WASHINGTON (AP) — As gruesome videos and photos of bodies emerge from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Kremlin-backed media are denouncing them as an elaborate hoax — a narrative that journalists in Ukraine have shown to be false.
Denouncing news as fake or spreading false reports to sow confusion and undermine its adversaries are tactics that Moscow has used for years and refined with the advent of social media in places like Syria.
In detailed broadcasts to millions of viewers, correspondents and hosts of Russian state TV channels said Tuesday that some photo and video evidence of the killings were fake while others showed that Ukrainians were responsible for the bloodshed.
“Among the first to appear were these Ukrainian shots, which show how a soulless body suddenly moves its hand,” a report Monday on Russia-1’s evening news broadcast declared. “And in the rearview mirror it is noticeable that the dead seem to be starting to rise even.”
But high-resolution satellite images show some of the dead bodies have been lying on the residential streets of Bucha since early March, days after the Russian occupation began. On April 2, a video taken from a moving car was posted online by a Ukrainian lawyer showing those same bodies still scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. The Associated Press independently matched the location bodies in the satellite images of Bucha from commercial provider Maxar Technology to separate videos from the scene. Other Western media had similar reports.
AP journalists have seen the bodies of dozens of people, many of them shot at close range and some with their hands tied behind them, left on the streets of Bucha since Russian troops retreated last week. On Tuesday, AP journalists saw a pile of six burned bodies, with a child’s blackened foot amid the tangled corpses.
Yet Russian officials and state-media have continued to promote their own narrative, parroting it in newspapers and on radio and television. A top story on the website of a popular pro-Kremlin newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, pinned the mass killings on Ukraine, with a story that claimed “one more irrefutable proof that ‘the genocide in Bucha’ was carried out by Ukrainian forces.”
An opinion column published Tuesday by the state-run news agency RIA Novosti surmised that the Bucha slayings were a ploy for the West to impose tougher sanctions on Russia.
Analysts note it isn’t the first time in its six-week-old invasion of Ukraine that the Kremlin has employed such an information warfare strategy to deny any wrongdoing and spread disinformation in a coordinated campaign around the globe.
“This is simply what Russia does every time it recognizes that it has suffered a PR setback through committing atrocities,” said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank. “So the system works almost on autopilot.”
Before the war, Russia denied U.S. intelligence reports that detailed its plans to attack Ukraine. Last month, Russian officials tried to discredit AP photos and reporting of the aftermath of the bombing of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which left a pregnant woman and her unborn child dead.
The photos and video from Bucha have set off a new wave of global condemnation and revulsion.
After his video appearance Tuesday at the U.N. Security Council, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy enumerated the killings in Bucha by Russian troops and showed graphic video of charred and decomposing bodies there and in other towns. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed them as staged.
Across social media, a chorus of more than a dozen official Russian Twitter and Telegram accounts, as well as state-backed media Facebook pages, repeated the Kremlin line that images and video of the dead were staged or a hoax. The claims were made in English, Spanish and Arabic in accounts run by Russian officials or from Russian-backed news outlets Sputnik and RT. The Spanish-language RT en Español has sent more than a dozen posts to its 18 million followers.
“Russia rejects allegations over the murder of civilians in Bucha, near Kiev,” an RT en Español post said Sunday.
Several of the same accounts sought to discredit claims that Russian troops carried out the killings by pointing to a video of Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk, taken March 31, in which he talked about the suburb being freed from Russian occupation.
“He confirms that Russian troops have left Bucha. No mentioning of dead bodies in the streets,” top Russian official Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted Monday.
But Fedoruk had publicly commented on the violence before the Russian troops left in an interview with Italian news agency Adnkronos on March 28, where he accused them of killings and rapes in Bucha.
In an AP interview March 7, Fedoruk talked about dead bodies piling up in Bucha: “We can’t even gather up the bodies because the shelling from heavy weapons doesn’t stop day or night. Dogs are pulling apart the bodies on the city streets. It’s a nightmare.”
Satellite images by Maxar Technologies while Russian troops occupied Bucha on March 18 and 19 back up Fedoruk’s account of bodies in the streets, showing at least five bodies on one road.
Some social media platforms have tried to limit propaganda and disinformation from the Kremlin. Google blocked RT’s accounts, while in Europe, RT and Sputnik were banned by tech company Meta, which also stopped promoting or amplifying Russian-state media pages on its platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.
Russia has found ways to evade the crackdown with posts in different languages through dozens of official Russian social media accounts.
“It’s a pretty massive messaging apparatus that Russia controls — whether it’s official embassy accounts, bot or toll accounts or anti-Western influencers — they have many ways to circumvent platform bans,” said Bret Schafer, who heads the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.