LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Gesturing to the artillery shell lodged in the ground and a rocket protruding from the wall, Maksym Katerynyn was in a rage. These were Ukrainian munitions, he shouted. And it was Ukrainian artillery that struck his home the day before and killed his mother and stepfather.
“The Russians are not hitting us!” Katerynyn barked. “Ukraine is shelling us!”
But that was next to impossible: There were no Russian soldiers for the Ukrainians to shell in the eastern city of Lysychansk, and it was clear that the projectiles had come from the direction of Sievierodonetsk, a neighboring city, much of which has been seized by Russian forces.
The fact that Katerynyn believed this, and that his neighbors nodded in agreement as he careened through his neighborhood condemning their country, was a telling sign: The Russians clearly already had a foothold here — a psychological one.
“I will ask Uncle Putin to launch a rocket where these creatures launched their rockets from,” Katerynyn said, standing next to the backyard graves of his mother and stepfather, referring to President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He wanted the Ukrainian military to get out, he said heatedly, using an expletive.
It was not always like this in Lysychansk, an industrial city with a prewar population of 100,000. Now it is isolated from most of the world, with no cell service, no pension payments and intensifying Russian shelling. But some residents have turned into receptive audiences of Russian propaganda — or they have taken to spreading it themselves.
They are able to listen over the radio, both hand-held and in their cars, and to watch pro-Russian television channels when generator power allows. Given Lysychansk’s proximity to Russia, those channels appear to have a stronger hold in some neighborhoods than their Ukrainian counterparts do.
“When you’re hit over the head with the same message, you just drown in it,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, who teaches a course on the politics of propaganda. “After awhile, you don’t know what the truth is. The message takes over your reality.”
The notion that the Ukrainian military is shelling its own people has been an oft-repeated message on pro-Russian disinformation channels on the radio, television and internet since the start of Moscow’s invasion in February. Aside from sowing doubt among Ukrainians about their own government and military, it has been a way for the Kremlin to sidestep accountability when it comes to civilian casualties caused by Russian attacks.
On a recent outing to distribute aid, several police officers were approached by an older woman who they said asked them, “Boys, when are you going to stop shooting at us?”— leaving the officers in disbelief.
Propaganda has been a weapon of war in Ukraine since 2014 when Russia-backed separatists formed two breakaway republics in the Donbas region.
Hijacked television and radio towers there constantly broadcast anti-Ukrainian propaganda and Russian disinformation. Those in their broadcast range were inundated with an alternate reality that slowly took hold, despite Ukrainian efforts to counter.
“First they cut off any Ukrainian content, and then they fill this void with Russian misinformation,” said Yevhen Fedchenko, editor-in-chief of StopFake, a nonprofit organization that debunks Russian disinformation, and director of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “That’s been their approach for years, and they haven’t changed the textbook.”
But now, with the war’s front lines shifting as Russia advances into the Donbas, propaganda in cities and towns like Lysychansk has taken on a new intensity and relevance. Very few residents have access to satellite internet, so many people are glued to battery-powered radio handsets or the radio in their car if they can get the fuel to run it.
“You only need to turn on the radio or your phone to hear the Russian radio broadcast here,” said Sergiy Kozachenko, a police officer from Sievierodonetsk who has relocated to Lysychansk because of the fighting. “They will listen to it; what else could they do?” FM radio in the area is available without a data connection or a cell network.
Once such broadcast, from the pro-Russian station Radio Victory, is available on FM radio to Ukrainian forces and civilians in Lysychansk and to those troops on the front lines. Its monotone female voice seems almost soothing, despite the ominous messages she delivers.
“The circle is going to be closed very soon in the Siversk area,” the voice intones, referring to the closing pocket around Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk as the Russians advance from the north and southeast. “Your staff is destroyed. Your commanders ran away and abandoned their subordinates. Zelenskyy has betrayed you as well,” invoking the name of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Help will not come,” the message continues. “With further resistance, you are destined to die. The only way to survive is to run away or surrender. Save your lives.”
The broadcast, clearly aimed at Ukrainian forces on the front lines, seems to have entered the lexicon of Lysychansk’s civilian residents as well. “Your Kyiv government gave up on us,” shouted one older woman to a group of volunteers who delivered aid to a shelter last week. The locals did not allow the volunteers inside.
For residents to have pro-Russia leanings in this area is not illogical. Many people have family members in Russia, and the cities themselves are near the Russian border and predominantly speak Russian.
They stand in contrast to the millions of Ukrainians in most regions of the country who are outraged by Putin’s invasion and are angry at civilians in Russia, some of them family members, who are turning a blind eye to the mayhem.
Local authorities in Lysychansk believe that around 30,000 to 40,000 residents remain in the city. In Sievierodonetsk, which had a prewar population of 160,000, around 10,000 people have stayed, authorities there say, despite the brutal street-to-street fighting that is playing out.
Ukrainian city workers informally call those who have chosen to stay “Zhduny,” or the “waiting ones.”
“Those are the ones who are waiting for Russians there,” said Kozachenko. “They hug them and say to them, ‘Our dear ones, we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve been abused here.’”
Although some residents might welcome the Russians, many people cannot evacuate because they lack the money, because they have older or disabled family members who are not very mobile, or simply because they fear they will lose their homes.
Galyna Gubarieva, 63, has refused to leave Lysychansk despite the incessant shellings and the approaching Russians, both of which she openly despises.
Short and spirited, Gubarieva is now taking care of her neighbor’s farm in addition to her own homestead. But dealing with her fellow Lysychanskians who have bought into Russian propaganda, she said, is something she refuses to tolerate.
“Sometimes, some old wife says some lies, and I can’t take it,” Gubarieva said. “‘Oh,’ she says, ‘there are Russian forces coming here from the Lysychansk glass factory. Oh, let them come sooner!’ And I say, ‘Are you crazy?’”
“There are many people like that among my neighbors,” she said.
Some Lysychansk residents are no longer advocating either side, upset at the conduct of the combatants, even the ones who are supposed to be defending them. Instead, they are waiting for the war to end, no matter the victor.
“This is a war of attrition of any kind,” said Khrushcheva. “Not just militarily, but the Kremlin is counting on fatigue, including for Ukrainians to be tired of war.”