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  • Dr Adam Ure

Information warfare: five ways Russia captured Ukrainian media

Updated: Jul 12

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw forces attempt to occupy not only land but minds. CIR breaks down Russia’s steps to seize media outlets and influence local populations in the temporarily occupied territories. 

Image: Journalists photograph the hoisting of the State Flag of Ukraine in liberated Kherson, November 2022, via President of Ukraine Flickr [CC0 1.0 UNIVERSAL].

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, one of its priorities was to take hold of Ukraine’s media space. Its forces and security services rushed to capture media outlets, seizing television studios, radio towers and telecommunications infrastructure. Reports of violence against journalists – from detentions to killings – have been widespread. 

Moscow was intent on controlling information networks in order to oversee and manipulate what Ukrainians were reading and hearing about the invasion, and to manufacture support for its occupation. 

Mastery of the information space plays a key role in Russian security and military strategy, and Moscow has long emphasised the role of “information warfare” – a term that its protagonists frequently use – in its various foreign invasions over the years.

Russia’s seizure of parts of the Ukrainian information space after February 2022 marked an intensification of methodologies that it had been honing over a longer period. Moscow relied on techniques used in its initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and in its invasion of Georgia in 2008. 

The significance that Moscow attaches to controlling the information space in the Temporarily Occupied Territories (TOTs) of Ukraine has led observers to study the “Russian way” of what experts describe as “cognitive occupation” – Moscow’s methods and approaches in seizing control of the media landscape and using this to manipulate populations, their thinking and behaviours.

Russia’s five-step playbook 

Without access to internal documents, it’s not possible to definitively determine Russia’s strategy and how this was applied in 2022. However, CIR has identified five steps that Russia took as it tried to capture the information space in occupied Ukraine, based on a detailed analysis of publicly available material and documents. 

These steps were not necessarily sequential or applied dogmatically across the TOTs, and in practice, varied according to local circumstances and the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance. They were often employed alongside tightened legal restraints and other efforts to control media content.

However, delineating the Russian approach into this five-step breakdown can enhance understanding of the Russian way of cognitive occupation, and can support mitigations and counter-planning going forward.

  1. Capturing infrastructure. Russia seized physical control of major infrastructure and key municipal buildings, especially city halls, mayoral offices, schools, hospitals, and universities. This provided the platform for forces to then seize local media infrastructure. In some cases, Ukrainian officials, such as Zaporizhzhia’s Russian-installed “governor” Evgeniy Balitskiy, assisted the Russians in capturing local infrastructure and media assets.

  2. Seizing media. Russian forces and other agents – at times assisted by Ukrainian collaborators on the ground, such as local politicians, businesspeople, and media personnel – established control of public and private media assets and infrastructure, including transmission towers, broadcasting stations, media offices, and filming and recording studios. In some cases, the Russians embarked on a “war of television towers”, where they tried to dominate the broadcasting space by building taller and high-powered transmission capabilities and blocking Ukrainian channels. This approach also played out in the radio space, with both sides continuing to compete over technical capabilities to ensure their messaging is spread as far and wide as possible. 

  3. Blocking Ukrainian sources. The Russians blocked media from Government-controlled Ukraine and pro-Ukrainian local organisations, including from mobile Internet networks where possible. This opened up space for the broadcasting of intense pro-Russian material, including the creation of local media organisations (again, sometimes with the assistance of local Ukrainian collaborators). These media organisations disseminated messaging designed to undermine and demonise authorities in Kyiv, claiming that the Ukrainian leadership were “Nazis” and intent on subjugating people in the east of the country.

  4. Silencing Ukrainian voices. Russian agencies, including intelligence services, identified and located key pro-Ukrainian journalists, educators, influencers, activists, and religious figures. These figures were then reportedly abducted, silenced, or coerced into collaborating. Russian agents often displayed their ruthlessness in this regard, relying not only on financial incentives and promises of political influence, but also on fear, torture, and threats against relatives to force collaboration or silence. This technique was replicated widely across the TOTs. Some Ukrainians resisted this type of informational occupation, for instance, Svitlana Zalizetska, head of pro-Ukrainian news website RIA-Melitopol, who refused to cooperate with the Russians when they tried to seize her outlet. Zalizetska continues to run RIA-Melitopol from Government-controlled Ukraine.

  5. Importing assets from Russia and other TOTs. Russian authorities imported media assets, channels, journalists and media personnel from other regions, typically Crimea, or sometimes Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as Russia, to supplement the work carried out by local collaborators. Moscow has also started to train a new generation of pro-Russian journalists, schooled in promoting Russian perspectives in the war, likely in the hope that some will move to the TOTs and support pro-Russian outlets there.

Well-known outlets seized 

In many cases, Russian bodies simply seized control of existing media assets in the TOTs, sometimes assuming ownership of newspapers that had operated in Ukraine for generations. The Russians took over these outlets themselves, forcing out their owners and publishing pro-Russian content in their place. In many cases, locals were unaware that the brands they recognised and read regularly had fallen under Russian control. 

For example, in April 2022 Russian forces started to print their own version of the long-standing local newspaper Melitopol Vedomosti. They used the newspaper’s familiar logo and branding and began to distribute copies free of charge. Occupation authorities did not warn local residents that this version of Melitopol Vedomosti had nothing to do with the original outlet and was instead filled with pro-Russian content that praised occupation officials such as Melitopol “Military-Civilian Administration” head Galina Danilchenko, and which claimed that life under the Russians was improving.

Looking to the future 

Russia is intensifying its attempts to maintain control over Ukraine’s TOTs and their media landscape, and there is a real risk that the impact of their information manipulation will grow as the occupation continues. 

Nevertheless, recent attempts by Moscow to reassess, reconsolidate, and reinvigorate its hold over the information space in the TOTs suggest that it is concerned about dissenting voices and that Russia lacks complete control over the media space and public sentiment in occupied Ukraine. 

Examples of resistance by brave journalists, bloggers, and activists across all the TOTs demonstrate that Russia has not taken complete hold of the information space. This should give us cause for optimism and should provide the basis for further research and support for Ukraine’s deoccupation.

With special gratitude to CIR's Sophia Freuden for developing the playbook concept. Dr Adam Ure is a specialist on Russia, Ukraine, and information manipulation. He is a researcher at CIR.

For further reading see CIR and Detector Media’s deep-dive into the network of actors behind the “media occupation” of Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories.



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