How Russia’s Top Propagandist Used Film To Justify Putin’s Ukraine Invasion
In August 2021, a film company associated with Russia’s propaganda machine released Blazing Sun, a war film that glorifies Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and has helped seed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine last month. The film depicts Russian mercenaries as saviors who prevent Ukraine’s government from committing a genocide against its own people — mirroring Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine in order to “prevent genocide” and “denazify” the country.
It’s just the latest example of a reality-bending new species of Russian propaganda that now includes dozens of videos of Ukrainian attacks on Russian citizens that appear to be faked, videos depicting a joint raid by the FBI and NYPD of a New York movie theater that the venue says never happened, and repurposed Cameo videos of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr. unwittingly congratulating a fictional film character on his achievements.
The man behind the camera: Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch also known as “Putin’s chef,” who was recently sanctioned by the US and the EU for helping lead “a disinformation war against Ukraine.” His apparent motivation: to influence the course of Russia’s future by rewriting its past.
One of Putin’s close confidants, Prigozhin is believed to have been at the forefront of Russia’s disinformation apparatus since at least 2013. The FBI has put him on its Most Wanted list because he “allegedly oversaw and approved” the “political and electoral interference operations” of the country’s infamous troll factory, the Internet Research Agency. He has also been linked to the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which European security officials believe helped lay the groundwork for last month’s invasion. Last week, the US Treasury Department added Prigozhin’s wife, daughter, and son to the list of Russian elites sanctioned for disinformation efforts around the Ukraine invasion. The role of his films in Russia’s propaganda offensive, meanwhile, has largely gone unexamined.
Since mid-2020, the St. Petersburg–based film company Aurum LLC, which lists Prigozhin as co-owner on Russian business records, has produced at least seven feature films that use Hollywood production techniques to fictionalize Russia’s global exploits. The Shugaley trilogy, for example, claims to tell the true story of Maxim Shugaley, who was arrested in Libya in 2019 for allegedly working to elect the fugitive son of fallen dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The trilogy portrays Shugaley as a beleaguered sociologist fighting for freedom against a corrupt regime. This narrative was later adopted by Russia’s foreign ministry, which used it to advocate for Shugaley’s eventual release in late 2020.
Blazing Sun, another Aurum production, lays out the “denazification” narrative that would later be used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Upon its release, the film “hit Ukraine” like an “information bomb,” said Vladislav Berdichevsky, a pro-Kremlin foreign policy and information strategist, speaking with Russian media last August. The film’s strategy feels uncannily similar to the Biden administration’s prediction that Russia would use “a very graphic propaganda video,” complete with actors and elaborate production techniques, as a pretext for an invasion.
“It is very, very eerie to see how closely that movie’s narrative tracks with the story being pushed by the Russian state right now,” said Jack Margolin, program director at DC’s Center for Advanced Defense Studies. He noted that the film was likely part of a larger project “to demonize Ukrainians as either Nazis or Western pawns and consequently justify intervention.” Ukraine’s government apparently agrees; in November, it banned the filmography of more than 30 actors and crew members involved in the film’s production, citing national security concerns.
“It is very, very eerie to see how closely that movie’s narrative tracks with the story being pushed by the Russian state right now.”
The film was resurrected in the aftermath of the invasion, with online posters for it strewn across Russian propaganda sites alongside banner ads for a “Stop Nazism” hotline, imploring residents of Ukraine to “share the truth about all the crimes that are happening now and have been happening for the past eight years.” By March 2022, the film’s journey had come full circle, when Lt. Col. Andrey Marochko — another key player in Russia’s military arsenal — told Russian media that Ukrainian soldiers should be shown the film because they had been in an “information vacuum.”
The propaganda effort has coincided with the Kremlin’s recent crackdown on Russia’s independent news media. For months, Prigozhin and lesser-known Russian figures, including Shugaley and anti-globalization activist Alexander Ionov, have filed a string of complaints and lawsuits against independent Russian news outlets such as Meduza and Ekho Moskvy, in some cases resulting in them being labeled “foreign agents” and inhibiting their ability to work within Russia. Last year, Prigozhin told Meduza that “foreign agents” are “enemies of the people” and should be shot.
Last week, Russia’s State Duma passed a sweeping new law banning all content that challenges the Kremlin’s official line on Ukraine. According to the New York Times, the crackdown has led to some Ukrainians facing a backlash from relatives in Russia who have bought into Putin’s narrative.
Maria Butina, a State Duma member convicted in the US in 2018 for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin, told BuzzFeed News that she felt the new law was justified because “fake news and giving people untruthful and fake information is very bad.” Those who break the law, she said, “are criminals [and] should be in jail.”
Butina confirmed that she currently advises Shugaley’s pro-Kremlin think tank, the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, which was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department last year for allegedly “supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations.”
Reached for comment, Prigozhin mocked our questions and threatened to block further inquiries.
If Blazing Sun shows how Prigozhin’s films exploit and influence real-world events, the promotional campaign for another recent Prigozhin film shows how elaborate Russia’s troll tactics have become.
The 16th, released in November 2021, adds satirical comedy to Prigozhin’s repertoire. In the film, the Internet Research Agency is reimagined as a small group of toy factory workers who must devise a series of increasingly outlandish schemes in order to repay a debt — but end up unintentionally swaying the 2016 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor.
The film’s marketing campaign used US social media sites to spread and promote videos similar to those that seem to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Remarkably, it also included home videos — purchased via Cameo — of Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani that were repurposed to make it appear that they were congratulating the film’s fictional protagonist on his success. The content was then used to generate headlines across dozens of Russian-language state media sites.
One video, posted on Nov. 6 from a Twitter account with the name Jay Belichick, claimed to depict a joint raid by the FBI and the NYPD of New York’s Angelika Film Center during the premiere screening of the film, complete with a dozen agents and at least one attendee being forcibly removed from their seat.
Twenty-two minutes later, a Twitter user by the name of Jason Devine posted a second video of the same incident, ostensibly filmed from a different seat in the theater.
Within hours, stories with headlines like “New York Police Disrupted the Premiere of Prigozhin’s Film” and “Militiamen Interfered With the Premiere of Prigozhin’s Film” began popping up on sites like Riafan.ru, Polit.info, and other prominent outlets that are part of Patriot Media Group, a Russian media conglomerate whose board of trustees is led by Prigozhin.
“The Angelika did not host any such screening of a film with any variation of this title and based on the footage, this is definitely not our location,” a spokesperson for the theater told BuzzFeed News. (The FBI and NYPD did not return requests for comment.)
“Prigozhin-linked groups create fake social media accounts, and then embed manufactured quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news outlets.”
A reverse image search reveals that Belichick’s Twitter profile photo and bio belong to Jay Mula, an Atlanta–based radio host who told BuzzFeed News that he recently lost access to the account after it was hacked. Twitter confirmed that Mula’s account had been compromised but said it had found no evidence of Russian involvement. The site subsequently suspended four related accounts that promoted the video, including one account that previously belonged to a Guyanese woman who died in 2018. The site declined to comment further, citing its platform manipulation and spam policy.
“Prigozhin-linked groups create fake social media accounts, and then embed manufactured quotes from these accounts into ideologically aligned news outlets,” said Shelby Grossman, a top research scholar at Stanford Internet Observatory. “It’s a new addition to Prigozhin’s deceptive propaganda toolkit. We have seen Prigozhin-linked entities creating fake Twitter accounts for this purpose to push narratives about Syria, Central African Republic, and Libya.”
In a recently published study, Grossman noted that Twitter had suspended a network of 50 accounts widely reported to be linked to Prigozhin’s troll factory for similar behavior. Though none of the tweets had high engagement, the commentary they provided “could be pushed out to entirely different audiences to illustrate supposed points of view from real people about important and often divisive political and policy issues,” the study said.
The recent emergence of such tactics, Grossman told BuzzFeed News, “may be in part due to the cat-and-mouse game [Prigozhin is] playing with the platforms and the need to evolve to avoid detection.”
BuzzFeed News observed a variation of the same strategy playing out across Russian state media, in which unsuspecting celebrities such as Charlie Sheen and Dolph Lundgren recorded messages of support for characters from Prigozhin’s films, inspiring more headlines back home. (Sheen and Lundgren did not respond to a request for comment.)
Enter Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani.
In November, the two men recorded personal videos that were recast to make it appear they were celebrating “Uncle Nick,” an entirely fictional character in The 16th who, at 6 years old, single-handedly outwits the entire FBI and destroys American democracy.
“Never abandon your path, and America will be proud of you,” Giuliani says in one of two videos addressed to the fictional character.
As with Belichick’s tweet, the videos were later embedded into stories published across Patriot Media’s network of state media sites.
“The ex-president’s son and politician Giuliani congratulated ‘Uncle Nick’ from the movie ‘16th’ on his birthday,” read one headline on Rueconomics.ru. A photo caption on the article claimed that the men were inspired to record their videos after being “among the first viewers of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s film ‘16th.’”
Giuliani’s Cameo page reveals that his video was in fact a paid commission. Cameo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
US individuals and entities are prohibited from transacting with Prigozhin while he is under sanctions. Trump Jr. and Giuliani, who charged upward of $5,000 per Cameo request at the time they recorded their videos, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Prigozhin, meanwhile, denied any involvement in any of the videos mentioned in this article, dismissing questions about them as “boorish and offensive.”
“[Your] questions are purely provocative, and since I am immersed in the plot of the film ‘16th’ and understand what it is about, I can say with confidence that what you are asking about has nothing to do with the movie,” he wrote from his reported VK social media account. “And so these questions are not for me, but for Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and the Angelika cinema.”
Prigozhin responded to BuzzFeed News with his own list of questions — including “What moment did you like the most in the movie 16th?”
Prigozhin responded to BuzzFeed News with his own list of questions — including “What moment did you like the most in the movie 16th?” — which he cross-posted to VK. Patriot Media and other Kremlin-friendly propaganda sites subsequently published more than two dozen articles with headlines claiming that Prigozhin had “trolled American journalists” with his own “uncomfortable questions.”
BuzzFeed News did not return Prigozhin’s request for comment.
“I definitely think we could make the case that Prigozhin is behind the Angelika and the Cameo vids — theatricality, trolling Western figures,” Margolin told BuzzFeed News. They’re “reminiscent of what [the Internet Research Agency has] pulled against political targets in Russia.”
Stylistically and strategically, these efforts also bear a striking similarity to faked videos now being spread by Russia’s state media, per the Biden administration’s warning prior to last month’s invasion.
One video, for example, posted on Telegram on Feb. 18 by Donetsk separatists, ostensibly depicted Ukrainian soldiers trying to blow up a chlorine storage facility in the war-torn city of Horlivka. Russian state media sites including TASS and Ria Novosti claimed that video had been salvaged from the body of a dead soldier. But as one internet sleuth’s metadata analysis shows, the video appeared to have been created 12 days earlier and included dubbed audio pulled from multiple sources. Other recent videos, ostensibly depicting Donetsk and Luhansk separatists foiling an attempt to blow up a bridge and ordering an emergency evacuation, appeared to employ similar tactics.
But if Prigozhin seems keen to distance himself from such efforts, think again. Writing on VK on Sunday, he called on Russian actors, directors, and composers to participate in films that “take the right position and speak in a patriotic way about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where Russia is saving the world.”
He added that he had instructed Patriot Media journalists to publish “words of support for our army, songs for the glory of the army, and poems for the glory of the army.”
“Gather together,” he proclaimed. “The time has come!” ●