Skip to main content

Information Warfare & Ukraine: The Donetsk Cadavers

September 29, 2023


Morgan Bingle

Unlike more conventional forms of warfare, Information Warfare (IW) poses significant challenges for discussion, study, and comprehension due to its inherent intangibility. It occurs within and through the flow of data and ideas, with few physical components to track or visualize beyond pieces of printed media or storage devices. And while a successful narrative or IW campaign may produce large changes over time, such campaigns are usually more than the sum of their parts, so that any single part seems insignificant in comparison to the final outcome. A well-designed piece of an IW campaign will vary from its audience’s norm enough to grab its attention but remain familiar enough to fit within the audience’s existing assumptions – giving that individual part a mask of banality that allows it to change the audience’s views without their being aware. Done well, this mask can not only obscure the sources of a change, but obscure if that outcome was intentional or coincidental. It also helps to obscure the true audience of a piece, as the pieces of an IW narrative or campaign often spread far beyond their original target audience and may come to connect audiences who are unaware of each other’s existence. One of the greatest difficulties of researching IW then, is piercing that veil of banality and obscuration to identify and understand each of these elements, as illustrated in this example from the first day of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

In the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War, a video was posted to a relatively obscure YouTube channel, claiming to show the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the break-away Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine.[1] The video itself appears to have been filmed with a phone or handheld camera carried by its poster, a self-described independent journalist by the name of Patrick Lancaster. He opens by establishing that he is reporting from within the Donetsk People’s Republic and notes the region has just been recognized as independent by the Russian government. In the background is a burned car, and Lancaster begins to describe how it was destroyed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). In the process showing close-up footage of charred skeletons inside the car he identifies the bodies as those of civilians, although without explanation of how that identification was made. Lancaster then notes that he is investigating “what really happened” before cutting to footage of local officials sweeping for bomb fragments and briefly interviewing a local investigator. The footage then returns to Lancaster, who describes hearing explosions before breaking into a run for cover in a ditch where he describes a battle breaking out all around them – although there is nothing captured in the video’s audio to support this. The video jumps ahead to Lancaster still hiding and describing “intense fighting breaking out” until someone off camera decides the fighting has ended and Lancaster’s group emerges to find a local farmer calmly walking down the middle of the road, apparently unaware of the “intense” battle. Lancaster interviews the farmer and asks “Do you think this action [the Russian invasion] can bring peace?” to which the farmer replies “I don’t know. I’m not sure this will bring something.” One final shot shows Lancaster in a helmet and bullet-proof vest, excitedly promising to bring “all the breaking news” with “much more to come.”[2]

While Lancaster did continue to report the news from Ukraine for several more months after this, his online fame would come in large part from the debunking of this single video. Within days of the video’s emergence, the online investigative group Bellingcat released a damning report which showed how the burned cars appear to have stopped at the exact moment of the explosion rather than been carried forward by momentum, were lacking license plates, and how their “shrapnel” damage was uniformly round – appearing more like holes from bullets than metal shards.[3] There was also a distinct lack of shattered glass anywhere on the scene, in or around the vehicles. Most damning of all were the skeletal remains. The “driver’s” skull can be clearly seen to have a perfectly square section cut out and placed back slightly out of position. A wound that outside medical experts confirmed was consistent with autopsy procedures, not a bomb blast.[4]

In all, the report concluded that the scene Lancaster reported on was in fact an amateurish reproduction of a roadside bomb attack meant to help justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[5] The content of the video fit Lancaster’s previous pattern of heavily biased pro-Russian reporting and willingness to use fabricated evidence to elicit shock value.[6] The report also noted that Lancaster’s video had appeared in concert with several other videos which similarly showed faked attacks by supposedly Ukrainian agitators against Russia or ethnic Russians living abroad.[7] All of which Bellingcat assessed to be parts of a larger strategic messaging campaign by the Russian government meant to create proof for its pre-war accusations that Ukraine was a threat requiring a pre-emptive military response.[8]

The Bellingcat report was well researched, well written, and did an excellent job exposing the falsehoods in Patrick Lancaster’s work. However, it was also rapidly produced, and designed to fill a need for accurate information in the first hectic days of the war. Meanwhile, Patrick Lancaster and his video of these Donetsk cadavers has remained online, and has continued to influence audiences, making it worth revisiting with the benefit of time and perspective. For it is with that broader perspective that the uncertainties of our knowledge about this video begin to emerge and questions arise.

Starting with the source, while the immediate source of the video assessed by Bellingcat was obviously Patrick Lancaster himself, the source of the scene – such as the burned cars and cadavers – is far less obvious. The scene could be a production of the local Donetsk government, the larger Russian government, or, perhaps most likely, some combination of both. The appearance of Lancaster’s video and other footage of this scene in concert with multiple other videos portraying multiple, geographically separated attacks suggests a level of coordination and effort beyond the capabilities of the Donetsk People’s Republic alone. However, it also suggests this propaganda effort would have been time and resource-intensive enough to require delegation out to local representatives of whatever higher agency coordinated the overall effort.

Next to consider is the video’s intended audience. Lancaster, who was born in Missouri and moved to Donetsk around 2014, narrates his video in English and seems to be appealing to a Western audience. More specifically, he seems to have been targeting an American audience by invoking the imagery of the Iraq War with terms like “IED” and through his pushing of this story to American platforms like Alex Jones’s Info Wars.[9] However, other videos of this same scene exist. These other videos were produced by Russian-speaking news crews, and appeared in Russian broadcast media rather than just on social media.[10] This split suggests the scene and its accompanying narrative was intended for both foreign and domestic audiences.

The purposes of these videos can be broadly divided into the categories of convince and confuse. Bellingcat’s report – posted only four days into the war – argues for Lancaster’s video as an attempt at convincing. It reports Lancaster’s video was part of a: “flurry of dubious provocations and staged events that appear to have been designed to implicate the Ukrainian armed forces and drum up military aggression in the days before the first shots were fired.”[11] But time and perspective suggest Lancaster’s video was intended to confuse. For while Lancaster’s video failed to reach large mainstream audiences outside the context of Bellingcat’s report, it has lived on and continued to impact less mainstream spaces like the UkraineWarVideoReport sub-reddit where Lancaster’s pro-Russian narrative remain active. In such spaces, the video has retained the ability to persuade. In these spaces, pro-Russian defenders of Lancaster have argued for his legitimacy and urged others to view more of his videos as a means of “doing their own research.”

The suggestion to “do your own research” brings overlapping benefits for the narrative by extending the time individuals are exposed to pro-Russian content, increasing the likelihood that online algorithms will suggest further pro-Russian content to those individuals, and driving increased views for that content, increasing the likelihood of it being pushed by those algorithms. This persistent insistence on Lancaster’s poorly made disinformation piece being treated as having equal weight as legitimate news sources and reporting also serves to confuse and obscure the already complex history of the Russia-Ukraine War and suggests some form of moral equivalence between both sides. This message stands in stark contrast to the narrative provided by legitimate frontline reporters and major news outlets.

The Lancaster video exemplifies the much larger battle for the narrative of the conflict in Ukraine. The sources, audiences, and purposes of the video are each multi-faceted. Significant questions remain, including the prioritization of the foreign versus domestic audiences of the scene, the intentionality of its purpose for either convincing or confusing those audiences, how those intentions may have changed over time, and if those changes were intentional or an evolutionary change resulting from the video being picked up and debated beyond the originally intended audience. There also remains the task of establishing and demonstrating the impact of Lancaster’s video as an alternative source of information in online spaces like Reddit, and if the doubt it seeks to cast on the morality of Ukraine’s defense can be shown to have undermined support for the country. For while that impact may be small, it is important to remember that this video is only one of many in a much larger effort which must be judged by the sum of its parts more than by the nature of its individual pieces.


[1] Lancaster, Patrick. “Journalists under Fire Investigating IED That Killed 3 Civilians.” YouTube, February 22, 2022.

[2] Lancaster, 2022.

[3] Nick Waters, “’Exploiting Cadavers ’and ‘Faked IEDs’: Experts Debunk Staged Pre-War ‘Provocation’ in the Donbas,” Bellingcat, February 28, 2022,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paladino, Jason, and Anya van Wagtendonk. “Meet Patrick Lancaster: A U.S. Navy Veteran from Missouri and Russia’s Favorite War Propagandist.” The Messenger, April 18, 2022.

[7] Waters, 2022.

[8] Waters, 2022.

[9] Gilbert, David. “Meet the US ‘journalist’ Helping Spread the Kremlin’s Propaganda.” VICE, June 9, 2022.

[10] Waters, 2022.

[11] Waters, 2022.