Why Russia’s Disinformation Is Now Focused Mainly on Its Own Population: Christo Grozev of Bellingcat  


As disinformation, and especially disinformation related to the war in Ukraine, has remained a major challenge, two notable speakers debated the issue in an online panel on 7 June 2023 within the conference The Role of Civil Society in Countering Disinformation and Promoting Media Literacy. The speakers were Christo Grozev, Investigative Journalist, Bellingcat and Ivan Krastev, Chair of the Board at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM), and the panel was moderated by Irina Nedeva, President of the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria and journalist at the Bulgarian National Radio.

Christo Grozev of Bellingcat starting argument was that “…we don’t see the full potential of the Russian war machine…” and “what we are seeing now is a level of maintenance, moderate disinformation”. The reason, according to Grozev, who spoke two weeks before the Wagner rebellion, is that “What is seen is that the disinformation machine in Russia, which includes such notable examples as the GRU special propaganda unit and obviously the privatized troll farms, they are focused currently on the domestic problem. They are focused on trying to prevent the disintegration of society and consolidation of society around the war.” Grozev thought that the disinformation machine and the Kremlin realized they cannot turn around world public opinion significantly in their favour and saw themselves in a “doomsday scenario”. Grozev added what they have “it’s a limited resource they cannot stretch forever.”

Christo Grozev’s arguments were confirmed by the subsequent June 2023 rebellion led by Yevgeni Prigozhin. The Russian propaganda machine seems to have been working initially to prevent fomenting of tensions within the country and then to deal with the fallout of the Wagner events.

The Russian disinformation operatives, focusing outside of Russia, according to Christo Grozev, do not think that they can convince anybody who’s not already pre-convinced of the righteousness of the Russian side in the war in changing their mind. Instead, the “maintenance” degree of misinformation was aimed at the generically called “useful idiots” or the people who were already aligned with the Russian narrative.

As the Russian propaganda does not believe it can convince the majorities of the population it is waging a just war in Ukraine, according to Christo Grozev, it gave up this narrative and instead started to peddle actively the narrative that it was the United States and NATO that pushed Russia into this war with the claim that “It’s not just war for Russia, but neither is it not without fault for the rest of the world.” This narrative seems to be taking hold among the so-called “sceptical users” of information in Europe and the US, said Grozev.

Christo Grozev thought that current Russian propaganda tactic, aimed at the world, Europe or the US, is to come up with “an alternative scenario” for each event in order to make it more “obscure and make it more difficult for disinterested audiences… mostly to make them tired, to make them confused.” Also, the audiences are presented with an alternative view they can choose to believe in in addition to the other reporting. Grozev considers that this was working and gave the Nova Kakhovka damn explosion on 6 June 2023 as an example. He thinks that “The investment of mental power to take positions early on in such a case, is overwhelming for the average reader and listener and they are going to park it out for later, and this topic will become displaced by another topic and it will never become a clear-cut answer for a large part of the population.”

Another narrative, according to Grozev, Russia’s disinformation is pushing is about Ukrainians causing trouble in Europe and elsewhere they found refuge in large numbers. “And this is also working as these are narratives to which most societies are susceptible because they don’t know better and they can be influenced one way or another quite fast”, concluded Grozev.

Christo Grozev spoke at the Special Talks panel along with Ivan Krastev. The panel was part of the The Role of Civil Society in Countering Disinformation and Promoting Media Literacy conference, which took place on 7-8 June 2023 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Organized by the Active Citizens Fund operators from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, the event brought together civil society organizations, activists, experts, government representatives, and other stakeholders to address the pressing challenges of disinformation and the need for the promotion of media literacy in Central and Eastern Europe. 60 participants from eight countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, and Slovakia – took part in the event.

You can watch the video of the talk of Christo Grozev on disinformation here.