Once again, it has been a busy week for the Kremlin’s information manipulation purveyors. From planes crashing in Russia’s backyard to some EU countries displaying democratic behaviour such as freedom of expression and the right to assembly, incomprehensible in the Kremlin, there were indeed many angles the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus sought to exploit for its own devious goals. Let’s have a closer look at how they sought to alter the public perception of some of the events that unfolded this week.
It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s the Kremlin’s firehose of falsehoods!
On 24 January a Russian IL-76 military transport plane crashed near the Ukrainian border in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast. While calls for an objective international investigation go unheeded by Russia, there is little veritable information about what happened to the plane and what it was transporting that day. Of course, for the Kremlin’s mouthpieces, facts and evidence have never been a prerequisite for expounding their deceitful claims.
Almost immediately after the IL-76 crash was reported, pro-Kremlin channels started spreading claims that the cargo plane was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) headed for a pre-arranged prisoner swap with Ukraine. These as-of-yet unproven claims were quickly used to vilify Ukraine and accuse it of terrorism. Then, the plane crash was used to ‘prove’ a particularly nasty narrative spawned in the festering dungeons that spawn the Kremlin’s lies – that the Ukrainian government does not care about its people and is willing to sacrifice them as collateral damage. This is nothing new. In fact, we’ve documented hundreds of pro-Kremlin attempts to pit the Ukrainian people against the ‘Kyiv regime’.
Time to confuse
Now, after the initial groundwork of distraction, vilification and accusations was laid, it was time for the Kremlin to really open up the firehose of falsehoods. The Kremlin’s disinformation always seeks to confuse, and for that, spreading numerous, sometimes conflicting narratives works like a charm. Enter the claims that the IL-76 crash is a provocation by the Ukrainian military, much like the downing of Malaysian civilian airliner MH17 in 2014.
And the more time passed, the more far-fetched the Kremlin’s stories became, including wild stories that the UN is preparing a ‘Bucha-style justification’ to demonise Russia or that NATO troops attacked Russia and shot down the plane. And if it wasn’t NATO, it was definitely the US, Germany or the UK. Perhaps the most outlandish claim of all – that Ukraine shot down the IL-76 to stop Ukrainian POWs from telling the world how well Russia treated them.
Spin the cycle of lies
The Kremlin disinformation machine’s approach to the IL-76 incident is almost a perfect textbook example of disinformation manipulation. First, deny any culpability and fill the initial information vacuum with plausible but misleading claims. Then rely on unwitting amplifiers to lend legitimacy to the narrative, project your own wrongdoing outwards, and blame the adversary. Finally, pack the information space with a cacophony of voices to confuse perception and obscure the truth.
How do we know what’s happened? Quite simple. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen the Kremlin’s disinformation spreaders spin this manipulative cycle of lies. Most notably, this was the case with pro-Kremlin coverage of the downing of MH17, spanning years. The comparisons to MH17 are particularly cynical, when Russia’s responsibility for killing all 298 innocent people on board that flight has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Other examples include the finger pointing and outpouring of falsehoods about the Nord Stream pipelines’ sabotage, the destruction of the Khakovka dam or the shelling of a prison camp in Olenivka.
What will the tractors bring?
The other major topic in the Kremlin’s disinformation cross-hairs this week is European farmer protests taking place across Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and other places. The Kremlin’s pundits seemed to rejoice about this essential expression of democratic freedoms enshrined in the common values that tie the European community together. They predict the division and economic downfall of the EU, entirely missing the point that in democratic societies, such civic action – the freedom to protest – is rather a sign of strength, not weakness. So, the Kremlin feels compelled to ridicule such expression as ‘tractor wars’.
Still, the Kremlin considered the topic ripe enough to push two main disinformation narratives. First and foremost, its disinfo peddlers try to exacerbate the perception of divisions between the people, and what the Kremlin erroneously calls the ‘Brussels elites’. Some pro-Kremlin outlets also hoped for an eruption of violence and prophesised that the ongoing protests will spell the end for the EU, which is set to begin with the ‘siege of Paris’.
The collapse of the Union is a classic. At fairly frequent intervals, Kremlin mouthpieces have predicted the downfall of the European project. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Moscow predicted a coming collapse due to the EU’s alleged inability to take health measures. That proved wrong. During winter 2022-23, the collapse was supposed to have come due to soaring energy prices, inflation and a general economic meltdown.
It’s because of Ukraine, stupid!
Invariably, for the Kremlin’s disinformation producers, all roads lead back to Ukraine. And, so it is with the farmer protests in Europe. Who’s to blame, you ask? The Kremlin has a resounding answer – it’s the greedy Zelenskyy! According to the notorious Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, the European Commission is in cahoots with Ukraine to flood the EU market with cheap goods, to mitigate the allegedly self-inflicted damage of EU sanctions against Russia. And, of course, this disinformation narrative was readily amplified by Russian diplomatic accounts.
Also blinking red on EUvsDisinfo’s radar:
- The Kremlin’s disinformation agents love to point fingers at others, distracting from Russia’s own shortcomings. So, no surprise that when the sham spectacle of Russian ‘elections’ is nearing, they look elsewhere and question Ukraine’s democracy with ridiculous claims that President Zelenskyy abandoned elections and usurped power in Ukraine. It’s a classic case of projection. According to the Constitution of Ukraine, the holding of any elections for government bodies in Ukraine during wartime is prohibited. Article 83 explicitly prohibits elections to the legislative bodies under such conditions, while Article 157 stipulates, ‘The Constitution of Ukraine cannot be amended under martial law or a state of emergency’. So, in fact, President Zelenskyy adheres to the Constitution, as is expected in any country governed by the rule of law.
- Weaponising victimhood has long since been among the Kremlin’s favoured manipulation tactics, to build the kind of siege mentality that enables the Kremlin’s control over its subjects. For that, constant threats of a coming doomsday war with the West work best, and no opportunities should be missed. Case in point – claiming that NATO Steadfast Defender 2024 exercises are a Western hybrid war against Russia. This is utter nonsense as NATO is a defensive alliance with the primary aims of maintaining peace and safeguarding the independence, security, and territorial integrity of its members. Steadfast Defender 2024 is a NATO manoeuvre that will be used to rehearse the response to a hypothetical aggression by the Russian Federation against a member country, activating Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. And that seems like a more than reasonable defensive response considering that Russia launched an unprovoked, full-scale invasion against its neighbour Ukraine and has been waging a brutal war there for almost two years now.
- Speaking of Russia looking for ‘enemies’ trying to ‘encircle’ it, the Kremlin seems to have a very unhealthy obsession with ‘Anglo-Saxons’ who are always up to some devious misdeeds. Now, according to the Kremlin’s disinformation peddlers, the MI6 is training Ukrainian saboteurs to attack nuclear power plants in Russia. This paranoid narrative is well in line with the previously described siege mentality, and it does not bother to provide any evidence to back up such outrageous claims. In fact, the invocation of fears of a nuclear disaster is a carefully chosen tactic of fear-mongering, which is a central part of the Kremlin’s nuclear rhetoric. For several years now, public figures in the Russian info-sphere like Dmitry Kiselyov or the now-late Vladimir Zhirinovsky have used nuclear threats against the West. Since the beginning of 2022 and the full invasion, Russian officials have made such statements, including Dmitry Medvedev, Ramzan Kadyrov, Margarita Simonyan and even Vladimir Putin who specified, ‘This is not a bluff’.