Information battlefield: Kremlin disinformation campaigns targeting Poland’s support for Ukraine
Other than assembling a large force on the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin is increasing the information pressure on Europe. Poland has long been a traditional target of Russian fake news. The current amount and intensity point to an organised operation of malicious influence.
Along with massing troops on the border with Ukraine, Russia is increasing its information pressure on European countries, with Poland being no exception. Poland and Ukraine have been the usual targets for Russian hybrid aggression and disinformation attacks for a long time. But what we see now is a significant increase in the number and intensity of disinformation messages, which leads to the conclusion that it is a coordinated malign influence campaign.
The immediate goal of this campaign is to portray Ukraine along with its closest allies, among them Poland, Britain and the US, as aggressors planning a military operation in the Donbas, currently occupied by Russian backed militants. In reality disinformation is laying the ground for Russia to create a pretext for invading Ukraine. Accusing Kyiv of the aggression will then provide grounds for Russian military support to its proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk.
In recent months, a Kremlin-backed network of media outlets has been producing and spreading numerous fake stories about the alleged cases of Ukrainian attacks on Donbas with the use of foreign military assistance. Marginal media and Telegram channels come up with new “evidence” aimed at showing that Ukrainian forces alone, or with the help of Ukrainian allies – US, Poland, the UK — are preparing different sorts of provocations. Afterwards, these messages migrate to the Russian mainstream media. This information is also disseminated through specially created groups on social media. Networks of bots and fake accounts are used to spin these messages.
The intensity of the information operations is growing every day. This is also connected with the increased supply of defensive weapons by the allies to Ukraine. Now the disinformation is aimed at accusing Kyiv of using these weapons to attack Russia’s hybrid forces in Donbas. At the same time, Russian media do not mention that only defensive types of weapons are being supplied to Ukraine and that is a response to the constant Russian escalation on the borders.
The goal of this information campaign is to develop a narrative that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are “killing” civilians in Donbas with American, British, and Polish arms. Consequently, all countries supporting Ukraine should urgently stop supplying weapons to Kyiv.
Moscow claims it is threatened by the growing presence of NATO in Ukraine and military assistance to Ukraine from its partners. That is why the Kremlin seeks to deprive Ukraine of the support of its NATO allies and challenge Kyiv’s relations with Poland and other countries. Therefore, disinformation is systematically distributed through pro-Russian media networks aimed at discrediting the co-operation of Kyiv and Warsaw.
The Kremlin is particularly annoyed that Poland is Ukraine’s main partner in the European Union and systematically and effectively supports Ukraine. The announcement of a new military-political alliance between Poland, the United Kingdom and Ukraine has only reinforced this belief. The additional deployment of US military to Poland and the supply of defence weapons by Poland to Ukraine expectedly increased the wave of manipulative and fake news. Kremlin disinformation in Ukraine has become one of the tools with which Moscow is trying to achieve its goals. Its features are creating multiple versions of events and blaming others for what the Kremlin itself is directly involved in. The Russian model of propaganda is also aimed at distorting the mutual perception of Polish and Ukrainian societies, and distorting the relations between Poland and Ukraine. For this purpose, existing tensions are used, which are artificially inflated, or new manipulative information pretexts are created.
Over the past month, there have been regular “information stuffings” about Poland’s participation in preparing an attack on Donbas. The latest of these fake stories was information about the arrival of Polish “mercenaries” at the line of contact in Donbas. The representative of the Russian proxy administration, so called “DPR” Eduard Basurin said that intelligence has got information about the arrival to Donbas of two groups of armed people who speak Polish. According to Basurin, their goal is to carry out, together with the Ukrainian special forces, provocations, sabotage and terrorist attacks, damage and destroy critical infrastructure in order to provoke retaliatory actions.
Russian state-sponsored Sputnik in Latvia writes on this: “When British ‘instructors’, their own nationalists and simply soldiers are not enough, mercenaries come to the rescue. Polish. Their goal is provocation, chaos and destruction”.
Screenshot from Sputnik Latvia
Another target for Russian disinformation is discrediting the new Britain-Poland-Ukraine military-political alliance. Russian media claim that the main interest for Poland is to increase its own importance and use Ukraine as an “irritant” for Russia. Together with Russian state media RIA Novosti such information can be found in the Polish source – Mysl Polska, from where it is picked by the Russian media and interpreted as a Polish position.
Screenshot from RIA Novosti
Spreading disinformation about the prospects of the new alliance between the UK, Poland and Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to achieve another goal – strengthen differences between Poland and Britain and the EU, justifying its own aggression by NATO’s unfriendly policy towards Russia, and consolidating Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.
A separate line in disinformation publications about the future alliance between London, Warsaw and Kyiv are publications aimed at discrediting this partnership as such. In particular, such reports indicate that “Britain is beginning to lay claim to the spread of its influence in Eastern and Central Europe.” London is allegedly using Warsaw, which should remember “1939 and the consequences of alliances with the British.”
Screenshot from InoTV
Disinformation campaigns are often combined with cyber operations. Activities aimed at damaging Ukrainian-Polish relations are no exception. On the night of January 14th 2022 hackers massively attacked Ukrainian government websites: in particular, the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Emergency Service, and a number of other agencies were down. Hackers posted anti-Ukrainian posts in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. A total of about 70 websites were affected by the hacker attack.
Experts noted that grammatical and stylistic errors in the Polish-language text indicate that it was not written by a Pole, but when writing the text “a bad translator was used”. The aim of those orchestrating the cyberattack was clearly to demonstrate the “Polish footprint” of the attackers, to quarrel between Poland and Ukraine, and to worsen bilateral relations between the two countries. Poland pointed to Russia as the source of this cyber attack. A spokesman for Poland’s special services coordinator, Stanislaw Żaryn, said the cyber attack on Ukrainian government websites was in line with Russia’s activities against the West.
Another direction of Kremlin manipulations was the dissemination of information about Poland’s exclusion from the OSCE in the event of military aid to Ukraine. Such materials try to convince readers that Poland’s military assistance to Ukraine raises questions not only about its chairmanship in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but also the country’s membership in the organisation. The statement by the prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, that Warsaw has provided Kyiv with defensive weapons to counter possible Russian aggression has further intensified this trend. On February 1st 2022 the Polish authorities adopted a resolution on assistance to Ukraine and the provision of modern Polish defence equipment – Pioruń portable anti-aircraft missile systems and ammunition.
Screenshot from Izvestiia
Numerous manipulative messages can also be included here. In particular, the information that Poland allegedly believes that Russia’s hypothetical attack on Ukraine will completely secure the country, while Warsaw will not help Kyiv, which “spoiled relations with it”. Such allegations are based on the fact that Poland allegedly considers Ukraine a “buffer zone” and is confident that Russia will avoid a conflict with several countries at once.
At the same time, materials are published pushing the message that the Polish authorities are recklessly supporting a potential armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The result of which will be an economic collapse that will “affect all Eastern European countries, including Poland”.
Pro-Kremlin media use various manipulations to demonstrate Poland’s superior attitude towards Ukrainians as “cheap labour.” These manipulative messages stress that Polish companies will be able to take advantage of the Ukrainian crisis and gain economic benefits. In this context, disinformation was spread claiming that Morawiecki called Ukrainians “cheap labour that Warsaw could really use”. Many pro-Kremlin resources have attributed the following phrase to the Polish prime minister, allegedly said during an interview with Ukrainian media. The truth is Morawiecki never said any phrase about cheap labour.
The deterioration of Ukraine’s relations with Poland, which is firm and active in countering Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine, is one of the main goals of Russia’s information operations. That is why it is advisable to elaborate positions in countering Russian aggression not only in the military but also in the information sphere. In contrast to Russian propaganda, Poland and Ukraine can develop a positive joint narrative, broadcast and promote common success stories and cooperation. This will allow us to jointly oppose the Russian imperial narrative.
Maria Avdeeva is a research director at the European Expert Association in Ukraine. She focuses on international security, co-operation of Ukraine with the EU and NATO in combating hybrid threats and emerging security challenges. She analyses information operations and efforts to counter disinformation and threats to democracy.
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