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Fact check: Russia falsely blames Ukraine for starting war

Kathrin Wesolowski
March 4, 2022

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow was acting to end the "systematic extermination of the Donbas population" that had been supposedly ongoing since 2014. DW Fact Check explains why this is false.

A Russian tank pictured on February 27 in Crimea, near the border with UkraineCrimea
Image: Konstantin Mihalchevskiy/SNA/imago images

The claim is this: "Russia did not start a war, it is ending it," wrote Maria Zakharova, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a recent Facebook post.

In doing so, she framed the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of the wider Donbas conflict, which has been raging for years. Russian President Vladimir Putin had argued similarly at the outset of the Russian attack, when he falsely justified Russia's offensive as an act of self-defense in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter. Zakharova also claimed that Ukraine planned the "systematic extermination of the Donbas population."

It's a narrative that's also being spread by Russian state broadcaster RT.

A screenshot taken of Maria Zakharova's Russian-language Facebook statement, with an auto-translated English version below
A screenshot taken of Maria Zakharova's Russian-language Facebook statement, with an auto-translated English version belowImage: facebook.com/maria.zakharova.167

DW fact check: False

Both of Zakharova's statements are false. The current armed conflict began when Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 21, shortly after Putin, during a televised speech, announced a "special military operation" in Ukraine. Russia started the fighting and triggered an ongoing escalation when it crossed into Ukrainian territory.

The second claim made by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson is also false: There is no evidence whatsoever that there was a "systematic extermination" of people in the Donbas.

Russians started the armed conflict back in 2014

Ukraine and Russia disagree on who provoked the start of the conflict in 2014. It erupted after Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU. Pro-Western demonstrations eventually forced Yanukovych to flee the country, after which an interim government took over Ukraine.

A timeline of the Ukraine crisis

It was then that soldiers in green uniforms but without insignia occupied Crimea. At the time, Russian officials said these troops were not acting on orders from the Kremlin, though many Western observers doubted this claim. That same year, a referendum was held on the occupied peninsula over whether it should join the Russian Federation. A majority of voters voted in favor, thus paving the way for Russian annexation. The referendum, however, was widely dismissed as illegitimate. At the same time, Russia began supporting separatist movements in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, which was met with military action by Kyiv government forces.

The point at which this conflict turned into all-out war is disputed among the parties involved and scholars.

The contested areas of Donetsk and Luhansk declared themselves a "people's republic" in 2014. Moscow recognized them as independent on February 21, just days before this year's invasion. The conflict escalated into interstate war when Russian troops crossed the border of eastern Ukraine on February 21, 2022, entering Ukrainian territory.

No evidence of planned genocide

In her Facebook statement, Maria Zakharova also said that at least at least 13,000 people had been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine since 2014. She also claimed that there was a "systematic extermination of the Donbas population." There is no evidence, however, that proves a "systematic extermination" of the civilian population is occurring. An OSCE monitoring mission active in Ukraine since 2014 has found no evidence of mass targeted killings of civilians in the Donbas region. So far, the Russian Foreign Ministry has not provided any proof to back up its claim that the people of eastern Ukraine are subject to "systematic extermination."

5 fakes of the war in Ukraine

The UN has accused both sides of human rights violations such as torture and raping prisoners, especially during the early years of the conflict. It also says the Minsk ceasefire agreement was repeatedly broken by both sides.

It is true that at least 13,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to the latest report by the United Nations, up to 13,200 people died in the conflict until early 2020. Of those, 3,350 were civilians and 5,650 insurgents, according to the UN. It says that 4,100 of those killed were members of the Ukrainian military. 

Conclusion: Maria Zakharova's claim that Ukraine started this war is false. The Russian Federation illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, sparking broad international condemnation. On February 21, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine from the north, northeast, and from the Crimean Peninsula in the south, initiating a full-scale interstate war between Russia and Ukraine.