Unstoppable Lavrov goes on yet another African tour

Natalia Antelava

 

Another week, another Africa tour for Russia’s unstoppable Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Last week it was South Africa, this week he is in Sudan, after dropping in on Mali and Mauritania. He is visiting the Sudanese capital Khartoum at the same time as far lower ranking envoys from the U.S., France, Norway, Britain and the EU arrive to help Sudan push forward a long, ongoing transition to democracy. Lavrov, who in the past has spoken against meddling in Sudanese affairs, has arrived to discuss “investments and bilateral relations” instead with his counterparts in the military government, according to the Russian MFA. The timing of Lavrov’s visit is telling. It comes just as the U.S. is intensifying its efforts to get governments in the Middle East to push out Wagner, a paramilitary group owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Wagner is active in Africa, including Sudan. Lavrov was in Mali today where the Wagner Group, according to rights organizations, including the U.N. Working Group on Mercenaries, has created a “climate of terror and complete impunity.”  

Before jetting over to Africa, Lavrov was in Iraq. The United States’ war in Iraq has long provided fertile ground for the global spread of Russia’s anti-American messaging. The fact that no one has ever been held accountable for the U.S. invasion has fuelled endless whataboutery, lending a degree of legitimacy to Russia’s complex disinformation campaign against the West. This week, as Russian rockets continued to fall on Ukraine, it was striking to listen to Lavrov speaking in Baghdad and using the American invasion that was “based on lies” as a pretext to justify Russia’s military campaign. Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to Lavrov, is a struggle to liberate Russian speakers in Ukraine. While omitting the fact that it was Moscow that launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, he accused the West of standing in the path of peace by constantly looking for excuses to continue arming Ukraine. 

It’s a foolproof disinformation recipe: select a couple of facts, sprinkle them with lies, add empathy and twist the whole lot into a narrative that sows doubt in the truth. No one can do this more convincingly than Russia’s 72-year-old foreign minister. “Our Western colleagues are determined to squash any sign of dissent in the global arena,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Baghdad. He found an attentive audience in Iraq, as he has in Africa. Lavrov’s relentless soft power campaigning is clearly gaining traction.

RUSSIA’S DIGEST OF MADNESS

This newsletter is a team effort. Every week Coda journalists follow and flag disinformation-related events that are unfolding in different parts of the world. We work hard at trying to offer you some geographical diversity, but the truth is: every week Russia wins. And every week, I am taken aback by the constantly rising levels of absurdity inside Russia.  

My colleague Ivan Makridin — himself a Russian journalist in exile — threw together a (very incomplete) list of a few things that caught his attention just over the past month. He calls it the Digest of Madness:  

  • A mother of two in Sochi has been fined after a court found her guilty of “distributing Nazi symbols.” She was arrested at work and taken to the police station, where authorities questioned her about the status of her WhatsApp messenger profile. She had updated it to read “Glory to Ukraine,” written in Korean. 
  • Authorities in Volgograd briefly renamed the city Stalingrad to coincide with Putin’s visit there late last week. They also opened a new monument to Joseph Stalin. A couple of hundred people gathered at the monument, only a short distance away from the now neglected monument to victims of Stalin’s political repression. This piece (in Russian) has some great photos of the event. They are straight out of the 1930s. 
  • In January, Coda’s Amanda Coakley reported on the Russian “Council of Mothers and Wives,” an anti-war group that has criticized the invasion of Ukraine. On January 24, the Council’s founder Olga Tsukanova was detained at the airport in the city of Samara and banned from boarding her flight to Moscow, where she was going to address law enforcement about violations of the rights of soldiers. After her release, police handed her an administrative lawsuit for “discrediting the Russian army.”
  • Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin banned Meta, but in reality many continued to use Meta’s platforms, Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, without any restrictions. This could now be changing. In January, a university in Siberia banned its students from using Facebook and Instagram because the social networks are “full of Russophobia” and “threaten the constitutional order.” The university administration sent out the official order banning the platforms via WhatsApp. 
  • Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, Putin still found time to further his fight against LGBTQ+ groups by tightening laws that restrict what Russian authorities label “LGBT propaganda.” This so-called propaganda effectively includes any material that refers to or discusses LGBTQ+ issues. But one feisty publisher called  “Popcorn Books” found a creative solution. They replaced  covers of their entire LGBTQ+ collection with a quote from the Russian constitution: “Freedom of expression is guaranteed. Censorship is prohibited.” The authorities are investigating and Popcorn Books now faces a legal battle. But it’s not the only lawsuit Popcorn Books is fighting. The publishing house is also behind what is currently one of the most popular novels in Russia, a teen gay romance set in a Soviet Pioneers camp. The book has been removed from stores and burned by Russian regional politicians, all of which only increased the book’s popularity. Last week, the book’s authors were labeled “foreign agents.”
  • After a horrible attack on a Dnipro residential building on January 14, people in Moscow brought flowers to the monument of the Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka to honor Ukrainians killed by the Russian airstrike. The Moscow police quickly detained those who attended the makeshift ceremony and banned passers-by from taking photos of the flowers. One of the visitors said the policeman approached her and said: “I know that you have the right to take photos, and I don’t understand what the problem is, but the authorities said not to take pictures, so delete the photo.”
  • And the maddest entry in this Digest of Madness belongs to the Russian Supreme Court which upheld the sentencing of 16-year-old Nikita Uvarov to five years in prison for terrorist activities. According to the prosecutors, he tried to blow up a Federal Security Service (FSB) building….in a Minecraft video game. He was also accused of making real-life explosives, which he denied. The teenager said he would serve his sentence “with a clear conscience and dignity.”

What I find most puzzling about the situation in Russia, is how quickly the absurdities described above have become part of daily routine.

Indeed, many Russians, outside the journalistic bubble, tell me that life is “pretty much normal.”

“If you don’t watch the news, you can’t really feel anything is different when you are in Russia,” said an old acquaintance who lives in Moscow. He says that to retain some peace of mind, he has long stopped trying to closely follow events in Ukraine. “We need to protect ourselves from this insanity as far as we can,” he told me. 

The problem is that by protecting themselves, Russians are also protecting the parallel reality that their government has so successfully constructed.