The spokesperson of the self-proclaimed ”DPR”`s ministry of defense, Eduard Basurin on Saturday voiced baseless claims that an ”Islamic brigade” with as many as 500 fighters had been deployed to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and was working with the 36th Naval Infantry Brigade, according to the Atlantic Council`s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Even more shocking, according to Basurin, they had taken control of Mariupol`s port and were facilitating the illegal trafficking of chemical weapons to unidentified Middle Eastern countries, DFR Lab says.
Like most fakes, Basurin`s story of a 500-person Islamic battalion working with the naval infantry brigade in Mariupol is a false claim launched from a small grain of truth. In February 2017, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian MP and widely-recognized leader of the Crimean Tatars, said that there was an agreement in place with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to create a naval infantry unit from the 250-man Asker Battalion, a controversial Crimean Tatar volunteer group.
The Asker Battalion has drawn criticism in disrupting life in Crimea and the Ukrainian-controlled area near the border after the peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia. Since its formation in 2016, this group of Crimean Tatar volunteers has organized a blockade along the Crimean de-facto border and been involved in conflicts with Ukrainian law enforcement.
Despite the February announcement, on April 8, Lenur Islyamov, a Crimean businessman and organizer of the Civil Blockade of Crimea, said that the Asker Battalion had still not been integrated into the Ukrainian army.
While Basurin never explicitly referred to Crimean Tatars or the Asker Battalion, it seems quite likely that he was alluding to the Asker Battalion working with the 36th Naval Infantry Brigade, currently deployed in and near Mariupol. However, for some reason, Basurin doubled the expected size of the yet-to-be-formed unit in the naval infantry brigade, from the Asker Battalion`s estimated 250 to 500 volunteers.
While Basurin`s claim is unequivocally false, the grain of truth lies in the plans — though apparently now on hold — to integrate a volunteer battalion with majority-Muslim (Crimean Tatar) membership into the ranks of the Ukrainian naval infantry. The remaining details, however, are pure fiction: the size of the battalion, the status of the yet-to-be integrated volunteer group, and the location of the ”500” new fighters.
This is not the first case of fake news connecting groups of Muslims and jihadists to the Ukrainian military and the volunteer battalions working with it. The most famous example came in early 2016. In this instance, the ostensibly independent hacking group Cyber Berkut ”leaked” a series of photographs supposedly taken from a fighter of the notorious Azov Battalion. Cyber Berkut fabricated evidence showing Azov fighters wearing clothes with ISIS symbols.
However, these photographs were not shot at an Azov Battalion base, but instead in an abandoned art center in Donetsk, the heart of separatist-held territory. In an exhaustive investigation, the BBC Russian Service`s Andrey Soshnikov geolocated these photographs and uncovered the ”art of the fake,” describing how the art center in Donetsk became an ”ISIS base.”
Clearly, the Cyber Berkut story of an ISIS-Azov hybrid group was a pure fabrication. However, we can observe how other stories — like the ”Islamic battalion” of Mariupol — start with a grain of truth, and grow into grand conspiracies rooted in Islamophobia.
For example, in 2015, multiple well-researched reports, including from the New York Times and Intercept, described how primarily-Muslim volunteer groups, some with links to extremist organizations, participated in fighting in the Donbas. In turn, ultra-nationalist websites published stories with headlines without any basis in reality, such as ”Kiev Junta Supplying Weapons To Terrorist Group ISIS/GL!”, ”ISIS Training Camps Concentrated in Southern Ukraine,” and ”Ukraine Imports ISIS Oil through Odessa Port”.
Concluding their report, DFR Lab says that Basurin`s claim of the arrival of an ”Islamic battalion” has little basis in reality, and likely arose out of an exaggeration of the halted integration of a volunteer group of Crimean Tatars into the ranks of the Ukrainian naval infantry.
The unsubstantiated general claim of chemical weapons trafficking is even less convincing, resting solely on Basurin`s word. Nonetheless, it is perhaps more interesting in light of the American airstrike against Syria resulting from the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun.
The ”Middle Eastern countries” to which Ukraine is allegedly exporting chemicals weapons were not named, and the narrative may have implied connections to the initial Russian argument that the opposition groups attacked in Idlib province were in possession of chemical weapons. The DFRLab will continue to monitor this claim and its use in further reporting in Russian-language media.