Russians breached this city, not with troops, but propaganda

Maksym Katerynyn was furious as he pointed to the artillery shell stuck in the ground and a rocket sticking out of the wall. These were Ukrainian ammunition, he shouted. And it was Ukrainian artillery that hit his house the day before, killing his mother and stepfather.

“The Russians don’t hit us!” barked Katerynyn. “Ukraine is shooting at us!”

But that was almost impossible: there were no Russian soldiers for the Ukrainians to fire on in the eastern city of Lysychansk, and it was clear that the projectiles had come from the direction of Sievierodonetsk, a neighboring city much of which has been occupied by Russian troops. .

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The fact that Katerynyn believed this, and that his neighbors nodded in agreement as he raced through his neighborhood condemning their country, was a telltale sign: The Russians clearly had a foothold here already—a psychological one.

“I will ask Uncle Putin to launch a missile from which these creatures launched their missiles,” said Katerynyn, standing next to the graves in the backyard of his mother and stepfather, referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He wanted the Ukrainian army to leave, he said heatedly, with an expletive.

It wasn’t always like that in Lysychansk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of 100,000. Now it is isolated from most of the world, with no cell service, no pension payments and increasing Russian shelling. But some residents have become a receptive audience for Russian propaganda — or they have spread it themselves.

Ukrainian soldiers and police officers deliver macaroni, oil and other food supplies to desperate residents of Lysychansk, Ukraine, on Thursday, June 16, 2022. While shelling towns in Ukraine with artillery, the Russians are also bombarding them with messages aimed at undermining Ukrainians’ confidence in their military and government. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

They can listen on the radio, both handheld and in their car, and watch pro-Russian television channels when generator power allows. Given Lysychansk’s proximity to Russia, those channels seem to have a stronger influence in some neighborhoods than their Ukrainian counterparts.

“If you get hit in the head with the same message, you just drown in it,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at New York’s New School who teaches a course on the politics of propaganda. ‘After a while you don’t know what the truth is anymore. The message takes over your reality.”

The idea that the Ukrainian military is shooting at its own people has been an oft-repeated message on pro-Russian disinformation channels on radio, television and the Internet since the invasion of Moscow began in February. Aside from sowing doubt among Ukrainians about their own government and military, it has been a way for the Kremlin to sidestep responsibility when it comes to civilian casualties caused by Russian attacks.

During a recent outing to hand out help, several police officers were approached by an elderly woman. They said she asked them, “Guys, when are you going to stop shooting at us?” – leaving the cops in disbelief.

Propaganda has been a weapon of war in Ukraine since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists formed two breakaway republics in the Donbas region.

Hijacked television and radio towers there continuously broadcast anti-Ukrainian propaganda and Russian disinformation. Those in their transmission range were inundated with an alternate reality that was slowly taking hold, despite Ukrainian efforts to counter it.

Volunteers try to persuade Yevdokiya Petrova, 72, to leave her home and evacuate from Lysychansk, Ukraine, on Monday, June 13, 2022. While shelling towns and cities in Ukraine with artillery, the Russians are also bombarding them with messages targeting erosion. The confidence of Ukrainians in their military and their government. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

“First they cut off all Ukrainian content, and then they fill this void with Russian misinformation,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, editor-in-chief of StopFake, a nonprofit that exposes Russian disinformation, and director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev. , capital of Ukraine. “That’s been their approach for years and they haven’t changed the textbook.”

But with the war’s front lines shifting as Russia invades the Donbas, propaganda in towns and villages like Lysychansk has taken on a new intensity and relevance. Very few residents have access to the internet via satellite, so many people are glued to battery powered radio handsets or the radio in their car if they can get the fuel to make it work.

“You just have to turn on the radio or your phone to hear the Russian radio broadcast here,” said Sergiy Kozachenko, a Sievierodonetsk police officer who moved to Lysychansk because of the fighting. “They will listen to it; what else could they do?” Nearby FM radio is available without a data connection or cellular network.

As soon as such a broadcast, from the pro-Russian station Radio Victory, will be available on FM radio for Ukrainian troops and civilians in Lysychansk and for those troops on the front lines. Her monotonous female voice seems almost soothing, despite the ominous messages she delivers.

“The circle will be closed in the Siversk area very soon,” the voice says, referring to the closing pocket around Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk as the Russians advance from the north and southeast. “Your staff has been destroyed. Your commanders ran away and deserted their subordinates. Zelenskyy betrayed you too,” calling on the name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“There will be no help,” the message continues. “With further resistance you are destined to die. The only way to survive is to run or surrender. Save your life.”

The broadcast, clearly aimed at frontline Ukrainian troops, also appears to have entered the lexicon of Lysychansk’s civilian residents. “Your government in Kiev has given us up,” an elderly woman shouted to a group of volunteers who delivered aid to a shelter last week. The locals did not let the volunteers in.

It is not illogical that residents have pro-Russian leanings in this area. Many people have relatives in Russia and the towns themselves are close to the Russian border and mostly speak Russian.

They contrast with the millions of Ukrainians in most regions of the country who are outraged by Putin’s invasion and angry at civilians in Russia, some of them relatives, who are turning a blind eye to the chaos.

Local authorities in Lysychansk believe that there are still about 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants in the city. In Sievierodonetsk, which had a pre-war population of 160,000, about 10,000 people have remained, authorities there say, despite the relentless street-to-street fighting that is taking place.

Ukrainian city workers call those who chose to stay “Zhduny” or the “wait”.

“Those are the ones waiting for Russians there,” Kozachenko said. “They hug them and say to them, ‘Our dear ones, we’ve been waiting for you. We have been abused here.’”

While some residents welcome the Russians, many are unable to evacuate because they do not have the money, because they have elderly or disabled relatives who are not very mobile, or simply because they are afraid of losing their home.

Tetiana Bykova, 60, walks through her family’s complex in Irpin, Ukraine, June 17, 2022. Four homes belonging to an extended family were all destroyed in Russian attacks in March. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

Galyna Gubarieva, 63, has refused to leave Lysychansk despite the incessant shelling and approaching Russians, both of whom openly despise.

Short and sweet, Gubarieva now takes care of her neighbor’s farm, next to her own home. But dealing with her fellow Lysykhansky supporters who have bought Russian propaganda, she said, is something she refuses to tolerate.

“Sometimes an old woman tells some lies, and I can’t stand it,” Gubarieva said. ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘Russian troops are coming from the glass factory in Lysychansk. Oh, let them come sooner!’ And I say, ‘Are you crazy?’”

“There are a lot of people like that among my neighbors,” she said.

Some residents of Lysychansk no longer advocate for either side, angry at the behavior of the fighters, not even those who should be defending them. Instead, they wait for the war to be over, regardless of the victor.

“This is a war of attrition of any kind,” Khrushcheva said. “Not only militarily, but the Kremlin is counting on fatigue, also that Ukrainians are tired of the war.”

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