Demonstrators, Munich, sexual violence
Demonstrators in Munich, Germany, express outrage at sexual violence allegedly being used by Russian soldiers against not only adults, but against children, April 9, 2022. Photo credit: © Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Press Wire

Russia borrows an old trick from the US to make reports of Russian atrocities seem fake.

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Want to see a trick? Watch carefully. But be patient. This is actually a trick within a trick. And it’s all part of the world of espionage and disinformation with its layers and layers of reports, true and false. And some ventriloquism.

Part I

October 14, 2022. France 24 publishes this provocative story:

Rape used in Ukraine as a Russian ‘military strategy’: UN

Pramila Patten — a barrister with a long record of fighting sexual violence, who was designated a UN Special Representative to Ukraine — visited that country. There, she was told by survivors about Russian troops using Viagra and raping civilians and, as would be her duty, she reported it for further investigation. 

“When women are held for days and raped, when you start to rape little boys and men, when you see a series of genital mutilations, when you hear women testify about Russian soldiers equipped with Viagra, it’s clearly a military strategy,” she said. “And when the victims report what was said during the rapes, it is clearly a deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims.”

Part II

October 17, 2022. The English-language version of the Russian news organization Pravda publishes a story with this headline:

Russia Responds to Rumours about Viagra for Russian Soldiers in Ukraine

Pravda describes the reactions of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova to Patten’s comments:

Zakharova called reports of the use of the substance deceitful and provocative. She drew a comparison to media statements during the Libyan crisis in 2011. Reuters once wrote that the troops loyal to [Libyan leader] Muammar Gaddafi practice rape, for which they stock up on Viagra. The West uses “the same patterns in its hybrid war.”

Part III

November 13, 2022. The Grayzone — an “independent” news agency with ties to Moscow —  presents an “exposé” of Patten’s claims. The deceptive sub-headline reads: 

UN envoy admits fabricating claim of Viagra-fueled rape as ‘Russian military strategy’

But, in the story, she actually does not “admit” to “fabricating” anything. 

The Grayzone describes how two Russian “pranksters” had contacted Patten and, during a  taped interview, had pressed her for proof of the story. She explained that she heard of these incidents while in Kyiv in May, from survivors and service providers, in the presence of high-ranking Ukrainian officials. 

What was she supposed to have done while there in that war-torn country? Demand rape kits from these survivors? Look for empty Viagra containers?

After trying to discredit Patten with the lie that she “admits fabricating” the claim, The Grayzone reinforced the impression created by Pravda of her motive for “fabricating” such a story: 

In falsely accusing Russian military commanders of juicing their troops on Viagra to carry out mass rape, Patten dusted off the Libya regime change playbook and deployed one of its most discredited — but effective — propaganda set-pieces…

The Viagra deception was first introduced in March 2011 by the Qatari-owned network al-Jazeera, which interviewed doctors from a hospital in a rebel-held area who claimed “they have found Viagra tablets and condoms in the pockets of dead pro-Gaddafi fighters.”

As unlikely as the scenario seemed, the seedy narrative was enough to help cultivate support for another regime change war. 

The Trick 

The Grayzone, Pravda, and others are right about the “seedy narrative.” Years ago, I personally exposed an insidious disinformation technique used by the US and its allies against one Arab leader, and then another. It involved creating a monstrous falsehood in the service of turning world opinion against them and in support of their removal. (To learn more, go, here, here, here, and here)

There were many things one could criticize these people for, but this particularly heinous charge — that Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad were fostering terror campaigns against their own people by supplying troops with Viagra to turbocharge widespread rape of the civilian population — was untrue. 

Historically, the most virally circulated wartime charges (like that in the first Gulf War, claiming Iraqi troops were throwing babies out of incubators) have tended to be deliberate fabrications that generate a powerful public reaction — before being debunked, often months or years later, long after the PR damage was done. 

The Trick Within the Trick

I am especially distressed to see that the Russians are now turning the tables, citing this historical fakeout and claiming that it is now being used against Russia itself. This gives Russia an unwarranted moral high ground to argue that nothing anyone alleges about their atrocities should be believed — period.

In other words, you are supposed to think that if, years ago, the West lied about the Iraqis and the Libyans, then they must necessarily be lying now, in 2022, about the Russians, case closed.

Well, is the West lying now? Not likely. There have been numerous claims, documented by the UN and human rights groups, of Russian troops commiting rape and other horrors (not unusual in war). And social media channels have played audio of what is purported to be a Russian soldier getting permission from his wife to commit rape. 

But the Russians have gone beyond just claiming the West is replaying their old trick. They have introduced an outright lie: the false claim that an UN envoy “admits fabricating” the story of Viagra-fueled rapes. (Speaking of tricks, check out this one: The Russians manufactured a BBC report on the bombing of the Kramatorsk train station, reported by WhoWhatWhy.)

By conflating the allegedly “fabricated” story of Viagra-fueled rapes with the well documented reports of rapes and other atrocities, they have managed to cast doubt on all reports of atrocities. 

The Russians will then look innocent of real, actual horrors they commit, and the West will, again, look guilty of lying for nefarious purposes. Furthermore, by discrediting reports of Russian horrors, they seek to discredit anyone opposed to Russia’s unprovoked and indefensible one-sided onslaught. 

In this cynical campaign of disinformation, they are manipulating the small but growing cohort in the West who, like the MAGA crowd, are increasingly adopting a dogmatic, cult-like affinity for Vladimir Putin and a willingness to accept any maniacal accusation leveled against his adversaries, from any quarter — without regard to logic or reality. 


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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