As the war started against Ukraine more than one year ago continues, so does Russia’s propaganda plan. With its main manipulation websites and TV channels banned across Europe, the Kremlin has to resort to more insidious methods of coercion, which are oftentimes hard to spot and harder to combat. In this article, we investigate how Russian propaganda operates differently across different states and what could be the consequences for the unity and stability of Europe.
Less than a week after the start of the war in Ukraine last year, the European Council adopted an unprecedented decision: it banned Sputnik and Russia Today (RT), two of the Kremlin-controlled media outlets. The ban consisted in not only excluding the two channels from cable plans, but also closing their websites altogether. In its decision, the Council’s representative for Foreign Affairs deemed them as a “direct threat towards the Union’s public order and security”, claiming they had for a long time engaged in “systematic information manipulation and disinformation”.
From the perspective of an Eastern European, this felt like a breath of fresh air. Before the ban, Sputnik was a fairly popular newspaper for the older generation in Romania and was known for its clickbait-y articles, interviews with dubious political figures and academics, and anti-EU, anti-West rhetoric in general. To me, it seemed as if this decision had defeated the lurking dangerous figure of Russian manipulation.
But if there’s anything this past year has taught us about Putin’s Russia is that it is damn good at playing the (mis)information war. Some would even argue that the Kremlin’s strongest asset isn’t on the battle front but online (I mean, let’s remember how they thought they would easily bring the Kyiv government down in a week and how that turned out). Given Russia’s strengths in the manipulation game, it would be at least naïve to assume that the Kremlin propaganda machine in Europe would be stopped with only a ban on its most popular distribution channels.
Following the 24th of February 2022, most of the European continent rallied itself against Russia and in support of Ukraine (at least officially). The Kremlin realized it might be too difficult to change that and completely shift the balance of support in its ways. Instead, Putin took a different approach, one which is for sure not new but now takes central stage in Russia’s propaganda plan: divide and conquer. The Kremlin propaganda machine does not want Europeans or Americans to take Russia’s side: it would be too difficult. Rather, it seeks to create public confusion, to distort the facts and to instate a general feeling of “nothing is really true” amongst the population. This system is particularly good at adapting its talking points to different European states: the propaganda in Italy is different from that in Czechia, and from that in the UK. All of them are curated according to each states’ current weaknesses, and to each people group’s fears.
Let’s talk Poland first. Probably the single biggest supporter of Ukraine, we would think the poles are immune to anti-Ukranian propaganda. Ever since the start of the war, 11.3 million Ukranian refugees have crossed the Polish border, and today, more than a million are still in the country. And yet, the Kremlin’s manipulation machine has been successful in flooding Polish Social Media sites with anti-Ukranian, anti-refugee rhetoric. Some of these posts exploit previously existing Polish-Ukranian animosities, as well as the nostalgia some poles hold over lost territories that now belong to Ukraine. Others simply discredit the Ukranian refugees, falsely claiming that they receive the social benefits that should belong to the poles, or that most refugees are wealthier than the people helping them. Data from the Visegrad Insight shows that right after the start of the invasion, mentions of quotes such as “Ukrainians are murderers of Poles” increased sharply on Polish Twitter.
In Romania on the other hand, the stories employed are different. In February, news broke out that Ukranian authorities were draining a canal on the Danube near the Ukranian-Romanian border, which could have had an impact on the biodiversity of the Danube Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite the unofficial nature of the news, a wave of anti-Ukranian sentiment burst in the media, as well as across the general population. For weeks, fake news about Ukraine’s plan to destroy the delta and transform it into a warship port took the first spot during prime time, as shown by a study of the Romanian political think-tank Expert Forum. What’s more, the study shows that several politicians have used the anti-Ukranian sentiment for political gain and have spent significant financial resources in promoting posts about the Canal scandal on social media, as well as on TV.
When it comes to Western Europe, we would expect that a stronger free press and less political pressures might protect against the Russian menace. And we’d be wrong. Italy is probably the best example of a media landscape that whitewashes Russian atrocities. During 2022, Russian politicians and “experts” have been repeatedly invited to talk shows and were allowed to spread propaganda and falsehoods in the name of “balanced, impartial media coverage”. Such figures included spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, Sergey Lavrov, or Russian ideologist Aleksandr Dugin. Aside from the usual talking points, considerable coverage was given to the effects the sanctions against Russia have had on Italian manufacturers and small businesses, especially in the tailoring industry.
The main aim of this manipulation machine is to destroy the united front of Ukranian support from within – to generate division, doubt, and fear. The main stakes are probably the upcoming elections: Poland and Slovakia choose their parliaments at the end of the year and Romania has 4 election rounds in 2024. As the war seems to stretch for a long time, it is undoubtedly important for Putin to make sure that the Europe of 2025 will be led by as many extremist, Kremlin-tolerating politicians as possible. And prior experience shows that Russia’s propaganda machine works better with someone like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen in power, than otherwise.
And this scenario seems more and more plausible. As the war rages on, people are getting tired and inflation, rising prices, or disturbed trade regimes are starting to affect their daily lives. Support for Ukraine and more specifically for supplying its army with weapons has fallen in several European states, as shown by the latest Eurobarometer report. In the face of this, national governments are willing to give up on Ukraine to not lose lead in national polls. A great example of this is the decision of some European governments to ban Ukranian grain exports without prior consultation with European or Ukranian authorities.
Unfortunately, this will be the “new normal”, at least until the war finishes. Our media is more fragile than ever, prone to fall in the trap of insidious Russian propaganda, one which is more subtle and hard to combat as ever before.