The Kremlin disinformation machine tiptoes around sore topics and recycles old conspiracy theories about biolabs and human organ smuggling to distract the world. But the Kremlin’s relative silence about recent events still speaks volumes. It has been a busy few weeks for the Kremlin. From the revamp of historic Soviet Luna missions to the moon, to the demise of Prigozhin, to the first post-pandemic, in-person BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, there were plenty of events that the Kremlin’s disinformation peddlers could have latched on to in order to distract the world from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
And yet, even the most vocal of the Kremlin’s mouthpieces were rather subdued with their coverage of these events.
Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — August 31, 2023 —
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The rise and fall (and rise) of Prigozhin
Not so long ago, the murderers-turned-mercenaries group Wagner and its odious boss Yevgeny Prigozhin enjoyed high praise as heroic and selfless volunteers fighting Ukraine, allegedly to defend Mother Russia from the unjust war unleashed by the notorious West.
Then, on 24 June, many held their breath in anticipation as Prigozhin launched a mutiny and led Wagner on a march toward Moscow. This was a rather awkward moment for pro-Kremlin disinformation spreaders. But once Putin himself called Prigozhin’s ‘march’ a mutiny and treason against the state in a televised speech, the pro-Kremlin disinformation apparatus immediately started spinning its zealous gears, trying to diminish Prigozhin and downplay Wagner’s role in Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. But, despite their efforts to salvage the image of the Kremlin as infallible, the damage was already done.
Ironically, Prigozhin’s fall from grace ended with an actual fall, as the plane allegedly carrying Prigozhin and a number of other high-ranking Wagner members crashed on 23 August. Handling the speculation around this plane crash has turned out to be another awkward challenge for the churners of pro-Kremlin disinformation because Putin issued condolences to Prigozhin’s family, calling him ‘a talented man’ and praising his business acumen and successes. Having spent the last two months diminishing the role of Wagner and Prigozhin, including allegedly even razing Wagner cemeteries, the pro-Kremlin disinformation apparatus had to do another U-turn.
This change of heart could be explained by adhering to the cultural notion deeply embedded in Russian psyche of not speaking ill of the dead. But pro-Kremlin disinformation peddlers are hardly that noble. It is far more likely that they used the high visibility of the demise of Prigozhin to sling the usual pro-Kremlin disinformation accusations.
And lo, we did not have to look far – claims that the West is behind Prigozhin’s plane crash started rolling out mere days after the incident. A more creative take was to use the last recorded video of Prigozhin as proof that the West took out Prigozhin to prevent him from liberating Africa from colonialism. And it would not be a complete pro-Kremlin story without the usual accusations against ‘Ukrainian terrorists’ or ‘nefarious Anglo-Saxons’. If Prigozhin is indeed dead, it seems that in his demise, he served one more time to spread the Kremlin’s lies posthumously.
Mum’s the word
Pro-Kremlin disinformation spreaders’ habit of alternating between outpourings of high-octane disinformation and being suspiciously tight-lipped did not only concern the demise of Prigozhin. There has been plenty of silence on other significant events over the last few weeks.
First, after months of chest-thumping and claiming that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem is becoming increasingly sparing with its reporting from the front lines. This is a clear example of manipulating the information space by restricting access to information. And the ‘reporting’ that is done is characteristically full of triumphalism but scarce on details.
The façade of ‘all is well on the home front’ and the triumphal tone is also becoming harder to maintain. When, on 30 August, several Russian military installations were subjected to extensive drone attacks, the pro-Kremlin disinformation apparatus unleashed a threatening tirade of nuclear hyperbole and calls for war. While some sought to up the ante by calling for nuclear strikes against the Baltics, others blamed Ukraine for being a terrorist state and downplayed the impact of these attacks.
Another topic that received near-silent treatment from the Kremlin’s mouthpieces was the Danish and Dutch decision to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. Of course, there were a few pro-Kremlin peeps about this decision being an ‘escalation’, but then again, they also cried ‘escalation’ about the deliveries of HIMARS, Leopard tanks, or any other piece of military equipment delivered for Ukraine’s self-defence. Maybe that is why this time, most pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives on this topic tried to push the angle that the F-16 will make no difference for Ukraine.
Insult to injury
Prior to 19 August, the pro-Kremlin infosphere was abuzz with reminiscing about the past glory of Luna, the Soviet space program designed to land on the moon, because Russia had reanimated the program with the launch of Luna-25. Then on 19 August, the lunar spacecraft lost control and crashed uncontrollably into the moon, prompting the swift removal of this talking point from the nightly regaling of Russia’s glory and might.
To make the Kremlin’s silence about the Luna-25 crash even more awkward, only a few days later India landed its Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft near the south pole of the moon. Needless to say, this historic first did not receive much exposure in the pro-Kremlin infosphere, save a few curt and factual mentions focussing on Putin’s congratulations to India, and not even on the accomplishment as such.
Of course, restricting the information space and silencing outspoken voices is a Kremlin-favoured information manipulation tactic. So perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that even the most vociferous pro-Kremlin propagandists are keeping mum on topics that might embarrass their boss in the Kremlin.
Teleworking in a new geopolitical reality
Another topic that was a little delicate to talk about for pro-Kremlin disinformation launderers was the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, partially due to the fact that unlike other BRICS leaders, Putin did not attend the summit in person. This time, the decision to telework was not made due to health concerns, although Putin’s affinity for social distancing is well documented. It was far more likely due to the arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court, lest South Africa were to fulfil its obligations under the Rome Statute. Pro-Kremlin outlets tried to spin this cop-out as a great diplomatic kindness showed by Putin to the South African hosts.
Hence, reporting from the Summit largely focussed on Putin’s video speech, although sans acknowledging the awkward moment when the pitch of Putin’s voice dropped a few octaves. The other noteworthy element that received the Kremlin’s attention was the decision to invite six new members to join BRICS. This was widely touted as the herald of a new multipolar world order, spelling the end of Western hegemony. If that were true, it was a weird choice for Putin to sit this one out.
Always looking to recycle a good conspiracy
Finally, even the most hare-brained pro-Kremlin propagandists know that one cannot keep silent forever. A much better strategy to avoid embarrassing topics is to fill the aether with distractions. And what easier way to do that, than to recycle old conspiracy theories. Since there were more than a few moments when the Kremlin kept mum, enter the biolabs, again. This time, the context was provided by the publishing of the US Department of Defence Biodefence Posture Review. Pro-Kremlin outlets quickly used the Review as ‘proof’ that the US is allegedly developing offensive biolabs in Ukraine to create epidemics at will.
Another, albeit perhaps more appalling but equally unfounded conspiracy theory peddled by the pro-Kremlin disinformation hawkers for the last few weeks is that Ukraine is engaged in illegal human organ trafficking. This heinous lie resurfaced after the notorious pro-Kremlin disinformation outlet RT released a ‘documentary’ titled Tanks for Kidney which was promptly promoted by the Russian MFA and embassies around the globe.
Also blinking on EUvsDisinfo’s radar:
- As usual, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets are very concerned whenever the freedom of speech and political will is seemingly threatened, particularly in the West. This time their unremitting concern was directed toward Finland, claiming that the Finnish people had no say in their country joining NATO. Of course, their claims are utter nonsense. In fact, Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine in 24 February 2022 led to a massive shift of public opinion in favour of NATO in Finland, reaching 74 percent shortly after Russia’s attack, and to 85 percent at the moment of Finland’s actual accession to NATO. A similar trend took place in Sweden for the same reasons.
- Projecting Russia’s own sins onto others has long since been the Kremlin’s go-to information manipulation tactic. So, unsurprisingly, pro-Kremlin pundits are slinging unfounded accusations that Western governments and NGOs are involved in trafficking Ukrainian children. Such claims are not backed up by any evidence. And it is likely no coincidence that such allegations intensified when the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for ‘the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children)’. These crimes have been at least partially documented by the United Nations, the OSCE, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Russian and international Russian officials have even admitted to committing them.
- Sometimes the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine likes to broaden its scope with distractions from topics more unpalatable for the Kremlin. In this case, it aims to kill two birds with one stone by spreading unfounded claims that the US tried to stage a coup in Türkiye. It vilifies the US and drives wedges between NATO Allies. Except there is no evidence given for the alleged involvement of the US in either the 2016 coup or the 2023 Turkish presidential elections. The US has clearly stated that it had no involvement in the 2016 coup staged by a faction of the Turkish military.
- Finally, let us end with another old pro-Kremlin disinformation classic – rampant Russophobia allegedly stoked by Western governments to distract citizens from their own poverty. This is a recurring pro-Kremlin narrative pushing the wishful idea of the imminent collapse of the West resulting from their Russophobic attitudes and policies. While it may be difficult to assess the level of a country’s social and economic well-being, it is still quite telling that the Human Development Index has 13 EU member states occupying the top 20 spots of the global ranking, with Russia coming in at 52nd place. EU states also top Numbeo’s Quality of Life Index, where Russia is ranked 67th in areas such as purchasing power, crime, healthcare, and pollution.