The Russian government fabricated a set of false narratives concerning their justification for invading Ukraine. Their military and intelligence entities utilized maligned social media operations, of overt and covert online proxy media outlets, to inject disinformation into television and radio programming. These tools of the Russian disinformation and propaganda ecosystem remain primarily focused on the broad narratives of Russia’s necessity to invade Ukraine.
As with any war, there are deserters, defectors, and volunteers. Deserters pose a potentially significant threat to the Russian government justification narratives internationally and, more worrisome for the Russian government, domestically. According to open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources, approximately 20,000 Russian soldiers have defected to Ukraine, 25,000 have refused to sign further contracts beyond their 90-day contracts, and another 13,000 have gone AWOL (absent without leave).
The Ukrainian government has employed an effective social media campaign broadcasting on various platforms: YouTube, Telegram, and Tik Tok, showing captured Russian soldiers’ stories for the purpose of countering Russian governments perilous justifications for the invasions. This makes up approximately a quarter of the original Russian invasion force. These personnel create digital wakes that erode broader Russian narratives.
Historically, the Russian response has been denial and suppression of deserters and their stories rather than countering their claims. Therefore, the theory is that the Russian government preferred to avoid going against individual soldiers opting to undermine the source of the reporting alluding to western conspiracies. It is not the fear of targeting Russian deserters, but rather that their existence in the digital space erodes the broader Russian narratives. That said, it is interesting to look at the Russian response in two notable instances:
The Freedom of the Russian Legion
This organization claimed to be a unit of former Russian soldiers. The group has maintained an active presence on social media and has been promoted by the Ukrainian government. According to some reports, the Legion receives nearly 300 applications a day, but this has not been verified. The Russian state-controlled media and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels devoted a significant amount of time proclaiming the organization does not exist and is actually a Ukrainian intelligence fabrication. These channels buttress their assertions on a lack of information or content, when compared to the content provided by the more western units of the Ukrainian international brigade. This group attracted the ire and attention of the Russian dis- and misinformation campaigns amid a wash of numerous YouTube, Telegram, and TikTok videos that showed that many Russian soldiers who found themselves in Ukraine did not know they were being sent there. These videos provided strong counternarratives to Russia’s efforts to justify their invasion.
Russian counter efforts often compared and contrasted the Legion’s digital footprint with the larger International Legion, which has more documented evidence of participation in hostilities to include locations such as Irpin, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk. The Moscow Times also cited the report in Harper’s Magazine, which “described how Ukraine did not have the capacity to process and deploy foreign fighters who flocked to the country in the weeks after the invasion, and suggested foreign units were more PR than reality.”
According to Holod, an independent Russian media group founded by journalists of Meduza, supporters of this claim use the following arguments. First, they cite the lack of legionnaires participation in actual hostilities, often contrasting it with the more extensive profile of the International legion. Second, they associate the difficulty of verifying photos and videos, or the “small-scaleness” of video materials is criticized. The Russians will often cite linguistic features that Russian is not the native language so it is actually a Ukrainian effort and there are not Russian volunteers or deserters. Domestically Russian authorities often detain anti-war activists on allegations of “wanting to join the legion.”
In August 2022, Sergeant Pavel Filatyev, a deserter from the 56th Guards air assault regiment, fled Russia after publishing on his VKontakte social media page a 141-page account detailing his experiences on the frontline entitled “ZOV.”
Filatyev’s memoir, a day-by-day description of how his paratrooper unit was sent to mainland Ukraine from Crimea, entered Kherson and captured the seaport. He spent 45 days writing his memoirs from the conflict, which provided substantial information to be validated in the OSINT spaces. This memoir’s extracts provide more substance than the TikTok videos that undermine the Russian dis- and misinformation efforts and critiques of the Russian Legion.
His memoir, ZOV, is named for the tactical markings painted on Russian army vehicles adopted as a pro-war symbol in Russia. Until now, there has been no more detailed, voluntary account from a Russian soldier participating in the invasion of Ukraine. Extracts were published in Russia’s independent press, while Filatyev appeared via video for a televised interview on TV Rain. Filatyev is the first soldier known to have fled Russia due to opposition to the war or more precisely to be documented to such an extent.
Russian dis- and misinformation efforts have now turned attempts to blunt Filatyev’s memoirs. His story makes it difficult for the Russian government to attack him as it calls into question the Russian narrative for the invasion. Particularly difficult for the Russian government is Filatyev’s references to “the degradation of the army, including the use of dated kit and vehicles that left Russian soldiers exposed to Ukrainian counterattacks.” He also described a culture of anger and resentment in the army that tears down the facade of total support for the war portrayed in Russian propaganda.
Born into a military family in the southern city of Volgodonsk, Filatyev, 34, spent much of his early 20s in the army. After serving in Chechnya in the late 2000s, he spent nearly a decade as a horse trainer, working for the Russian meat-producing company Miratorg and wealthy clients before reenlisting in 2021 for financial reasons, he said.
Filatyev and deserters like him present a significant problem for the Russian government in that they provide details and photos of themselves to establish their authenticity, as well as their accounts of events on the ground that challenge the Russian narrative’s veracity. It is likely that they will elect not to mention these deserters in the pro-Russian Telegram and social media apparatus.
Filatyev’s memoirs are likely going to be used to understand Russian tactics and Information campaigns for months to come. In the near term, they expose the existence of Russian dis- and misinformation strategies. OSINT analysts will continue to monitor for additional memories and social media posts from defectors. Early identification of these events will allow Overwatch analysts to quickly identify and highlight Russians’ counternarrative on each desertion.