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Fact check: Russia's disinformation campaign targets NATO

February 13, 2023

In the battle for influence running parallel to Russia's war on Ukraine, the Kremlin has consistently taken aim at NATO. DW asked experts how the propaganda machine works.

The NATO logo is seen on a uniform during the NATO annual military exercise "Winter Shield" 2021 in Adazi, Latvia
Russia has come up with its own interpretation of NATO activitiesImage: Gints Ivuskans /AFP

Since Ukraine's Maidan protest movement and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has tried to influence public opinion with targeted disinformation campaigns. While the extent of these efforts both at home and abroad has been hard to quantify since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly one year ago, experts tell DW that their intensity and scope have increased.

One narrative, begun even before the war, has been particularly persistent: That the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — the 30-member European and North American military alliance established after World War II — is not only threatening Russia, but may even wish to invade it.

Anti-government protesters at Kiev's Maidan Square in 2014
False information about NATO has been circulating since the 2014 Maidan protest movement in KyivImage: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Kremlin twisting the narrative

Long before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, experts said that Russia spread such stories to justify the war.

"I would say that we probably could start this [the false claims] from the Maidan revolution in 2014. Since then, Russians have been claiming that the West is meddling with Ukraine," said Roman Osadchuk, a research associate at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank based in the United States.

In many Russian narratives, cause and effect are inverted, said Lutz Güllner, head of strategic communications at the EU's diplomatic service, the European External Action Service. "It's always about portraying how much Russia is actually threatened, is under siege, is threatened by Ukraine, and therefore must defend itself, making the war nothing more than deterrence."

For example, in a televised address a few days before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that NATO was "expanding more and more," with its military infrastructure encroaching upon the country's borders.

Infografik NATO Erweiterung NEU! EN

There is some truth to this. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 14 Eastern European countries have joined NATO, four of them bordering Russia. Ukraine requested the chance to join via NATO's Membership Action Plan in 2008, and the country's initiative to join has only intensified since Russia's invasion.

It is also true that NATO has made logistical preparations in its Eastern European member states, in addition to preparing airfields for the rapid reinforcement of troops. However, this was also in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, which was illegal under international law. The NATO alliance continues to respect the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which prohibits the additional permanent deployment of substantial combat forces in NATO accession countries. But that has not deterred Putin from his claim that NATO is threatening Russia.

Putin has also alleged that Ukrainians have perpetrated genocide against Russian-speaking people in the illegally annexed "republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk for years, and that these areas must be "denazified."

Fact check: Russia's war claims

Russian propaganda spreads at home and abroad

Such false claims have been aimed primarily at a domestic audience. But the narrative has also had some impact in the West.

In an October 2022 study by the Germany-based Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy, 19% of respondents in Germany agreed with the statement that Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine was an unavoidable response to NATO provocation. Some 21% partially agreed with this statement. That makes 40% of Germans who at least partially believe NATO is at fault in the Ukraine conflict.

"That's a pretty high number, and that's presumably a result of both disinformation campaigns and existing beliefs and attitudes toward NATO," said Julia Smirnova, senior analyst at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has also been studying the spread of disinformation during the war.

NATO, Ukraine portrayed as aggressors

At the beginning of the invasion, there were also reports of US-funded bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine, claims that later turned out to be fake. The story about the alleged preparation of a so-called "dirty bomb" was circulated by the Russian Foreign Ministry. "Evidence" for the claim was debunked; it turned out to be old images of Russian nuclear power plants and Slovenian smoke detectors.

The support of Ukraine by its Western partners — through financial aid, arms supplies and sanctions — has also been used to back Putin's primary claim that Ukraine is "fully under external control" and is "strengthened by armed forces of NATO countries and pumped up with the most modern weapons."

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Even before he launched the invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin made false claims about NATO activity in the regionImage: Aleksey Babushkin/Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Russian state media also claimed that NATO troops were actively involved in the war, with some military units secretly under the command of Western officers or instructors. Photos and videos of foreign volunteers fighting alongside Ukrainians were often used as evidence.

"In fact, fighting against us is the NATO bloc, whose members supply the Kyiv regime with heavy weapons, ammunition and intelligence, and train military specialists," Nikolai Patrushev, a Putin confidant and secretary of Russia's Security Council, said late last year. 

Latest rumors focus on tank deliveries 

In May 2022, social media users falsely claimed that EU member states were about to join the conflict.

A video with a BBC news logo claimed that a Polish military general had signed an order to put army detachments on "full alert." But the video was a fake. The BBC denied producing it, and said that its logo had been imitated to create the fake video. Polish government officials accused Moscow of launching disinformation attacks against the country.

German Leopard 2 tanks roll along sandy ground in Poland in 2019, kicking up clouds of dust
Before the decision was even announced, fake videos of Germany's alleged tank deliveries to Ukraine had begun circulating onlineImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany's recent decision to supply tanks to Ukraine was also immediately interpreted on social media as an admission by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that NATO is at war with Russia.

Even before the announcement, videos purporting to show the delivery of German Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine were circulating online. For Roman Osadchuk of the Atlantic Council, it's no coincidence that such videos on the topic of tank deliveries are spreading far and wide.

"So for Russia, it might serve as an example. [They say] 'look, Europe is already prepared to fight us'," he said.

This article was originally published in German.