TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — The reports from Russian state news agencies that Moscow's troops were relocating from the Dnieper River in Ukraine appeared to be a major development Monday — for about 10 minutes, until the usually authoritative media withdrew the news.
The next hours saw a flurry of claims from both Russia and Ukraine that each opposing side had faked the reports. The incident was a striking skirmish in the information war that hovers around the actual battlefields.
Although the reports that the Defense Ministry had announced troop relocations, and their subsequent rapid reversal, did not appear to have any immediate effect on the fighting, the incident raised significant questions. Were agencies that are primary sources of information about the war duped; did Russian authorities inattentively release information that wasn't meant to be known publicly?
Independent journalists have little access to Russia's operations in Ukraine and the Defense Ministry characteristically ignores their queries, leaving assessment of the Russian side of the war largely a matter of reporting what officials say in prepared statements.
Throughout the nearly 21-month war, both Russia and Ukraine have misrepresented events, with claims of attacks that didn't occur, denials of actual attacks and ominous allegations of planned operations that never materialize.
But the reports on Tass and RIA-Novosti of pullbacks had appeared credible. The state-run agencies reliably report from the Kremlin and ministries and frequently cite sources within the bureaucracies to announce developments prior to the release of official statements.
Adding to the aura of credibility, the agencies' reports appeared almost simultaneously and in language typical of Defense Ministry statements. “Having assessed the current situation, the command of the Dnieper group decided to move troops to more advantageous positions east” of the river, RIA-Novosti's bulletin said.
That rang similar to the announcements Russia made when it pulled back troops from the Kharkiv region and from Kherson city, both of which were notable strategic losses for Russia. The Dnieper River is the front line in southern Ukraine, and a retreat would be significant.
But Ukrainian forces reportedly have established only small bridgeheads on the eastern, Russian-held side of the river so the reports raised questions about why Russia would pull back, unless it were to deploy its forces to defend other positions or reinforce troops on another front.
Before there was time for much analysis. the agencies sent notices annulling the bulletins, without explaining.
“Tass and RIA moved to more advantageous positions,” Russian media gadfly Ksenia Sobchak said on her Telegram channel.
The events did not become clearer.
The Defense Ministry was quoted by the respected news site RBK as saying the reports were a provocation but did not elaborate. The Telegram news channel Ostorozhno Novosti cited a source with RIA-Novosti as saying the report was based on a fake account pretending to be the ministry's press service, an account it alleged was run from Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment in his daily conference call with journalists, referring questions to the ministry.
In turn, the Center for National Resistance, an arm of Ukraine's military, called the reports a Russian propaganda “operation aimed at distracting the Defense Forces of Ukraine.”
“No relevant movements of enemy troops have been recorded,” it said, then added some spin, saying withdrawal from the region is only “a matter of time, and therefore in fact we only have a premature release.”