Ukraine remains the main target of pro-Russian narratives. Disinformation outlets in Slovakia are helpful
Despite overwhelming and publicly available evidence, pro-Kremlin media have denied large troop movements and continue to spread disinformation about their purely defensive motives and Ukrainian provocations.
Infosecurity.sk presents an overview of disinformation trends that have been on the rise in the information space in the past two weeks:
- As with many other media outlets, the crisis on the Ukrainian border has been the go-to topic in the Slovak disinformation media for the past two weeks.
- Despite overwhelming and publicly available evidence, Slovak disinformation media continues to deny and downplay Russian troop movements and spread disinformation about their purely defensive motives and Ukrainian provocations.
- The pervasive narrative is that Russia acts solely in self-defence in the event of a real conflict. Therefore, the invasion would be an appropriate response to the "provocations" of the West and Ukraine.
- In recent weeks, there has also been a proliferation of articles about Russia's alleged superiority in various areas of armaments, giving the impression that any resistance to a possible invasion would be futile.
- Also frequent are attempts to justify Kremlin's demands and pressure to prevent Ukraine's accession to NATO and to create buffer zones and spheres of influence.
Logical inconsistencies – the bread-and-butter of pro-Russian disinformation
In recent weeks, numerous credible media outlets, citing official government sources and mainstream media, have reported that Russia has deployed thousands of troops in staging areas near its border with Ukraine. However, pro-Kremlin websites continue to spread disinformation about Moscow’s purely defensive motives and Ukrainian provocations.
Some articles portray the fears of an imminent invasion as “lies” and mere “war hysteria" on Kyiv's part. These are allegedly being used by the Ukrainian government to distract the world from its domestic problems. Other articles, on the other hand, such as the one quoting Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, say that Moscow will "suppress any provocation by the Ukrainian authorities in the Donbas by force."
The Kremlin and the pro-Russian media are deliberately conveying messages that are logically inconsistent. This creates information chaos and puts Russia in the position of an unpredictable actor. In this way the Kremlin wants to ensure that Western countries react as cautiously as possible to its escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the pervasive disinformation narrative is that, in the event of a real conflict, Russia would act strictly in self-defence. As such, the invasion would be an appropriate response to the Western "provocations" and, as framed by Putin, "genocide" of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine.
It should also be noted that there are dangerous parallels between the rhetoric Kremlin uses today and the one it used in the lead up to the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Back then, one of the pretexts for Russian intervention was the alleged genocide of the population of South Ossetia by the Georgian government.
However, no evidence has been found to support these claims. It is therefore reasonable to assume that such narratives are intended to serve Moscow's goals of legitimising possible aggression against Ukraine in the eyes of the world and the local population.
Any resistance would be meaningless - allegedly
Also noteworthy are the narratives depicting the unparalleled strength of the Russian army that accompany the escalating war-like rhetoric. In recent weeks we have seen a plethora of articles about Russia's alleged superiority in various areas of the arms industry creating an impression that any resistance to a possible invasion would be futile.
Several disinformation websites and blogs mention so-called "wonder weapons" - inventions of the Russian arms industry which can "paralyse NATO and the whole of Europe in the twinkling of an eye." For example, one article claims that the Russian air force alone "can destroy half of the Ukrainian army and all its military aircraft in less than an hour." On the other hand, the Ukrainian army is portrayed as possessing only "scraps of metal."
Particularly striking was an article about Russian space weapons of which the headline was a blatant clickbait: "U.S.: Russians shot down our military satellite." The article stated that Russia had used a "laser complex" to shoot down an American satellite. However, this information was proven false.
In line with the long-standing disinformation thesis, a threatened and peaceful yet strong Russia would therefore be able to deal with Ukraine and the West effortlessly.
Respect Kremlin's “red lines”
In further attempts to justify the Kremlin's demands and pressure, the disinformation media repeatedly cite Putin's statements that Russia wants constructive dialogue based on mutual respect and that the West does not take Russia's "red lines" seriously enough.
The articles also highlight Putin's statements that he would seek binding guarantees that Ukraine would not join NATO as part of a resolution of the situation.
The recurring disinformation narrative claims that such guarantees were already made as early as the 1990s but were allegedly broken by NATO's subsequent "expansion" eastward. An effort to "strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states," was supposed to lead to the current tense situation.
However, these claims are false as NATO never made a promise to Russia in the 1990s that it would not expand into Central and Eastern Europe. This was in fact confirmed by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who in 2014 stated that, "the subject of NATO expansion was not discussed at all and was not even brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility."
The association of the NATO enlargement process with terms such as "expansion" and "pressure" can also be seen as a deliberate appeal to the negative emotions of the public in order to portray the Alliance as the aggressor. NATO does not "expand" through "pressure", countries apply for membership out of self-interest in accordance with their national democratic procedures.
Needless to say, Ukraine is a sovereign state that has the right to freely decide on its membership in international organizations. Russia therefore has no right to demand any guarantees regarding its future political direction.
Considering how much attention the tense situation on the Ukrainian border is receiving in the international media, it is not surprising that this has also been the go-to topic of disinformation actors over the past two weeks. What is striking and worrying, however, is how much attention they have received, especially in regards to Putin’s misleading statements, which are uncritically disseminated by Slovak disinformation websites.
A search for the posts that have received the most interactions (likes, comments and shares) in the last two weeks with the keyword "Putin" shows that the majority of the 5 most successful posts are from known disinformation actors and blogs.
The first is a blog post claiming that NATO is getting closer to Russia, which "has the right to protect itself." In second place is a post by a well-known disinformation actor and MP Ľuboš Blaha, who portrays the warnings of an invasion as "cries of CIA agents." The third and fifth posts come from credible media, while the fourth spreads Putin’s narratives of Russophobia and genocide against the Russian speaking population in the Donbas. The fourth comes from the same source as the first one.
Project Infosecurity.sk organised by STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute and Slovak Security Policy Institute, which is supported by the Prague office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, continuously monitors the activities of both Slovak and foreign disinformation actors, but focuses mainly on the former. The project activities are built upon daily monitoring of emerging disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories in the online information space. This approach allows the analysts to identify disinformation posts and narratives that resonated with the public the most, as well as to find out where they originated, and how they spread and evolved on social media. The report takes the form of a bi-weekly summary of arising trends in the spread of malicious information content online. Based on that, Infosecurity.sk can warn the public about emerging and current trends in the field of disinformation, manipulation, and propaganda.
Matej Spišák is a Research Fellow at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava and Editor-in-Chief at Infosecurity.sk.
Denis Takács is an Analyst at STRATPOL – Strategic Policy Institute in Bratislava.