- Jack Goodman, Maria Korenyuk, Lucy Swinnen and Andrey Zakharov
- BBC Disinformation Unit
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The city of Berdyansk was occupied by Russian troops for less than a week, but during this time a new pro-Kremlin online publication has already managed to settle there. The project, called Southern Bridgehead, creates and distributes pro-Putin propaganda via YouTube, Telegram and a website, mainly in areas of Ukraine that have recently come under Russian control.
Southern Bridgehead published its first report on the very first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and now new material is added daily from correspondents on the ground.
However, the BBC found that at least some of the facts in his reports were not true.
At the beginning of March, the correspondent of the “Southern bridgehead” visited Berdyansk. He said that Russian soldiers prevented the attack and killed two Moroccans involved in it – according to the publication, Ukrainian mercenaries. But it looks like certain elements of this video were staged.
The Moroccans, accused of preparing the attack, allegedly found documents on a residence permit in Ukraine.
The BBC was able to locate one of these men. According to the report, he was killed, but we spoke to him on social media. He asked for anonymity and claims that he did not know about the report of the “Southern bridgehead” and generally left Ukraine before the invasion and returned to Morocco.
Southern Bridgehead regularly publishes videos containing unsubstantiated claims.
Most of the material claims that “peaceful life” has been established in the occupied territories, and there are narratives justifying the Russian invasion.
In one video report, the correspondent is in the library, where she says she found many books containing “Nazi symbols”. There is no evidence on the screen. Among the few books that still appear in the frame, there are works by contemporary Ukrainian writers about historical events, such as the battle of Ilovaisk.
The “southern foothold” is likely to become part of Russia’s broader strategy to establish control over the occupied territories of Ukraine,” said Yulia Smirnova, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue from Germany (ISD Germany).
According to Smirnova, the project and its social media channels portray the Russian occupation in Ukraine’s southern regions as “liberation” and Russian forces as “defenders.”
Who is the owner of the “Southern bridgehead”?
The “Southern Bridgehead” appeared just a couple of hours after the start of the invasion of Russian troops on February 24, when its Telegram channel published its first message. It said: “Today, February 24, 2022, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the Russian Federation, V.V. Putin, announced the start of a special operation to demilitarize and denazify the territory of Ukraine!” The audience of the channel then consisted of 25 subscribers (now – 23 thousand).
The website was registered the next day. Initially, it was based on the servers of the Russian hosting provider Beget from St. Petersburg, but then moved to the American Cloudflare, which allows you to hide the real owners of the site.
The channel has a regular news service run by young men, apparently non-professionals, from annexed Crimea or self-proclaimed separatist republics. Ukrainian news sources are mostly not used.
One of the presenters, who was contacted by the BBC Russian Service, said that he works as a volunteer and does not know who is funding the project.
We also sent a question about the owner to Yuzhny Bridgehead, but did not receive a response.
However, it seems that a powerful organization with ties to the Russian government is involved in the production of materials for the Southern Bridgehead.
After watching dozens of videos, we noticed that many of them were filmed in a conference room with the logo of the “Russia-Donbass Integration Committee”. This means that the premises of this organization are used for filming. The mission of the committee, listed on its website, is to promote economic and humanitarian ties between Crimea and the pro-Russian separatist republics of Donbass.
The leaders of these self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine play a key role in the organization. The coordinator of the work is Andrei Kozenko, a former State Duma deputy currently under US and EU sanctions .
Southern Bridgehead operates far beyond its website. His materials are often reprinted by pro-Russian Telegram channels created for various occupied Ukrainian cities.
Collectively, these channels now have over 80,000 subscribers, although our research shows that at least a third of them likely pumped their audiences for money. According to the analysis of the catalog of telegram channels and chats TG Stat, on the night of March 29, the number of subscribers on three such channels jumped by more than 10 thousand in an hour.
Despite a relatively small number of social media followers, Yuzhny Bridgehead has received support from influential accounts, including a blogger with over 650,000 followers, as well as pro-Kremlin outlets such as Moskovsky Komsomolets.
The Ukrainians also did not leave the “Southern bridgehead” unattended. Last week, pro-Ukrainian activists hacked into his site, posting a message about Kherson, whose new “authorities” declare their readiness to join Russia.
One of the posts warned that anyone involved in the so-called referendum on the future of the region would be punished. “Welcome to Hell!” – was said in the message.
Despite the attack, the site was up and running again soon after.
If the “Southern Bridgehead” unfolds in full force, this is bad news for the inhabitants of the occupied territories, Yulia Smirnova believes. She explains that since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, independent media on the peninsula have all but disappeared.
“In southern Ukraine, the Russian authorities are likely to follow the same path, intimidating and arresting independent journalists, silencing independent media and replacing them with propaganda channels,” she said.
Contributed by Samia Hosny and Olga Robinson, BBC Monitoring.
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