Welcome to the first ever edition of the Dumb Russia newsletter, a weekly – sometimes bi-weekly when events require it – examination of the propaganda, disinformation and general nonsense about the war in Ukraine that emanates from the Kremlin and its supporters across Europe and the US.
And that’s just for starters – here at Dumb Russia we know the most informed, most experienced and most important people you can hear from are Ukrainians themselves so we’ll also be chatting to and introducing a few every week. We’re also in touch with a number of Russians currently in Russia who will be giving us – anonymously for obvious reasons – an insight into the mood inside the country.
This week’s edition focuses on the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.
What do we know for certain?
On the 6th September Ukraine began a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region a week after launching another, far more publicised, counteroffensive in the Kherson region.
Having moved significant manpower from the Kharkiv region to counter attacks around Kherson, Ukrainian forces were able to make huge advances and by 14th September had retaken at least 6,000 sq km (2,317 sq miles) of territory including the strategically important city of Izyum.
As of 20 September, the counteroffensive was still ongoing and Ukraine was reported to have liberated the first village in the Luhansk region of the country.
Ukraine’s audacious plan was formulated with the assistance of US and UK intelligence and battle planners and surpassed expectations.
According to multiple pictures and videos of masses of abandoned equipment as well as witness reports, Russian forces fled much of the front in a hasty and disorganised retreat suffering, among other things, the “severe degradation” of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army.
How has Russia tried to spin the defeat?
As is became apparent just successful Ukraine’s counteroffensive was, the Kremlin was largely silent with the Russian Ministry of Defence issuing a statement saying its forces were “regrouping” to “achieve their stated goals”.
This left an information void which allowed other voices to set the narrative of the reaction and even normally unflappable state TV guests hosts showed signs of panic.
One of the more surprising outcomes, and an indicator of just how badly things were going for Russia, was the reaction of nationalist milbloggers who for the first time began to criticise Putin himself (Foreign Policy has a good piece here).
Yet by Friday 16th September it was very clear Putin’s strategy was very much one of “this is fine”.
At a news conference on Friday following a visit to Uzbekistan, he said: “Despite the Ukrainian army’s attempts to counterattack, our offensive operations in Donbass itself do not stop. They are going on.
“They are moving at a slow pace, but systematically and gradually. The Russian army is taking ever more territories step by step."
“The plan is not subject to adjustment,” he said, adding the main goal “is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbass. This work continues”.
Almost as if that whole “let’s take Kyiv in three days” thing never happened…
Yet this image of everything going to plan was slightly shattered on Wednesday morning when Putin announced a partial mobilisation in Russia and threatened to use nuclear weapons, in a rambling speech that was mostly characterised by contradicting actual reality (we’ll address this further in a future edition).
The view from inside Russia
Each week Dumb Russia will bring you a glimpse into how events in Ukraine are being covered in the media and a flavour of how it is being received by Russians on the street. This week we hear from Anastasia, a pseudonym as airing views critical of the “special military operation” can land you in prison.
“The Ukrainian counteroffensive was covered in Russia with restraint. Military reports faded into the background on the media agenda for obvious reasons. The main news topics were the Eastern Economic Forum, preparations for the September elections, a series of searches of journalists and activists across Russia, and high-profile court cases. The actions of the Ukrainian army were widely covered by independent media, bur almost all of them are blocked by Roskomnadzor [the state agency responsible for censorship]. Therefore, news from TV and newspapers did not have a strong effect on Russians.
“I would say that the very discussion of the war in Ukraine has already lost its former intensity. Rigid censorship everywhere. And the inhabitants of the regions of Russia are afraid to be involved in the war, they are afraid of mobilisation, especially after the statement of the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. He said that the regions should carry out self-mobilization, train an additional thousand volunteers into battle. This statement shocked the heads of the regions. The losses of the Russian army are growing, there are practically no volunteers left, and here we need to find another thousand.
“In the Russian social networks Vkontakte or Odnoklassniki, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was also not widely reported. One of the available channels of information for Russians is Telegram, although it is also unsafe. I am subscribed to different telegram channels. I see that the intensity of the pro-Russian commentators has fallen. People are tired of war. Statements by Russian leaders no longer look so convincing and inspiring. People want it to be over. Because the war turned into Russophobia, but it was not started by Russians. Vladimir Putin started the war.”
What about the Putin’s supporters in the West?
Given that even the most ardent of Russian nationalists have been pouring criticism on Putin for the defeat in Kharkiv, western tankies have surpassed themselves with their utmost dedication to trying everything possible not to pin the blame on the Kremlin and spin a massive defeat into a victory for Russia.
There were a few different approaches including…
“It was a trap!”
“Actually, fighting back against an invader is ‘escalation’ and should be avoided.’
“It’s irrelevant because Ukraine is just a pawn being used by the US to overthrow Putin.”
A Ukrainian Responds
At this point every week we’ll hand over to our friends at Ukrainians Respond to Dumb Takes who, well, do exactly what their name suggests.
This week features Ukrainian MP Oleksandr Merezhko who is also the head of the Committee on Foreign Policy. He was asked what he thought of this take from US pundit Scott Ritter who said the counteroffensive changed nothing and Russia’s victory was an “absolute guarantee”.
Here’s Merezhko’s response…
Merezhko was also asked what he thought of Max Blumenthal’s take mentioned above.
He said: “I don't understand why Blumenthal is putting forward this ridiculous argument which doesn't correspond to reality. This is such absurd, illogical and conspiratorial theory because the truth is we are fighting for our survival and for our sovereignty, security and territorial integrity – this is the goal. We don't intend, at least at the moment, to bring about a change in Putin's regime or anything like that. At the moment it's not our goal, we're trying to survive and we're trying to restore our territorial integrity.”
While you’re here…
Dumb Russia is currently free but a lot of work went into this issue so if you found it useful and want to help support our work you can leave us a little tip here.
Each week Dumb Russia will profile a Ukrainian organisation or individual engaged in the fight against Russian disinformation and propaganda. For our inaugural edition, we would like you to meet the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC) and Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (HWAG).
They told Dumb Russia: “[We were] created in 2014 in the spirit of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity as a response to Russian aggression. UCMC’s mission is to defend and promote Ukraine’s sovereignty and national interests in the global information space and to create an international strategic communications hub. The UCMC activity is focused on exemplary governmental communications reform projects, full-media support to large foreign aid initiatives, in-depth work with regional journalists, communication of ongoing reforms, cultural events and happenings, youth media literacy, and complex analysis of disinformation acts in the media space. The Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group (HWAG) is a UCMC department, which works to identify, counteract, forecast, and develop solutions to information threats from the Russian Federation as part of the Russian war against Ukraine.”
The UCMC produces a regular summary of the key narratives in Russian propaganda and they’ve kindly shared their findings from the last week:
A powerful information campaign aimed to undermine the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian military, portraying it as a “part of Russian plan”. Such a tactic is accompanied by the demonisation of the Ukrainian government and blaming the latter for “deliberately exposing the Ukrainian army to huge losses” in order to “please Western curators.”
Spreading the narrative about the “unsuccessful” counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which was “poorly planned in the UK” and “doomed to failure”.
Promoting the messages about “low morale”, “surrender to Russians” and “desertion” in the ranks of the Ukrainian army, and comparing Ukrainian troops with “terrorists”.
Disseminating the narrative about Poland preparing for the occupation of Halychyna (western part of Ukraine, bordering Poland). While Poland remains one of the staunchest allies of Ukraine in Europe, such rhetoric is aimed to undermine the Ukrainian-Polish partnership and incite hatred toward Poles.
Inside Izyum – and the Russian command centre destroyed by Himars missiles, in The Telegraph.
The Critical Moment Behind Ukraine’s Rapid Advance in The New York Times
Ukrainians overjoyed at the success of their soldiers ‘who are really kicking the Russians’ asses’, in The i Paper.
How the pro-Putin West is Coping with Russian Defeat on Ukraine, in New Lines Magazine.
What Would a Ukraine Victory Look Like? in The New Yorker.
The mass grave at Izyum.
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