WASHINGTON — Since before the war, Russia has spread disinformation about its need to stamp out Nazism in Ukraine. But in recent days, Moscow’s propaganda has shifted, arguing that it is battling terrorism and falsely accusing Ukraine of planning a dirty bomb attack as part of that narrative.
The new propaganda, spread on social media and in the news, also includes unsupported allegations that the Ukrainian government intends to destroy a dam in its own territory, according to European and American government officials and independent researchers.
The push is meant to shore up Russian support for the war but also to denigrate Ukraine in the West, potentially softening support for more arms shipments to Kyiv, officials and researchers say.
“They seem to have decided on a talking point that this is a counterterrorism operation now,” said Kyle Walter, who leads the U.S. investigation team at Logically, a tech start-up that helps governments and businesses counter disinformation. “Rather than framing this as something that’s anti-Nazi or anti-Satanist, you now have a concerted effort to frame it as a counterterrorism operation.”
The counterterrorism narratives, according to American officials, are part of a wider propaganda web, all aimed at making Russians feel more involved in the war.
The Kremlin, which has begun calling its fight in Ukraine the people’s war, is trying to convince its public that the conflict is not a war of choice for Moscow, but an existential fight to save the country. Russian officials have used the disinformation about dirty bomb attacks to highlight other attacks inside Russia by Ukraine, and stoke anger toward Ukraine with the Russian people, according to American and European officials.
On Wednesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia repeated the unfounded claim that Ukraine’s government was plotting a dirty bomb attack. The accusation came as Russia started its annual nuclear military exercises, but U.S. officials said those drills appeared routine and included all of the usual notifications.
The information operations do not appear to have swayed public opinion in the West, but social media posts on the possibility of a dirty bomb attack have gained traction in Russia.
FilterLabs, a firm that tracks public sentiment in Russia and elsewhere, noted a surge this week in discussions about nuclear terrorism by Ukraine. Russians have equated Ukraine’s plans with Osama bin Laden’s threats against the United States and say Washington should end its support of Ukraine.
Russia’s claims that Ukraine is using terrorist tactics are not new; even narratives comparing Ukraine to bin Laden have been discussed in Russia since August. But the intensity of the discussions increased this week, said Jonathan Teubner, the chief executive of FilterLabs.
Oct. 26, 2022, 3:40 p.m. ET
“The sources of the narrative are mostly Kremlin-aligned sites,” Mr. Teubner said. “But it is being repeated by some independent outlets who are attempting to refute it.”
Even before the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, made the dirty bomb accusation in public this weekend, the Russian news media had discussed the possibility that Ukraine could start a nuclear conflict.
By framing Ukraine as the potential nuclear aggressor, Russia can ratchet up tensions without incurring the wrath of its population or further undermining support for Mr. Putin.
Using disinformation and propaganda is an important part of Mr. Putin’s playbook. Before the invasion, Moscow began pushing a variety of false narratives about Ukraine. Researchers at Logically and other firms tracked an increase in accusations that Ukrainians were Nazis and were planning a genocide against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. officials said some of the accusations Russia leveled at Ukraine in social media before the war, such as that Kyiv was planning a chemical attack, were part of a ploy to create a false pretext for an invasion.
Now, U.S. officials are divided over whether Russia actually believes Ukraine intends to conduct a terrorism campaign, including use of a dirty bomb, or if the propaganda push is purely an excuse to justify tougher action.
Some American officials said that given other covert Ukrainian action, like the car bomb attack that killed the daughter of a prominent Russian ultranationalist and the strike against a bridge to Crimea, Russian officials have convinced themselves, potentially based on faulty intelligence, that Ukraine has a dirty bomb.
And the Russian news media has spread disinformation about a dirty bomb attack while discussing actual Ukrainian actions, such as the bridge strike, the car bomb and attacks against arms depots in Crimea and Russia.
“You can zero in on the dirty bombs specifically, but I think it represents a wider trend that’s pretty cohesive in recent weeks,” said Mr. Walter, the investigator at Logically. “Which is the idea that Russia is pushing that Ukraine is a terrorist state.”