Foreign Policy

What an Italian murder trial tells us about the disinformation war around the Ukrainian conflict

Photo credits: Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As the world is once again assisting to new rising tensions in eastern Ukraine following increased Russian military activity at the border, recent developments in an Italian murder trial remind us that the Ukrainian war should not alarm only at tanks and military personnel movements. Even the judiciary systems of democratic countries, in fact, might work as amplifiers of hybrid warfare tools.

Facilitated by the ever-growing global interconnectivity, hybrid threats[1], in particular the use of information warfare[2], have increased in scale and intensity. The spread of disinformation (deliberately false information with the intentional and systematic aim to deceive adversaries) is one of such tactics and it has been central in the Ukrainian conflict. Being consistently and actively used by Russia even in the low-intensity period of the hostilities, it warns us from considering the post-Minsk conditions as having led to any kind of new status quo[3].

The Russian state-controlled media’s disinformation campaigns do not have an impact only in the region. By being able to penetrate even in the courthouses, they have showed how pervasive they can be both in manipulating the perception of the conflict’s evolution and for the soundness of the rule of law in democratic countries.

To understand the far-reaching effects of the disinformation campaigns, we need to go back to May 24, 2014. On this date, the Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli and his Russian colleague and former Soviet dissident Andrei Mironov died under a mortar fire in Sloviansk, located in the Donetsk oblast, where clashes were happening between the Russian proxy fighters and the Ukranian forces. In June 2017 Vitaliy Markiv, an Italian citizen that decided to return to Ukraine and enrol in the National Guard to fight the Russian aggression in Donbas, was arrested and charged of complicity in their deliberate murder. What could have looked like the result of a crossfire in one of the most dangerous areas at the time, was transformed three years later in a long and disputed murder trial also against the Ukrainian State, accused of deliberately perpetrating attacks against journalists.

The process, however, was characterised by unreliable witnesses, a reversal of the presumption of innocence, the lack of an inspection of the scene and a massive use of circumstantial evidence. What could have been just regarded as a series of judiciary inaccuracies turned  into a much more worrying picture in light of many NGOs and prominent media accusations, stating that the court’s reasoning was flawed by a factually-incorrect understanding of the conflict influenced by Russian State-supported news outlets.

As noticed by the independent journalist Olga Tokariuk in her report for the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, many propaganda sources such as Russia Today and Russkaya Vesna are quoted as reliable evidence by the Italian courts. They are described as “open sources”, “local television”, “found on Youtube”, with an apparent unawareness of their direct link with the Kremlin and without even questioning their authenticity and impartiality. As a result, beyond the details of the murder trial, what is striking is the image of the conflict that comes out of the proceedings and that might be likely to have had an influence on the professional judges and the jury.

Firstly, one of the main distorted elements appearing in the reasoning is the conflict portrayed – and called repeatedly – as a civil war. According to Russia’s favourite propaganda claims, Ukraine is descripted as conducting punitive operations against its own people in Donbas, and its military forces committing crimes against the civilian population.

Secondly, there is no mention of the Russian aggression and the annexation of Crimea in the courts’ documents, the civilian population is described as overwhelmingly pro-Russian and the Russian proxies’ attacks on civilians were never referred to, despite in the Sloviansk area they used to fire from residential areas, such as hospitals and church yards.

Thirdly, the National Guard of Ukraine was called an “irregular paramilitary corps”, later changed in “auxiliary”, undermining its legitimacy in the conflict.

Finally, the court reasoning often alleged Markiv far-right affiliations based on a series of circumstantial evidence, with which it was easier to brand the Ukrainian forces as criminals who had no scruples in deliberately killing two journalists. This resonates very well with the Russian propaganda depicting the Maidan protesters as “bandervotsi”, fascists and Nazis, against which the Donbas people were opposing.

Markiv was sentenced in 2019 to 24 years of prison by the court in Pavia, while in November 2020 the appellate court of Milan fully acquitted him and ordered his release recognizing there was not enough proof of his involvement. In February 2021, the prosecution objected the decision, and the case will be referred to the Supreme court of cassation in Rome in Autumn 2021.  

What this story tells us is that, even if no independent judiciary is immune to mistakes, an unquestioned use of easy answers and cemented prejudice leads to an amplification of the disinformation campaigns, ending up with helping the perpetration of the Russian propaganda which in December 2020 condemned Markiv in absentia for the murder of the two journalists. It is essential therefore that even the judiciary system is aware of the overarching impacts of the hybrid warfare tools and supported by experts on such sensitive files, especially if they rely on open-source investigation. 

[1] Hybrid warfare comprises a combination of conventional and unconventional means, including economic pressure, resources control, cyber-attacks, covert operations etc.

[2] With information warfare it is intended the control or the manipulation of information, with the intention of destabilizing the target’s awareness and influence decisions.

[3] The Minsk Protocol was signed in 2014 as the result of the consultation of the Trilateral Contact Group (consisting of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and OSCE with he mediation of France and Germany) to implement and immediate ceasefire to the conflict in the Donbas region. Its efficacy was very limited since it failed to stop the fighting. As a consequence, a new set of measures, called Minks II, was agreed in 2015. Yet, ceasefire violations and clashes continues. To know more:

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