Kremlin disinformation outlets seek to distract from the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion, setting their sights on the NATO Summit in Vilnius and the US decision to deliver cluster munitions to Ukraine. Their aim is clear – divide Ukraine’s allies and distract from the trouble brewing at home.
— Source EUvsDiSiNFO — July 13, 2023 —
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Less than three weeks after Prigozhin and his Wagnerite lackeys marched toward Moscow with rebellious if somewhat unclear demands, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem is still careful to tiptoe around this issue. When confronted with uncomfortable reality, Kremlin disinformation outlets often resort to one of their go-to information manipulation tactics – distraction.
Summit level distraction
This week, the Kremlin found a few events to exploit towards this end, the chief one being the NATO Summit in Vilnius. NATO has long been a primary target in the Kremlin’s disinformation crosshairs. When Allied heads of state and government met in the Lithuanian capital with Ukraine high on the meeting’s agenda, pro-Kremlin outlets did not pass up the opportunity to distract and deceive their audiences. Let’s have a look at how pro-Kremlin disinformation sought to portray the Summit.
First and foremost, the apparent goal of Russian disinformation was to erode Allied support for Ukraine by portraying Kyiv and President Zelenskyy as bitter and ungrateful to their Western partners. While it is true that President Zelenskyy aired some frustration before the Summit, his presence in Vilnius and statements after meeting the Allies signalled anything but bitterness. Of course, the Kremlin has been trying to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty for years and erode Western support to Ukraine, so it came as no surprise that pro-Kremlin outlets tried to downplay the support expressed for Ukraine during the Summit.
In this context, pro-Kremlin disinformation purveyors also did not pass up the opportunity to link this disinformation narrative of ‘the West is tired of Ukraine’ to allegations that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has failed. This is yet another devious attempt to portray Ukraine as a lost cause and dissuade its allies from supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom.
An existential threat that’s breaking apart
Another angle of pro-Kremlin disinformation was the all-too-familiar tactic of portraying NATO’s actions, especially support to Ukraine, as escalatory and Russophobic. In anticipation of Summit decisions, fearmongering pro-Kremlin outlets raised concerns about the Summit’s ‘very negative consequences’ for Europe, and made thinly veiled threats of a direct confrontation with Russia.
Some outlets also tried to exacerbate the perception of divisions within the Alliance by portraying support to Ukraine as an irreconcilable wedge issue that has allegedly ‘exposed Allied weakness’ and is ‘breaking NATO apart’. This strategy illustrates how the Kremlin’s disinformation pendulum readily swings from ‘NATO is an existential threat’ on one side to ‘the West is weak’ on the other, depending on what serves their manipulative goals at any given moment.
The other topic that captured the attention of the pro-Kremlin information manipulation and disinformation ecosystem was the difficult US decision to deliver cluster munitions to Ukraine as it defends its lands and people from the Russian occupation.
Some Russian commentators were quick to shed crocodile tears and decry the risks that using cluster munitions poses to civilian populations in Ukraine. Perhaps the most cynical of all was Vladimir Solovyov, known for unapologetically advocating nuclear strikes against civilians, who sought to evoke feelings of guilt and pacifism by referring to the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Others tried to get ahead of the curve by claiming Ukraine is already using said munitions to shell civilians in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Others still tried to play the holier-than-thou card by seemingly condemning the use of cluster munitions as a war crime, despite the fact that Russia’s use of cluster munitions in its war against Ukraine has been extensively documented. And that it is deliberately and regularly striking the civilian population in Ukraine with other means or indiscriminately using phosphorus bombs.
Also on EUvsDisinfo’s radar this week:
- Pro-Kremlin outlets have been trying to push the disinformation narrative that Western weapons meant for Ukraine have been diverted to black markets since the early days of Russia’s war against Ukraine. But this week, that unsubstantiated claim took on a new angle when some pro-Kremlin outlets alleged that protesters in France are using Western weapons delivered to Ukraine. While there is some preliminary evidence of arms trafficking, pro-Kremlin disinformation claims try to imply that arms provided to Ukraine end up in the wrong hands. The goal of this exaggeration is to erode public support for Western military and financial aid to help Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s aggression. French authorities have refuted the unsubstantiated allegation that these weapons were used by protesters in France against police forces during the July 2023 riots.
- Fearmongering is a favourite pastime for pro-Kremlin disinformation peddlers. So unsurprisingly, they like to push the false narrative that the US is trying to destroy and occupy Europe. This is a long-standing pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative questioning Europe’s sovereignty and accusing the US of an allegedly belligerent and hostile anti-European agenda aimed at destroying Europe. In truth, the US is the EU’s strategic partner in promoting peace and stability around the world. Together, they are the two largest donors of humanitarian aid and development assistance worldwide. The EU and the US also have the largest bilateral trade and investment relationship and enjoy the most integrated economic relationship in the world.
- Finally, after having elevated Prigozhin and his Wagnerites to national hero status for months, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets find that it is quite hard to simply pretend they don’t exist. So some outlets are pushing the conspiracy theory that Prigozhin serves Kyiv and Western interests. This is a clear case of the pro-Kremlin tactic to ‘always blame the West’. In fact, Putin admitted that the Russian state financed the Wagner PMC. Wagner has participated in Russia’s hybrid war in Donbas since 2014, while it has denied any link to the Russian state. It was also part of the full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.