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VKontakte with the occupiers: the Russian propaganda machine in the temporarily occupied territories

Wednesday, 17 May 2023, 15:30

The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014 gave an impetus for Russian information weapons. When the Kremlin realized it was impossible to seize Ukraine by military means, they opted for another tactic: to place Ukrainians in a space that would incline them to the "Russian world." However, Ukrainian radio and television eliminated Russian influence thanks to government policy. That is why Russia made the main bet on social networks. 

Since 2014, Russia has created hundreds of pages to influence domestic political processes, carried out dozens of cyber attacks on banks, media, and government agencies, and used thousands of trolls and bots for artificial Internet discussions. For example, Yevhenii Prigozhyn, whom we now know as the chief of the Wagner PMC, became known for the first time thanks to another project – the so-called "troll farm from Olgino." It has been conducting information operations in Ukraine since 2014, and in 2016, it interfered in the US presidential elections.

At the same time, the Russian Federation did not forget about those Ukrainians who were already under its control. Since the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia has paid particular attention to the "information hygiene" of its inhabitants. Ukrainian television and radio were blocked there, and local and Russian broadcasters came to replace them. However, the Internet and social networks were still available there.


Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, restrictions have intensified. Now the Russian Federation is blocking everything they are not able to control. Since the summer of 2022, there has been no free access to radio and television in the temporarily occupied territories (TOTs), neither to most Ukrainian and international websites nor even popular social networks. As a result, residents are cut off from impartial news and fall under the crushing influence of Russian propaganda.

Civil Network OPORA has investigated how Russia is drawing users in the temporarily occupied territories into its own information space, creating an alternative reality and trying to make VKontakte the primary channel of communication.

Why the heck are you exploring VKontakte?

At first glance, exploring VKontakte is a rather strange idea. It is a Russian social network blocked in Ukraine since May 2017. It happened because they stored all user data in the Russian Federation, and Russian security forces controlled its administration. 

During the Revolution of Dignity, the founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, was compelled to provide access to the data of Ukrainian users who administered the Euromaidan groups. In April 2014, Durov sold his stake in Vkontakte to Group, which became the complete owner of this social network. Since 2015, the controlling stake in the company has been owned by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch who supports the war in Ukraine. 

Blocking VKontakte in Ukraine quickly bore fruit. According to USAID-Internews, in 2021, only about 7% of Ukrainians used it regularly. It is unsurprising because now it is impossible to go to the website without a VPN.

Although all these restrictions are still in force in Ukraine, the situation is different in the temporarily occupied territories. Blocking Western social networks there began in May 2022. At that time, it was informed about access restrictions to Facebook and Instagram by the so-called "LPR" and "DPR." In June, the authorities of these entities banned Viber, as the Armed Forces of Ukraine allegedly used it to obtain data on the geolocation of "critical military-civilian infrastructure."

On July 22, the ban was extended to Google and YouTube. Attempts by the occupiers to block these resources led to Android phones system failures – they stopped updating. Besides, they lost access to defining geolocation and to the app store. 

In February 2023, the occupation authorities required local Internet providers to add Meta to the blocked Messenger and Zoom video conferencing services list. 

Presently, it is impossible to access Facebook, Instagram, and most Ukrainian news and government resources without a VPN. Instead, unhindered access is only available to Russian social networks such as VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as to the Telegram messenger.

What does VKontakte have on TOTs: general trends

Since VKontakte is not transparent and does not offer automated features for analysis, and we did not get access to its API for security reasons, this study was performed manually, using a search by the names of selected settlements among the VKontakte communities.

For the study, we chose 103 settlements occupied after February 24, 2022, in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. We did not consider the villages and cities occupied earlier since the pro-Russian media infrastructure had been built there for years. That is why comparing them with the newly occupied territories would be incorrect. 

Among the settlements we chose, 38 did not have VKontakte pages, or their pages had been inactive for a long time. For the other 65 villages and cities, we collected 1,039 pages and groups where the content was published between February 24, 2022, and March 31, 2023. 

The most significant number of active VKontakte pages was expectedly found for Mariupol – 182 (17.5% of the total number of identified pages). Second goes Kherson, with a large margin. The disinformation is disseminated there by 77 pages. The third and fourth positions went to Novoazovsky district (71 pages) and Melitopol (69 pages). 

In addition, 97 pages (9.9%) concerned entire regions (for example, the Administration of the Kherson region). Among them, 39 pages targeted the Kherson region, 34 –  the Donetsk region, 23 – the Zaporizhzhia region, and 1 – the Luhansk region. More details can be found in the visualizations below.

Although we recorded the activity of pages and groups created in 2007–2008, most public accounts we found were made in 2014–2015 or 2022–2023. 

We may assume that in 2014–2015, most of the new pages appeared in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At that time, the front line was changing dynamically, and the Russians created new pages for the newly occupied settlements. 

The actual situation is somewhat different: in 2014–2015 and 2022–2023, approximately the same number of pages appeared in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. For example, the public account with the indicative name of The Ministry of Culture of the Kherson region was created in May 2016, entitled "Department of Culture of the Kherson region." However, until August 17, 2022, it had been in "sleep" mode.

The actual "outbreak" in creating the presently active pages on TOTs occurred in 2022.

It is essential to mention that Russians are trying to create an independent media space around the communities launched in 2022–2023. Thus, one of the most popular pages of  Главное в Херсоне и области  [lit. – the Headlines from Kherson and the region] has a Telegram channel with the same name, a website, and even a separate chat for subscribers. At the same time, in VKontakte, you can find many calls to follow the Telegram channel. Reciprocally, it keeps encouraging you to subscribe to the VKontakte page – they say it offers more exciting and valuable news. Thus, the occupation authorities lure users from Telegram to VKontakte to place them in their own information space and make their data and correspondence available to Russian special services.

Selling chickens, passport of the Russian Federation, and the Department of Sports of the Zaporizhzhya region

Regarding the geography and dates of creating the pages, the only thing that has changed after the occupation is the sharp increase in the number of pages of the temporarily occupied territories, especially for large cities. However, these changes are just the tip of the iceberg. The real revolution took place in the activity levels of the pages that peaked after the establishment of the occupation authorities.

We analyzed all 1,039 pages and identified 9 of their main thematic areas. The graph below shows that the largest category is pages with ads, but news and administrative pages were only in second and third place, respectively. 

In addition, while the number of pages about education offers and real estate remained almost unchanged with the beginning of a full-scale invasion, the administrative and news pages appeared in 2022–2023. At the same time, the largest category includes ads. It has been actively expanding since 2014 but has hardly grown since the beginning of the great war.

The category of ads includes the most significant number of pages – 485 (46% of those we found). Here you can see many offers: from the sale of cars in Mariupol or Lysychansk, the sale of chickens or currency exchange, and offers to withdraw money from Ukrainian bank cards to the possibility of leaving TOTs to the territory of Ukraine. 

Pages of this group are the oldest: the first appeared in 2007–2008, and most of them were launched in 2013–2016. They have replaced OLX and other platforms for selling private goods. 

After the blocking of VKontakte on the territory of Ukraine, the growth in the number of these pages slowed down noticeably, but in 2022 there were still several dozen of them. It is indicative that almost all of them are groups. It means that any user can post there, not even a subscriber. From time to time, political posts appear. Regardless of their affiliation, they are not deleted. These pages give an idea of the economic and social situation in TOTs. That is why they can be helpful for further research.

The news pages and groups come second: we found 174 of them. The graph above has divided them into two categories: news pages (or communities where only administrators can post, we found 150 of them) and news groups (communities where any user can post, there were 24). Newsgroups for TOTs have existed for quite some time, and their number has grown gradually (in 2022, 2 such groups were created). Their content is quite chaotic: both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian posts appear there. Instead, the news pages are, to some extent, media outlets sharing refined Russian propaganda hiding behind local news: they tell about the shelling of "fascist Ukronazis" or report about the future distribution of humanitarian aid. Nearly half (71) of the news pages were created in 2022. 

They try to run the new pages simultaneously in VKontakte, as Telegram channels and websites, thus creating an image of a full-fledged media resource. Older news pages have either long been covertly sharing Russian propaganda or stolen from administrators with a pro-Ukrainian stance. For example, we came across a page of the Ukrainian outlet of Kherson-Line | News of the Kherson region. It was created in February 2013. It has almost 5,000 subscribers, and now actively disseminates Russian propaganda. However, the description of the page and the links attached to it remained the same: they link to the publication's website and its Facebook page, where news comes out with a pro-Ukrainian position. The VKontakte page must have been hacked or accessed by Russian propagandists to influence the residents of the temporarily occupied territories. 

The third largest category is administrative pages, of which we found 142. Their main task is to report on the decisions of the gauleiters, praise Russia's great investments in new territories, and encourage people to accept a Russian passport. 

They illustrate a difference between the pages of the temporarily occupied territories of the so-called "L/DPR" and Crimea and the newly occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Since VKontakte is deeply integrated with the Russian state, this social network has official pages of public institutions of the Russian Federation. They are marked with a tick and the subtitle "Confirmed through Public Services" (Russian e-government portal). The pages of the local occupation administrations of the "LPR," "DPR," and Crimea have such marks. Yet, the pages of the "administrations" of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions do not have them, although they position themselves as representative offices of official authorities.

Moreover, VKontakte is actively used for job searches – we found 111 pages with vacancies from companies in different regions of the Russian Federation. They invite Ukrainians from the temporarily occupied territories to work for them. In addition, many Russian businesses open their stores and "enter" the markets of "new regions of the Russian Federation." 

In addition, through VKontakte, Russian and "republican" ("LPR," "DPR") universities and colleges are looking for students and pupils. We found almost 60 pages of local educational institutions where they encourage Ukrainian students to continue their studies in local and Russian universities. Many of the posts on these pages offer services of writing coursework and diploma "turnkey."

VKontakte is also a platform for finding and selling real estate on TOTs: at least 43 pages share such content. Most often, users look for apartments or houses for families of Russian soldiers who follow the invaders "to their place of service." In addition, these pages have become a center for local residents’ sale of real estate and the search for real estate (mainly on the seashore) by Russian users.

OPORA also found 7 pages, which primary purpose is to search for people who went missing on TOTs. The most frequently mentioned cities in this category are Mariupol and Severodonetsk. 

"Favorite Mariupol" and "Kherson Headlines"

By the way, Russia's favorite way to influence the information space is to create networks of pages, and VKontakte is no exception. We have found at least 6 networks. They perform two tasks at the same time: centralize information influence on the inhabitants of the temporarily occupied territories (and exclude the possibility of deviations from the propaganda line) and create the impression of a homogeneous information space in any "new territory of the Russian Federation."

Here we will mention the two most prominent, and therefore the most influential, networks of pages we discovered. The first consists of 14 pages concentrated around 5 regional centers in the regions occupied by the Russian Federation after February 24, 2022: Mariupol, Melitopol, Kherson, Severodonetsk, and Berdyansk. The peculiarity of this network is that it tries to cover all potential needs of residents of TOTs. 

Some pages are a kind of media that publish news and messages from the occupation authorities. The other part is intended only for job searches. The third group is designed to address issues of housing rental and sale of real estate, etc. All of them have numerous audiences. For example, almost 17,000 users subscribed to  Мелитополь любимый  [lit. – Favourite Melitopol]; more than 28,000 to Мариуполь любимый  [lit. – Favorite Mariupol]; and more than 12,000 to  Бердянск любимый  [lit. – Favorite Berdyansk]. There are even more subscribers on Telegram channels that copypaste the content of these VKontakte pages. Also, this network copies its content on the websites:

The second most extensive network, which includes 10 pages, concentrates exclusively on the settlements of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. United by names (Berdyansk Headlines, Genichesk Headlines, Melitopol Headlines, etc.), they publish news and statements of the occupation authorities. This network also has its website, primarily referenced in posts – Each page also has a Telegram channel with a reasonably large number of subscribers.

Both networks confirm our observations that the emergence of all these pages is a deliberate action aimed at attracting users from the temporarily occupied territories into information bubbles that the Russian Federation skillfully creates for them. For more information about these and other networks of pages and our study on Telegram and Ukrainian websites blocked on TOTs, please follow OPORA's report at this link.

Is VKontakte a hostile platform or an opportunity for influence?

So far, VKontakte has rarely been the focus of Ukrainian researchers: they say this is a Russian social network where the Kremlin has complete control over the situation. So, investigating it is not so critical. While voicing the problem areas on specific platforms, such as Meta, can lead to changes, then with VKontakte, it is simply impossible. However, such studies still provide a lot of other data that may later be required in communication with residents of the temporarily occupied territories. We can learn more about the socio-economic condition of the occupied cities and villages, better understand the patterns of Russian propaganda to more effectively debunk it, and identify the networks of pages that can be duplicated in other social networks. And finally, while the Ukrainian army is preparing for a counteroffensive, we should arrange an information de-occupation and go on an information offensive where the enemy least expects it. 

Disclaimer: Articles reflect their author’s point of view and do not claim to be objective or to explore every aspect of the issues they discuss. The Ukrainska Pravda editorial board does not bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, or its interpretation, and acts solely as a publisher. The point of view of the Ukrainska Pravda editorial board may not coincide with the point of view of the article’s author.

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