Most forms of kinetic warfare require weapons to sustain it. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is no exception. Consequently, after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s international partners delivered substantial amounts of weaponry, armaments, and military equipment to the country to support its fight for freedom and independence.
For Ukrainians, this military support is the most immediate means of protecting their land against invaders and holding the aggressor accountable. For pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets, however, any military aid to Ukraine, particularly coming from its Western partners, presents an opportunity to drum up fears about these weapons and armaments illicitly spreading beyond Ukraine.
Let’s examine how pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets have used allegations of illicit weapons diversions to drive fear, sow divisions, and erode support to Ukraine. Specifically, we will zoom in on pro-Kremlin allegations about one type of weaponry known as small arms and light weapons, or SALWs.
Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — November 23, 2023 —
Table of Contents
Ukraine as a sponsor of terrorism
On 7 October, Hamas gunmen from the Gaza strip launched an attack in Southern Israel, precipitating Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza, which is still ongoing. Among other things, such as the knee-jerk reflex to blame the West, the Kremlin’s disinformation mouthpieces used the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East to start spreading unfounded allegations that Ukraine is supplying weapons to Hamas.
For the Kremlin, this was a ‘two birds, one stone’ kind of a moment, and so naturally, their disinformation claimed that Ukraine is allegedly selling NATO-supplied weapons to Hamas, including on the darknet to avoid detection by its Western partners. In other words, this narrative seeks to both portray Ukraine as corrupt and unreliable and to blame the West for destabilising the Middle East with weapons by way of Ukraine.
And, if that did not go far enough to instil fear, some pro-Kremlin outlets conjured a supposed Ukrainian link to the Taliban and peppered on the ‘Nazi Ukraine’ disinformation narrative for good measure.
Oddly enough, while these pro-Kremlin allegations imply that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, this fact has not stopped the Kremlin leadership from cosying up to Hamas. Then again, maybe such duplicity is not surprising. Saying one thing and doing the opposite has always been the Kremlin’s forte.
Ukraine as a source of instability
A particularly nasty angle of pro-Kremlin disinformation about alleged illicit arms trafficking from Ukraine seeks to link it with outbursts of civil unrest in Europe. The protests in France last July were a case in point.
As soon as the riots picked up steam, the pro-Kremlin disinformation machinery started fabricating connections between Western SALW delivers to Ukraine and the events unfolding across France. Building on the previously spread false claims that weapons from Ukraine are on the black market, disinformation peddlers quickly pivoted to falsely claiming that Western weapons sent to Ukraine were found among protesters and even used against the French police.
Ukraine as a source of crime
Denigrating Ukraine has been the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem’s primary task for years. But pro-Kremlin disinformation pundits also darkly allege that supporting Ukraine has led to crime and violence spreading in Europe.
A frequent tactic is to blame Ukraine for presenting a security risk for those who support it, particularly in Europe, by portraying it as a source of crime. In addition to discrediting Ukraine and Ukrainians, another goal served by this smear is to push the long-standing pro-Kremlin disinformation meta-narrative about the West’s supposedly ‘imminent collapse’.
These disinformation narratives are not always obvious. For example, the issue of the proliferation and illicit transfers of SALWs in the Western Balkans is legitimate, and the international community has been working to combat illicit arms trafficking in the region for years. Hence, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets have been purposefully trying to link Ukraine with SALW trafficking in the Western Balkans, including spreading claims that Ukraine is re-selling Western weapons via organised crime networks there. Even Russian officials have been spreading similarly unfounded claims to lend this conspiracy theory legitimacy.
Pro-Kremlin agents of information manipulation have also have not shied away from more direct accusations. For example, they have claimed that Western SALWs delivered to Ukraine end up in the hands of criminals in Europe, particularly violent gangs in Sweden. There are also pro-Kremlin attempts to link irregular migration with this narrative by claiming that Ukrainian refugees smuggle weapons and bring crime to Europe.
Transparency is for others
Apart from all the false allegations of Ukrainian corruption, the one thing common to all these attempts is the depiction of the West as irresponsible while Russia is portrayed as a peacemaker. Yet the fact is that Russia is funnelling weapons to conflict-laden areas particularly in places where Russia professes great friendship and protection against alleged Western imperialism and colonialism.
To make the picture even more obscure, Russia is consistently underreporting its SALW transfers to third countries, according to the UNODA Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons. By comparison, European countries with major SALW manufacturing industries, such as Germany or Sweden, have shown exemplary transparency when it comes to annual reporting on tracking and tracing SALW transfers.
The Kremlin’s feigned concern about illegal weapons diversions is more than cynical, particularly considering that Russian officials went to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of one of Russia’s most notorious and prolific arms smugglers in recent history.
The bigger picture
Finally, spreading unfounded and manipulative claims about alleged arms smuggling is just one of the approaches pro-Kremlin disinformation agents take to try to dissuade Ukraine’s supporters from providing it the assets it needs to defend itself from Russian aggression. Others include the increasingly vocal claims that Western military aid will only prolong Russia’s war against Ukraine, cause more civilian deaths and suffering, and delay a peaceful solution in Ukraine.
The bigger picture is that Russia and its hordes of pro-Kremlin disinformation smugglers are ready and willing to exploit any and all avenues to undermine international support to Ukraine. Spreading false claims about allegedly illicit weapons trafficking from Ukraine is just another cog in the crumbling pro-Kremlin disinformation machine. Don’t be deceived.
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