Kyiv Bans Orthodoxy. Russian Media Monitoring Report, 16-22 October 2023

Last week’s Ukrainian ATACMS strike on airfields in the occupied territories caught Russian propagandists by surprise. Russian media tried to avoid any mention of damaged military equipment and focused their reports on Ukrainian air force losses instead.

The disinformation media also stood up for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) which is in fact part of Russian Orthodox Church and accused the evil Kyiv regime of dismantling orthodoxy in Ukraine. They also claimed that Armenia was turning into another Ukraine and touted Viktor Orbán as Russia's friend.


This monitoring report covers these and other topics of the disinformation spread by Russian state media and online parajournalists to manipulate public opinion.

ATACMS: a Bolt from the Blue

On 17 October, the Armed Forces of Ukraine struck Berdyansk and Luhansk airports with ATACMS missiles causing heavy losses to Russian occupation forces.

The first use of the American long-range missiles by Ukraine was a total surprise for many. The decision followed exhausting talks between the U.S. and Ukraine which had continued for months. The delivery was kept under tight wraps and was finally acknowledged after the strike. Russian media immediately called it “the conspiracy of the week”: “The conspiracy of the week: the USA secretly sent long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine”.

Certain media claimed that Kyiv would use the new capabilities to terrorize Russia's peaceful cities: “The delivery of ATACMS long-range missiles to Ukraine threatens the peaceful life of many Russian cities”, “It has been confirmed that Kyiv took delivery of 12 ATACMS missiles which are capable of reaching Rostov-on-Don”. They also claimed that Kyiv intends to disregard its obligation not to use the missiles against territories recognized by the UN despite the assurances of U.S. officials that Ukraine will not use American weapons against targets on Russian territory (which we believe to be a mistake — editor’s note)

At the same time, the propagandists said that the missiles were not a problem for Russia whose military were ready to counter such attacks: “Russian air defenses will soon start shooting the American ATACMS missiles out of the skies over Rostov-on-Don just like any other threat”.

The Ukrainian ATACMS strike on the airfields destroyed multiple helicopters of various modifications, an ammunition depot and an anti-aircraft missile launcher. While the assessments of losses vary among OSINT analysts, Ukrainian military intelligence reported nine Russian helicopters as destroyed.

Such facts never appear in the reports published on propagandist media. Still, on the same day the Ministry of Defence of Russia issued a press release on the downing of Ukrainian aircraft and destruction of Western weapon systems: “In the last 24 hours, Russian military shot down a Mi-8 helicopter of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and intercepted five American-made GLSDB glide bombs”, “The Russian air defense forces destroyed two Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 multi-purpose fighters and one Su-25 ground attack aircraft”.

Ukraine Cracks Down on Religion

Last week, a special bill aimed at prohibiting activities of religious organizations affiliated with Russia passed the first reading at the Verkhovna Rada in its least radical version.

Russian propagandists immediately declared that Ukraine had banned the activities of the canonical orthodox church in Ukraine. According to Russian propaganda, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (UOC MP) is the only canonical church in Ukraine whereas the members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) are labeled as schismatics. However, it is the OCU that was recognized and declared canonical and autocephalous by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

One of the defense strategies of the UOC MP was the thesis that the UOC MP had previously severed relations with the Moscow Patriarchate: “At the church council on 27 May 2022, the UOC condemned the SMO and disowned the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Consequently, changes were made to the “Charter of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” aimed at achieving complete independence and autonomy”. Despite the formal “apostasy from the Moscow Patriarchate”, the clerics of the UOC MP have been mentioning Patriarch Kirill of Moscow as the leader of their church during religious services. So far the independence of the UOC MP has not been recognized by any other Orthodox church and the UOC MP has taken no steps to that end.

Another defense strategy was assuring that the UN had condemned such actions: “An earlier UN report mentioned the pressure on the UOC as an example of human rights violations”.

The disinformation media assured their readers that the crackdown on discontented Christian believers demonstrates the cruel regime’s intent to dismantle Orthodoxy: “Disparate protests of the members of small UOC parishes, which are gradually being squatted by the pro-government Orthodox Church of Ukraine, seem to have almost no effect on the inexorable destruction of Orthodoxy as a whole”.

According to Russian media, the process is being controlled by the OCU whose ideology is based on killing Russians: “Apparently, the OCU has been tasked to defile the Orthodox faith in the country. To this end, OCU has been sanctioning dance parties in the seized churches, various concerts — not only classical music, but also insulting performances of all sorts of dubious rock bands whose songs call to kill Russians”.

An Alliance of Leaders

Last week, Russian media praised the visit of the Russian president to China. On 18 October, Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing during the opening ceremony of the international cooperation forum "One Belt, One Road”.

The so-called “experts” immediately claimed that it was China that was interested in Russia, not the other way around: “Russia's active participation in the Chinese initiative corresponds to "the country's own national interests in the region within its the scope”. All the upbeat reports were intended to stress that Russia continues to be a global player.

As usual, the disinformation media paid a lot of attention to the time spent by the leaders of Russia and China face-to-face. They wrote about the meeting as if it would define the destiny of the entire world: “The negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were friendly and candid allowing them to address a variety of important issues”.

Information about the results of the talks between the two leaders has been scarce. There has been a lone press release about the signing of an agreement on the supply of Russian agricultural products to China. However, even this rather mundane fact was presented as a pivotal victory over the U.S. by the Russian propaganda: ”A strategic nightmare is looming over Washington’s political agenda. Xi Jinping said that China was ready to increase imports of high-quality agricultural products”.

The Tale of Two Prime Ministers

Last week, Russian propaganda counterposed the prime ministers of Armenia and Hungary. The former was portrayed as a traitor while the latter — as a friend.

Russian media argued that Armenia was turning into another Ukraine: ”Just sitting there in Moscow and watching Armenia turn into another Ukraine following Moldova’s similar transformation is absolutely irresponsible…”. Russians are seemingly displeased by the prime minister’s hints at Russia's betrayal of Armenia's interests which had led to the Nagorno-Karabakh debacle.

On the contrary, Viktor Orbán was praised to the sky. The Russian president had a tête-à-tête with Orbán during his visit to China. Following the meeting, Putin expressed his content about the state of relations between Russia and Hungary: “I am pleased to admit that Russia has managed to preserve its relations with many European countries and take them to another level. Hungary is one of such countries”. Orbán followed by stating that “Budapest has never intended to antagonize Russia” and that “the Hungarian people will continue to foster friendly relations with Russia”.

It was such comments that enabled the propagandists to present the Hungarian leader as a strong politician who is defending the interests of his country despite the pressure of the EU and the USA.


The Methodology

To monitor the information published on disinformation websites, we analyzed approximately 410,000 news reports collected from ~ 1000 Russian and occupation websites. The data for the analysis was provided by SemanticForce.

Each paragraph was processed using an algorithm which defines its topic automatically. The resulting topics (i.e. groups with similar content) were short-listed by the topics relating to the war or its consequences for Russia. The number of mentions of a certain topic was then counted for each publication. Our conclusions are based on the respective findings and the quotes from paragraphs referring to each topic.


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