Since its unprovoked military aggression against Ukraine, Russia has inundated the world with misinformation and disinformation in efforts to justify its military operations and to claim its strict observance of the rules of warfare.
Unsurprisingly, many of these efforts have often been penetrated due to the poor and blatant construction exposed by the mainstream Western mass media that perhaps interact closely with the intelligence circles.
But this hardly means that Western governments and the mass media are bona fide disseminators of war information that are free from distortion and manipulation. This is because, in the modern and contemporary history of war, government propaganda is a commonplace.
It is instrumental to mobilize, sustain and strengthen domestic and international support for war efforts, particularly when magnified by mass media. An underdog country can use such propaganda to enhance international support, especially through provision of weapons, ammunition, logistics and, if feasible, reinforcements, to complement its inferior war capability, as well as economic sanction against the top dog country.
On the other hand, the latter can employ such a propaganda to enhance popular morale and supplement resource mobilization capacity.
In fact, Western government war propaganda and the mainstream mass media reports have established a predominant international opinion that sides sympathetically with Ukraine as the innocent underdog. This is particularly because numerous video footage has lively covered massive exoduses of Ukrainian women and children to neighbouring countries, missile bombardment and other forms of shelling against urban residential areas, and vivid images of killed and injured non-combatants as well as combatants, among others.
Unfortunately, timely open-source information on evolving operational and tactical realities is limited, partial, unbalanced and/or, biased, possibly with intentional distortions and manipulations. Yet, the reports seem to prove atrocities committed by the Russian invasion forces, demonizing these forces and President Vladimir Putin at the levels of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.
Yet, war propaganda becomes unplausible and ineffective, especially when detached from evolving battlefield realities. Until then, war propaganda surely hampers coolheaded analysis and appropriate policy prescription on how to end a war, while unnecessarily protracting warfare involving a significantly higher death toll and further destruction.
In this light, this study will cast some different light on the tenability of the predominant factual recognition and discourse in mainstream Western mass media. The first jus in bello cases is about Western allegation of atrocities committed by the Russian side against Ukrainian non-combatants, particularly under the condition of extremely fierce urban warfare in the cities of Mariupol and Bucha. The second jus ad bellum case is about Russian allegation of U.S.-assisted biological weapon R&D in Ukraine.
These cases are particularly important because most of Western news and reports have flatly turned down Russian counterparts as misinformation and disinformation, without any serious examination. Certainly, the current author of this piece does not enjoy any privileged access to classified information but only to open sources. Yet, careful examination of open-source materials, including Russian and alternative media sources, may make it possible to identify blind assumptions and invalid judgements in the current dominant Western discourse, if not to present correct facts and cogent judgements.
1. The Mariupol Case
1) The Context
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated in his on-line speech of March 23 to the Japanese Diet that several thousand Ukrainian civilians, including 121 children, had been killed, together with nine million refugees and internally displaced civilians. This unexpectedly low level of death toll may indicate that Russian invasion forces exercised certain self-restraint in attacking civilians, except collateral damage.
In fact, Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and a Senior Advisor to Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller, stated that, despite the strong impression generated by the repeated exposure to video footage, President Vladimir Putin strictly ordered from the outset of the war to avoid killing civilians and destroying urban areas as much as possible.
This is consistent with his historical outlook on the triune Russian national identity – White, Little and Great Russians (respectively, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Russians), characterized by strong historical unity and brotherhood. Naturally, it begs the question of why the Russian forces killed many Ukrainian civilians and severely destroyed urban residential areas in Ukraine, involving an inscrutable disjunction between Putin’s own creed and practice.
Extremely fierce urban warfare, especially in the City of Mariupol, is a natural consequence of the stark disparity of Russian and Ukrainian military power, to which both sides have even introduced foreign volunteer fighters and mercenaries. With its overwhelming superiority, the Russian invasion forces neutralized a significant portion of main high-end platforms, assets and on-ground facilities of the Ukrainian armed forces at the initial stage of the current war, including air superiority fighters, major battle tanks and the command & control systems.
This is consistent with numerous video footage available in public domain that primarily captures Ukrainian infantry operations with portable anti-tank missiles for close combat and low-altitude anti-air missiles, while few high-end platforms are visible. In fact, the Russian Defence Ministry said that, soon after the start of the war, the Russian forces totally destroyed Ukrainian Air Force combat aircraft while some of them escaped to Poland and Romania. Reportedly, the Russia forces destroyed 974 Ukrainian tanks and other armoured vehicles just for the first three weeks.
No wonder, MacGregor judged that the Ukrainian units still active “(were) completely surrounded, cut off and isolated in various town and cities”, with supplies likely running out soon. Ukrainian infantry and special operation forces in Mariupol were cornered at bay without reinforcement nor air cover. An Azov Battalion commander there vainly urged the U.S.-led NATO to make armed intervention against Russia, especially to set an effective no-fly zone over Ukraine, while attributing a grave humanitarian crisis in the making to Russia。
2) Who attacked the maternity hospital and the drama theatre?
The Ukrainian government strongly condemned Russia for its military attack against a maternity hospital in Mariupol on March 17, which injured 17 people including women, children and doctors, with at least five of them dead thereafter. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov justified the attack because an Azov Battalion unit turned the hospital to a combat base, claiming the victims as unavoidable and lawful collateral damage.
Surprisingly, the pregnant woman on spotlight in the reports later disclosed that Ukrainian soldiers used the hospital as base while holding these civilians as human shield against Russian forces, suggesting that the incident was an act of self-destruct and a false flag operation by the Ukraine’s side. This is compatible with other fragmentary video footage that capture how Ukrainian civilians in Mariupol have been used as human shield and prevented from leaving the city.
Also, the Ukrainian government alleged, echoed aloud by major Western mass media, that, on March 16, a Russian airstrike dropped a powerful bomb on the Mariupol Drama Theatre sheltering some 1,300 local residents, including women and children, and despite large signs of “children” that were clearly visible from aircraft. Reportedly, the death toll reached at least to 300.
The Russian government flatly denied the allegation and instead accused the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, of blowing up the theatre building. This is compatible with the interview of a 17- year-old female survivor of the incident with the Abkhazian Network News Agency, who eye-witnessed Azov soldiers hiding themselves behind civilian hostages in the building.
More specifically, a Russian military spokesman stated that Azov Battalion units held civilian hostages in the theatre building as human shield, using the upper floor as firing points. This means that the Russian attack aimed at these units, involving significant civilian casualties as collateral damage during the engagement. This is a plausible account on what happened, particularly given the very similar circumstances of the above hospital case.
It is now crucially important to inquire what the Azov Battalion is all about and if the troop has the established notoriety of committing such atrocities.
3）The Azov Battalion
The Azov Battalion is now a part of the Ukrainian National Guard, which is the country’s gendarmerie under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Its name originates from the fact that it has been based in Mariupol in the Azov Sea costal region since 2014, first as a volunteer militia that fought against Russian separatist forces in the Donbas War and later in the same year incorporated into the National Guard while expanded in scale into a regiment.
As Russia labels it as neo-Nazis, it in fact uses controversial symbols resembling the Nazis SS Wolfsangel, though it denies any connection with Nazism. Yet, in 2015, an Azov spokesman disclosed 10-20% of units consisted of neo-Nazis members. The concern over the Azov is serious enough to the extent that the U.S. Congress enacted a legislative measure, Consolidated Appropriation Bill of 2018, to ban military aids to the paramilitary due to its white supremacist ideology and neo-Nazism.
The Azov has faced serious allegations of committing torture and war crimes, including the grossly under investigated case of the 2014 Odessa Clashes in which some 50 pro-Russia separatists were killed. In fact, the U.N. Human Rights Office of High Commissioner published reports that connect the Azov Battalion to war crimes such as mass looting, unlawful detention, and torture. Clearly. Russia’s counter-allegations on the above atrocities in Mariupol are at least compatible with an established understanding on Azov’s behavioural pattern connected to war crimes.
Actually, Russia’s emphasis and Western de-emphasis on the Azov Battalion is obscurely central to their intensified exchanges of war propaganda and counter-propaganda, on the ground that the paramilitary has constituted a major U.S instrument of covert military intervention in Russia-Ukraine armed conflict. More specifically, the CIA had a secret advisory and training program for Ukrainian paramilitaries and militias, most probably including the Azov, for eight years until shortly before the start of the current war, despite the aforementioned legislative ban.
The CIA has had training centres in the U.S. and eastern Ukraine for sniper techniques, anti-tank missile handling, covert communications, and other tactics necessary for insurgency and counter-insurgency. Thus, the issue of the Azov Battalion cannot simply be reduced to the question of war crimes, but can only be fully comprehended in the context of a U.S.-Russia proxy war over the Donbas region that is central to NATO expansion to Ukraine and determination of their spheres of interest.
2. The Bucha Case
A similar suspicion of war propaganda is not easily excludable, with a focus on the atrocities allegedly committed by the Russian armed forces against local Ukrainian civilians in the city of Bucha. Major Western governments and the mainstream mass media are condemning, with strongest terms, the unspeakable atrocities against local Ukrainian civilians on the way of retreat after hard battles to vainly capture Kiev.
However, on March 31 when the Russian forces left the city, its mayor did not at all mention of the atrocities in an interview with a Ukrainian on-line news site which is compatible with his bright expression in a selfie video taken on the same day. On April 2, when Ukrainian army forces entered the city to make sure of a complete retreat of the Russian forces, the video footage by a local news media captured no corpse on roads and no sign of emotional distress among the local population.
On April 1, Azov Battalion troops entered the city, and on April 3, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence released video footage as evidence of the atrocities committed by the Russian forces, which neither the New York Times nor the Pentagon are independently able to verify the assertion of the Ministry. In addition, in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and the U.K. blocked Russia’s proposal to send an independent fact-finding mission to Ukraine.
Thus, there is a good possibility that the Azov Battalion might have fabricated or purposefully committed at least some parts of the “atrocities” by itself. (More specifically, to differentiate which camp they belong, pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian civilians wear blue or white armbands respectively. Many corpses in Bucha wore white armbands as in video footage available.
The Azov and/or other ultra-right militia units may have committed the atrocities out of emotional impulse, while the mass media and propaganda section of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs may have made up the scene to impute responsibilities of war crime to the Russian invasion forces. It should be reminded that the current war has the dimension of ethnic conflict as well as that of inter-state war.)
Given the leading role of BBC reports on this matter with the analysis of a satellite image, this begs the question of if the U.K. intelligence circles are engaged in elaborate war propaganda against Russia to mislead and manipulate other major Western governments and mass media.
3. The Case of Biological Weapon R&D
Possession of weapon of mass destruction by a revisionist power may constitute a casus bello of a status quo power, particularly when the latter sees the former’s move as its existential threat or serious threat against its vital national interests. Yet, legitimatizing a war has to satisfy some procedural requirements according to international law with presentation of solid evidence to the international society.
In this light, Russia’s allegation on Ukraine’s nuclear weapon programs is not tenable at all, at least at this point, due to its abrupt aggression against Ukraine without presenting any substantial evidence. Also, there are little significant related information in public domain, though Ukraine has active nuclear power plants with some substantial potential to develop nuclear weapons as the country was part of the Soviet Union.
But Russia’s accusation of U.S.-assisted biological weapon R&D in Ukraine, as articulated with a trove of original documentation by Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov, Commander of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troop of the Russian Army, is not totally deniable but seems plausible with open-source information.
Most remarkably, Victoria Nuland, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, admitted the existence of biolaboratories in Ukraine under the bilateral cooperative programs of the U.S. Defence Threat Reduction Agency during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, while the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department unequivocally denied U.S.-funded biological weapon laboratories in Ukraine.
In addition, an official letter from an official in charge at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence to a project manager of Black & Veatch, a DTRA contractor, attests to their significant collaborative research relationship, while another official letter from an official in charge at the DTRA office in Kiev to an official in charge at the Ukraine Ministry Defence indicates their clear awareness of the potential usefulness of their research collaboration for biological weapon development.
Certainly, the Agency’s Biological Threat Reduction Programs may serve bona fide statutory purposes, not designed to contribute to virus and other biological weapon R&D. Yet, suspicion remains, given that the offense and defence of biological warfare is generally the head and tail of similar biological weapon technologies while there is no clear demarcation line between military and civil research in most advanced virus and other biological R&D that involves genetic manipulation.
The lack of confidence in the sectoral culture has recently become worse because Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President Joseph Biden, hid the fact before a Senate hearing that the EcoHealth Alliance, New York City-based non-profit organization, funnelled U.S. public funds to gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses at China’s Wuhan lab, making it feasible to bypass stringent domestic regulations and strict public eyes. The experiment is suspected potentially useful for biological weapon R&D, and a virus leak from the lab might have been a primary cause of the current COVIT-19 pandemic.
Hitherto, this investigative inquiry has cast significant doubt and suspicion on the established Western discourse that sided uncritically with Ukraine in its war against hyper-demonized Russia, almost exclusively on the basis of Western government war information and mass media reports, and without carefully checking Russian reports.
Of course, Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine is utterly indisputable, and a great number of innocent Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the current war, either in atrocity or collateral damage. But who killed how many civilians and in what ways is not self-evident as reported in the Western media, especially in the context of ethnic conflict and urban warfare as the world learnt from gross information manipulation in the former Yugoslavia ethnic conflict.
It is increasingly necessary to check Western reports carefully against Russian ones, while verifying the authenticity of allegedly “original” U.S. documents presented by the Russian government and mass media. The U.S. government will be accountable, if verified.
Inundated with propaganda and counter-propaganda both by the West and Russia day after day, both political leaders and the public in the West will suffer self-poisoning effect of the hyper-demonized image of Russia on making coolheaded policy analysis. It is high time that the Western governments and mainstream mass media recalibrate war propaganda and counter-propaganda, in view of the need to think of how to end the current war and to keep diplomatic channels open with Russia that would most unlikely capitulate, given that it is a nuclear power coequal to the United States.
About the author:
Prof. Dr. Masahiro Matsumura is Professor of International Politics and National Security, Faculty of Law, St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku). He is Member of IFIMES Council.
Ljubljana/Osaka, April 20, 2022
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.
 Despite the current image of an innocent victim, Ukraine has continually played a disturbing role to Asian and international security, particularly because it sold an ex-Soviet aircraft career, Varyag, as scrap to China, that has been already repaired and commissioned as the country’s first aircraft career, Liaoning; and because Ukraine has not effectively banned outflows of ballistic missile technologies to North Korea that has significantly contributed to the development of its nuclear weapon programs. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say”, New York Times, August 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/14/world/asia/north-korea-missiles-ukraine-factory.html.
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 Joseph P Chacko, “Ukrainian Airforce combat aircraft totally destroyed, some escaped to Poland and Romania, says Russia,” Frontier India, March 7, 2022, https://frontierindia.com/ukrainian-airforce-combat-aircraft-totally-destroyed-some-escaped-to-poland-and-romania-says-russia/.
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 “Former top Pentagon advisor Doug Macgregor on Russia-Ukraine war”, op.cit.
 “Official appeal of Azov commander, the major Denis Prokopenko, to the world community”, March 7, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ8KFqQWRbY.
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 An interview with Marianna Vyshemirskaya, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWn6I8cCAug.
 “Historic Theater Sheltering Mariupol Civilians Hit By Air Strike, Number Of Casualties Unknown”, Radio Free Europe, March 16, 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-mariupol-thearer-destroyed-strike/31756641.html. Tim Stelloh, “Satellite images show apparent devastation, hunger in Mariupol”, NBC News, March 30, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/satellite-images-show-apparent-devastation-hunger-mariupol-rcna22119.
 Max Blumenthal, “Was bombing of Mariupol theater staged by Ukrainian Azov extremists to trigger NATO intervention?”, Monthly Review Online, March 22, 2022, https://mronline.org/2022/03/22/was-bombing-of-mariupol-theater-staged-by-ukrainian-azov-extremists-to-trigger-nato-intervention.
 “Ukraine backtracks on Mariupol theater claims”, RT, March 18, 2022, https://www.rt.com/russia/552266-mariupol-theater-civilians-survived/.
 There are at least several major pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian militias, including those similar to the Azov Battalion. This study focuses primarily on the Azov as atypical example due the limited analytical purpose. Mitch Ruhl, “Paramilitary Forces in Ukraine: Matches to a Powder Keg”, Small Wars Journal, February 21, 2022, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/paramilitary-forces-ukraine-matches-powder-keg.
 “Azov Battalion”, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, https://stanford.app.box.com/s/7ocm1tlvp2uydbki04qiuph4oa5j8tg9.
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 Rebecca Kheel, “Congress bans arms to Ukraine militia linked to neo-Nazism”, Hill, March 27, 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/380483-congress-bans-arms-to-controversial-ukrainian-militia-linked-to-neo-nazis/.
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 “Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 November 2015 to 15 February 2016″, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, February 2016, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/UA/Ukraine_13th_HRMMU_Report_3March2016.pdf; and, “Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 February to 15 May 2016″, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, May 2016, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/UA/Ukraine_14th_HRMMU_Report.pdf.
 Ben Tobias, “War in Ukraine: Fourth Russian general killed – Zelensky”, BBC News, March 16, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60767664.
 Zach Dorfman, “CIA-trained Ukrainian paramilitaries may take central role if Russia invade”, Yahoo News, January 14, 2022, https://www.yahoo.com/news/cia-trained-ukrainian-paramilitaries-may-take-central-role-if-russia-invades-185258008.html.
 “Bucha liberated from Russian invaders – mayor”, UKRINFORM, April 1, 2022, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-ato/3445989-bucha-liberated-from-russian-invaders-mayor.html.
 “Scenes of desperation and death as the Russians retreat from suburbs outside Kyiv”, New York Times, April 2, 2022, 10:27 p.m. ET, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/04/03/world/ukraine-russia-war.
 Anushka Patil, April 3, 2022, 7:03 pm ET, Ibid. “Pentagon can’t independently confirm atrocities in Ukraine’s Bucha, official say”, Reuters, April 5, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/pentagon-cant-independently-confirm-atrocities-ukraines-bucha-official-says-2022-04-04/?fbclid=IwAR1rCp3Z1FlmsyaJhHP3L8roWIyS8OrFiOoDW2pVIwVzqoNPMblxw7THUDg.
 “Russia calls Security Council meeting over Bacha”, RT, April 3, 2022, https://www.rt.com/russia/553242-bucha-un-security-council/.
 “Russia and Ukraine trade accusations over Bucha civilian deaths (TIMELINE)”, RT, April 4, 2022, https://www.rt.com/russia/553274-bucha-war-crimes-allegations/.
 “If you are living in Bucha, please use blue arm band. don’t use white arm band like Russian”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFZar6DXD1Y. Nick Griffin, “MSM’s Bucha Tall Tale”, Sputnik International, April 5, 2022, https://sputniknews.com/20220405/msms-bucha-tall-tale-1094504500.html.
 “Bucha killings: Satellite image of bodies site contradicts Russian claims”, BBC News, April 6, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/60981238.
 “Russia, without evidence, says Ukraine making nuclear ‘dirty bomb’”, Reuters, March 6, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-without-evidence-says-ukraine-making-nuclear-dirty-bomb-2022-03-06/.
 “US biological facilities in #ukraine #russia #war”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYzmIIYfx4g.
 More than a dozen of DTRA documents on biolabs in Ukraine are archived though they had been removed from the official website of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. For the hyperlinks to them, see, Silviu Costinescu, “US ran gruesome bioweapon research in over 25 countries. Wuhan, tip of an iceberg”, June 3, 2021, https://silview.media/2021/06/03/us-ran-grewsome-bioweapon-research-in-over-25-countries-wuhan-tip-of-an-iceberg-ecohealth-alliance-implicated-again/.
 “What Victoria Nuland really said about biolaboratories in Ukraine”, EURORADIO, March 13, 2022, https://euroradio.fm/en/what-victoria-nuland-really-said-about-biolaboratories-ukraine.
 Ling Qiu “Theory about U.S.-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine is unfounded”, New York Time, March 12, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/03/12/world/ukraine-biolabs-media-claims/.
 Ilya Tsukanov, “Russian MoD Names Curator of Pentagon-Funded Biolabs in Ukraine, Releases Original Docs”, Sputnik International, March 17, 2022, https://sputniknews.com/20220317/russia-believes-components-of-biological-weapons-were-created-in-ukraine—mod-1093960475.html.
 Emily Crane, “NIH admits US funded gain-of-function in Wuhan — despite Fauci’s denials”, New York Post, October 21, 2021, https://nypost.com/2021/10/21/nih-admits-us-funded-gain-of-function-in-wuhan-despite-faucis-repeated-denials/#.
 Shinya Watanabe, “The Influence of the Nation-State on Art : The Case of the Former Yugoslavian Countries”,2004, http://www.shinyawatanabe.net/nationstate/thesis3.htm.