"Remember: I am not your enemy," a long-forgotten relative wrote to a girl. Her entire family are defenders of Ukraine. This relative is a Russian soldier.
The sudden desire to resume the relationship that was cut off nine years ago is part of a Russian information operation. Russian psyops go beyond bizarre headlines about combat mosquitoes, Valerii Zaluzhnyi's injury, or the murder of spy chief Kyrylo Budanov. This is much more subtle work.
Russia spares neither financial nor informational resources to implement such operations. They resort to all means available, Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence, tells LIGA.net.
The less success the Russians have at the front, the more they will try to undermine Ukrainians emotionally.
LIGA.net analyzed how the occupiers are trying to reduce the effectiveness of Ukrainian soldiers before the counteroffensive is in full swing.
Olha's family (name changed – ed.) are all military personnel. In particular, from the senior command staff of the General Staff. She herself used to serve in one of the units of the Armed Forces, but a few years before the full-scale invasion, she changed her specialty to civilian.
Olha's relatives were members of the Russian army. Since 2014, the two branches of the military family have stopped communicating.
"After the annexation of Crimea and everything we heard then, it became obvious that it was impossible to maintain relations anymore," Olha tells LIGA.net.
Nine years later, in June 2023, she unexpectedly received a message from one of her Russian cousins. An officer in the Russian army. He was eager to resume communication with her, claiming that he had not taken part in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine and was allegedly sincerely interested in the affairs of the Ukrainian part of the family.
"It was both a shock and an explosion of emotions at the same time," Olha admits. "My first thought was that he was in Ukraine and wanted to surrender. Then there were a lot of thoughts at the same time, from 'this is our youngest, we grew up together at our grandmother's house' to 'the family is in danger, this is some kind of setup'. When the emotions subsided, I realized that I had no idea who I was corresponding with. Because any conventional 'comrade colonel' from the FSB can introduce himself as a relative."
To find out, she decided not to break this contact right away.
A few weeks later, Olha's husband, an officer in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, also received a message from relatives in Russia. It was much less delicate with appeals to wait for the Russians to liberate them, stories about the happy life ever after of the "brotherly peoples" and other clichés of Russian propaganda mixed with personal data. It was some kind of wild psyops, Olha and her husband decided.
That's exactly what counterintelligence confirmed to them. And this is not the first wave of Russian attempts to influence Ukrainian defenders through relatives from Russia.
The enemy is not successful on the battlefield, so it is looking for any way to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and the resilience of Ukrainian defenders. Therefore, it is constantly increasing the intensity of its information and psychological operations, the SBU press service explained to LIGA.net.
The use of personal and family contacts is a method that has been actively used by both Soviet and now Russian special services. Since the full-scale invasion, such methods of work have been scaled up as if they are going out of fashion, Andriy Yusov tells LIGA.net.
Family ties, if properly updated, can be a powerful tool, Olena Kholokh, a researcher at the Research Center for Humanitarian Problems of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, tells LIGA.net.
This helps to create a favorable emotional ground for the implantation of Russian narratives: "When a person begins to perceive these repeated thoughts "I am not your enemy", "we are lied to, and you are lied to", doubt arises," says Kholokh. "Trust in the country's leadership, in the military begins to be lost. This makes us weaker."
If executed correctly, such psyops can result in some of the Ukrainian military agreeing to more in-depth communication, which the enemy can use to their advantage, Yusov says.
The special services have a concept of "recruiting vulnerability," explains the SBU source. If a person has contacts in Russia, has relatives there, and keeps in touch with someone there, this is a hook for the Russian special services to pull sooner or later. "Whether a person will take the bait is a question. But the very fact that such bait exists is already enough reason for enemy intelligence services to work on developing contact with this person," he notes.
Any contact between Russians and military personnel or their relatives is either deliberately organized or at least controlled, Yusov adds. This means that the information transmitted within this contact, even from a relative, is controlled by the Russians.
The success of the attempt largely depends on the individual agent.
After the Ukrainian counteroffensive began, the Russians stepped up their attempts to establish such contacts. Several other officers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces confirmed to LIGA.net that they had also received messages from relatives in Russia, who suggested that they wait for the liberation or save themselves. However, due to their openly propagandistic nature, the Ukrainians simply ignored them without reporting them.
"They write under various pretexts: relatives, friends, college peers, schoolmates," says Yusov. "There are stories when people who have not seen or heard from each other for decades get in touch. And here they appear with some personal stories or suggestions."
One of the territorial defense fighters tells LIGA.net that he was unexpectedly contacted by his father, who had cut off all contact more than 10 years ago. Now the father, a former KGB officer in Belarus, began to worry about his son's fate and decided to dissuade him from serving. When the son refused, he promised to take care of his safety on the battlefield through "intermediaries."
According to the intelligence service, this type of psychological operation, if implemented effectively, can provide long-term results. This potentially creates more opportunities for both collecting information and undermining the situation in Ukraine.
"There was a case recently when we exposed a retired military pilot. He was passing information about Ukrainian combat pilots to Russia. After the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian special services contacted him through those with whom he had studied in Soviet times, offering him cooperation," says the SBU source.
In this case, the cooperation was not without monetary benefit, he clarifies.
Another example of Russian attempts to influence and undermine the emotional state is the families of prisoners of war, Yusov adds. In their case, Russians are speculating on emotions and hopes to help their loved ones.
"People posing as lawyers can call and say: we are all human beings, I am a mother too," he explains. "They try to involve relatives in numerous anonymous groups and anonymous channels where false information is spread. They may be contacted by strangers who promise to help with their release from captivity."
It is also possible that such correspondence with relatives in Russia could be used to generate fakes and dumps, which would then be massively replicated through controlled media, Telegram channels, social networks and troll factories, the SBU press service adds.
For this work, the Russians are creating huge bot farms, and this is highly dangerous, the SBU source stressed.
The Security Service of Ukraine monitors such psyops, the press service says. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the SBU has shut down 60 bot farms and about 1,400 pro-Russian online agitators.
The more active the counteroffensive becomes, the more intense will be attempts to put emotional pressure on Ukraine's defenders and civilians alike, Yusov said.
"We will see a huge number of absolutely unbelievable and disgusting attempts by the so-called Russia to implement psyops against Ukraine and Ukrainians both inside Ukraine and abroad," the Defense Intelligence representative warned.