KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Videos uploaded Friday by Russian-backed separatists announced an “immediate evacuation” due to what they said was an imminent threat of attack from Ukraine. But the metadata embedded in the video files betrayed a certain lack of spontaneity.
It showed that the files had been created two days earlier.
Apparently pre-recorded videos uploaded to Telegram, a messaging service and social network, strongly supported what US authorities have been claiming for days: Russia and the rebels it backs in eastern Ukraine are acting as aggressors as they follow a script to incite conflict.
Around the same time the files were created, hundreds of shells struck along tense front lines in the region, misinformation came and went about a kindergarten being hit, signals GPS were jammed and the cell phone network went down overnight.
This was followed by the announcement of an evacuation to Russia and a car bomb deep in separatist territory.
In a swath of land where pro-Russian separatists have battled Ukrainian government forces for years, the fight is as much about control of the message as it is about territory.
Ukraine’s government says the entire country is in the grip of a ‘hybrid war’ in which Russia attacks the country’s economy, its online infrastructure and its very borders – all without the need to launch an invasion large-scale army. Communication is the weapon of choice.
The Associated Press has confirmed a February 16 file creation date for videos released Friday afternoon on Telegram channels for Denis Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, and his counterpart in the Lugansk rebel government.
Telegram videos retain their metadata, which by default includes the date a file was created. It cannot be edited on the social network after uploading, said Roman Osadchuk, associate researcher at DFRLab who confirmed the February 16 metadata. Osadchuk said it was hard to imagine why the men would deliberately backdate the videos to their own preferred communication channel.
US authorities have alleged that Russia planned an invasion from the start and said the Kremlin had pre-recorded videos as part of a disinformation campaign.
“Today, February 18, we are organizing a total centralized evacuation of citizens to the Russian Federation,” Pushilin solemnly declares, alleging that an attack from Ukraine is imminent.
Soon after, authorities began moving children from an orphanage in Donetsk and other residents boarded buses for Russia. Long queues formed at gas stations as more people prepared to leave on their own.
Western officials have warned that the spark for war could come from the unstable east. On several occasions in recent weeks, the United States has said that the simmering conflict there could provide cover or an excuse for Russia, which has massed troops near Ukraine’s borders on three sides, to cross the border.
Fears grew on Thursday, after international observers reported more than 500 explosions in a day, including a shell that slammed into Stanytsia Luhanska’s kindergarten class at the start of the school day on Thursday. Two teachers and one staff member were injured.
With smoke barely clearing from the explosions in the building, a narrative from pro-Russian social media accounts has been corrected: Ukrainian forces had targeted children in the breakaway region. This was refuted quite easily – the school is in a government-controlled village.
“When this information became public, the story changed and propaganda sources started claiming that Ukrainian armed forces attacked this kindergarten on Ukrainian territory out of provocation,” said Oleksandra Tsekhanovska of Ukraine Crisis Media. Center.
Lt. Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, said he would not give in to provocations intended to elicit a counter-response, echoing US warnings.
Russia denies any attack plans.
“We cannot refute all fabrications, the number of which is increasing exponentially and is being produced by enemy propaganda in these difficult days,” Zaluzhnyi said.
Allegations of “genocide” against Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east have increased since February 14, Tsekhanovska said.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been in place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 to try to maintain the ceasefire and monitor violations. It was never easy, but that task was made more difficult this week as they found their access blocked on several occasions.
“The gradual unraveling of the ceasefire (…) has unfortunately accelerated,” Yaşar Halit Çevik, the mission’s chief comptroller, told the UN Security Council on Thursday. He said daily ceasefire violations had doubled since the start of the year.
In addition to the explosions, the organization recorded nearly 600 ceasefire violations in one day, more than double the average for the past month. And three of the organization’s small surveillance drones went astray after the GPS signal was jammed; a fourth was unable to take off without a signal.
Electronic interference went further on Thursday and Friday, when mobile phone networks went down in Luhansk and Donetsk for hours. Vodafone blamed the “vandalism” of fiber optic lines.
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov in Bakhmut, Ukraine; Inna Varenytsia in Severodonetsk, Ukraine, and Frank Bajak in Boston contributed.
More AP coverage of the Ukraine crisis: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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