This week, a resident living in a non-government-controlled region of Ukraine shared propaganda leaflets he claimed to have found in his yard: one side showing the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and the other showing a soldier in what was described as a “NATO uniform” with a Ukrainian flag. The text on both sides of the leaflets, in Russian, read:
“We are coming. Soon.”
The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) quickly publicized information about these leaflets, with “spokesperson” Eduard Basurin commenting at a press conference on October 19th:
“A drone dropped a bunch of leaflets in the Promzone [note: contested area in southeastern Avdiivka] and [non-government-controlled] Spartak. This is the first time we’ve encountered this. On one side of the leaflet is the U.S. Secretary of Defense, and on the other is a soldier with a Ukrainian flag chevron. And the words: ‘We’re coming. Soon.’”
Basurin also claimed that these leaflets show the “creativity” of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and added “about a hundred leaflets” were dropped from the drone. But the question remains: who actually spread these leaflets?
The story’s origin and dissemination
This claim was first published on the Telegram channel of a group called War Gonzo, which also operates Facebook and Vkontakte (VK) pages. War Gonzo shared a photograph of the propaganda leaflets on October 18.
🔥⚡️ The Vsuniki [note: soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces] have publicized the arrival of American soldiers. On the leaflet photo, which was distributed along the front line. The U.S. Minister of Defense, James Mattis, is depicted on them. Near him is written: ‘We’re coming. Soon.’”
An additional photograph of the leaflets was shared by the separatist news website RusVesna.su, which showed the same images and phrase as in the War Gonzo report.
The so-called DNR’s Ministry of Information published a video (with War Gonzo branding) on its YouTube channel interviewing the man who reportedly found the leaflets in his yard.
Soon after War Gonzo’s report, and Basurin’s comments, the story spread quickly through Russian and Russian-led separatist corners of the internet. Perhaps most notably, the Russian state-funded news service RIA Novosti published a story on the leaflets with the headline, “[Ukrainian] Forces Spread Leaflets with Photograph of Mattis, Basurin says.” Among the more mainstream outlets that spread the story — Russian state-funded Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the sensationalist Life News, and the Russian Ministry of Defense-funded Zvezda TV. A range of outwardly partisan pro-separatist websites widely reported on the story, including News-Front, RusVesna, and AntiMaydan.
Were the leaflets real?
Without direct evidence from Ukrainian or Russian-led separatist officials, it remains difficult to say with full certainty if these leaflets were actually spread by Ukrainian forces, or were created by pro-Russian or Russian-led separatist individuals hoping to provoke panic among locals. But as it turns out, we do have such a piece of direct evidence: a Facebook post from Lili Kravchenko, an activist and volunteer embedded with Ukrainian troops. In the post, she says that they did drop these leaflets over the area around Donetsk city.
“Yesterday at noon, our UAV dropped leaflets over Donetsk. The leaflets have caused some nervousness among the separatists (…) But the juiciest part: they really do fear that American troops are going to be sent in, and are whining about it in the clip.”
However, Kravchenko disputes the location where the clip was filmed, saying that the drone was not able to make it as far as Mineralne, and the clip was filmed in the Kuybyshevskiy district of Donetsk city.
As with many of the statements from so-called DNR “spokesperson” Eduard Basurin, the claim of the Mattis leaflets initially seemed absurd, on the same level as the infamous Yarosh business card or claims of Polish snipers arriving in eastern Ukraine. However, it turns out that the claim is probably mostly true — the UAF did drop a bundle of propaganda leaflets over Donetsk showing U.S. Secretary Mattis. While Russian and Russian-led separatist officials perceived the leaflets as a grand psy-op from the UAF, it is much more likely that the Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers organizing the leaflet drop were more concerned with antagonizing the Russians and Russian-led separatists across the contact line than predicting a landing force of American troops.
Two additional photographs of the leaflets has appeared online, via Twitter. In a follow-up response, the Twitter user said that the leaflets were found “near Donetsk.”