On the main avenue of Kozacha Lopan, near the City Hall, a black poplar tree stands between the bombed out buildings charred by the explosions. It’s big, the biggest tree in the whole street. And every time they pass him one of the few remaining inhabitants of the city looks at him with bated breath.
There doesn’t seem to be anything special about the tree that warrants those looks of attention. Nothing is extraordinary, until you get closer to a few meters. It is then that you see that, instead of leaves and branches, several mobile phones sprout from its bark.
They are very basic terminals, the kind that are only used to call and send SMS, and are screwed to the trunk of the poplar tree with huge rings that the autumn rain has rusted. russian soldiers who occupied Kozacha Lopan –for six months– they seized these phones from their owners after savagely torturing them.
Between beatings, rapes, needles stuck under the fingernails and other atrocities, some residents of Kozacha Lopan ended up confessing that they reported the Russian positions or the number of soldiers in the city by phone. Then, the russians used their mobiles as a trophy to let the rest of the town know that they had managed to extract one more confession.
Each of the mobiles on display bolted to the bark of the poplar tree was a warning of what would happen to anyone who collaborated with the Ukrainian Army passing information. In medieval times – from which the Kremlin torturers seem to have emerged – human heads were placed on pikes, to remember who ruled the fiefdom. In the 21st century, Russian occupiers nail mobile phones to trees.
Russia on the wave
The tree of terror is not the only support used by Putin to spread his pro-Russian propaganda inside Ukraine. The day Russia massively bombed Ukraine’s power plants, causing a widespread blackout, in the center of Kharkiv you could hear Russian radio more clearly than any local station.
And these were not normal Russian stations, which the population of the Federation listens to, but FM radio stations that the Kremlin created – more than a year ago – to broadcast Russian propaganda to the Ukrainian population. To do this, he placed high-power repeaters on the border of Kharkiv and Donbas, and designed specific content for listeners on the other side.
Obviously they tune in better the closer you are to the border. But interestingly, they now have more range when there are power outages. Even reaching, as we said, as far as the capital Kharkiv –located more than 40 kilometers from Belgorod–.
These are stations like “Kharkiv Z” or “Radio Life”. And its contents are Russian music, constant calls to civilians and military to surrender, and propaganda disguised as news.. Some of these news, that this journalist from watchtower He had occasion to hear from the car radio when he bordered the Russian border, they promised “new apartments, built by the Russian Federation and with many rooms, for everyone whose house has been damaged during the bombing.”
The Zelensky government is working to reconnect Ukrainian radio and television in all the territories that are being liberated, but the priority is to rebuild the electrical infrastructure and heating supply channelsso it will still take some time to complete the task.
Meanwhile, the liberated Ukrainians who still continue to listen to the occupiers’ propaganda through the airwaves They have asked the volunteers to bring them Medium Wave receivers so they can tune in to national stations..
If you want bread, eat the propaganda
Along with radio, there are other traditional media that the Kremlin uses to get its messages across. Russian newspapers also reached Kozacha Lopan during the months of occupation. Newspapers that, like the radio, were written specifically for Ukrainian readers.
Although the most twisted thing was not the fact that they disguised their propaganda with the appearance of a newspaper, the most twisted was the way in which people were forced to take the newspaper in question: the Russians distributed it together with the little food that arrived. If you wanted a loaf of bread, you had to take the newspaper too.
At the City Hall, its mayor, Ludmila Vakulenko, has kept some of these publications and other remnants of the Russian propaganda with which they were also “bombed” from March to September. In those months, Ludmila was in charge of distributing humanitarian aid, always escorted by Russian soldiers, and she also had to endure her indoctrination firsthand.
“One of my greatest fears is that they would think I was a collaborator,” acknowledges the mayor. She had to deal with the Russian soldiers, but she assures that she never cooperated with them, she only made sure that her neighbors – the 30 percent she stayed behind – received food. “Most of this food was Ukrainian humanitarian aid, but the Russians forced me to distribute it with their pamphlets”sentence.
The news that can be read in some of the copies that the mayor has kept talk about the advances that Putin’s troops were making in Kharkiv and Donbas. Highlighting milestones such as the conquest of Lisichansk and other cities that were taken before the summer.
But also they made sure to convince the Ukrainians of the benefits of the Russian Federation, with reports explaining that “the rights of refugees are protected in Russia.” Under the headline “Russia is here forever. The Russian flag unites people” they wanted their message to resonate with the population they were torturing and besieging.
Another of the pillars on which Russian propaganda is based is education.. Indoctrinating the little ones is a good strategy, although – luckily for the children of Ukraine – in the occupied Kharkiv territories they could not teach their “teaching program” for a long time.
Even so, Kremlin soldiers brought textbooks “adapted” to the new reality they wanted to teach –in Russian and rewriting history– to many schools in the occupied cities. Propaganda for children, with lessons on the “great reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation” or on “the extremism and terrorism that shook Ukraine in 2014”.
Some Ukrainian teachers collaborated with the Russian troops and, although there were no face-to-face classes in most of the country, they distributed these books to the homes of schoolchildren. From the Kharkiv Prosecutor’s Office they have denounced that “the occupiers tried to Russify the students, eradicating any feature of the Ukrainian identity; they wanted to start the school year in the occupied cities and towns of the region in accordance with Russian programs and the educational standards of the aggressor state.”
In the city of Balakliya, the secretary of one of the schools shows for watchtower the classrooms in which the Russian soldiers lived for six months. “In-person classes were suspended here when they invaded us, but they occupied the schools and used them as barracks”Lylia explains.
In one of the school classrooms, he shows us a disturbing drawing that still remains on the blackboard. A Russian soldier with angel wings receives a flower from a Ukrainian girl. Just above it can be read “February 24. Class homework”. That day they no longer came to teach classes there, and most of the children fled to the west. But the soldiers who occupied the town made that drawing.
“During all those months, when they interacted with the local population, Russian soldiers said things like it was important that Ukrainian children learn to sing the anthem of the Federation”Lilly adds.
When Putin’s troops fled, they left their books there. What they did not leave were the electronic devices of the center. From computers to projectors. They stole absolutely everything.
The other Russian Army: the bots
Away from the front lines, another war for information control is raging, or rather, of disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine. And contrary to what is happening in Kharkiv or Kherson, Russia is winning on this other combat front.
The Kremlin has invested a lot of time and money in weaving a network of “ideological satellites” through which to launch its message beyond its borders.. One of the best known satellites is RussiaTodaythe Kremlin news channel in Spanish.
With large delegations – in which communicators with salaries above the average work – located in countries such as Argentina, Mexico or Venezuela, and whose task is to amplify the message of the Russian Federation both on television and on social networks, they disguise their propaganda again as news.
Everything is studied. From the language they use, to the signing of renowned journalists to give credibility to the message. Always referring to the war in Ukraine as a “special operation”, rewriting historical events, and even presenting the invader as a victim, alleging that “Russophobia” is being promoted in Ukraine. Anything goes.
parallel to RussiaToday, there is also an army of pro-Russian pseudo-influencers who work tirelessly on social media. From Twitter to TikTok, through YouTube. In some cases they are paid, and in others they aspire to be, so they are tremendously active. Their role is to flood these platforms – through which most young people get information – with pro-Russian and anti-NATO messages. In addition to attacking those profiles that denounce the war crimes that Russia is committing in Ukraine.
They are called bots. And they have managed to sow so much noise on social networks that they have made the unspecialized reader doubt about the events that are happening, or even about whether the invasion of a sovereign country like Ukraine is justified. The bots replicate Russian propaganda as if it were true information, and can discredit real information by publishing thousands of messages repeating the lie.
The one in Ukraine is a 20th century war being waged in the 21st century, with new technologies playing an important role. For this reason, the battle for the control of information is fought both in the traditional media and in the new online channels – where, by the way, propaganda is much more difficult to identify.