As horrific evidence of the execution of civilians emerged from the Ukrainian town of Bucha and elsewhere this weekend, the Russian government adopted a familiar tactic: deny, deny, deny.
Never mind that some of the explanations are contradictory, with state television amplifying claims that footage of civilian deaths in Bucha was both staged and that the civilians were killed by the Ukrainians themselves.
Over the past few years, the Russian government has developed a familiar handbook in response to allegations of bombings in Syria, the downing of the MH17 airliner in eastern Ukraine, the Salisbury poisonings or acts of violence targeting Chechen civilians during conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s.
“I think it’s similar to how it was with shocking news from Aleppo or Idlib – meaning state-sponsored media are always ready to deny allegations of crimes of war by calling them ‘fake’,” said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
“But until recently, the country still had some independent media outlets and now there are hardly any.”
The aggressive debunking of “counterfeits” has become a key part of the Russian propaganda war in Ukraine.
On Monday, the government said it would open an investigation into the events in Bucha – not into the alleged war crimes that took place as more than 280 people were killed in the small town, but into the distribution of ” fake” to discredit the Russian Army.
And government agencies and TV hosts must point fingers in all directions – except at the Kremlin.
Quick denials and alternative theories sound like a crisis PR agency. Speed and brashness are valued above all else.
“The behavior of the government…has changed over the years,” said Ilya Shepelin, a reporter for the banned Rain TV channel, who has reported extensively on Russian news agencies and disinformation. “Ten years ago it would have been easier to keep quiet about an event like Bucha and pretend nothing was happening, then slowly start talking about it.”
But with the advent of the Internet and the availability of information on Telegram channels, pretending that nothing happened has become more difficult.
And in this case, it is important to cover the tracks as quickly as possible, even if the result is somewhat inconsistent.
“Now, immediately, you have to say that everything is staged, everything is made up. And if it’s not all staged and made up, then we’re not guilty of it,” he said. “These two ideas are contradictory… but the most important thing is to fight back on all fronts. And I hope that one of them will be captivated by the public.
Watch Russian TV and that’s what you’ll see.
On Sunday evening, Vladimir Soloviev, one of Russia’s leading TV hosts, told millions of listeners that “the war against us has entered a new phase. They lead us into the Yugoslav scenario. Now they are going to concoct the scenario of a Srebrenica. We will soon be accused of genocide. He also accused the British of being behind the “provocation”.
Another popular discussion topic, noted by Francis Scarr of BBC Monitoring, is that the city of Bucha was chosen as a place of provocation for its resemblance to the word “butcher”. Days earlier, a host noted, Biden had called Putin a “butcher.”
And while these accounts played out in front of millions of Russians on television, state investigators warned that anyone spreading independent information about Bucha could face up to 15 years in prison.
“The perjury spread by the Ukrainian side is another provocation, a cynical lie and is aimed at discrediting the Russian military under the conditions of the information and propaganda war unleashed by the West,” the Russian prosecutor general said. “The circumstances of the creation and public dissemination of this deliberately false information under the guise of reliable reports will be established, and they will certainly be subject to an appropriate criminal evaluation.”