How Did Kremlin Propaganda Narratives in Europe Change and What It Tells Now

“Ukraine is losing the war,” “the USA is working on the development of biological weapons in the laboratories of Ukraine,” and “the aid and support of European countries endangers their own security and the well-being of their citizens”? Let’s find out what methods Russian propaganda resorts to and what messages it spreads in the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe in the material based on the monitoring results of the Ukraine War Disinfo Working Group in the period from June to the end of October 2022. 

Baltic States

In the Russian-speaking segment of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and news portals, disinformation agents were mainly focused on the Russian-speaking population with messages about the alleged “Russophobia” of the Baltic countries. The destruction of Soviet monuments became “evidence of Russophobia.” During the monitoring period from June to October, the popularity of such messages based on the number of interactions only increased.

 Anti-sanctions messages were also quite common. This summer, the Kaliningrad transit issue was a key source of disinformation, with pro-Kremlin voices claiming that “the Lithuanian government is dragging the country into a war with Russia,” “the Kaliningrad issue will have catastrophic consequences for the Lithuanian economy,” and “Lithuania is secretly trading with Russia.”

In the autumn, the “Kaliningrad narrative” was replaced by stories about the “collapse of local business,” “rising prices,” and the “looming energy crisis.”

 Since September, stories that “Ukraine has lost the war” have become widespread. In such messages, propagandists claimed that “attacks on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine have weakened the country.”

 Narratives of a “looming energy crisis” and “steadily rising inflation” have also become more prevalent. Pro-Kremlin channels criticized the governments of the Baltic countries for their “failure to solve the energy crisis” and “prioritizing the solution of Ukraine’s issues, instead of focusing on the development of the welfare of the local population,” as well as for their alleged “Russophobic policy.”  

However, it is worth noting that Russian-language disinformation channels in the Baltic countries practically ignored the subject of Ukrainian refugees.

In the Latvian-language segment on Facebook and news portals, there was a relatively small number of messages that contained disinformation or manipulation related to the war in Ukraine. A possible reason for this may be that Latvians themselves do not take Kremlin propaganda seriously. So, the large Russian minority in Latvia, which often consumes Russian rather than Latvian media, is the main target of Kremlin propaganda.

Although it is difficult to identify the single most widespread disinformation narrative in the Latvian media space, a key trend can be identified: all the studied messages were focused on the impact of the war on the internal socio-political environment of Latvia.

For example, statements that “Latvian political elites prioritize Ukraine and its refugees over local citizens,” “economic sanctions are ineffective and harmful to Latvia’s economy,” and “supporting Ukraine may provoke Russian aggression against Latvia.”

Disinformation narratives calling for the government to focus more on its citizens were spread throughout August and September, in connection with the upcoming parliamentary elections. After the election, these narratives became less common, but new ones emerged. For example, the story that “the war in Ukraine was caused by the interests of NATO and the USA in Europe.” 

Propaganda in the Lithuanian-language segment on Facebook and on news portals mostly repeats the trends that dominated the Russian-language segment.

However, more attention was paid to the Kaliningrad transit dispute and sanctions. Russia’s claim that it was a “blockade” was presented in the Lithuanian-language segment as saying that “the Lithuanian government is creating an excuse for Russia to attack Lithuania due to its incompetence” and that “this way, Lithuania is leading to an escalation of the conflict.” 

In addition, the monitoring observed discrediting of fundraising campaigns and other forms of support to Ukraine; and occasionally, it was hinted that such “aid is threatening Lithuania itself.” Lithuanian government policies aimed at supporting Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees have been consistently portrayed as “harming the interests of the local population.” 

Another direction of disinformation messages concerned inflation and the energy crisis. Propaganda messages claimed that both of them were the result of “the policies of the West or the Lithuanian government, not Russian aggression against Ukraine.” 

In the national language segment of Estonia, a certain number of messages containing disinformation or manipulation regarding the war in Ukraine were also observed. There were widespread claims that “any aid to Ukraine or Ukrainian refugees is provided at the expense of citizens of Estonia and Latvia.”

Pro-Kremlin channels in Estonia were primarily focused on portraying Ukrainian refugees as a “threat to the national identity and internal stability of the state.”

Other common false narratives included threats of a catastrophic energy crisis and accusations of “the moral depravity of Ukraine.”  

Read about Russian propaganda in the Baltic States in the material by the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security “Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia: what the Baltic countries write about Ukraine and how it is influenced by Russian propaganda.”

Belarus

In Belarus, disinformation about the Russia’s war against Ukraine mainly focuses on Belarus’ role in the war, promoting pro-state narratives and supporting the current self-proclaimed leadership.

By the way, pro-Kremlin channels in Belarus are simultaneously promoting two different scenarios of the country’s participation in the war with Ukraine.  On the one hand, the image of a “peacemaker” is created with the help of statements that “Belarus does not take part in the war and would like to see peace negotiations, unlike the West.” At the same time, pro-Russian propagandists continue to declare alleged “provocations by NATO/the West and Ukraine against Belarus, with the intention of dragging it into war.”  

The demonization of the West as a “hostile power that organizes war and incites an attack on Belarus” is a key narrative.  The West is accused of “undermining peacekeeping efforts,” “calls for escalation” and “threats against Belarus.”  

Reports on the events of the war quite openly followed Kremlin propaganda.  Ukraine’s counteroffensive and other strategic successes are largely ignored, as are Russia’s losses and war crimes.  Instead, there are accusations that “Ukraine is involved in Nazism, crimes against the civilian population” and claims that “Ukraine is leading the world to nuclear annihilation.” Western leaders are called “incompetent,” and the West itself is accused of “inciting wars and conflicts”, while the president of Russia is praised for trying to “bring stability to the world.” 

Bulgaria

Local pro-Kremlin propagandists push the message that either “Ukraine is the aggressor” or “the West provoked the war by providing Ukraine with weapons designed to attack Russia.” The “presence of a network of biolaboratories” was also repeatedly mentioned. The West is also often accused of “sabotaging peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.”  

Also, widespread in Bulgaria were statements that “the Armed Forces of Ukraine kill civilians, including civilians in the territories of Russia,” as well as “Ukraine’s defeat in the war.” 

Considerable attention is paid to the legitimization of “pseudo-referendums” and the annexation of Ukrainian territories. Among other things, the propagandists talk about how “the local population of the temporarily occupied territories gladly welcomes the Russian “saviours.”

Another trend of Russian disinformation is the portrayal of sanctions as “harmful to Bulgaria’s national security and energy sector.” In Bulgaria, sanctions are mentioned mainly to “argue” that “the country has decided to be a puppet of the West.”

Czech Republic

In the Czech information environment, in particular, on Facebook and on news portals, one of the leading topics was energy, especially the issue of gas supply. The government’s attempts to diversify its energy and food supply were generally portrayed as “nonsensical”. 

The topic of the “greedy” or “ungrateful” president of Ukraine, who allegedly “increases his demands” and “is not satisfied with any amount of aid”, has become too firmly entrenched in the Czech disinformation environment. Especially in social networks, this message became viral.

One of the interesting conclusions of the monitoring was the internal consistency of certain narratives, which are grouped into one large narrative. 

A vivid example was the incitement of fear of “nuclear annihilation.” This narrative was intended to increase pressure on Western governments by influencing the general population. During monitoring, the number of recorded narratives and the number of interactions clearly showed how these different narratives alternated and complemented each other. By mid-summer, narratives that “NATO is preparing a nuclear strike on Russia” or that “NATO is trying to provoke a Russian nuclear strike” (or is doing it unintentionally due to incompetence and irresponsibility) were quite widespread. Then, in July, this narrative began to gradually disappear, and it was replaced by disinformation messages about the situation at the Zaporizhia NPP. Emerging in the second half of the summer and intensifying significantly in September and October, disinformation surrounding the Zaporizhia NPP has disappeared, and its role in supporting the global narrative of “nuclear annihilation” has been replaced by a set of disinformation messages such as: “Russia is cornered and has virtually no choice but to use nuclear weapons and thus cause global destruction.”

Georgia

Pro-Russian propaganda in Georgia is strongly influenced by the domestic political agenda. The most popular propaganda message spread in Georgia on Facebook is that “the West and its proxies – non-governmental organizations and pro-Western opposition parties – seek to drag Georgia into the war.”

The events of the Russian-Ukrainian war were also one of the most discussed topics.

Russian propaganda tried to impose two main messages on the Georgian public: 

  • “Russia is not to blame for the war, as the conflict was provoked either by NATO, or the USA, or the West, or Ukrainian ‘Nazis’”; 
  • “Russia is successfully conducting its ‘special military operation,’ and Ukraine is losing the war.” 

Propagandists actively promoted “Russian victories.” For example, they highlighted the destruction of Mariupol, while downplaying the significance of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

Sanctions against Russia were also an important topic among pro-Russian sources. The main message was that “sanctions do not harm Russia, but wreak havoc on Western economies.”

Propaganda targeting Ukrainian refugees was infrequent, but in certain periods it increased drastically. Leading messages told that “Ukrainian refugees were not welcome in Europe” and that they “engaged in immoral activities.” 

Russian propaganda messages about military aid to Ukraine, while they did not receive a significant response from the Georgian audience, are still observed in significant quantities. In this case, the propaganda messages were contradictory. For example, they speculated that “military aid was stolen and sold on the black market or missed the battlefield because Russia sabotaged supplies.” On the other hand, they also claimed that “Ukraine is targeting the civilian population through military aid,” and that “military aid has caused the escalation of the war.” 

Similarly, pro-Russian sources justified Russia’s failures, claiming that “the West has been so heavily involved in the conflict that supplies of NATO equipment have been reduced,” but also that “the West is under no obligation to arm Ukraine and will stop military aid.”

Hungary

In Hungary, pro-Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine on Facebook and news websites are largely part of the mainstream political and media discourse due to the pro-Russian stance of the incumbent government. 

For example, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his cabinet are regular and key sources of pro-Russian statements, which are then relayed by Russia-backed channels across the region. Anti-American and Eurosceptic messages are especially strong in Hungary. EU leaders are criticized for their “weakness,” “incompetence,” and “wrong policies,” while the US is portrayed as having “provoked or organized the war.” 

The Ukrainian leadership is described in a similar way.  For example, the president of Ukraine is accused of “incompetence, corruption and unpopularity among the Ukrainian population.” 

Russia itself is constantly portrayed as “powerful and widely supported,” in particular by India, China, and Turkey.

The most attention is paid to the development of events on the front line, as well as to economic sanctions. During the studied period, pro-Russian disinformation agents tried to instil three main beliefs in Hungarian society:

  • “The West is weaker than Russia and its allies”; 
  • “Sanctions hurt the West while strengthening Russia”; 
  • “Despite military aid from the West, the Ukrainian army is weak, and the Russian army is making great strides.” Claims that “Ukrainian soldiers refuse to fight because of low morale” were widely spread in this region. In contrast, the successes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were minimized or completely disregarded in the information space of Hungary. “Russian victories,” though, are constantly exaggerated or invented. 

As for sanctions, pro-Kremlin voices predict a “cold, harsh winter for Europe due to inevitable dependence on Russian energy resources.” In this way, the idea is promoted that the Western public is apparently “frightened” and “opposes the continuation or introduction of additional sanctions.”

The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in September caused a certain change in the narratives of Russian disinformation. The initial reaction of pro-Kremlin voices was to deny the success of the operation and claim that “the media are lying” and “the Ukrainians suffered significant casualties.” A few weeks later, pro-Kremlin channels began to talk more and more often about the need for peace talks.  Pro-Russian disinformation agents also shifted their focus to the West, trying to convince Hungarians that “the EU is chaotic and weak, led by incompetent and corrupt leaders.”

North Macedonia

Pro-Russian disinformation on Facebook and North Macedonian news portals mostly justifies the war, portraying “Ukraine as a threat to Russia’s existence,” promoting the idea that “sanctions hurt the West more than Russia.” The West is accused of “provocations of war” and “attempts to destroy Russia.”  

Sanctions are portrayed as “anti-Russian policies” and not a consequence of Russian aggression and Russian war crimes against Ukraine. In addition, this context combines with the existing anxiety about the economy of North Macedonia to “argue” its reorientation towards rapprochement with BRICS and the Eurasian Economic Union, whose economic power is exaggerated.

North Macedonia’s pro-Russian messages often simply relay statements by Kremlin officials or figures like Ramzan Kadyrov.  In addition, it is claimed that “Ukraine will lose the war,” glorifying “Russia’s military successes” and exaggerating “the failures of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

The Kremlin’s traditional messages that “Ukrainians are Nazis” and “the USA owns laboratories for the development of biological weapons on the territory of Ukraine” were consistently promoted throughout the monitoring period.

Poland

Due to Poland’s high level of solidarity with Ukraine, Russian propaganda messages on Facebook, Telegram and anti-refugee and anti-sanctions news sites largely failed to attract the attention of Polish audiences in the early summer.

The key strategy of pro-Kremlin voices in Poland revolved around historical narratives, in particular, the enmity between Ukrainians and Poles during World War II.  

In the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine itself, pro-Kremlin channels are focused on common Kremlin narratives that “Ukraine is losing the war,” “Ukrainians are Nazis,” and that “Poland is annexing part of Ukraine.”

Due to the fact that Poland received the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, local pro-Russian voices quite expectedly launched a smear campaign against Ukrainian refugees. Starting in mid-July, pro-Kremlin channels accused Ukrainians of “taking priority over Polish citizens,” claimed that Ukrainians “refused to work” and posed a “demographic threat to local residents”. Until August, Kremlin propaganda about the war in Ukraine centred around three key themes: events on the front lines, Ukrainian refugees, and historical memory.

However, in October, the focus of disinformation narratives shifted. If earlier, anti-Ukrainian narratives were aimed at Polish society — social, cultural and historical conflicts between Ukraine and Poland, now they began to resemble those observed in other countries included in the monitoring. In particular, the narratives that “Ukraine is losing the war,” “the West is directly participating in hostilities,” and “the Armed Forces of Ukraine are attacking the civilian population or committing other war crimes.” 

It is also worth noting that the various conspiracy theories that are spread through Telegram channels are also becoming more common in the Polish pro-Russian disinformation environment. Among them are accusations about “American biolaboratories,” “secret weapons,” “drug addiction of the President of Ukraine,” “use of Nazi symbols”, etc.

Romania

Pro-Russian disinformation agents in Romania on Facebook and news websites mostly focus on anti-Western and Eurosceptic messages.  

Taking advantage of Romania’s geographical proximity to Ukraine, pro-Kremlin voices actively promoted the narrative that “the West is endangering Romania with its anti-Russian policy.” Some claimed that “NATO forces will launch their offensive against Russia through Romanian territory,” while other messages focused on fearmongering around the energy crisis and potential nuclear threats.  

Anti-sanctions narratives were also prevalent in the Romanian media space. Such messages focused on creating the perception that “the collective West does not care about ‘smaller’ states like Romania and their citizens” and that “rapprochement with Russia” appears to be the logical alternative.

The U.S. is accused of “pushing Europe, Ukraine, and Russia into war, profiting from it” and continuing to “intimidate less powerful countries into policies that will be favourable to the States alone.”  

Coupled with claims that “Romania is in danger” and that “the West will not save Romania if it faces Russian aggression,” some messages from pro-Kremlin channels try to convince Romanian audiences that the country should “soften its stance on Russia.” 

Serbia

In Serbia, key pro-Russian disinformation narratives on Facebook and pro-Russian news websites primarily covered the topic of economic sanctions. One of the most common narratives in the Serbian media and among ruling politicians was how the “hegemonic West” was intimidating “neutral countries.” 

Local pro-Russian voices often claimed that “opposition to sanctions among EU citizens is widespread” and emphasized “the EU’s dependence on Russian gas supplies.” Pro-Russian statements by Viktor Orbán (and even Donald Trump) as well as news of protests in Prague, Germany, and Austria have often been used to support such rhetoric. It is important that the sanctions are manipulatively presented as “proof” of “Western/US hegemony” and not as a consequence of Russian aggression. 

Russia, on the other hand, is portrayed as an “alternative world leader and staunch ally of Serbia,” largely due to its stance on Kosovo.

Narratives about “NATO’s inevitable involvement in the war,” fearmongering about nuclear war, and claims that “Ukraine will lose the war” also appeared quite often in the Serbian pro-Russian media.

Slovakia

Kremlin propaganda on Facebook and pro-Russian news websites in Slovakia revolves around widespread anti-Western messages and efforts to discredit economic sanctions. Local pro-Russian voices criticized the EU, NATO, and the United States — portraying them as “weak,” “internally divided,” “incompetent,” “duplicitous” and the main “aggressors in the war.” 

The USA, in particular, was accused of “organizing the war, undermining any efforts at peace negotiations and controlling its ‘puppet’ — Ukraine.” 

Ukraine is portrayed as “weak, set to lose the war and deprived of moral dignity.” “Proofs” of this are accusations of “crimes by the Armed Forces of Ukraine against the civilian population” and “terrorist tactics of Ukraine.”

Regarding sanctions, pro-Russian disinformation agents constantly claimed that “sanctions harm the West more than Russia and therefore need to be stopped.” 

Similarly, the energy crisis was blamed on “the wrong political approach of the West” and not on Russian aggression.

The topics of refugees, military aid or war escalation are almost entirely absent from the pro-Russian disinformation space in Slovakia.

Ukraine

The key tactic of pro-Russian propaganda in the Ukrainian information space, and in particular in Telegram channels, is the creation of information noise that will disorient the audience, sow doubts, and hide the truth. 

The central theme of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Ukraine has been consistent attempts to undermine public trust in the country’s leadership and its Western partners. So, the most common messages were: 

  • “Ukraine is a failed state with a corrupt, incompetent elite that has lost touch with the public”;  
  • “Western military aid is misused, stolen and even sold on the black market”;  
  • “There is internal political rivalry, especially between the military and the Office of the President”; 
  • “The Ukrainian economy is declining and almost on the verge of bankruptcy.” 

Statements about “tension between the West and Ukraine” are also often observed. For example, the statement that “Ukraine’s selfish and calculating Western allies insist on a peace agreement because of war fatigue.”

The narrative of “external control” was also quite common, in particular, pro-Russian disinformation agents claimed that “Ukraine is controlled/used by the West.” 

Any discussion about sanctions, refugees or military aid is aimed at convincing the Ukrainian public that the Western leadership and the public in general are “tired of Ukraine and will soon give up aid and support.” The purpose of these narratives is to undermine public morale, cause distrust and war fatigue, and deprive Ukrainians of hope for the future.

Russian propaganda acted similarly when it threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Their single goal was to incite fear. The repeated Russian offensive, the direct involvement of Belarus into the war, the shortage of food, and numerous missile strikes on critically important infrastructure, which should lead to the loss of electricity and heating, are nothing but another manipulation of the enemy. And this is something to keep in mind.

The media version of the material is available on the Obozrevatel website.

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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