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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Efrem Lukatsky/PA A dog runs by a destroyed houses and Russian military vehicles in Bucha
# disinformation
'Staged' corpses and blame for Ukraine: How Russia has tried to sow doubt about deaths in Bucha
The EU is set to investigate possible war crimes in the town.

OVER THE WEEKEND, international journalists who arrived in the Ukrainian town of Bucha reported on the appearance of civilian corpses scattered throughout its streets.

The town, a north-western suburb of Kyiv, was closed off to the world for almost a month after Russian forces took control of the area following their invasion of Ukraine in February.

Ukrainian forces regained control of Bucha last week, but the scale of devastation and violence in the town only became apparent on Saturday when the AFP news agency reported on civilian bodies lying in the streets, some of whom had their hands tied behind their back.

Images from Bucha spread like wildfire on social media on Saturday night, and officials in the town later claimed that hundreds of bodies had been dumped in mass graves and that remains of “entire families” were still in their shot-up vehicles.

It is still not known exactly what happened to those whose bodies were seen by AFP and other media in Bucha, and their causes of death have yet to be verified.

The EU announced today that it is setting up an investigation team to collect evidence and investigate possible war crimes in the town and elsewhere in Ukraine.

Yet Russia, which has attempted to sow disinformation about what is happening in Ukraine since before the war began, has strongly pushed back on the reports emerging from Bucha.

In recent days, Russian embassy and government accounts on Twitter and the messaging app Telegram have claimed that images which show dead bodies are “staged” and part of a concerted media campaign to garner sympathy from the West.

The Russian Defence Ministry in particular has posted a series of messages on Telegram attempting to portray the scenes from Bucha as false and to discredit western media reports from the town.

The first of these appeared on Sunday afternoon, when the ministry shared a video from Bucha – originally posted by Ukraine’s defence ministry – accompanied by text in the format of a short fact-check to its Telegram channel.

It purported to show how the dead bodies in the video were actually living Ukrainian actors, using ‘evidence’ from two stills which showed a body ‘moving’ at two points when the video was slowed down.

Here’s a version of the video that was posted on Telegram, re-shared by another account on Twitter (warning: graphic content):

“The video of the bodies is confusing: here at the 12th second the ‘corpse’ on the right is moving his arm,” Russia’s defence ministry said.

“At 30th second in the rear view mirror the ‘corpse’ sits down. The bodies in the video seem to have been deliberately laid out to create a more dramatic picture. This is easily seen if you play the video at 0.25 of normal speed.”

The post further alleged that the hoax was a pretext for Ukraine to request weapons from Western countries and asked why stories about Bucha only appeared on 2 April even though Russian troops left the city on 30 March.

“Their absence only confirms the fake,” it added.

However, these claims were quickly debunked by fact-checkers and open-source investigation websites.

Conflict investigation group Aurora Intel showed how the ‘movement’ in the first part of the clip was caused by a raindrop on the windscreen of the vehicle from which the original clip was taken.

The group altered the colours in the clip shared by Russia to show this more clearly (warning: graphic content):

The second part of Russia’s claim, which suggested that a body could be seen moving a wing mirror, was also debunked by the BBC.

They slowed down that part of the clip and revealed how buildings in the background of the wing mirror were also distorted in the wing mirror and appeared to be moving because of the way videos are compressed when they are posted on social media.

BBC reporter Shayan Sardarizadeh also explained that the dead civilians who Russia claimed to have been actors were photographed by AFP’s Sergei Supinsky. Images of them from a different angle can be seen here (warning: graphic content).

And videos from Bucha shared on social media as early as 1 April show bodies strewn on the streets of the town before the date Russia claimed they appeared, 2 April.

‘Another provocation’

But as the focus on the situation in Bucha has continued, so have Russian efforts to spin the narrative around what has happened there.

Russia’s claims have become more broad and moved beyond attempts to undermine specific evidence like the video above, which was shared by the country’s government officials and even into the Telegram channel its Irish embassy.

What is now emerging is a stream of messages from the Russian state which centre on two key themes: that Ukrainian forces are responsible for the deaths and that the claims are a hoax to drum up Western support for Ukraine. 

The first of these came last night, when Russia’s foreign affairs ministry described allegations of crimes against civilians as “just another provocation”.

This time, the ministry said that “not a single local resident… suffered from any violent action” during the period that Russian forces were in charge in the town.

Russia has repeatedly emphasised that it left Bucha on 30 March, three days before the first reports from the town emerged. 

In an attempt to deflect blame for civilian deaths, it has said that Ukraine forces shelled the town while it was occupied and that evidence about the deaths of locals in Bucha only emerged when native forces and local media arrived in the town at the weekend. 

“It is of particular worry that all the bodies of the people whose images have been published by the Kiev regime are not stiffened after at least four days, have no typical cadaver stains, and the wounds contain unconsumed blood,” the foreign affairs ministry said.

“All this confirms conclusively that the photos and video footage from Bucha are another production by the Kiev regime for the Western media.”

The blame on Ukraine, denial of Russian culpability and allegations of a hoax were repeated by Russian ambassador to Ireland Yuri Filatov this evening.

In a statement, Filatov said that “there are no facts” to prove his country’s forces were responsible for what happened in the town and that media reports from Bucha are part of a “disinformation war”.

“There are numerous independent assessments of these reports, which indicate its staged nature,” Filatov said, though he did not elaborate on who carried out these assessments.

“That in itself should be a subject of a discussion at the highest political level internationally.”

In other statements on Bucha, Russia has also mentioned the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, which caused similar outrage internationally but which Russia likewise claimed was a hoax.

One video about Bucha posted on a Russian State Twitter feed showed an image of Marianna Vishegirskaya, a Ukrainian influencer who was caught up in the Mariupol bombing and who was targeted by a disinformation campaign that tried to ‘disprove’ the attack.

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By doing this, Russia is seeking to undermine the credibility of the west by claiming that both events are fabrications of Western media. 

‘No experts’

All of this is an attempt to play on the freshness of images emerging from Bucha and the lack of information about how the people whose bodies can be seen in the town’s streets met their deaths.

This afternoon, Russian foreign affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova ironically accused foreign ministers and heads of state of making statements “based exclusively on video footage that is less than one minute long and a few images”.

“This is enough for them to lay the whole blame on us. There were no experts on site, they did not receive any other information,” she told state television channel Russia 1.

The current lack of evidence over the killings allows Russia to claim that Ukrainian forces are responsible for the deaths in Bucha (as unlikely as it is that Ukraine would kill its own freshly liberated citizens).

In yet another post on Telegram today, the Russian ministry for foreign affairs – citing disinformation website WarOnFakes – repeated the claim that Russian troops left Bucha on 30 March and asked why its mayor did not mention atrocities in a video the next day.

WarOnFakes has repeatedly been used by Russian state ministries to spread pro-Russian disinformation, and is based in Moscow. 

“So where did the corpses on the streets of Bucha come from – and who are these people?” the foreign affairs ministry asked on Telegram.

“The answer may lie in the video of the territorial defense of Ukraine, which clearly states the question ‘Can I shoot at them if there are no blue armbands?’ to which a positive answer follows.”

But the small amount of information emerging from Bucha already suggests that Russia is responsible and that it has executed at least some citizens.  

The international NGO Human Rights Watch is one of those which says it has documented an instance of Russian forces executing male civilians in the town, though once again it is important that this has yet to be verified.

Meanwhile, reporters with the Economist say they have verified reports of what appear to be summary executions, and that the smell from the decomposing bodies they saw suggests they had been there for some time.

Of course, it may be some time before enough evidence is gathered and any claims of war crimes in Bucha – including the execution of civilians – can be properly stood up.

But Russia’s denials about what happened there will no doubt continue, and potentially play a part in the next chapter of its disinformation campaign, when further reports from its horrific actions in Ukraine emerge.