Since 2014 Ukraine has been one of the main targets of the Russian propaganda machine, following the Revolution of Dignity which marked the pro-Western orientation of the country. The main narratives reveal Ukraine as a failed or a fascist state that is under the external influence of foreign governments or international organizations.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought in Ukraine the same palette of narratives promoted in other countries with an accent on the anti-Western messages. The pro-Kremlin propaganda promotes that the West won’t be able to help Ukraine within the crisis, that the European Union will fall apart, or that the coronavirus is an invention of the West. In contrast, pro-Russian media channels pushed for the classic narratives on how Russia was providing humanitarian aid to European countries and how “humane” it is with statements to let go of any geopolitical principles and unite to fight the virus. Additionally, a strong wave of criticism was directed at the current government of Ukraine that, according to the pro-Russian opposition, had proved poor performance. In the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are the regions where Ukrainian media transmissions are being blocked, Russian propaganda dominates the informational space. Local media outlets were engaged in promoting pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives. Speaking of geopolitical aspects, experts notice that the pro-Chinese propaganda was no that visible, however through small diplomatic steps and loud pro-Kremlin messages, a positive portrayal of China was achieved.
Ukraine witnessed the spreading of conspiracy theories and the growth of anti-vaccine movements, especially in social media. Main conspiracies regarded Bill Gates, 5G network, and the artificial nature of coronavirus, precisely that it was artificially created in a U.S. laboratory on the territory of Ukraine. There were fakes and manipulation on statistics, ordinary people encouraging not to trust official numbers, but look for alternative ways of treatment instead.
Another tactic of Russian infowar was to exaggerate negatively the situation, especially regarding the economic situation of the country as businesses were affected by the lockdown measures.
An episode that made Ukraine popular in the region is the wave of local protests in a Ukrainian town where the first travelers returning from China should have been placed in quarantine. The inhabitants of the town received messages and emails that incited hatred and aggression towards making their town a quarantine spot for those who arrive from China.
It is considered that the government reshuffle in early March (which coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak in the country) slowed down the initial reaction of the authorities to the crisis in addition to the fact that the country was dealing with large foreign debt repayments and stalled negotiations with the IMF – conditions that only fueled the anti-Western messages of Kremlin players.
Ukraine had imposed total quarantine measures and since May, Ukraine has chosen the “adaptive quarantine” option meaning that most of the restrictions have been lifted, but in the areas, with high infection rates, all quarantine restrictions are to be maintained. Decisions on easing or return to more severe measures in cities or regions are to be taken by local and regional authorities which are also part of the Ukrainian decentralization process.