services. The various versions of the document that are present across multiple social media platforms in multiple languages are continuing to spread.
This explainer outlines the nature of the document, the circumstances in which it appeared and illustrates its international spread. All quotes from the document are taken from the English translation, which circulated under the names "The whole truth about Ukraine's crimes in the Donbass" and later “Kiev Nazi Regime Exposed” (there may also be other differently named versions in circulation).
The value of this document as a case study is threefold: (1) it illustrates the dynamics by which pro-Russian propaganda is laundered through the information ecosystem, (2) it represents a digital artifact which may help historians understand the course of the ‘information war’, and (3) it exposes the cynical opportunism at the heart of the Russian pretexts for the invasion and brutal violence enacted upon Ukraine and its people.
Report and narrative content
The original version of the report was written in Russian and published as a Microsoft Word document on Telegram by the Кремлевская прачка (Kremlin Washerwoman) channel, which will be discussed in more detail below. The document was published on February 26th, 2022. The file’s metadata shows that the document was created on the same date, but other metadata including the document’s author have been removed.
The final version of the document appears to have been written on or after February 24th as it contains content and footnote references for media articles written on that day. A passage in the report suggests it was finalised after 23:00 on the 24th:
Screenshot of passage on p.34 of the English language version.
It seems possible that the document may have been written hastily following the invasion of Ukraine on the 24th, although given its length (48 pages) it is likely some of the copy may have been written before the full-scale invasion was announced. The document lists no author and provides no explanation to its origin.
The narratives in the document echo, and in some cases foreshadow, the narratives which have since emerged as key points in the Russian information operation surrounding the invasion of Ukraine.
The document uses graphic images of dead and injured civilians to illustrate what it describes as the “State Nazism, persecution and murder of Russian speakers” in the Donbass region over the past eight years. It repeats widely debunked claims of the persecution of Russian speakers and claims that Ukrainian politicians have been deliberately whipping up hatred of Russia throughout Ukraine.
The document asserts that the reason for “Russia’s actions” (which it does not describe as an invasion or act of war) is that Ukraine was planning an attack on Russia – potentially even a nuclear strike – with the support and assistance of the West. It claims that Western politicians are deliberately cultivating Nazi organisations in Ukraine to “foster hatred of Russians.”
In the portion of the document which relates directly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, it claims that the Russian Army is targeting “precisely on military facilities that resist, protecting the civilian population.”
The blatantly false claim that the Russian Army is not targeting civilians has become a mainstay of Russian propaganda surrounding the invasion of Ukraine. The report also claims the widespread surrender of Ukrainian soldiers, even at one point appearing to thank the invaders.
Screenshot of passage on p.35 of the English language version.
Claims made on p.34 of the report that there was no evidence as of 23:00 Moscow time on February 24th of civilian casualties are untrue. CIR has verified multiple reports of civilian casualties prior to that timestamp. Claims that the Russian military was not carrying out missile strikes on Ukrainian cities as of that time are likewise untrue. Other claims made in the document, for example about specific incidents of Ukrainian soldiers surrendering, were unable to be corroborated.
In summary, the document presents a series of assertions, propaganda and in some cases outright disinformation, which promotes a strongly pro-Russian view of the invasion of Ukraine.
The narratives provide an insight into the early efforts to build a propaganda narrative around the invasion, foreshadowing many of the key planks of the Russian information war which emerged over the first two weeks of the war.
Dissemination and spread
While no author is listed on the document, the methods of its dissemination provide a hint towards its ultimate source. The document was first shared by a strongly pro-Kremlin anonymous Telegram channel which has been suspected of having ties to the Russian state.
The document appears to have first been published by a Russian Telegram channel named Кремлевская прачка (Kremlin Washerwoman). The Russian language Word document was posted on February 26th. In publishing the report, ‘Kremlin Washerwoman’ wrote:
“This document is intended for those who still have questions about why Russia is conducting the operation, against whom and against what. When you study the materials of the crimes committed by Ukrofascists, remember the materials of the Nuremberg Trials and compare them. And right now these crimes are taking place all over Ukraine, when the Ukro-volunteers and volunteers are driving heavy weapons into cities, killing and looting, shooting their own citizens, mistaking them for saboteurs, blowing up bridges and destroying their own infrastructure. At the same time all Ukrainians are specifically announced that Russia does not need the "riches of Ukraine" for nothing, it is itself still a gift, which for 8 years has caused the brain to explode. In general, read, share, enlighten...” (translated from Russian)
As of March 15th, the post has been viewed over 1.1 million times according to Telegram.
Screenshot taken 15th March of Telegram post from ‘Kremlin Washerwoman’, publishing the document. View count is visible in the bottom right corner.
The Kremlin Washerwoman channel, which has a following of over 150,000 Telegram users, presents itself as an anonymous Russian political commentator with a pro-government angle. However, the channel has repeatedly appeared to have access to insider information and photographs which it has used to promote the interests of the Russian government against its opponents.
The channel’s very first post in 2017 shared a photograph of the passport of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, which it posted alongside speculation that Navalny was a drug addict. The post came in the context of a months long struggle between Navalny and the Russian government to allow Navalny to obtain a passport and travel for medical treatment following a chemical attack, which damaged his eye.
Screenshot taken 15th March of Telegram post from ‘Kremlin Washerwoman.’
In the years since, the Kremlin Washerwoman channel has been used to publish pro-government disinformation and attacks on political opponents. In August 2021, for example, the Russian government declared the election monitoring organisation Golos to be a foreign agent.
A month later, the Kremlin Washerwoman channel published a fake video,which claimed to show a plan by Golos observers to claim that the election was fraudulent even if it wasn’t.
In another example, earlier in 2021 Andrei Pivarov, the former head of Open Russia (which has been classed as an “undesirable organisation” by the Russian government) wrote a letter to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs to demand an investigation into the Kremlin Washerwoman after the channel published photographs of Pivarov which were taken by police.
The Kremlin Washerwoman channel has been amplified by high profile government and pro-government figures, who share its posts to their own Telegram audiences. For example, this post below was shared by Russian media commentator Vladimir Solovyov, who was recently sanctioned by the EU.
Screenshot of Telegram post on Vladimir Solovyev’s channel, posted February 26th.
Dissemination, amplification and translation
The original Russian language version of the report has been spread widely. On February 26th and the days following the report had been published on multiple Russian-language news and information sites including Veterans of Russia, Nash Gomel, Uralweb and others.
The content of the report was even republished in its entirety as ‘expert opinion’ on Infopovod. Copies of the report have been found on Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, as well as a multitude of smaller websites and forum. Analysis by DFRLab found 548 shares of the Russian language document across Telegram channels between February 26th and March 16th.
As of March 11th, versions of the report are also circulating in multiple languages including English, Italian, and Arabic. The English and Italian versions are automated translations (it is unknown how the Arabic version was translated, whether by automated translators or by an Arabic speaker).
The English auto-translation appears to have been generated by someone using a Russian-language word processer, as it contains formatting error messages in Russian.
Screenshot of Page 1 of English auto-translation, showing Russian-language formatting error message (highlighting added).
The English language version has been circulating on social media primarily under the name "The whole truth about Ukraine's crimes in the Donbass". Versions of the report have been uploaded to filesharing platforms, primarily Google Drive and Yandex, and shared out widely across Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and English-language Telegram channels.
A combination of factors, including the multiple different uploads and content moderation by the social media platforms (which has led to many posts and tweets being removed) makes it difficult to estimate exactly how many times the document has been shared.
Screenshot of YouTube video sharing Russian propaganda and linking to an upload of the document
Screenshot of Facebook post promoting Arabic language version of the document, and below of the Arabic language version
Interestingly, the English-language version of the document also appears to be gaining some traction in non-English speaking communities, for example shared here in a Vietnamese-language discussion forum and the Vietnam subreddit.
Screenshot of post on ‘Voz’ Vietnamese-language forum sharing a link to the document (cached); screenshot of Reddit post discussing support for Russia among Vietnamese communities, sharing a link to the document.
A particularly concerning element of the document’s spread is the inroads it appears to be making with conspiracy audiences. The Italian-language version of the document, for example, appears to have originated on an English/Italian QAnon website. It has been shared on social media, including Twitter and Telegram, and republished on an Italian Covid-19 conspiracy website.
Screenshot of tweets sharing Italian-language version of the document
The document is also circulating amongst English language conspiracy communities, although tracking its spread is somewhat complicated due to the different names under which it is now being shared (presumably because "The whole truth about Ukraine's crimes in the Donbass" is quite a clunky title in English).
For example, in Australia the document was shared by pro-Russian conspiracy theorist Simeon Boikov under the name ‘Kiev Nazi Regime Exposed’, and has since filtered through a range of Australian conspiracy Telegram channels under that name.
Screenshot of the document shared in Australian conspiracy Telegram channel under the name ‘Kiev Nazi Regime Exposed.’
Another particularly interesting example of how the document is circulating in English language conspiracy communities is a blog post from March 7th by Sarah Westall.
In the blog post, entitled 'Yes, It’s True. Evidence of Genocide & Crimes Against Humanity Towards Russians in Ukraine,’ Westall presents the document as a report by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
There is no evidence to suggest that this document originated with the OSCE. There is no doubt that this is the translation of the report which was published by the Kremlin Washerwoman Telegram channel.
It is unclear who forwarded the document to Westall misrepresenting it as an OSCE report, or how widely the claim that it is an OSCE report has circulated. Westall also posted about the blog on her Telegram channel, where it has been viewed almost 1900 times as of March 18th.
Screenshot of post in Sarah Westall’s Telegram channel
As an example of disinformation in the Russian-Ukrainian war, this document makes an interesting case study for several reasons.
Firstly, it reflects the swiftness with which potentially state-linked (if the suspicions about the Kremlin Washerwoman Telegram channel are correct) pro-Russian disinformation is laundered through the information ecosystem.
Within a week and a half, the report went from being a Russian-language document on a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel to being presented as an ‘OSCE report’ on an English-language website, shared on Vietnamese discussion forums, posted on Facebook in Arabic, bandied around Australian conspiracy groups, and promoted by Italian QAnon followers. In the process, the document was stripped of all context, making it difficult for readers who encounter it to evaluate its provenance or assess its likely biases.
Secondly, the document itself represents a snapshot of a moment in time, and a potentially valuable digital artifact for historians. The ‘information war’ playing out online is now an integral part of modern conflict. Understanding the ebbs and flows of that information war will be key to how the history of the 2022 Russian-Ukrainian war is written.
This document, which appears to have been hastily created in the hours after the announcement of the invasion (which caught even many within the Russian government by surprise) represents an early draft of the narratives which came to dominate the information battle in the first weeks of the war.
Finally, this document exposes the hollowness of the Russian pretexts for invasion by what it does not mention. As Russia and Ukraine enter their fourth week at war, Russian state propaganda has executed a rapid pivot away from the narratives of a fictional ‘genocide’ in the Donbass or equally fictional nuclear threat from Ukraine, and towards wild claims of chemical and biological weapons being developed in Ukrainian laboratories.
There is not a single mention of chemical weapons, biological weapons, or biological laboratories in this earlier document, reflecting how quickly and opportunistically the propaganda machine has changed track.