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Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert

The Telegram messenger was accessed by 500 million monthly users this year. The main difference between it and other platforms is its anonymity, lack of censorship, and uncontrolled distribution of information. These capabilities quickly became in demand by Kremlin media.

For «packing» and subsequent dissemination of information the Kremlin often uses Telegram channels, which are administered from Russia. Subsequently, this information quickly spreads through networks of interconnected channels and moves into the media.

The top Russian-language political channels for April 2021 include channels from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Of the 20 most popular, 13 are anonymous. This creates an ideal field for promoting Russian narratives and makes Telegram a convenient tool for information campaigns and operations.

At the same time, unlike traditional media, the dissemination of information in Telegram is unlimited and Russian-language materials are actively re-posted in Ukraine and Belarus. This was picked up by the Kremlin and, in parallel with large Russian channels, they run or control networks of smaller regional ones, both in Belarus and in Ukraine.

How the Kremlin learned to control Telegram

Most of the major Telegram channels about politics are controlled either directly from the Kremlin or by Kremlin-adjacent structures and groups of influence. The loyalty of anonymous channels has been the result of focused work and large-scale cash injections. The goal is to try to control the mood over the internet, discredit the opposition, and develop a pro-government agenda.

Some channels were purchased, and the owners of others were intimidated and suppressed. By the time the blocking (April 2018 to June 2020) of Telegram was rescinded the Kremlin had gained full control over the political segment of the service.

Areas of work in Belarus

Having learned to use Telegram for internal needs, the Kremlin is assigning the same methods to influence Belarus. It is possible to trace clear directions of the use of Kremlin-controlled channels relative to Belarus.

Stories are aimed at supporting the idea of the need for deepening integration with Russia; discrediting and splitting the Belarusian protest; creating an image of an enemy from the U.S., EU, and Ukraine; and creating an attitude towards Lukashenko depending on the agenda at a given time.

The latter succeeds especially well, since Lukashenko, who monitors the (primarily Russian) stories of the main Telegram channels, is an excellent target for practicing reflexive methods of control.

After the protests in Belarus changed character due to the threat of physical eradication of participants, Lukashenko’s main task was to clean up the internal political field quickly and totally, so that by the time of even simulated constitutional reform there would be no hint of opposition. The Kremlin immediately took advantage of this, throwing in information about a split among the Belarusian opposition.

It is important for Moscow to take advantage of the situation and obtain from Lukashenko concessions and obligations that it will be impossible to win back, no matter how the political situation in Belarus develops. At the same time, Russia continues to force Belarus to deepen integration and strengthen military cooperation.

The protest potential of Belarusian society and the West’s support for Belarusians’ appeal for democratic changes irritate the Kremlin and force it to operate more actively. Demonstration of a common threat from the West plays into the hands of both Lukashenko and Putin. Moscow uses it to get almost any concessions it wants from Belarus, and Lukashenko uses it to gain a foothold and legalize the destruction of political opponents.

The Kremlin has not yet succeeded in guaranteeing fully controlled leaders and political projects in Belarus that could simultaneously meet the political demands of Belarusians and ensure Russia’s strategic interests in the region. Therefore, Russian propaganda is forced to act selectively at this stage to support and make use of Lukashenko’s legitimacy. At the same time, the idea is being promoted that Lukashenko has remained in power only thanks to Putin and the Kremlin but remains ungrateful.

The Kremlin seeks to play off the creation of an imaginary political competition in Belarus, to form controlled political parties, and at the same time to act to split a possible union of supporters of the Belarusian protest. One of the Kremlin’s methods aimed at imposing its own agenda on Belarusians is to inject information about Lukashenko’s dissatisfaction with Russia and on the beginning of the process of transition of power.

To maintain and strengthen this agenda, the Kremlin uses controlled «leaks,» «insiders,» and «rumors.» This conspiracy is spreading through several large Russian anonymous Telegram channels that set the trend for further stories on channels and media from the pro-Kremlin pool.

How it works

To understand how the information dissemination scheme through Telegram works, we will consider several similar «packings» using the example of popular Telegram channels. We will look at the anonymous Nezygar channel and that of the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow, Aleksey Venediktov, «aavst,» which systematically throw in information supporting the main direction of the Kremlin’s work vis-a-vis Belarus. The Nezygar channel now has 337,000 subscribers and Venediktov has 133,000.

On December 23, 2020, Nezygar wrote: «In government circles in Minsk they say that Lukashenko is leaving the presidency in the spring. Against this background, the Western party will clearly try to seize the initiative.»

«They will try to increase the number of their supporters among MPs and seize the most important posts in government.» For the sake of reliability, the post is supported by a quote from an unnamed source who is close to «government circles.»

The photo shows a typical message with a link to unnamed sources on the Nezygar Telegram channel

On February 17, Nezygar writes: «Minsk is reporting that Lukashenko’s team is preparing an ‘alternate airfield’ in the West. Bargaining is taking place for the conditions of care in exchange for the interests of the Family. The Vatican could become the guarantor of compliance with agreements.»

On February 23, Nezygar published a message saying that «in Belarus, the ‘Yeltsin scenario’ for the transition of power may be chosen.» With reference to several sources both in Russia and in Belarus, it is reported that, «Lukashenko in Sochi asked for another six months to complete the «transition of power.» Moscow will act as a guarantor of compliance with the agreements during the «transition.» «Lukashenko must hold a meeting with the opposition before May 1, including with Coordination Council members Latushko and Tikhanovskaya, Babariko and Kolesnikova should be released by April 15.»

As we see, the events taking place confirm the opposite development of the situation. Nezygar’s prediction about Lukashenko’s meeting with Latushko and Tikhanovskaya before May 1 is unlikely to come true. Rather the opposite since the regime accused the protest leaders of terrorism.

In the last month, no discussions of the situation in Belarus happened without mentioning Aleksey Venediktov’s prediction about a certain turning point on May 1. On March 25, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow on his channel «aavst» published a sensational story about Lukashenko and the opposition holding talks with the participation of the OSCE and the U.S. Venediktov refers to a telephone conversation between U.S. State Department adviser Derek Chollet and Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. According to Venediktov, during this conversation the terms and conditions of negotiations between the opposition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and the Belarusian authorities were discussed.

The original post received 90,000 views on the channel itself and was widely disseminated through other media and Telegram channels, including Nezygar. This led not only to the viral dissemination of Venediktov’s «insider information,» but also to the fact that close political observers were busy discussing whether this was true and whether Lukashenko would meet with the opposition.

Even the most implausible information, deliberately «leaked» onto a large Telegram channel, becomes widespread and sets the direction for the information agenda.

On April 9, Nezygar supported the issue of the imminent transfer of power and reported that «Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters is preparing for negotiations with Lukashenko.» Now, however, the deadline has been postponed, and it was specified that «the process will drag on until October.» Germany is lobbying the talks this time, but Makei, who is again actively involved, «promised the opposition the release of political prisoners, registration of parties, fair elections to local councils, and the closing of criminal cases against opposition leaders. In return, Tikhanovskaya must recognize Lukashenko as the winner of the elections.»

On April 21, before Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, Nezygar published a poll asking «What will be in the President’s message?» with multiple responses – «integration with the DPR and LPR,» «integration with Belarus,» «a last warning to the West» – which fully supports the Kremlin’s pumping of information both on the eve of Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly and before the Lukashenko-Putin meeting on April 22.

The photo shows a poll on the Telegram channel Nezygar, launched on the eve of Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly on April 21

This systemic information «packing» is designed to instill in Belarusians the belief that Russia is controlling political changes in Belarus and is a determining factor in the internal policy of Belarus, regardless of who is the leader.

Attempts to split the protest movement

Using controlled channels on Telegram, the Kremlin is also seeking to create a negative image of the leaders of the Belarusian protest and create a split between the main groups. This process is fueled informationally by the actions of the Belarusian security forces. In addition to trying to portray the leaders of the protest as terrorists, Russian propagandists use the following techniques:

  • publish materials about people who supposedly will make actual decisions under the formal leadership of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya;
  • toss in information about the split in the protest movement, using for this, among other things, the fact of Latushko and Babariko creating their own political parties;
  • disseminate information about the proximity of the leaders of the protest to top officials from Lukashenko’s circle, specifically the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Makei;
  • accuse Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s partner organizations and those close to her of cooperating with all kinds of special services.

An example was the campaign aimed at discrediting the unity of the Belarusian protest, namely about the existence of conflict between Pavel Latushko and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, which began in the fall of 2020. On November 4, Nezygar writes that «the Belarusian opposition has split into two camps. One center was formed in Lithuania headed by Tikhanovskaya under the supervision of CIA agent Franak Viacorka. In Warsaw, the former Minister of Culture Pavel Latushko is heading the government in exile and Valery Tsepkalo was appointed the shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs.»

On December 23, Nezygar, referring to the GopSelMash Telegram channel, published a post saying that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Makei «turned out to be a «petri dish» for raising oppositionists» and that «some of the main opposition figures – Tsepkalo and Latushko – are suddenly working as ambassadors.» It is worth noting that this channel with 618 subscribers had a post that garnered 80,000 views.

On February 5, Nezygar again reposted an article by GopSelMash, in which former Prime Minister of Belarus Sergei Rumas was named «among the leaders of the «government of the transition period.» «They say that Tikhanovskaya will be the symbolic head and Rumas will be the real head of the government. The ex-prime minister was also named among the leaders of the «government in transition.» This post also received over 78,000 views.

An analysis of the content and focus of Telegram channels shows that the Kremlin uses them, along with other media, to conduct information operations in Belarus. Their main task is to curb protest movements, discredit the opposition, and help Lukashenko to clean up the political field in Belarus, while simultaneously putting pressure on him to realize necessary integration concessions.

Introducing multidirectional messages and narratives into the information field leads to the creation of controlled chaos. And this is the most advantageous situation for the Kremlin, because then it becomes much easier to impose its agenda on Minsk. This also applies to deepening integration with Russia and in justifying the need to strengthen the military presence of Russia in Belarus, in addition to the creation and use of political projects controlled by the Kremlin.

Source: iSANS


Yevhen Mahda, Institute of World Policy, expert of the European Expert Association

The Russian government sees the coronavirus pandemic not only as a challenge but also as an opportunity to increase their influence within the post-Soviet countries. The territory of the former USSR in the Kremlin is considered a zone of its own exclusive interests, so they decided to use the crisis situation totheir own benefit.

Currently in the world there is no substantiated version of the origins of COVID-19, but the scale of the pandemic (on 26th June 2020, the number of infected people across the globe crossed the 10 million mark ) allows us to note a number of features faced by mankind. Including:

  • Destruction of the usual views of the world, which creates despair and panic among the majority of people.
  • The unexpected nature of the new challenges that stimulate the spread of conspiracy and fear. The seeds of populism, abundantly sown in Ukraine and other countries, are quickly sprouting.
  • There is a noticeable slowdown in global economic development, which has already been hit by the unprecedentedly strong recession in the last decade. Although the IMF and the World Bank predict a rapid recovery for the global economy to pre-pandemic levels in the next year, for many countries with unstable economies, these pre and post-pandemic shocks could be fatal.
  • There is no universal treatment protocol against COVID-19. Along with the lack of effective drugs against coronavirus and a vaccine that would prevent infection, the lack of an effective treatment for coronavirus causes increased social tension.
  • Restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens are perceived as an appropriate method to fight the spread of coronavirus. This is because the pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and the Chinese government has used numerous tools to isolate citizens to reduce the spread of the disease.
  • Some world leaders are sick and now the majority are in self-isolation mode. As a result of the coronavirus infection, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care. The wives of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have contracted COVID-19. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza died of the effects of coronavirus a few weeks before his term ended.

The reality of coronavirus undermines the fundamental foundations of democracy and creates opportunities to restrict the rights and freedoms of citizens under the aegis of protecting their health. Democratic procedures are also under attack: the dates of the parliamentary elections in North Macedonia have been postponed. The ange of the date of the presidential campaign in Poland significantly changed its picture. Coronavirus in the United States not only destroyed the economic achievements of the Trump administration, but also became an unexpected third player in the presidential election.

The situation in the world information space can be described as infodemia — the active dissemination of unverified information, fakes, manipulations, which exacerbate the negative impact of coronavirus on democratic societies. The beneficiaries of this process are Russia and China, whose leaders do not depend on the results of the democratic will of their citizens.

Prior to the analysis of the pandemic-related disinformation campaign of Russia against Ukraine, it is necessary to take into consideration the post-Soviet matrix of the various impacts of this misinformation, caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It has derived from the global problems and fears, which are being exacerbated due to poor institutions. I would like to point out that the unexpected nature of the challenges that have been caused by the pandemic have intensely stimulated the spread of conspiracy fears even in societies with strong democratic traditions. I must note the ever-increasing use of social networks and various instant messengers as sources of information. They compete with traditional media, used in particular, by the Russian Federation, which has recently spread the practice of using anonymous telegram channels in Ukraine.

So, speaking about the general components of this kind of mandatory misinformation in Ukrainian society against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to pay attention to the following points: Sources of the origin of the coronavirus — and the lack of information on this topic caused the spread of fakes within the borders of the Eastern Partnership countries. It is significant to note, that Russian media began broadcasting his misinformation back in January 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was spread mainly in China. One example of this misinformation was the claim that American laboratories, aimed at countering bacteriological weapons, allegedly may be related to the spread of coronavirus in the post-Soviet space.

The influence of George Soros/Bill Gates on the emergence of coronavirus
The billionaire and philanthropist George Soros has been hated in the Kremlin for a long time, because of his concept of an “open society” which is contrary to the matrix of “sovereign democracy,” which Vladimir Putin relies on even after the resignation of his adviser Vladislav Surkov.

It is no wonder that pro-Russian media are vigorously demonizing Soros in the post-Soviet space. Another target during the pandemic was another billionaire — Bill Gates, against whom the Russian propaganda machine re-interpreted a 2015 statement, Where Gates’ stated that an infectious virus was a greater risk to humanity than nuclear war. Five years later, in just a few months, more than a million messages appeared on the Internet that linked Bill Gates to the coronavirus outbreak.

Another allegation is that coronavirus was spread thanks to 5G towers. The wide coverage of the post-Soviet space with this fake can be primarily explained by the lack of critical thinking, which is, sadly, a common happenstance for its inhabitants. It is easy to find information about the countries where 5G communication networks have been begun to be deployed, among them you will not find Russia, Ukraine or other post-Soviet states, except the Baltic countries, although Tthe latter countries state that they do not belong to the post-Soviet space. So, the thesis about the possibility of “mass chip implantation through a 5G network”, due to its obvious manipulative character, could be easily refuted.

Ineffectiveness of quarantine restrictions

The promotion of this topic is directly related to the desire to demonstrate the weakness of the internal structure of restrictions. This also includes messages that constitute a deliberate exaggeration of the impact of the pandemic and mortality rates.

It is necessary to pay attention to the main preconditions for the dissemination of contradictory information about the coronavirus in Ukraine:

  • The existence of the myth of the lexical affinity of Russian and Ukrainian, which is fueled by the low level of proficiency in English and other languages of the European Union. In an environment where the pandemic significantly increases feelings of anxiety, many recipients of information seek it in a language they know best.
  • Weak dissemination of critical thinking, which makes Ukrainian society more vulnerable to various manifestations of misinformation.
  • European researchers in 2017 found that fakes spread six times faster than the usual news. It would be logical to assume that the turbulence of public sentiment is accelerating the spread of coronavirus fakes.

Before analysing the manifestations of Russian propaganda in Ukraine related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth noting an interesting fact. On 11th March, the hHead of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak and the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation Dmitry Kozak initialed a protocol on the creation of an advisory council at the Tripartite Contact Group, which would include representatives of the so-called DPR and LPR. Objectively, this could have led to a transition to direct talks between official Kyiv and these Russian puppet states, but the quarantine caused by the coronavirus forced the abandonment of the plan, at least temporarily.

At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the peculiarities of promoting only Russian propaganda messages related to the coronavirus:

  • In March 2020, Vadym Rabynovych, co-chairman of the Opposition Platform for Life party, stated that “Ukraine has been supplying our specialists to the EU for six years, and today it cannot get anything from them”.
  • The representative of “OPZZh” Renat Kuzmin paid a lot of attention to the functioning of “secret American bacteriological laboratories in Ukraine”, his efforts were supported also by the head of political council of the party, Victor Medvedchuk.
  • Andriy Palchevsky, who experts consider a probable candidate from the pro-Russian forces for the role of mayor of Kyiv, said in April 2020 that the authorities are deceiving Ukrainians because we have 100 times more patients than the authorities report. Palchevsky did not provide objective confirmation of his words.
  • In April 2020, the publication with the pro-Russian paper “Vesti” distributed a fake list of addresses of the capital’s houses where the coronavirus was allegedly found. The SBU denied this information.
  • In Ukraine, the message of the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moldova on the procession against the forced vaccination against COVID-19 was also published. Earlier, a procession was held in Vinnytsia to fight the coronavirus. However, it should be noted that the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv laurels of the UOC-MP turned out to be foci of coronavirus infection.

Finally, I would like to identify a number of measures that will ensure effective information vaccination against coronavirus in both Ukraine and countries in transition, many of which are in the post-Soviet space:

Take account of the national specifics of information perception. Although Russian television channels are banned from broadcasting in Ukraine, a number of television channels with formal Ukrainian registration actually broadcast Russian messages. In the context of latent destabilization of the situation caused by the pandemic, this trend is alarming.

Maximum efficiency of response to calls. The daily information of the Ministry of Health about the number of detected patients with coronavirus is objectively insufficient. Volodymyr Zelensky’s video appeals have not been an effective communication source with fellow citizens.

Submission of information “in one voice”. Unfortunately, after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as President of Ukraine, the “One Voice” program for the executive branch was curtailed. The deployment of this program in the situation of coronavirus seems problematic. The lack of a “single voice” has led to growing distrust of government messages on both the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and domestic politics in general.

Increase speeches of VIP-speakers. The decline in the authority of the Ukrainian government to be listened to makes it impossible to use this step effectively, but it should be taken into account given the indefinite duration of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be recalled that there will be a probable second wave of coronavirus and a long period of uncertainty before the invention of the vaccine against COVID-19.

Thus, the task for the reformatted Ministry of Culture and information policy is the formation of a message box of government officials on the subject of coronavirus.

Case-studies for typical misinformation: Ukraine’s presence on the front line of a hybrid war against Russia presupposes the Kremlin’s active information activities in various spheres, among which the coronavirus pandemic is one of the main ones. It seems logical for Ukraine to try to systematise the experience of counteraction and broadcast it in the interests of other states, first of all GUAM partners and representatives of the European Union. It will not be superfluous to establish a dialogue on this topic with Belarus, despite the use of various models of combating the coronavirus at the state level.

Show “Light at the end of the tunnel”. The instability of the coronavirus pandemic situation requires decisive and resonant steps from the Ukrainian authorities. Lack of financial capacity should push the government to asymmetric actions and the further consolidation of society.

Source: DCN


Maria Awdiejewa, dyrektorka z badań Europejskiego Stowarzyszeniya Ekspertów, ekspertka sieci iSANS
Jurij Panczenko, redaktor "Europejska prawda"

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