Author: Nino Chanadiri
Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.
Since February 24, 2022 after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it became apparent that this would be a war against the collective West on the territory of Ukraine, that would determine not only European security, but also how the world will be like after the war. The war in Ukraine has gained a strong ideological implication. In particular, it is often described as a war between values - between the free world and authoritarianism. Therefore, Russia's defeat became the most important goal for the Western world. Therefore, as Western leaders often indicate, if Russia is successful in Ukraine, the world will become a more dangerous place, meaning that it is possible to be successful with the use of military power and violence.1As Estonia’s former president – Kersti Kaljulaid mentioned in one of her interviews, this war is for freedom and the failure of the free world will encourage other autocratic rulers too.
“The Orwellian world of killing people for exercising their right to decide their own future while not even believing people have the ability to figure out what their dreams are by democratic process, that is what Putin’s worldview truly is”, she said.2
Since the ideological part plays a huge role in the war in Ukraine, it is logical that the informational dimension of the war is given a special importance. Traditional disinformation and propaganda techniques has its implication in Russian information strategy when it comes to the war in Ukraine. It is directed against the Ukrainian leaders, its Western partners and the target audiences, not only towards the population of Russia, but international society as well. It aims to give a rise to confusion, making it difficult to reach consensus, shape public opinion about the war in Ukraine, and increase support for Russia.
In order to successfully spread and implement false narratives - acceptable to Russian state interests - around the world, Russian strategy uses a combination of different tools. In addition to state media,3the Russian information strategy includes the use of fake accounts on social media and the spread of false information by anonymous sites. These methods have been in place for years, and the war in Ukraine was no exception. However, in parallel to the war, there have been examples like the one investigated by the British authorities, that in addition to the so-called "trolls" on social media, Russia has been using so-called "influencers" too. For example, on the TikTok platform, some of the influencers were paid to spread pro-Russian narratives.4
Russia spreads its own narratives about the invasion of Ukraine. The main line in the Russian narrative is to accuse Ukraine and its Western partners of aggression, which leaves Russia with no choice but to protect its own interests.
- The Russian anti-Western myth that it uses to justify its aggression against Ukraine is as follows: NATO and the West are the ones to blame in the ongoing crisis. They violated the promise about the non-expansion of NATO. As a result, Russia appeared “surrounded” by NATO forces and it is only protecting itself from the threats derived from NATO. It can be seen from the narrative that, for Russia, Ukraine is a front line with NATO. Even months before the full scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia demanded “legal guarantees” from NATO based on which NATO would stop its expansion and activities close to the Russian border.5 Russia builds this demand on another myth of its own, that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received a verbal promise from NATO in the past that NATO would not expand eastward beyond a united Germany. There is no evidence that could prove this. NATO member states have never made political or legal commitments on the issue of NATO expansion. What is more, Mikhail Gorbachev himself denied this and noted that this issue was never discussed with Western leaders.6
However, in addition to the main disinformation narrative mentioned above, Russia often spreads other false information about Western states and their relations with Ukraine.
- For years, Russia has been accusing Ukraine and Georgia of producing biological weapons, diseases or dangerous drugs in laboratories in cooperation with the United States of America, saying that this poses a threat to Russia. American laboratories in these countries were constantly in the center of Russian attention. This topic became widely discussed by Russia once again during the war. One of the Russian narratives against the United States is that the United States of America is using the territory of Ukraine to develop biological weapons. In fact, Ukraine has a strong cooperation with the United States, which aims to prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens. To fulfill this aim, the United States actively helps Ukraine to modernize the laboratories.7
The so-called Whataboutism in the Background of the War in Ukraine
Russian disinformation tactics are based on spreading information that is false or half-true. However, so-called "whataboutism" is also deeply established in the strategy of Russian disinformation, which means - instead of answering specific issues, comparing them with other issues that may not be related to the problem itself. In other words, it can also be described as a way to artificially shift attention from the specific problem. The practice of whatabautism is quite actively used by Russian strategy against the background of the war in Ukraine. It should be noted that the target of Russian disinformation during the war in Ukraine went significantly beyond Russia's neighborhood, Ukraine and its supporters. It covered every continent. The Russian information strategy actively uses narratives that echo the broad topics of Western imperialism and that can generate interest in specific societies with especialy sensitive attitude towards this issue.8 By exploiting the sentiments of the target societies, the focus is shifted from the specific problem, which is ultimately used to strengthen Russian position’s support when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine. The conducted observations reveal that this challenge exists both in Europe and in other regions of the world. The number of posts containing whatabautism on the topic of Russian invasion of Ukraine in the Arab world, Africa, China, South America indicates the growing influence of Russian disinformation in these regions. In practice, the dominant behavior is to shift the focus to other conflicts and crises in the world, noting that “Ukrainian lives are worth more than others”.9Additionally, where Russia is criticized because of its aggression, the counter narrative is stressing about the wars led by the Western states and the colonial experiences. It is important to note, that while Russia is in isolation from the Western world, it tries to increase its influence by using information means in other parts of the world to increase support towards Russia and secure its spheres of influence beyond Europe.
Does demonizing the West help Russia gain moral superiority and justify its actions? The logic behind Russia's information strategy in its conflict of values with the West is simple, and it remains the same during the Ukraine war. Russia’s information war does not aim to portray Russia as a fair, good state. Rather, its aim is convincing societies inside and outside Russia that maybe Russia is not a perfect example of a good state, although the Western model is worse and following this model is a mistake. It is for this purpose to compare Russia's unjustified invasion of Ukraine with other wars in which the West played a role in the past. The message is as follows - although Russia violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighboring state, it commits a war crime on Ukrainian territory, the West has also waged wars in other countries. Therefore, it has no right to criticize Russia now.
The informational dimension of the war in Ukraine is closely related to the ideological part of the war - Russia's conflict with Western values and the free world. Russia tries to discredit the West with a well-tested method of disinformation, and with the help of state media, various websites and social media, it spreads anti-Western narratives which target not only the Russian or European societies, but also the world community. Myths about “surrounded” Russia by NATO forces or biological weapons produced by Americans in Ukraine and other Eastern European states help the creation of the icon of the enemy, that help Russia to give legitimacy to its actions. Russia also tries to shift the attention of the world community from the Ukrainian topic with the so-called “whataboutism” method, which became especially apparent in Russian strategy during the war. Russian disinformation waves during the war in Ukraine is a clear indication that this method continues to play a leading role in Russia's state information policy and is still a weapon at the hands of Russia.
1. "NATO Chief: World Will be a More Dangerous Place if Russia Wins Ukraine War" Voice of America, August 4, 2022 https://www.voanews.com/a/nato-chief-world-is-more-dangerous-place-if-russia-wins-ukraine-war/6686570.html
2. Ashish Kumar Sen, “Estonia’s Ex-President Kaljulaid: The future of the free world is at stake in Ukraine,” United States Institute of Peace, May 11, 2022 https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/05/estonias-ex-president-kaljulaid-future-free-world-stake-ukraine?fbclid=IwAR3N7RtdjDh08AUYCBWJpb1dUp0RIaUxSZBYapY3BIUPm8Yz9xMb5L5wmRM
3. For the additional information about the influences of Russian TV channels beyond Russia see: “Disinformation and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: Threats and governance responses”, OECD, November 3, 2022, Pp 8-10
4. “Disinformation and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: Threats and governance responses”, OECD, November 3, 2022, Pp 3
5. “Putin Demands NATO Guarantees Not to Expand Eastward”, AP news, December 1, 2021 https://apnews.com/article/business-russia-ukraine-moscow-sergey-lavrov-90d7347e8f25bea1ddb2c7b3dc1687c0
6. “Disinfo: NATO Violated It’s Pledge Not to Move Eastwards”, EU vs Disinfo, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/report/nato-violated-its-pledge-not-to-move-eastwards#
7. “Disinfo: Ukraine Is a Testing Ground For US Bioweapons”, EU vs Disinfo, https://euvsdisinfo.eu/report/ukraine-is-a-testing-ground-for-us-bioweapons
8. Adam Kowalski, “Disinformation fight goes beyond Ukraine and its allies”, Chatham House, June 8, 2022 https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/06/disinformation-fight-goes-beyond-ukraine-and-its-allies
9. Mary Blankenship & Aloysius Uche Ordu, “Russia’s narratives about its invasion of Ukraine are lingering in Africa”, Brookings, June 27, 2022 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2022/06/27/russias-narratives-about-its-invasion-of-ukraine-are-lingering-in-africa/