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Russian propaganda regains strength in western Europe

Disinfo Matters is a weekly newsletter that looks beyond fake news to examine how manipulation of narratives, rewriting of history and altering our memories is reshaping our world. We are currently tracking the war in Ukraine. Also in this edition: Italy’s pro Kremlin mainstream TV and anticipation of Russia’s “Victory Day”

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This week Vladimir Putin launched his new offensive on eastern Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky declared it to be the “decisive” battle for his country. But if Donbas is the new frontline of the physical war, western Europe is where the decisive battle of the information war is currently being fought. 

It was only two months ago that the internet went to town sharing memes about the size of Zelensky’s balls and marveling over the stoicism of Ukrainians. Since then the combination of Russian info war tactics, the natural limits of our attention spans and dubious policies of Silicon Valley tech giants that take advantage of these limits have all changed the global mood music about the Ukraine war. 

Nowhere is this change more apparent and more consequential than in Europe. 

Ahead of the French elections run off this weekend, Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate and a long time admirer of Vladimir Putin, closed the gap with Emmanuel Macron in polls and pledged to engage with Russia if she wins. This, she argued, would prevent Moscow forming a closer alliance with Beijing. 

Le Pen’s seemingly geopolitical pragmatism is, in fact, also electoral. A poll at the end of March showed that more than half of French people — both on the left and the right — believe at least one Kremlin conspiracy theory about the war.  

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda, which seemed significantly weakened at the start of the war, has regained strength in Europe. Take a myth, heavily promoted by French, Spanish, and Italian-speaking online influencers, that Ukrainians killed their own people with a Soviet-era Tochka-U missile at the railway station in the city of Kramatorsk, the site of one of the most horrendous attacks we have witnessed so far. It’s hard to nail down the origin of the myth, but the highest level peddler of it was the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who claimed Russian forces don’t use Tochka-U missiles. Peskov’s lie triggered a slew of pro-Russian disinformation in online spaces across Europe. A significant portion of posts that claimed Ukraine was responsible for the massacre in Kramatorsk were in French. 
Far right politicians, online influencers and anti-vaccine groups are not the only ones peddling the Kremlin line in Europe. From her new home in Rome Coda’s Alexandra Tyan has been watching mainstream Italian television and pinching herself to make sure that she is not really back in her native Moscow.

ITALY’S PRO-KREMLIN MAINSTREAM TV By Alexandra Tyan

“There was a massacre in Bucha, but I honestly cannot say who did it,” declared the talk show guest as he launched into an argument that Ukrainians were, in fact, behind the Bucha massacre. 

It was a kind of argument I hear regularly on Russian state TV, but this one came from an Italian writer and commentator speaking to an almost million-strong audience of Zona Bianca, a prime time Sunday evening political talk show on Italy’s Rete4 channel. 

Alberto Fazolo spent two years living in eastern Ukraine after Russia first invaded in 2014. This year, as the war intensified so did his appearances across Italian radio and television, where he regularly argues the Russian government line. Fazolo is part of a much larger trend: the Italian television coverage of the war is peppered with Kremlin propaganda. 

From Kremlin advisors to state TV journalists, prime time Italian shows regularly give platform to guests who make arguments in favor of the invasion or repeat the Kremlin’s argument. 

When Russian missiles attacked a Ukrainian nuclear power station in mid-March, Marc Innaro, the Moscow correspondent for the national public broadcaster RAI reported instead “on the fire that erupted after a sabotage.” He appeared to be quoting directly from the Russian state agency TASS.

Around the same time, Rete4 channel invited Kremlin idealogue Alexander Dugin to another one of its prime time evening shows. Dugin used the opportunity to explain, in fluent Italian, that Putin’s invasion was really the “war of values, a spiritual war.” 

According to Politico’s Hannah Robers, “there’s a solid block of rightists and leftists in the parliament in Rome that consistently pushes back against sending arms to Ukraine and against government plans to increase military spending, triggering tensions in Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s governing coalition.” An estimated one in three parliamentarians did not attend President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the Italian parliament in March. 

The proliferation of pro-Kremlin narratives on Italian television during this war is also inadvertently silencing Ukrainian voices on the same shows. 

Olga Tokariuk, Kyiv-based freelance journalist, used to be a frequent guest on Italian talk shows, but after weeks of living through and documenting horrors of the Russian invasion, she will no longer accept their invitations. She told me she felt “manipulated and used” when forced into surreal debates about Russian lies with studio guests in Italy. 

“For so many years, I was trying to reach the Italian public and speak to the Italian media about Ukraine and explain what is happening. But it is the same disinformation, same mistakes, same narratives about Ukraine repeated over and over again,” Olga told me on the phone from Kyiv. 

“I can’t believe what I’ve had to explain live on an Italian TV show,” tweeted Ukrainian journalist Iryna Matviyishyn after she appeared on a prime time evening show during which she had to debate whether Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was about self-determination. She also pointed out that neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine had far fewer supporters than their counterparts in western Europe, including Italy. 

“Russian propaganda intoxicated Europe so much that it won’t be enough to ban RT,” Matviyishyn concluded. 

WHAT WE ARE READING: 

  • It’s not only Russian disinformation that is “intoxicating Europe.” Politico’s How Germany Inc. played Russian roulette – and lost is an excellent deepdive into Germany’s complicated commercial ties to Russia and its consequences for Ukraine and beyond. 
  • Almost eight weeks after Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine, with military losses mounting and Russia facing unprecedented international isolation, a small but growing number of senior Kremlin insiders are quietly questioning his decision to go to war. Bloomberg reports
  • I can feel my heart hardening as the war goes on” Peter Pomerantsev’s painfully honest essay about Ukraine is an absolute must read.
  • Our friends at New Lines magazine have a great scoop on the time Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, oligarch Oleg Derepaska and a sex worker went on a trip to Japan 

COMING UP:

May the 9th: in Vladimir Putin’s Russia the 1945 victory over allied Germany is celebrated as if it happened yesterday: with military parades, fanfare but also tears on state television, and deliberate omission of the role of the allied forces (hence May the 9th date instead of the 8th). This year May 9 has a whole new significance: British, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence all believe that Putin is determined to declare victory on the Victory Day. As the Donbas offensive unfolds, the Russian state propaganda machine has turned into a mix of fake news about “atrocities” committed by “Nazis” in Ukraine and World War II nostalgia coverage. Anyone who tries to challenge the narrative risks punishment. Coda’s Katia Patin says Russian prosecutors are racking up cases against people who are accused of “rehabilitating Nazism.” Take the most recent case involving a 21-year-old college student from Zambia who is on trial and facing up to five years in prison for posting a video of herself twerking near a WWII statue in Khanty-Mansiysk.

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