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Antifake

Another year of lies: 10 of the Kremlin’s favorite fakes of 2023

Russian officials and propaganda outlets didn’t become any more truthful over the past year. Instead, as usual, they continued to lie at seemingly every opportunity. Here is The Insider’s wrap-up of 10 topics that were particularly popular among the Kremlin’s designated liars in 2023.

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Content
  • Ukraine is suffering huge losses on the battlefield

  • NATO countries want to annex part of Ukraine

  • Ukraine is a major hub for illegal organ trafficking

  • Nazism is on the rise in Ukraine and the West

  • Americans tell the “truth” about the war and Russia

  • Western weapons from Ukraine end up in the hands of terrorists

  • The U.S. blew up the Nord Stream pipeline

  • The U.S. is working on biological weapons

  • Sanctions only hurt the West

  • U.S. President Joe Biden has age-related mental health issues

Ukraine is suffering huge losses on the battlefield

The year began with a cheerful report by Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov. On January 12, 2023, he announced that Russian troops had destroyed 4 American Bradley fighting vehicles. However, it turned out that he had jumped the gun with the statistics: at that time, the U.S. had only decided to supply Ukraine with these combat vehicles. The first shipments had not yet even taken place.

The topic was picked up by Vladimir Putin himself. In June, at a meeting with military graduates in the Kremlin, the Russian president claimed that during the Ukrainian counteroffensive (which kicked off a little more than two weeks before his speech), “our men 'pounded' 245 enemy tanks and about 678 armored vehicles of various types.” According to the Dutch open-source intelligence (OSINT) project Oryx, which calculates the losses of both Russia and Ukraine based on visual evidence and OSINT from social media, Ukraine had lost only 25 tanks and 82 armored vehicles during that time. There is no doubt that Oryx's data is incomplete and the real losses are higher, but not by a factor of 8 or 9.

The next day, Russia’s Security Council secretary and former FSB head Nikolai Patrushev pressed on with Putin’s narrative of enormous Ukrainian losses. At a Security Council meeting, Patrushev made mention of 246 tanks destroyed and, for some reason, only listed 595 armored vehicles, casting doubt on Putin's prior figures.

Then, somewhat sadly for Putin and Patrushev, Sergei Shoigu, the head of Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), ended up spoiling everything: at the same meeting, he said that only 18 out of 109 Bradley IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles) delivered to Ukraine had been destroyed, a figure that exactly matched Oryx’s information, once again raising questions about the the discrepancies between Putin and Patrushev and the Dutch analysts' data.

But that was not the end of the story. In August, Russia’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported heart-wrenching details about the Ukrainian army’s losses in manpower. RIA claimed Ukraine had nowhere to bury its dead, that the graves of World War I soldiers were being dug up to make more room in Lviv for the city’s recently fallen, and that a giant military cemetery was being created near the capital, Kyiv. In actual fact, World War I soldiers were reburied in the Lviv cemetery during work on a memorial, while the decision to create a military cemetery near Kyiv was approved as far back as 2011.

NATO countries want to annex part of Ukraine

The issue was raised in January by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who quoted former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski as saying Poland apparently had intentions to annex the western part of Ukraine. In reality, Sikorski had said that the Polish government and other NATO countries had plans ready in the event of Ukraine's military defeat, and that these plans would involve conducting negotiations with Moscow in order to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Ukrainian territory that had not fallen under the control of Russian occupying forces. In other words, Sikorski’s statement concerned the possibility of a violent Russian land grab, not a NATO plan to dismember Ukraine.

RIA Novosti was not deterred. In February, the Russian outlet circulated a story originally published by Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny (“Independent Political Daily”). The purportedly Polish article made the claim that “Warsaw is preparing its army not to fight Moscow, but to suppress uprisings in case it regains the western territories of Ukraine.” Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny, however, appears not to have been a genuine publication, let alone a Polish one. The majority of its articles are exact copies from other websites, while the few original pieces it does have can be identified as Russian propaganda. According to Polish journalists, the texts are written in poor Polish and strongly resemble machine translations from Russian.

But the topic did not die there. Vesti Nedeli, a Sunday evening weekly news program on the television channel Rossiya-1, followed up the RIA story with a report on Romania's apparent claims to part of Ukraine's territory. Somewhat uncharacteristically, the television segment did contain an element of truth. In actual fact, Romanian Senator Diana Șoșoacă had introduced a bill proposing to break her country’s friendship treaty with Ukraine as a step towards returning three Ukrainian regions—Northern Bukovina, a section of Odesa Oblast, and Snake Island (Ostriv Zmiinyi)—to Romania. The senator, however, is known for her pro-Russian views. Notably, she has called the Ukrainian state “the heir to the Nazi empire,” has held discussions with the Russian ambassador outlining the potential merits of Romania taking a neutral position on Russia’s war against Ukraine, and has been hailed by the Russian propaganda online publication Sputnik for being “a fighter for the observance of the Constitution and against medical dictatorship” (yes, the senator turned out to be an anti-vaxxer as well). Needless to say, Senator Șoșoacă’s real influence on Romanian policy is close to zero.

But there was more. In April, major Kremlin propaganda publications reported that certain “expert circles close to Volodymyr Zelensky's office” were apparently discussing the possibility of creating a single state with Poland — a “new Rzeczpospolita.” The propagandists' fantasy was based on Zelensky's statement that, in the future, there would be no borders between the Ukrainian and Polish peoples. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov even said that Zelensky might abandon the Ukrainian language in favor of Polish. All of this fantasizing was inspired by one not particularly awkward sentence in which Zelensky was clearly referring to Ukraine's future accession to the EU, and yet it persisted. In April, the Russian state-owned news agency TASS announced that Zelensky had promised to give the Volyn, Lviv and Rivne regions to Poland in exchange for the latter’s help and support. The source of the information turned out to be the same fake publication — Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny.

It did not end there, either. In October, RIA Novosti reported that the West had hatched a plan to make Ukraine completely disappear from the political map of the world. The source was an article in a little-known publication in the Palestinian Authority, which spoke of “Polish ambitions” and claimed “Western power and political circles” were considering such an outcome to the war. Notably, the only politician mentioned in the article — Dmitry Medvedev — wasn’t Western.

Finally, Vladimir Putin made a sensational statement in December: Russia, he said, was “the only guarantor of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.” According to Putin, many people in Ukraine’s western regions, which were only annexed to Soviet Ukraine as a result of World War II, “want to return to their historical homeland.” Putin claimed that the countries that lost these territories were not averse to returning them, and that it was Russia which had prevented such a redrawing of the map of Europe. As usual, however, the Russian president’s public statement did not conform to reality. In fact, there are very few Poles in Ukraine, as the Polish population was resettled in Poland soon after the war, meaning there is practically no one there to “return to the historical homeland.” And while separatist sentiments among the Transcarpathian Hungarians do exist, they appear to have been fueled largely by Russia, which has been a party to a number of provocations.

Ukraine is a major hub for illegal organ trafficking

In February, RIA Novosti reported that Ukrainian soldiers — even healthy ones, without any visible wounds — were being “harvested for organs” at a local hospital in the country’s south. The article’s source was nothing more than the so-called “Mykolaiv underground,” and the story it tells does not live up to even the most basic standards of plausibility. A transplant operation requires a large number of specially trained doctors and high-tech equipment for organ storage and transport. Organs are only viable for transplantation for a very short period of time, and it is unclear how they could possibly be of any value coming from a country in which air traffic has been completely shut down.

As usual, this reality did not stop official Russian sources from spreading the absurdity. In July, Nikolai Patrushev offered a toned down version of the faux issue. In his retelling, it was only wounded Ukrainian soldiers who were being used as organ donors: “incidentally, Zelensky signed a law last year allowing human organ transplantation without consent.” In fact, Ukraine had only simplified the consent procedure for the posthumous donation of organs. Under the new law, a person who wishes to pass on their organs after death is not required to have his or her consent notarized. Patrushev’s claim was particularly notable in that he directly accused the Ukrainian state of “black transplantology.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also involved itself in the non-issue. In August, spokesperson Maria Zakharova weighed in claiming that “representatives of the Ministry of Health of one of the NATO countries agreed with the Ukrainian side on the delivery of a refrigerator car with human organs and body parts that are most often used in transplantology.” Zakharova’s statement specifically cited eye corneas, some bones, connective tissue, hearts, and livers. Once again, only a person who does not know anything about transplantology could put such a claim together: a heart can be stored no more than 6 hours, while a liver can last no more than 15 hours in storage.

Nazism is on the rise in Ukraine and the West

One of the most common techniques among Russian propagandists is to stigmatize the enemy by calling him a fascist or a Nazi. This tactic is often used against Ukraine and its Western allies, and it is frequently based on patently ridiculous justifications. For example, in February, the propagandist television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov was purportedly outraged by President Zelensky's decree granting the “Edelweiss” honorific to the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as the Wehrmacht’s mountain infantry division had apparently gone by the same moniker during World War II. However, the edelweiss flower can hardly be called a fascist emblem. Units with this name made up part of the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, and the edelweiss flower is still used in the mountain units of the modern Bundeswehr. Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardiya) even had a detachment called “Edelweiss” until 2016.

But Kiselyov was just getting started. He later claimed that “accomplices of Hitler's Nazis, convicted at the Nuremberg trial” were officially proclaimed heroes in Ukraine. In fact, there were no Ukrainians among the accused at the Nuremberg trial — nor in the 12 war crimes trials after that.

In May, Kiselyov accused Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, of Nazism. Budanov had allegedly intended to physically destroy the inhabitants of Crimea after Ukraine’s victory as “people with [an] altered psyche.” Of course, the claims regarding Budanov's supposed bloodthirsty intentions were completely misleading, as his purported statement had been stitched together using source material from two completely separate interview fragments: one addressed the physical destruction of a certain category of war criminals, while the other addressed the fact that the residents of the liberated territories, who had been exposed to Russian propaganda for several years, would have to be brought back to normal life (which, given the multitude of Kremlin information operations, is not an easy task).

Maria Zakharova also claimed to have uncovered the rehabilitation of Nazism in Germany, as the country's government had apparently refused to recognize members of Stepan Bandera’s followers as anti-Semites and Nazis. The supposed controversy occurred in the aftermath of the Yaroslav Hunka scandal, in which a 98-year-old veteran of the Ukrainian “Galicia” SS division was greeted with a standing ovation in the Canadian House of Commons during a visit by Zelensky. Following the incident, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Sebastian Fischer was asked about the role that the German ambassador to Canada, who was present in the hall and applauded when Hunka was introduced, had played in the event. In response, Fischer noted that the ambassador had been unaware of Hunka’s military background at the time. He added that there had been many different armed groups fighting against the Soviet army during the war, and that not all of them were Nazi collaborators. He cited the Polish Armia Krajowa, which fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets, as an example. Zakharova, as part of her official duties for the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs, appears to have ignored this wider context.

The year’s worth of Nazi hype even appeared to contradict a related Kremlin propaganda trope, as in January 2023, Russia’s TV Center had already announced the “relative success” of the “denazification” campaign in Ukraine. Vyacheslav Nikonov, deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, said on the channel that “one of the most popular services in Ukraine is the removal of swastikas to go to Europe, to participate in military actions, and so on, because they understand that Nazism is flawed and bad for them.” However, the material regarding the “popular service” was clearly sourced from so-called Russian “patriotic” Telegram channels, which circulated a photo of a tattoo parlor in Ivano-Frankivsk advertising such a service. Unsurprisingly, the photo turned out to be a fake: the text, written in poor Ukrainian with multiple errors, was superimposed on an image from a tattoo parlor in Biysk — a city in Russia’s Altai Krai.

Americans tell the “truth” about the war and Russia

Since Soviet times, it has been important for Kremlin propaganda to show that there are forces in the West that oppose their own governments and stand in solidarity with Moscow. Under the current circumstances, the search for allies that fit that description has become a very difficult business — one dominated by extremely colorful personalities. Some of these characters form the subject of a six-part documentary produced by The Insider's editorial team. What follows is just a sampling of their out-of-touch statements that have been enthusiastically parroted by the Kremlin’s propagandists over the past year.

One of RIA Novosti's favorite “experts” is Scott Ritter, who the publication describes as a military analyst and former U.S. intelligence officer. In February, multiple Russian government-sponsored outlets circulated one of his statements: “It's over. Regardless of any claims about Russia in the West, everyone already knows that Ukraine is defeated.”

While there are still no signs of an imminent Russian victory, this “expert” is of interest nonetheless. Ritter did serve as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s and later went on to join the UN as a weapons inspector in Iraq. But his career was cut short in the early 2000s by accusations of pedophilia, as Ritter was twice caught trying to arrange dates with underage girls he met on the Internet. In both cases, the girls were impersonated by police officers. The first time, the charge was dropped after six months’ probation, but the second attempt ended with him serving two and a half years in prison. He was released in 2014, and for obvious reasons, his services as a military expert were no longer needed in the U.S. In 2019, however, he found a willing buyer for his expertise: he began working regularly with the Russian broadcaster RT and has since been making statements that align almost perfectly with the Russian propaganda narrative on a variety of issues. For example, Ritter blamed Ukraine for the killings in Bucha, declared Joe Biden a war criminal, and claimed that Poland would attack Ukraine and occupy its western regions.

Around the same time, RIA Novosti reported on a speech made by Geoffrey Young, who was described as a Democratic candidate for governor of Kentucky. Young called Ukraine “Washington’s puppet,” claimed that “labor camps for subhumans — ethnic Russians ('Asians')” had been set up on Ukrainian territory,adding that “this territory will not be Ukrainian for long.” Such flights of fancy are rare even among Russian propagandists. Young has run for office at various levels, but he has never succeeded in being elected. In 2022, he won the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives in Kentucky’s 6th District, but he made so many questionable statements during that campaign that the party refused to endorse him. Young lost to his Republican rival by nearly 30 percentage points.

In April, Kremlin-backed media reported on a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who at the time was seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for the U.S. presidency. Kennedy claimed that Ukraine's defeat was “imminent” because “Russians are killing Ukrainians at a ratio of 7-to-1 or 8-to-1.” He appeared to have been guided by Vladimir Putin's speech at the Valdai Club, where the Russian president, contrary to facts on the ground, spoke of an 8:1 or even 10:1 ratio of casualties. Notably, these figures widely diverge from even the most optimistic estimates given by pro-Russian expertsAccording to the Pentagon's assessment at the time, Russian troop losses were twice as high as those of the Ukrainians.

Then there was Richard Black, who in March was presented by RIA Novosti as a “former U.S. senator” despite the fact that his legislative seat had been at the state level in Virginia. Black spoke to the supposed enormous historical significance of the capture of Bakhmut: “Russia has won the biggest battle in Europe since World War II.” However, it is now clear that there was no further advance of Russian troops after the capture of the city. Interestingly, the former state legislator turned out to be a staunch supporter of Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while also opposing same-sex marriage. He also claimed that the U.S. “staged a coup in Ukraine.”

Late June saw former New Jersey judge Andrew Napolitano issue a no less sensational claim: “President Biden, Lloyd Austin and Tony Blinken have sent military equipment [to Ukraine] that only Americans can operate.” Napolitano went on to assert that the U.S. had “boots on the ground” in Ukraine. His statement, broadcast by numerous Kremlin media outlets, read: “If by ‘boots on the ground’ you mean Americans in civilian clothes who are full-time military [members] operating American military equipment, pulling triggers or pressing buttons in control booths that are sending projectiles to kill Russians, then we [the U.S.] do have troops on the ground.”

Napolitano, who turned to blogging after his resignation from the bench and is now often cited by Fox News, does not miss an occasion to criticize the Democrats. He once accused Barack Obama of tapping Donald Trump's phone with the help of British intelligence. There was no confirmation of the allegation (including from the FBI), and even Fox News was forced to pull Napolitano off the air for a while. Prior to that, in 2014, the former judge expressed the opinion that the U.S. Civil War could have been avoided if Abraham Lincoln had simply bought the slaves and freed them. As a Fox Business host, Napolitano promoted conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. In 2021, Fox News fired the former judge after allegations of sexual harassment. And while there is an acknowledged U.S. military presence in Ukraine, it is not the one Napolitano alleges: as has been confirmed by the White House, the small mission’s functions are limited to guarding the U.S. Embassy and aiding with the oversight of American weapons in Ukraine.

In July, James Rickards, portrayed by Russian media as an ex-CIA advisor, wrote of a supposed “ace in the hole” for Putin: a harsh winter in 2024 that would lead to a recession in the West due to rising energy costs. The forecast is highly dubious, if only because the U.S. is not and has never been dependent on Russian energy. In addition, there is no evidence that Rickards has ever worked as an advisor to the CIA; instead, he is known mainly as the author of numerous books on how the global elite supposedly controls financial markets. In one conspiracy opus, he claimed that a “world government” is using climate change as a screen to promote a “new world order” that includes a single global currency.

Another “military expert” quoted by RIA Novosti, former Marine Brian Berletic, lamented the superiority of the Russian military-industrial complex over that of the West, which is failing to provide Ukraine with ammunition. Berletic conveniently side-stepped the fact that, at the time, Russia was consuming five times more ammunition in a year than it was producing . Still, Berletic did serve in the Marine Corps and was a specialist in repairing electro-optical equipment. He now calls himself an “independent civilian analyst” and is known mostly as a conspiracy blogger. In 2015, Berletic claimed that the U.S. and UK were secretly supplying vehicles to ISIS militants. He also accused Turkey of supplying military equipment to the jihadist group.

The star of the show last year was Elon Musk — he stole the spotlight by throwing his weight behind pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiments, and his resulting statements were eagerly picked up by Kremlin media. However, not all of the statements attributed to Musk proved to be authentic. In December, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Musk had called Vladimir Putin “not a bad guy” and claimed that the American entrepreneur had said wouldn’t mind getting a Russian passport in the future. These words were allegedly heard on an X (formerly Twitter) broadcast featuring Musk, conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Republican politician Vivek Ramaswamy, and multiple others. However, Musk hadn’t spoken about Russia in the broadcast at all. The statements spread by Russian propagandists were only featured in an audio clip that appears to have been edited using fragments from the original conversation, with Russian subtitles added. The original source without subtitles does not exist, and it is likely that Musk’s voice was spoofed with the help of artificial intelligence.

Western weapons from Ukraine end up in the hands of terrorists

In October, RIA Novosti, followed by many other media outlets, reported that explosives provided by Kyiv’s Western partners were being sold in Ukraine on the darknet. According to the news agency, an ad for the sale of C4 explosives and firearms delivered to Ukraine was found on a darknet website. Conveniently, thepublication's authors somehow failed to copy the ad. But even if it really existed, there was nothing that could have linked the substances supposedly for sale directly to Western military aid: C4 is produced not only for military, but also for commercial purposes, such as mining. Commercial C4 can be distinguished from military C4 by its chemical composition, but this requires a sample, and all the Kremlin propagandists had, at best, was a copy of the advertisement.

Shortly after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, Russian state-backed media spread statements by Dmitry Medvedev, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and an adviser to the head of the so-called “DPR,” claiming that the weapons given to Ukraine were being used in Israel. In reality, all arms deliveries received by Ukraine are traceable, as an extensive database has been established through which Ukraine shares with its Western partners the path of each delivered weapon. Admittedly, this system was not yet in place during the first months of the war, resulting in several cases of theft, but these incidents were all investigated and the stolen weapons were recovered.

The U.S. blew up the Nord Stream pipeline

In February, practically every Kremlin propaganda media outlet reported on an “investigation” by the 85-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh, who claimed that in June 2022, U.S. Navy divers placed C4 explosive charges on the Nord Stream pipelines at strategic points chosen by the Norwegians. The charges were apparently placed under the guise of a multinational military simulation and were remotely detonated three months later by a sonar buoy dropped by a Norwegian Navy P-8 reconnaissance aircraft.

Hersh, a formerly respected journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War, and over the course of his career he worked for prominent publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker. However, Hersh has not held a steady job in the past 10 years — likely because his output has consisted of spreading conspiracy theories corroborated only by “anonymous sources.” For example, he’s published an entire alternative version of Osama bin Laden's murder, relying on an anonymous “retired senior US intelligence official.” He has also claimed, without evidence, that the U.S. and Saudi governments were funding the terrorist organization Fatah al-Islam.

Hersh has also questioned the Bashar al-Assad regime's involvement in chemical attacks against civilians. According to Hersh , Assad’s forces only “accidentally” bombed a chemical fertilizer warehouse. After the poisoning of former GRU employee Sergei Skripal, Hersh declared that “organized crime” — as opposed to the Russian state — was behind the assassination attempt.

His contribution to the pipeline story displayed a similar knack for creativity. Two weeks after his original Nord Stream report came out, Hersh added new details, alleging that President Biden had known about the bomb plot. It is true that, as part of a February 7, 2022 joint press conference held in Washington with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Biden stated that “If Russia invades [Ukraine]...then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” Biden was clearly referring to the possibility of canceling the commissioning of the pipeline, which is exactly what happened immediately after the war began. Hersh, however, interpreted the president’s words as proof that the subsequent explosion had been part of an American plan.

Deeper journalistic investigations have not corroborated Hersh’s thesis. When the Washington Post published its findings in June, alleging that the Nord Stream explosion had been prepared by a group of Ukrainian military officers under the direct supervision of Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, this purported revelation did not satisfy Russian propagandists, who remained intent on blaming the U.S. for the sabotage at all costs.After the Post story came out, a segment on the Russian news program Vremya claimed that a diving boot of the model used by American military divers had been found near the explosion site. However, the same — or very similar — shoes (Vremya only broadcast a blurry underwater photo) are available on the market for anyone to buy, and photos exist of Ukrainian divers wearing the same shoes.That information, however, did not seem to concern the author of the Vremya story.

Then there was Tucker Carlson. During an August trip to Hungary, the former Fox News host (who in April 2023 was fired over a fake story that forced the channel to pay a record $787.5 million in damages), claimed — without any evidence — that the Biden administration had blown up Nord Stream, thus effectively destroying NATO by depriving Germany of a source of cheap energy. Carlson called the explosions a de facto attack on a major U.S. ally in Europe. However, he failed to take into account that, at the time of the explosion, no gas shipments were being supplied through Nord Stream, as they had been unilaterally stopped by Russia, which cited technical problems as the reason for the cutoff. A few months later, Germany stopped buying Russian gas altogether, with no visible negative effects on the country’s overall economy.

The U.S. is working on biological weapons

Long before the war, Kremlin propagandists began talking about the development of biological weapons in the U.S — including in military laboratories in Ukraine. This fabricated narrative has been repeatedly refuted, yet new stories on the subject continue to appear. In March, Igor Kirillov, head of the Russian Army’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Defense Troops, claimed that the U.S. had been developing mRNA vaccines, which allegedly led to serious health complications.

The general clearly hadn’t been briefed on what mRNA vaccines are, nor on how they work. Vaccines produced before the introduction of this technology contained live (weakened or genetically modified) or dead cultures of pathogens. The mRNA vaccine is fundamentally different: it contains no viruses or microorganisms; instead, its active element is made up of a ribonucleic acid matrix, which, once in the body, triggers the synthesis of a protein that causes an immune response. The protein itself is not harmful to the body. In fact, one of the advantages of this type of vaccine is the extremely low likelihood of complications.

In April, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that the emergence of new strains of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus proved that someone was taking purposeful actions to “strengthen” the pathogenic properties of the virus, and that the pandemic was being artificially fueled by the “introduction” of new, “improved” variants. Apparently, it never occurred to the military that this development could be explained by natural selection — a theory known to humanity for several centuries. Blaming the enemy was more important. Surprisingly, even mass media outlets such as TASS, which used to publish scientific pieces explaining how virus mutations work, spread the story.

In late March, Nikolai Patrushev announced that infectious outbreaks — hemorrhagic fever, cholera, swine flu, hepatitis A, botulism — had been recorded near biolaboratories in Ukraine. Some of these outbreaks actually occurred and could be explained without any conspiracy, such as by water contamination, while others, such as cholera in Mykolaiv and Odessa in 2015 and 2022, were completely fabricated.

In May, General Kirillov claimed that the United States was recruiting Ukrainian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) specialists, and named an American professor of veterinary medicine, Richard Weller, as a key figure in this program. Weller did cooperate with Ukrainian research institutes — that work is not classified, and information about it is publicly available. While it is true that the United States did create a program for the destruction of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the 1990s, and that the program involved the efforts of some former Soviet scientists who had worked in the development of weapons of mass destruction, this was done so that the scientists in question, whose livelihoods had largely been destroyed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, would not be poached by third countries that were seeking to obtain such weapons for themselves. In 2007, it was announced that the program was no longer relevant, as the economies of post-Soviet countries had become strong enough that there was no longer any danger of attracting scientists from them to weapons of mass destruction programs in third countries.

Kirillov also claimed that documents seized from the laboratory of Ukraine's Askania-Nova nature reserve in the Russian-controlled part of the Kherson Region indicated that the Kharkiv Institute of Veterinary Medicine had been involved in U.S. bird flu research projects, with the Pentagon named as the client. The truth is that the strain of avian flu in question is not dangerous for humans, and there is no evidence of any work with a strain that is transmissible to humans.

In August, Russia’s Channel One ran a segment in which it claimed that three “beetles” infected with “smallpox and other treacherous microorganisms” had escaped from separate American laboratories in 2014. Notably, the Russian report appeared to be ignorant of the fact that insects are impervious to smallpox, and that human transmission only occurs through airborne droplets. Rather than citing scientific sources, however, Channel One relied on the supposed expertise of the aforementioned Robert Kennedy Jr. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, Kennedy Jr. had colloquially referred to microorganisms as “bugs,” and the Russian news channel simply translated this word into its broadcast as “beetle.”

But the segment went further. Again citing Kennedy Jr., Channel One claimed that, after the revelation about the escaped “beetles” became known, it prompted a Congressional hearing leading Barack Obama to close “18 of Anthony Fauci’s most alarming experiments” by moving them to China, mostly to Wuhan, from which, subsequently “much of his work went to Ukraine.”

It should come as no surprise that one of Kennedy Jr.'s favorite topics involves “exposing” prominent immunologist Anthony Fauci, who he claims is an engineer of dangerous viruses — including SARS-CoV-2. In fact, the Obama administration did suspend federal funding for several programs that had used the gain-of-function (GOF) method, with a moratorium put in place in order to study possible risks and develop security measures before such research could be resumed. But any Wuhan-based GOF experiments were never funded by U.S. money.

Finally, Alexei Shevtsov, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, came up with a similarly eye-opening statement in August of last year. According to him, the United States was developing biological weapons — including a variety targeted at certain ethnic groups. Scientists were unanimous in denouncing this as fantasy, as the genotypes of people of different ethnic groups are too close to each other to allow for the creation of a selective virus. Moreover, viruses are subject to mutation, and it is therefore impossible to ensure that this selectivity could be sustained, even if it were possible to engineer.

Sanctions only hurt the West

Another favorite theme of the propagandists is that sanctions are only harmful to the West, while they have no significant impact on the Russian economy.

In May, for example, RIA Novosti cited Bloomberg as allegedly reporting that European industry was one step away from a severe economic crisis, which had been caused by the continent’s rejection of supposedly irreplacable Russian energy resources. But Bloomberg’s actual publications contain nothing of the sort — neither predictions of the crisis nor the allegedly failed replacement of Russian gas. On the contrary, they reported a somewhat unexpected problem: as European gas storage facilities were close to full capacity, discussions were taking place about potentially using storage facilities in Western Ukraine.

In June, Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova commented on the 11th package of sanctions, which included a ban on the supply of certain types of cars to Russia. She wrote that it would lead to “an inevitable growth of [Russia’s] domestic car industry, including the use of Chinese components,” adding that, “We liked the experiment with cheese. Now we need a good car industry.” In reality, the Russian car industry, which has been under sanctions for a long time, has only shown increased prices, and the new models it has begun producing are essentially Chinese cars with reglued nameplates.

In August, RIA Novosti quoted Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin as saying that the West was “fomenting Russophobia” in order to shift its economic problems onto Russia. However, statistics show that the level of socio-economic well-being is growing in almost all Western countries (only Switzerland and Germany have seen a slight decline), so it's unclear where the Belarusian minister discovered such problems. On the same day, RIA republished the statement of a Bundestag deputy from the far-right AfD (Alternativ fur Deutschland, Alternative for Germany) party, who said that “the German economy has fallen into a deplorable state because of the gas purchased at triple the price.” The price of gas in Germany at that time was in fact lower than its pre-war price.

In October, RIA Novosti published a statement by retired U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman that the sanctions had damaged the dollar, as the trend of de-dollarization was gaining momentum in the world economy. In reality, the dollar's share in international transactions is actually growing — mainly at the expense of the euro.

In November, an edition of the Vesti Nedeli news program saw Dmitry Kiselyov say that NATO's policy had brought the EU to such a sorry state that Europeans were “swallowing antidepressants by the handful'” and that the continent’s inhabitants were seeking to “save money on everything, counting every euro cent, giving up vacations, losing jobs.” The use of antidepressants is indeed on the rise in many countries, but not because of a decline in living standards: many of the countries with the highest levels of consumption of these drugs have the highest rankings in the World Happiness Report. The volume of private investment in the EU is also growing. Social perceptions and attitudes toward mental health in developed countries are changing, and the stigma once associated with taking antidepressants is eroding. Demand for antidepressants in Russia has also shot up — although it is still low by international standards.

Around the same time, Putin's aide and former Minister of Economic Development, Maxim Oreshkin, claimed that the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, was falling in Russia and rising in the EU. In Russia, the coefficient rose at the beginning of Vladimir Putin's rule, reaching a record high in 2007, then began to decline — however, it’s still higher than it was in 2000, when Putin came to power. The Gini coefficient continues to fall in most EU countries, where it is already much lower than in Russia.

Finally, in December, Vesti Nedeli broadcast another gem from Dmitry Kiselyov, who claimed the German car industry was collapsing because of the sanctions against Russia. Indeed, Germany’s car production, which has risen following disruptions caused by the pandemic, is not projected to return to its peak levels of the 2010s, but this reality appears to be unrelated to Russia’s war and the resulting sanctions, as German auto industry had started to decline before the pandemic. Despite the overall trend, the industry even showed some growth at the end of 2022.

U.S. President Joe Biden has age-related mental health issues

Russian propagandists are especially fond of emphasizing Joe Biden's age, pointing out his blunders and discussing his perceived mental issues. Biden is also frequently quoted making statements he never actually said.

In March, RIA Novosti reported that Biden “embarrassed himself at the White House to the laughter of the crowd,” claiming that the American president was afraid to be present there. In fact, during an award ceremony at the White House, Biden quoted a poem by Richard Blanco, who was attending the event. Biden made a mistake, corrected himself, and mentioned feeling nervous about reciting poetry in front of the poet himself — that’s the episode that RIA framed as the U.S. president’s apparent “fear of being in the White House.”

In April, Dmitry Kiselyov claimed that during Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had come to meet the U.S. president at the airport. According to Kiselyov, the American leader did not recognize his British counterpart and “scornfully dismissed him, mistaking him either for a lackey or a porter. Instead of the prime minister, he ended up greeting some general.” However, it appears that Vesti Nedeli edited the video clip it used to corroborate this version of events, cutting out a brief exchange between Biden and Sunak. In the edited result, it appears as if the president ignores the prime minister and speaks instead to Lord-Lieutenant David McCorkell — one of the British crown's official representatives in Northern Ireland. (And it’s also worth noting that the McCorkell’s military rank is not that of a general, but of a colonel.)

In December, when Volodymyr Zelensky met with Biden at the White House, Russia’s Channel One reported that the U.S. president had simply laughed when asked by a journalist whether he wished to see a Ukrainian military victory. This moment, however, did not occur during the press conference portion of the visit, which followed the leaders’ Oval Office meeting, but during a short session in which both Biden and Zelensky posed for pictures and offered brief welcoming speeches without fielding direct questions from reporters. In fact, Biden used the session to announce that he had approved more funds to support Ukraine.

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