Surging disinformation aims to dent Western aid to Ukraine

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From fake street art to doctored media reports demonizing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a torrent of online disinformation seeks to erode Western support that is crucial for Kyiv’s war effort against Russia.

The falsehoods, experts say, are aimed at provoking anti-Ukraine sentiment in Western countries while lending credence to the notion that war-weary European and American allies are turning against Zelenskyy.

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The wave of disinformation comes as Kyiv is scrambling to retain Western support -- while attention shifts to the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas - ahead of what is expected to be another winter bombing campaign by Russia.

“The (disinformation) campaigns take place in multiple countries and languages, and their intensification suggest concerted efforts,” Roman Osadchuk, from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), told AFP.

“The main objective of Russia here is to put a wedge in Western societies, polarizing them and portraying the help for Ukraine as ‘problematic.’

“These efforts are aimed at political elites and the general population, some of whom might not closely follow the war, making them more vulnerable” to the false narratives.

AFP’s factcheckers have exposed a series of doctored images of street art mocking Zelenskyy, who has faced an avalanche of disinformation since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022.

That includes fake photos -- shared across social media platforms -- of graffiti in cities such as Warsaw, Berlin and Paris depicting Zelenskyy devouring money from his Western allies. No such graffiti was found.

‘War fatigue’

AFP factcheckers have also uncovered fabricated German and French media reports about graffiti depicting Zelenskyy engaging in cannibalism. The media outlets confirmed that the posts circulating on platforms such as Facebook and Telegram were fake.

When Zelenskyy visited the United States last month, a doctored online video appeared to show a New York city billboard with the words “glory to urine” alongside an image of the Ukrainian leader.

The manipulated clip was watermarked with the logo for Fox News Digital, but a network spokesperson told AFP that it had not posted any such footage.

It remains unclear precisely who is behind the false claims but they fit a broader pattern of anti-Ukraine disinformation by Russia, which for decades has engaged in information warfare focused on fueling anti-Western sentiments, researchers say.

“There has been a visible growth of Russian propaganda in Europe” compared to the first few months of 2022, Ruslan Trad, a resident fellow for security research at the DFRLab, told AFP.

“The Kremlin is capitalizing on war fatigue and apathy, as well as the Euroscepticism and fears of Western and Central European societies.”

Raising concerns about cracks in Western support for Kyiv, Slovakia’s new populist Prime Minister Robert Fico on Thursday said he had “informed” the European Union’s executive of his decision to stop military aid to Ukraine.

Soon after last month’s general election -- which Fico won on pledges to end assistance to Ukraine -- Slovakia accused Moscow of interfering in the vote by deliberately disseminating falsehoods.

Even in the United States -- Kyiv’s biggest donor of security aid -- there are concerns that opposition from hardline Republican lawmakers has put future assistance for Kyiv in doubt.

President Joe Biden is currently pushing Congress to approve a massive $106 billion security bill, which includes $61 billion in military aid for Ukraine.

On Thursday, Washington announced a new $150 million military assistance package for Ukraine that includes artillery and small-arms ammunition as well as anti-tank weapons.

Zelenskyy thanked the US for the assistance, saying “strengthening air defense is critical to protect Ukrainian cities and infrastructure” as winter approaches.

Ukraine is bracing itself for a renewed Russian bombing campaign on its energy infrastructure, which last year plunged millions of civilians into extreme hardship.

The European Union has also vowed steadfast support. Earlier this month, the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to provide an extra 50 billion euros ($53 billion) for Ukraine’s recovery.

But despite these robust pledges, US officials cited by local media have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to end American and European support for Ukraine by using his spy agencies to push propaganda and conspiracy theories.

“Russia is benefiting right now (from) decades of information activities,” said Adam Lelonek, from the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project.

“Russia cannot win this conventional war but still aspires to win in the information dimension.”

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