Russia claimed this week to have blunted the long-expected Ukrainian military offensive this week, and Kremlin officials on Tuesday even announced that the Russian ground forces had successfully destroyed eight German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks (MBTs), along with more than 100 other armored vehicles in just recent days.
“Total losses of Ukrainian troops in the southern Donetsk Region area were more than 1,500 Ukrainian servicemen, 28 tanks, of them 8 German-made Leopard tanks, 3 wheeled French-made АМХ-10 tanks and 109 armored fighting vehicles,” the Russian Ministry of Defense told the Russian state news outlet Tass.
The claims were not independently verified, and Kyiv has said the allegations are mere Russian propaganda and part of an ongoing disinformation campaign.
It was earlier this year that Berlin announced it would provide a number of the Cold War-era Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, while Paris also has been supplying the wheeled AMX-10 tank destroyer to aid Kyiv.
The Video Evidence—Not Exactly!
Perhaps to bolster the Kremlin’s statements, on Tuesday, Russian state media outlet Ria Novosti published video footage on the social messaging platform Telegram—claiming the nearly minute-long-clip was recorded from a Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopter as the crew targeted a formation of Leopard 2 MBTs crossing an open field.
Yet, instead of serving as a smoking gun to back up Moscow’s claims, the post on Telegram quickly crashed and burned. The video was heavily mocked as keen-eyed viewers noted that the Ka-52 didn’t actually attack any Leopard 2s, or even tanks for that matter.
The objects seen in the grainy footage were identified as farm equipment.
“This is possible [sic] the dumbest kill video of this whole war and I really mean it. This Russian Ka-52 attack chopper crew thought that they have targeted and destroyed Leopard 2 tanks (you read this correctly). Even a semi-professional can clearly see that this are [sic] agricultural harvester and sprayer machines. And as if this is not dumb enough, Russian regime bloggers like Kotsnews plus Ria Novosti issued this footage claiming exactly that,” military news and analysis blogger @Tendar tweeted.
Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) added, “The vehicles targeted by ATGM from Ka-52 not only don’t resemble tanks but are in fact innocent agricultural equipment- a sprayer & combines.”
Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, also sought to debunk the video, posting via Twitter (@Gerashchenko_en), “The vehicles in the footage published by the Russian Ministry of Defence do not resemble any tanks at all in their silhouette. They most resemble combine harvesters.”
Propaganda Failure—Maybe Not
Both Kyiv and Moscow—and their proxies—have shared countless “war porn” style videos since the start of the war more than 15 months ago to sustain their respective claims and also to highlight the other side’s setbacks on the battlefield. It has been common for such videos and photos to be presented out of context, heavily edited, and even recorded far from the front lines.
However, this particular video has gone viral on social media for the wrong reasons—and it should have been obvious to the state media that it wouldn’t back up the Kremlin’s claims.
“As an ex-Kansas farm boy who spent summers driving combines, it sure looks more like that’s what was hit than a Leopard,” said Dr. Matthew J. Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven. “It doesn’t take a satellite to tell a harvester from a tank anymore.”
More importantly, this video—and the reactions it received—serves as an example of how crowd-sourced efforts can quickly debunk propaganda shared by official state media outlets.
“That’s the great thing about social media: there are thousands of pretty good amateur analysts out there that can offer up the kind of assessments of these things that used to only be the purview of intelligence agencies,” added Schmidt.
This wasn’t the first time that Russia had claimed to have destroyed a Leopard 2, but it is arguably among the least convincing.
“One of the things that’s really interesting about this story is how insidious it is. I agree it’s laughable for how easy it is to disprove, but research shows that the point of misinformation campaigns isn’t necessarily ‘to get away with it,’ it’s to muddy the waters so much that the very idea of what is true or not becomes irrelevant,” explained Dr. Clifford Lampe, professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
“It’s related to what Walter Langer called ‘the Big Lie’ in the 20th century—that ‘People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it,'” Lampe continued. “So, it’s easy to refute one claim about tanks, but they keep repeating the lie and some people will come to believe it—likely the people who need to believe it to keep supporting the government.”
Russia may know that some will counter the claims that it was the Leopard 2 in the video, but the Kremlin can continue to allege that eight of the tanks were still destroyed.
“The point of claims like this isn’t to be factual, it’s to create a plausible narrative,” said Lampe. “My guess is this isn’t a fail on their part, it’s part of a broader and successful strategy. I mean, Russians literally wrote the book on these types of campaigns in the 1930s.”