How Russia’s Top Propagandist Used Film To Justify Putin’s Ukraine Invasion

In August 2021, a movie corporate related to Russia’s propaganda system launched Blazing Sun, a conflict movie that glorifies Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and has helped seed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine closing month. The movie depicts Russian mercenaries as saviors who save you Ukraine’s govt from committing a genocide in opposition to its personal other folks — mirroring Putin’s declare that he invaded Ukraine with a view to “prevent genocide” and “denazify” the rustic.

It’s simply the newest instance of a reality-bending new species of Russian propaganda that now comprises dozens of movies of Ukrainian assaults on Russian voters that seem to be faked, movies depicting a joint raid by way of the FBI and NYPD of a New York film theater that the venue says by no means came about, and repurposed Cameo movies of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr. unwittingly congratulating a fictional movie persona on his achievements.

The guy at the back of the digital camera: Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch often referred to as “Putin’s chef,” who used to be just lately sanctioned by way of the US and the EU for serving to lead “a disinformation war against Ukraine.” His obvious motivation: to steer the process Russia’s long term by way of rewriting its previous.


Misha Japaridze / AP

Prigozhin (left) serves meals to then–top minister Vladimir Putin right through dinner at Prigozhin’s eating place out of doors Moscow on Nov. 11, 2011.

One of Putin’s shut confidants, Prigozhin is assumed to had been at the vanguard of Russia’s disinformation equipment since no less than 2013. The FBI has put him on its Most Wanted record as a result of he “allegedly oversaw and approved” the “political and electoral interference operations” of the rustic’s notorious troll manufacturing unit, the Internet Research Agency. He has additionally been connected to the Russian mercenary workforce Wagner, which European safety officers imagine helped lay the groundwork for closing month’s invasion. Last week, the US Treasury Department added Prigozhin’s spouse, daughter, and son to the record of Russian elites sanctioned for disinformation efforts across the Ukraine invasion. The position of his movies in Russia’s propaganda offensive, in the meantime, has in large part long gone unexamined.

Since mid-2020, the St. Petersburg–based totally movie corporate Aurum LLC, which lists Prigozhin as co-owner on Russian industry information, has produced no less than seven function movies that use Hollywood manufacturing tactics to fictionalize Russia’s international exploits. The Shugaley trilogy, for instance, claims to inform the real tale of Maxim Shugaley, who used to be arrested in Libya in 2019 for allegedly operating to elect the fugitive son of fallen dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The trilogy portrays Shugaley as a beleaguered sociologist preventing for freedom in opposition to a corrupt regime. This narrative used to be later followed by way of Russia’s overseas ministry, which used it to recommend for Shugaley’s eventual free up in past due 2020.


Aurum productions

Posters for Blazing Sun. The posters learn: “Donbass. Declassified facts. In theaters soon.”

Blazing Sun, every other Aurum manufacturing, lays out the “denazification” narrative that might later be used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Upon its free up, the movie “hit Ukraine” like an “information bomb,” stated Vladislav Berdichevsky, a pro-Kremlin overseas coverage and knowledge strategist, talking with Russian media closing August. The movie’s technique feels uncannily very similar to the Biden management’s prediction that Russia would use “a very graphic propaganda video,” whole with actors and elaborate manufacturing tactics, as a pretext for an invasion.

“It is very, very eerie to see how closely that movie’s narrative tracks with the story being pushed by the Russian state right now,” stated Jack Margolin, program director at DC’s Center for Advanced Defense Studies. He famous that the movie used to be most probably a part of a bigger undertaking “to demonize Ukrainians as either Nazis or Western pawns and consequently justify intervention.” Ukraine’s govt it sounds as if is of the same opinion; in November, it banned the filmography of greater than 30 actors and group individuals concerned within the movie’s manufacturing, bringing up nationwide safety issues.

“It is very, very eerie to see how closely that movie’s narrative tracks with the story being pushed by the Russian state right now.”

The movie used to be resurrected within the aftermath of the invasion, with on-line posters for it strewn throughout Russian propaganda websites along banner advertisements for a “Stop Nazism” hotline, imploring citizens of Ukraine to “share the truth about all the crimes that are happening now and have been happening for the past eight years.” By March 2022, the movie’s adventure had come complete circle, when Lt. Col. Andrey Marochko — every other key participant in Russia’s army arsenal — informed Russian media that Ukrainian infantrymen must be proven the movie as a result of they’d been in an “information vacuum.”

The propaganda effort has coincided with the Kremlin’s fresh crackdown on Russia’s unbiased information media. For months, Prigozhin and lesser-known Russian figures, together with Shugaley and anti-globalization activist Alexander Ionov, have filed a string of proceedings and court cases in opposition to unbiased Russian information retailers akin to Meduza and Ekho Moskvy, in some instances leading to them being classified “foreign agents” and inhibiting their skill to paintings inside of Russia. Last yr, Prigozhin informed Meduza that “foreign agents” are “enemies of the people” and must be shot.

Last week, Russia’s State Duma handed a sweeping new legislation banning all content material that demanding situations the Kremlin’s respectable line on Ukraine. According to the New York Times, the crackdown has led to a couple Ukrainians dealing with a backlash from kinfolk in Russia who’ve purchased into Putin’s narrative.


Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS by the use of Getty Images

Russian State Duma member Maria Butina attends a congress of the United Russia celebration.

Maria Butina, a State Duma member convicted in the USA in 2018 for performing as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin, informed BuzzFeed News that she felt the brand new legislation used to be justified as a result of “fake news and giving people untruthful and fake information is very bad.” Those who ruin the legislation, she stated, “are criminals [and] should be in jail.”

Butina showed that she these days advises Shugaley’s pro-Kremlin assume tank, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, which used to be sanctioned by way of the USA Treasury Department closing yr for allegedly “supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations.”

Reached for remark, Prigozhin mocked our questions and threatened to dam additional inquiries.

If Blazing Sun presentations how Prigozhin’s movies exploit and affect real-world occasions, the promotional marketing campaign for every other fresh Prigozhin movie presentations how elaborate Russia’s troll techniques have grow to be.

The sixteenth, launched in November 2021, provides satirical comedy to Prigozhin’s repertoire. In the movie, the Internet Research Agency is reimagined as a small workforce of toy manufacturing unit staff who should devise a sequence of an increasing number of outlandish schemes with a view to pay off a debt — however finally end up accidentally swaying the 2016 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s desire.

The movie’s advertising and marketing marketing campaign used US social media websites to unfold and advertise movies very similar to those who appear to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Remarkably, it additionally integrated house movies — bought by the use of Cameo — of Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani that have been repurposed to make it seem that they have been congratulating the movie’s fictional protagonist on his good fortune. The content material used to be then used to generate headlines throughout dozens of Russian-language state media websites.

One video, posted on Nov. 6 from a Twitter account with the title Jay Belichick, claimed to depict a joint raid by way of the FBI and the NYPD of New York’s Angelika Film Center right through the premiere screening of the movie, whole with a dozen brokers and no less than one attendee being forcibly got rid of from their seat.

Twenty-two mins later, a Twitter person by way of the title of Jason Devine posted a 2d video of the similar incident, ostensibly filmed from a unique seat within the theater.

Within hours, tales with headlines like “New York Police Disrupted the Premiere of Prigozhin’s Film” and “Militiamen Interfered With the Premiere of Prigozhin’s Film” started stoning up on websites like Riafan.ru, Polit.data, and different outstanding retailers which might be a part of Patriot Media Group, a Russian media conglomerate whose board of trustees is led by way of Prigozhin.

“The Angelika did not host any such screening of a film with any variation of this title and based on the footage, this is definitely not our location,” a spokesperson for the theater informed BuzzFeed News. (The FBI and NYPD didn’t go back requests for remark.)

“​​Prigozhin-linked groups create fake social media accounts, and then embed manufactured quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news outlets.”

A opposite symbol seek unearths that Belichick’s Twitter profile picture and bio belong to Jay Mula, an Atlanta–based totally radio host who informed BuzzFeed News that he just lately misplaced get entry to to the account after it used to be hacked. Twitter showed that Mula’s account were compromised however stated it had discovered no proof of Russian involvement. The web page due to this fact suspended 4 similar accounts that promoted the video, together with one account that in the past belonged to a Guyanese girl who died in 2018. The web page declined to remark additional, bringing up its platform manipulation and junk mail coverage.

“​​Prigozhin-linked groups create fake social media accounts, and then embed manufactured quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news outlets,” stated Shelby Grossman, a most sensible analysis student at Stanford Internet Observatory. “It’s a new addition to Prigozhin’s deceptive propaganda toolkit. We have seen Prigozhin-linked entities creating fake Twitter accounts for this purpose to push narratives about Syria, Central African Republic, and Libya.”

In a just lately printed find out about, Grossman famous that Twitter had suspended a community of fifty accounts extensively reported to be connected to Prigozhin’s troll manufacturing unit for equivalent conduct. Though not one of the tweets had prime engagement, the statement they supplied “could be pushed out to entirely different audiences to illustrate supposed points of view from real people about important and often divisive political and policy issues,” the find out about stated.

The fresh emergence of such techniques, Grossman informed BuzzFeed News, “may be in part due to the cat-and-mouse game [Prigozhin is] playing with the platforms and the need to evolve to avoid detection.”

BuzzFeed News noticed a variation of the similar technique enjoying out throughout Russian state media, through which unsuspecting celebrities akin to Charlie Sheen and Dolph Lundgren recorded messages of toughen for characters from Prigozhin’s movies, inspiring extra headlines again house. (Sheen and Lundgren didn’t reply to a request for remark.)

Enter Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani.

In November, the 2 males recorded non-public movies that have been recast to make it seem they have been celebrating “Uncle Nick,” a wholly fictional persona in The sixteenth who, at 6 years outdated, single-handedly outwits all of the FBI and destroys American democracy.

“Never abandon your path, and America will be proud of you,” Giuliani says in one in every of two movies addressed to the fictitious persona.

Rudy Giuliani in a Cameo message: “Never abandon your path, and America will be proud of you.”

Provided to BuzzFeed News

Donald Trump Jr. in a Cameo message: “Keep helping your brother to stand for what’s right and I hope you get that new house.”

Provided to BuzzFeed News

As with Belichick’s tweet, the movies have been later embedded into tales printed throughout Patriot Media’s community of state media websites.

“The ex-president’s son and politician Giuliani congratulated ‘Uncle Nick’ from the movie ‘16th’ on his birthday,” learn one headline on Rueconomics.ru. A photograph caption at the article claimed that the lads have been impressed to file their movies after being “among the first viewers of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s film ‘16th.’”

Giuliani’s Cameo web page unearths that his video used to be in reality a paid fee. Cameo didn’t reply to repeated requests for remark.


Screenshot by the use of экономика

A screenshot of faux tale that incorporates banners for the Sunshine movie and Stop Nazism hotline.

US people and entities are prohibited from transacting with Prigozhin whilst he’s below sanctions. Trump Jr. and Giuliani, who charged upward of $5,000 in step with Cameo request on the time they recorded their movies, didn’t reply to a couple of requests for remark.

Prigozhin, in the meantime, denied any involvement in any of the movies discussed on this article, pushing aside questions on them as “boorish and offensive.”

“[Your] questions are purely provocative, and since I am immersed in the plot of the film ‘16th’ and understand what it is about, I can say with confidence that what you are asking about has nothing to do with the movie,” he wrote from his reported VK social media account. “And so these questions are not for me, but for Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and the Angelika cinema.”

Prigozhin spoke back to BuzzFeed News together with his personal record of questions — together with “What moment did you like the most in the movie 16th?”

Prigozhin spoke back to BuzzFeed News together with his personal record of questions — together with “What moment did you like the most in the movie 16th?” — which he cross-posted to VK. Patriot Media and different Kremlin-friendly propaganda websites due to this fact printed greater than two dozen articles with headlines claiming that Prigozhin had “trolled American journalists” together with his personal “uncomfortable questions.”

BuzzFeed News didn’t go back Prigozhin’s request for remark.

“I definitely think we could make the case that Prigozhin is behind the Angelika and the Cameo vids — theatricality, trolling Western figures,” Margolin informed BuzzFeed News. They’re “reminiscent of what [the Internet Research Agency has] pulled against political targets in Russia.”

Stylistically and strategically, those efforts additionally endure a putting similarity to faked movies now being unfold by way of Russia’s state media, in step with the Biden management’s caution previous to closing month’s invasion.

One video, for instance, posted on Telegram on Feb. 18 by way of Donetsk separatists, ostensibly depicted Ukrainian infantrymen looking to blow up a chlorine garage facility within the war-torn town of Horlivka. Russian state media websites together with TASS and Ria Novosti claimed that video were salvaged from the frame of a useless soldier. But as one web sleuth’s metadata research presentations, the video seemed to had been created 12 days previous and integrated dubbed audio pulled from a couple of resources. Other fresh movies, ostensibly depicting Donetsk and Luhansk separatists foiling an try to blow up a bridge and ordering an emergency evacuation, seemed to make use of equivalent techniques.

But if Prigozhin turns out willing to distance himself from such efforts, assume once more. Writing on VK on Sunday, he referred to as on Russian actors, administrators, and composers to take part in movies that “take the right position and speak in a patriotic way about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where Russia is saving the world.”

He added that he had steered Patriot Media reporters to submit “words of support for our army, songs for the glory of the army, and poems for the glory of the army.”

“Gather together,” he proclaimed. “The time has come!” ●

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