Undermining Ukraine: How Russia widened its global information war in 2023

As the full-scale war in Ukraine enters its third year, Russia has doubled down on its worldwide efforts to undermine Kyiv’s international standing in an attempt to erode Western support and domestic Ukrainian morale. Years of close monitoring of not only state-sponsored media such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, but also Russian activity on Telegram, TikTok, X, and other social platforms, points to one conclusion: In the propaganda war, Russia remains fully committed to conducting information operations around the globe, playing the long game to outlast any unity among Ukraine’s allies and persist until Ukraine loses its will to fight.

Western sanctions applied in the wake of the initial invasion disrupted Russia’s ability to reach some European audiences with its state-sponsored media outlets. But Russia has since adjusted its information operations to focus more on social media; in addition to attacking Western public support to fund Ukraine’s defense, it has expanded targeted propaganda efforts in different parts of the world, including Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.

And Western support for Ukraine is indeed wobbling, most notably in Washington, where additional aid to Ukraine has been held up for months in Congress. Many factors influence voters’ and lawmakers’ support for sending weapons and money to Ukraine. Whether or not Russian propaganda has played a decisive role, the outcome of decreasing Western material support for Ukraine’s defense is the clear goal of President Vladimir Putin’s information war. And with recent battlefield wins such as the capture of the city of Avdiivka alongside propaganda wins such as the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s position at home and abroad is stronger than ever.

Russia has actively employed information operations to undermine Ukraine since at least 2014, as Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) researchers around the world have documented in detail through their ongoing monitoring efforts. In the lead-up to the February 2022 invasion, Russia employed disinformation in the form of narrative warfare to justify military action, mask its planning, and deny any responsibility for the war. And as the DFRLab detailed in its landmark February 2023 report, Undermining Ukraine: How the Kremlin employs information operations to erode global confidence in Ukraine, Russia’s information strategy began to shift following the 2022 invasion, focusing on eroding Ukraine’s ability to resist. In this follow-up to the first edition of Undermining Ukraine, we explore how Russia further entrenched these efforts throughout 2023, developing new messages and techniques while recommitting to ones that continue to prove effective.
Russian tactics in 2023

In the second year of its war, faced with international sanctions, a damaged reputation, and the ban of state-sponsored RT and Sputnik in many Western countries, Russia shifted toward more targeted and tailored influence operations, using TikTok, Telegram, and other social platforms to expand its international audience—especially in the Global South, where Russian state media are still big players. Russia also deepened its cooperation in the media and information spheres with sympathetic countries.

Throughout 2023, Russia relied on its rich toolbox for conducting information operations, including employing coordinated inauthentic networks on social media platforms, exploiting regional grievances with the West, hacking, and forging documents, among other tactics. Russia propagated a combination of old and new narratives to undermine Ukraine domestically and internationally, aiming to discredit its reputation with Western partners and neighboring countries. Additionally, Russia has continued to tighten its control over its domestic information space, spread false and misleading narratives to weaken Ukrainian resolve, and present its ongoing case for war via RT and Sputnik, adjusting its messaging to cater to regional audiences, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Russia has also doubled down on eroding cohesion within Ukrainian society.

What do those information operations look like in practice—and how have they affected the targeted countries? Drawing on the long experience and global reach of the DFRLab research team, this report breaks down Russia’s propaganda operations since the start of the full-scale war two years ago, region by region. The case studies that follow shine a light on pro-Kremlin propaganda activities in their various forms, shapes, and approaches.

In Ukraine, Russia over the past year sought to erode the country’s will to resist and sow internal discord by discrediting both the civilian and military leadership. This involved portraying Ukraine as an unreliable ally, amplifying internal conflicts, and launching scam attacks on civil society and ordinary users. For example, the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus established the largest known influence operation on TikTok to disseminate rumors about Ukrainian political corruption.

Internally, Russia also directed its efforts toward controlling domestic audiences, primarily focusing on restricting access to information. Incidents such as the June 2023 Wagner mutiny created a quandary for the Kremlin regarding its tolerance of Telegram, which effectively served as a digital home base for Yevgeny Prigozhin and his fellow mutineers. Ongoing domestic censorship and surveillance measures also persisted, including legislation to curtail virtual private networks (VPNs) used to circumvent online restrictions. Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, the state telecommunications regulator commonly known as Roskomnadzor, also rolled out an internet surveillance system known as Oculus designed to detect content that the Kremlin considers undesirable.

In Europe, Russia disseminated recurring claims asserting that Ukraine sold Western weapons for profit on the international black market, in an attempt to undermine European support for Ukraine. Russia also persisted in promoting the narrative that European Union member states would face hardship during the winter without access to Russian gas, unleashing an extensive online information influence campaign comprised of more than fifty fake websites impersonating reputable European media outlets.

Russian operations were not limited to European countries assisting Ukraine with arms and financial support. DFRLab researchers observed targeted messaging tactics in the South Caucasus and Moldova seemingly with the dual aim of undermining support for Ukraine while dividing societies from within and gaining local influence. For instance, pro-Russian actors capitalized on existing criticisms of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after neighboring Azerbaijan conquered the Armenian ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh; Kremlin officials, propagandists, and influencers on Telegram fueled anti-government sentiment and called for the overthrow of Pashinyan and his government. In Azerbaijan, the Kremlin capitalized on Russian-language influence through academia, exchange courses, and universities while exploiting the country’s lack of independent media outlets. In Georgia, the Georgian Dream-led government expanded its relationship with Russia both politically and economically following the February 2022 invasion, exploiting popular fears of the war escalating into Georgia to further cement the government’s pro-Russia stance. And in Moldova, Russia engaged in energy blackmail and warmongering by amplifying the false narrative that Moldova, Ukraine, or NATO was planning a military intervention in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Russian influence operations rely on its RT and Sputnik media empire and local amplifiers of pro-Kremlin messages and broad anti-West, anti-colonialist sentiments. Russia employs a dual strategy in Africa: an official dimension involving trade, investment, diplomacy, public outreach, defense agreements, and engagements with international organizations, alongside an unofficial and covert aspect using hybrid tools, tactics, and clandestine arms-for-resources trade.

In Latin America, RT and Sputnik serve as conduits for Russian communications, complemented by Russian ambassadors and unaffiliated journalists disseminating pro-Russia propaganda.

While some proclaimed Ukraine the winner of the information war in 2022, it was never that simple, especially in a global context; it is also far from over. If these global case studies make anything clear, it’s that the Kremlin and its supporters are still attempting to shatter Ukraine’s global standing, playing the long game by targeting countries around the world with disinformation and influence campaigns designed to decrease public support and allies’ willingness to send aid.

Russia has a long history of information and influence operations worldwide, making it a formidable opponent constantly seeking to exploit weaknesses or problems within enemy societies. Similarly, Russia abuses the idea of “neutral” media to serve its disinformation alongside reporting of real events, all with an intention to leave viewers with the impression that both versions of events have merit.

By February 2022—if not earlier—the Western world recognized that RT and Sputnik are instruments of Russian propaganda rather than legitimate media sources. However, those media are still popular and influential in parts of Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Moreover, even in the European Union, where those channels are technically blocked, RT circumvents limitations and continues poisoning the media space via smaller mirror sites, effectively “spitting” on Western sanctions. Some channels feature Russian propagandistic content translated into local languages. At the same time, Russia continues using its embassies and diplomats as an extension of its propaganda apparatus, promoting false information, false fact-checking, and conspiracies worldwide. Russia also uses diplomatic events, such as the Russia-Africa Summit, to spread its messages at a more region-specific level.

Russian information and influence operations inside Ukraine and abroad will likely continue to evolve, finding new rifts within societies to deepen and novel approaches to employ. On top of this, 2024 is an election year in dozens of countries where Russia may try to meddle in an effort to push support toward its allies or, at minimum, away from pro-Ukrainian parties. In the least friendly countries, Russia will likely continue to push the idea—through more covert means—that aid to Ukraine is a net loss to those residing in those countries.

Indeed, Russian efforts to date have achieved partial results, like delays in the delivery of military equipment, but they have not stopped Ukraine’s ability to fight back. Ukraine is active in its efforts to counter Russian influence, allotting significant resources to monitoring and pushing back against Russian information operations, and its successes to date might provide the world with some insight into how to counter malign influence.

Given the extent of Russia’s operations and its apparent desire to move global opinion against Ukraine, as detailed in this report, governments around the world—especially those espousing democratic values—need to consider the potential impact of their decisions around Ukraine as also ultimately being global. More assistance and aid to Ukraine will bolster global democracy, while a reduction in the same will undermine not just Ukraine but democracy as a whole.
Russia’s global information war on Ukraine is evolving, and it’s here for the long haul. Check out all six chapters of DFRLab’s report on how Moscow sought to undermine Ukraine in the second year of its full-scale war.

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