RIGA, Latvia — As the world expresses outrage over mounting evidence that Russian troops slaughtered civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, officials in Moscow are denying Russian involvement and dismissing images of dead bodies as fraudulent.
The reaction was one of the starkest examples yet of the extreme propaganda the Kremlin is using to try to control the domestic narrative of a war that has obliterated Ukrainian cities and villages, killed thousands of Russian soldiers and turned Russia into a global outcast.
Some liberal Russian voices expressed grief over the reports and photos emerging from Bucha, where the local mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, told The Washington Post that about 270 residents had been buried in two mass graves. A Post photographer in Bucha on Sunday witnessed eight civilian corpses being placed in body bags. Two of them had their hands tied behind their backs.
“Each of us has a personal responsibility for what is happening,” Dmitry Aleshkovskiy, founder of a charitable group called Help Needed, wrote in a Facebook post about Bucha. “Some have more, some have less. I have it. And so do you, reader.”
But reaction from the Kremlin and its supporters grew more outlandish by the hour, as officials accused Kyiv and Western allies of staging the atrocities.
“The other day, another fake attack was launched in the city of Bucha,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised remarks Monday. “After the Russian military personnel left from there in accordance with plans and agreements, a few days later they staged this fake, which is being dispersed through all channels and social networks by Ukrainian representatives and their Western patrons.”
Konstantin Kosachev, deputy speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said there was “no doubt whatsoever that it was staged.”
“The fact that the Kyiv authorities organized it and are now hyping it up is a crime. And the fact that the West picks up this fabrication and adds maximum resonance to it, makes the West an accomplice of this cynical and immoral crime,” he said.
Some Russians said they didn’t think it was possible the killings could have been carried out by their military.
“I saw the video footage yesterday. It is so awful, I can’t believe it, I refuse to believe it. Russians could not have possibly done it,” said a 52-year-old engineer in Moscow who would give only his first name, Igor. He added: “I understand there might be civilian victims in any war. But what I saw in the video from Bucha is beyond any common sense. I don’t know who did it. If this is not fake, my brain refuses to accept it.”
That type of response is common these days among Russians, said Anton Shirikov, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies Russian state propaganda. The Kremlin’s misinformation “might not work in the sense that people believe everything, but people who are on the side of the government think that some of it must be true,” he said. Or they think, “We, the Russian army, cannot be that bad, so the other side must be bad.”
Citing a local witness, Human Rights Watch said in a report that Russian forces in Bucha rounded up five men on March 4 and summarily executed one of them. The witness said the soldiers “forced the five men to kneel on the side of the road, pulled their T-shirts over their heads, and shot one of the men in the back of the head,” according to the report.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called Russian actions in Bucha “genocide,” while President Biden said that evidence emerging from Bucha showed that he was right when he previously called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Video posted to social media on Saturday and verified by The Post showed at least nine bodies, including one child, lying in the street in Bucha, north of Kyiv, after Russian forces retreated at the end of March. One, still atop a bicycle, lies at the corner of an intersection. Others are huddled together on the side of the road.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday also dismissed video footage emerging from Bucha as fake.
“From what we have seen — the video materials — in many ways they cannot be trusted, because our specialists from the Ministry of Defense have revealed signs of video fraud and various fakes,” Peskov told journalists during a briefing.
Russia’s Defense Ministry labeled the reports of alleged atrocities a “provocation,” saying that while Russian forces controlled Bucha, “not a single local resident has suffered from any violent action.”
Some of the most bizarre claims came in social media posts shared by Russian diplomats.
In a post on Twitter, Alexander Alimov, a Russian diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva, said video footage from Bucha was fake because the bodies on the street appeared to be alive and moving — claims that did not stand up to scrutiny.
Reports about civilian executions and devastation in Bucha were hard to find on the news feed of Yandex, the Russian search engine that is one of the leading news sources for millions of Russians.
On Monday morning, the news feed on the search engine’s main page featured only two reports about Bucha. Both were headlined using quotes from Russian officials — Kremlin spokesperson Peskov and Foreign Minister Lavrov — calling the footage of alleged Russian atrocities “fake” and “staged.”
And while a search for Bucha on Google images showed the most recent news agency photos of dead bodies and destruction, Yandex offered only general pictures of an intact Bucha before the invasion.
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