The Online Psychological War in Ukraine
Using SMAT’s Telegram data related to the invasion of Ukraine and as part of our bounty program outlined in the post called Kremlin Hunting, we have performed an in-depth investigation into a form of emergent cross-platform propaganda surrounding the phrase “cargo 200.” Additionally, we are excited to use this opportunity to begin to highlight some of the network investigation and visualization technology we have been developing.
The posting of deceased Russian soldiers has provided proof to the world that Ukraine has had success in defending their country. Days into the invasion, Putin had still not acknowledged that he had lost troops.
Since Russia began the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, both countries have been waging an information war in addition to the traditional war. It has been crucial for Russia and Ukraine to outwardly appear strong to keep the morale of their soldiers and citizens high.
The majority of Russians are still in support of the invasion, but protests opposing the invasion have been widespread. This is especially significant for a country where speaking against the government can be dangerous.
As a country with a population of 44 million and a GDP of $155.082 billion compared to Russia’s population of 142 million and GDP of $1702.361 billion, Ukraine is facing a more difficult challenge (via CIA World Factbook). They must not only keep the spirits of their countrymen high, but also gain support in Russia and other countries to stand a chance in this war.
To fight against the more populous and wealthy country, Ukrainians have been aggressively pursuing all possible avenues of support, from obtaining weapons from previously neutral countries to crowdsourcing a cyber offensive to attack critical Russian websites. They also have been drawing sympathy to their cause while demonstrating that they have been doing a good job of defending against the invasion. The posting of dead Russian soldiers has provided proof to the world that Ukraine has been successfully defending their country. Days into the invasion, Putin had still not acknowledged that he had lost troops.
After capturing or killing Russian soldiers, the Ukrainian government has been publicly posting images of the soldiers and their government-issued IDs. Ukraine is saying that they’re doing this to help Russian families find their loved ones, but this also helps them demonstrate that they have been successfully defending against the invasion. One week into the invasion, Russia finally acknowledged that they had suffered loss of troops. It had become much more difficult for them to continue denying that they had suffered losses after photographs of deceased Russian soldiers began circulating over Twitter, Telegram, and other media platforms.
Origins of the Phrase “Cargo 200”
In the USSR’s Order No. 200 during the USSR’s Soviet-Afghan War, a deceased soldier’s cargo weight was set at 200 kg. Since then, “Cargo 200” has been used to refer to deceased Russian soldiers by both opponents of Russia and the Russian military themselves.
For example, it was reported in 2018 that Russian vans bearing the words “Cargo 200” were crossing the Ukraine-Russia border during a conflict in Donetsk.
Due to the term’s association with defeated Russian soldiers, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs has been using “Cargo 200” for media accounts used to post the photographs and videos of the KIA (killed in action) and POW (prisoner of war) soldiers. Below is a graph displaying the frequency of the term “Груз 200” (Russian/Ukrainian for “Cargo 200”) on the messaging service Telegram in the past year.
With the goal of increasing morale in Ukraine and decreasing it in Russia by demonstrating military success, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs created the Cargo 200 campaign. The campaign has been primarily gaining attention on Telegram, but they also have a website, YouTube channel, and a Twitter account. Here’s a quick look at their various platforms.
On February 26, 2022, Виктор Андрусив (Victor Andrusiv) and other employees working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs created the “rf200_now” Telegram channel to share photographs and videos of KIA and POW Russian soldiers. As of March 18, the channel has over 865,000 subscribers. The first post in the channel was on February 26 at 12:30 GMT (below). It is a video of two POWs answering questions.
Linked in the description of the rf200_now channel, the Telegram channel “rf200_info_bot” is a way to request information about POWs and KIAs. When you click on the channel link, the /start command is executed and a few lines are output with instructions on how to start using the bot.
After a name is provided, other information is requested like an email address, Viber, Telegram, or WhatsApp. The questions asked by the bot are similar to the ones asked on the Google Form linked on the 200rf.com site.
Interestingly, the rf200_now channel reported attacks on the bot in the below post from March 8th.
There is also a website with the domain name 200rf.com. It contains eight embedded YouTube videos, a link to the rf200_now Telegram channel, a Google Form, and an email address (email@example.com). Though some of the links on the site have been updated, they have not added additional embedded YouTube videos beyond the originals posted on February 27th.
The website was first released on February 26th, two days after the invasion began. From the Wayback Machine’s results for 200rf.com, we can see it was first archived on February 26th at 18:37:22 GMT.
In the screen capture of the 200rf.com site, there is an button linking to a Google form that Russians can fill out to request information about relatives who went to Ukraine. This is similar to the rf200_info_bot Telegram channel.
The Cargo 200 YouTube is less active and less frequently followed than their Telegram, but as of March 18th, they still have 5.64k subscribers and over 2 million total views on their videos. Their first video was posted on February 27 at 18:50:30 UTC. In that video, Виктор Андрусив (Victor Andrusiv) who is an advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, says that they created the 200rf.com website for Russian families to find their loved ones.
The Cargo 200 Twitter is also significantly less followed than the Telegram, with only 2.5k followers as of March 13, 2022. They made their first post on February 27, 2022 at 12:28 UTC.
Rather than posting incrementally, this account has been posting images and videos in big batches. For example, there were no posts on March 4th-6th, but dozens were posted on March 7th. And after the 7th, it was not until March 12th that additional posts were made. This is very different from the Cargo 200 Telegram, where many posts are made each day.
Telegram Content & Narrative Analysis
With over 865,000 subscribers on Telegram, and more than 800 posts, 50 of which have over 1,000,000 views each, the Ukrainian government has successfully created a far-reaching, carefully created campaign. However, the practice of uploading images and videos of POWs is controversial, with some arguing it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Ukraine has been seeking to decrease the morale of Russian soldiers and citizens while encouraging surrender and civil unrest. They also are trying to gather sympathy and gratitude for the Ukrainian cause. In this section, we will examine how the Ukrainian government has used the Cargo 200 Telegram account to further these goals.
Inspiring Fear in Russian Soldiers and Their Families
As a phrase originally used to refer to a dead Soviet soldier, Cargo 200 is terrifying for Russians. See the below Telegram post in the force3ua channel on March 7th for an example of Cargo 200 being used colloquially.
As of March 16, the Cargo 200 Telegram has posted 634 photos and 321 videos. Though some of the posts are infographics and other invasion-related news, almost all are photos and videos of the Russian soldiers, or their government-issued identification if their bodies are unrecognizably damaged.
With the Cargo 200 Telegram account posting dozens upon dozens of dead bodies to substantiate the Ukrainian claims of significant Russian casualties, Putin’s claims that he had lost zero were doubted. On March 2nd, one week into the invasion, Russia finally put out their first casualty estimates - 498 dead and 1,597 wounded.
The Cargo 200 Telegram has also been posting pictures of the Russian soldiers alive and happy before they were killed in the invasion. Seeing the soldiers as the young, whole men that they were helps Ukraine further villainize the Russian government that sent them to Ukraine where they would die.
Not many of the Russian soldiers have a cell phone with them in Ukraine, so they likely can’t see the Cargo 200 campaign. But a significant number of Russians do have Telegram installed (61% according to a 2021 Deloitte survey), so they could view the rf200_now channel if they wanted. The Russian government can attempt to block websites in Russia, but as long as Russians are allowed to use Telegram, the government cannot block specific channels like rf200_now.
Incentives to Surrender
The Ukrainian government has offered 5 million rubles and full amnesty for Russian soldiers that surrender. In a Facebook post, Резніков Олексій (Oleksii Reznikov), the Minister of Defense of Ukraine, addressed the Russian soldiers and officers in a Facebook post on February 28. Here is the English translation of his post that he provided:
As further incentive to surrender, the Cargo 200 Telegram channel has been emphasizing that they treat their captives well. When the captive is injured, they are given hospital beds and bandages. Most of the captives also appear to not be bound with ropes or chains, and are not in prison cells.
They also have been posting videos of the Russian soldiers calling their parents, which provides further indication that the captives are treated well and do not have to fear surrendering. This helps garner support for the Ukrainians too because in these videos they appear to be treating POWs of the invading, aggressor country with respect.
In the below video posted on the Cargo 200 Telegram, a POW calls his mother and cries when she says she wants him to come home. He tells her the entire battalion died and she needs to contact the other mothers. He also says that the Russians are not properly taking care of the bodies of the fallen and are killing the wounded.
Appealing to the Relatives of Russian Soldiers
In addition to giving the Russian POWs phone calls to family members, the Ukrainian government has also been actively offering to help Russian families who are seeking information about their relatives involved in the invasion. One way they have been doing this is by posting unit numbers of KIA or POW Russian soldiers.
The families of those sent to invade Ukraine are afraid, with one mother of a prisoner of war asking, “Whose door should I knock on to get my child back?” On March 3rd, the Ukrainian government told Russian mothers that they could come to Kiev to pick up their captured sons. Usually POWs are exchanged, so the Ukrainians offering to freely give back POWs if their mothers came to pick them up was a strategic move that should make Russian families feel gratitude for Ukraine’s generosity.
The rf200_now channel operates in a diverse Telegram ecosystem of both pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia channels. This creates an opportunity for pro-Kremlin channels to dispute the content shared in rf200 in order to defend their side of this specific information war. The opposite also occurs, and we observed instances where pro-Ukraine channels re-amplify rf200 content in order to extend the reach of their mission. For this analysis, we utilized Telegram channels related to the conflict that the SMAT community has stance labeled (Pro-UA, Pro-RU, etc.) in our public Google sheet.
We explore both of these situations using SMAT’s real-time streaming network database of Telegram metadata.
Russian Propaganda Channels Deny Losses
The popular pro-Russia disinformation channel Warfakes, as reported on by DRFLab, has been disputing the legitimacy of the content posted in rf200_now. In the below post on February 26th, Warfakes asserted that the reports that Russia had lost soldiers was false. Five days later, Putin would report that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed so far in the invasion.
To begin, we investigated instances where the media originating from rf200_now spread into other Telegram channels. As mentioned above, the content shared in rf200_now is typically evidence of Russian soldiers who are POWs or KIA.
Using the labeled channel stance metadata we see that most instances of media sharing are across channels that we don’t currently have labels for. The second largest instance are channels labeled as pro-UA (Ukraine). There is an instance where a piece of media content was shared in chvkmedia, a pro-Kremlin political and military news aggregator channel.
Other examples of media forwards include dissemination of rf200 content by both pro-UA groups and weapons archival users. In addition to directly disputing media content, pro-Kremlin actors have spun up copycat channels attempting to misdirect those looking for the original rf200 channel.
We also utilized SMAT’s emerging network graph tooling to investigate co-sharing links that originated from rf200_now. Some examples of these are direct links to the rf200_now Telegram channel itself, to the rf200 website, or to their YouTube channel. Using SMAT’s channel stance labels we can see that messages containing these links were only forwarded to channels that are labeled as pro-UA or do not have a label at all. Additional research is required to look into whether the unlabeled channels actually have a pro-Kremlin stance.
The figure above shows numbered clusters of messages that were forwarded or posted across channels which contain any links that were also linked in rf200_now. For example, message cluster #44 contains messages that contain “200rf.com”. We can see that the 10 Telegram channels that received these messages did not receive any messages containing any of the other links - in other words, their only reference to rf200_now was via the website link. A similar situation is true of the channels in message cluster #6 which only received messages that contained a link to the rf200_now Telegram channel, but did not contain messages with any other link. We suspect this is because the majority of these channels already have subscriber overlap with one another and so direct links to channels isn’t necessary unless sharing for the first time. We welcome additional research into this.
As the world reaches new eras of online and offline warfare, the study of information warfare holds an even greater importance. This blog post shows how Russia’s efforts to hide their KIA and POW numbers, alongside Ukraine’s efforts to expose them has created a new vector of war. This information war flourishes on fringe platforms like Telegram in ways that could be materially impacting the war. Using emerging technology we can archive and understand this complex relationship between online and offline harm as well as ask deeper ethical questions about warfare in the modern era.
Majority of this research was conducted utilizing SMAT’s media server, network graph database, and public API.
Please get in touch with us if you’d like to receive access to the media server. Researchers and journalists can sort up to date images, videos, etc. from the front line of the war in Ukraine. We hope to contribute to war crimes archival efforts.
The public API (application programming interface) makes it simple to query content from rf200_now or other channels mentioned in this article.
Lastly, SMAT has begun building a network graph representation of all of our collected data, starting with Telegram. This allowed us to quickly find media and links shared by rf200_now across all of our Telegram collections. We now have the ability to do similar analysis in other sites we crawl, including the Eastern European social networking service VK. This system will also give the native ability to build cross-platform relationships.