AP Photo/Francesca Ebel

Ukraine war gives Alexander Dugin’s Eurasianist ideology new force

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: Putin’s Utopia; beyond the blue and yellow bubble and why Ukraine vanished off your TikTok

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While the world was busy discussing Will Smith’s Oscars slap and the mayor of Mariupul pleaded for his destroyed city to be evacuated, Russian Duma deputies came up with new legislation. It did not make headlines outside of Russia, even though it could potentially affect tens of millions of people around the world.

The bill, which is currently only a draft (link in Russian), proposes for all global native Russians speakers to be considered compatriots. This is a terrifying thing to hear for anyone living in Russia’s backyard, where Moscow has long used the notion of belonging as an excuse to invade.

“This is why I don’t teach Russian to my kids,” a Georgian friend told me when she heard the news. “I don’t want them to be protected.”

Russia’s early military campaign in Ukraine in 2014 was built around the idea of defending not only ethnic Russians, but also Russian-speaking Ukrainians from new laws that gave priority to the Ukrainian language. 

Similar logic and tactics were used in Georgia’s separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Moldova’s Transnistria, where Moscow has long had a policy of promoting the language, as well as  giving out Russian passports to residents of separatist territories and then using all of that as an excuse to meddle militarily.

In Kazakhstan, authorities have been trying to revive and promote the Kazakh language as part of the country’s post-Soviet, post-nomadic identity but without upsetting Russia, its strategic geopolitical partner.

It is a difficult balancing act. When in January, the government of Kazakhstan asked Putin for help in restoring order after massive protests shook the country, Margarita Simonyan, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists, jumped on Twitter to announce to her half a million followers that Russia should help but on the condition that Kazakhstan returns to the Cyrillic alphabet (they switched to Latin in 2017), anoint Russian as its second official language and “leave Russian schools alone.” Kazakhs were outraged (video in Russian). 

Moscow sent in troops to help the Kazakhstan government anyway, but the comment is indicative of just how sensitive and important the issue is for the Kremlin. When Ukraine and Russia met and finally made some progress at the peace talks in Istanbul, one of the things discussed was an agreement on a document of mutual respect towards each other’s language and culture, reports the Bell. 

PUTIN’S UTOPIA 

Language is a key part of Putin’s most ambitious non-military project: the Eurasian Union. In the run-up to its launch in 2015, Vladimir Putin called it “epoch-making.” It was designed as an economic engine for Putin’s geopolitical vision, an alternative to the European Union not only economically but also ideologically. But it quickly turned out to be a flop. Only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan joined, and even they grumbled about Russia being too big and too much of a bully to build a EU-style partnership.

“Russia is an empire in a sense, which is all absorbing. It is not based on ethnicity, on nationality, but on a sense of belonging to the Russian civilization,” argued the controversial philosopher Alexander Dugin just this week on the pages of a Russian tabloid Moskovskiy Komsomolets. Dugin is one of the best known ideologists of Eurasianism.

The long, meandering interview in the Russian tabloid paints Putin as a messiah, sent to the earth to “reunify” the Russian civilization and argues that the siege of Kyiv is a necessary step in this reunification. It will not be complete, Dugin said, until “we have united all Eastern Slavs and all Eurasian brothers into a common big space.”

Many Russia-watchers have long dismissed Dugin as a marginal figure, too crazy to be taken seriously. But the argument about whether or not Putin personally reads Dugin is somewhat irrelevant because Dugin is plenty relevant to the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist movements, who consider him a teacher. The ideas Dugin promoted for years came across loud and clear both in Putin’s pre-invasion speeches as well as in the draft legislation that proposes that all Russian speakers should be considered “compatriots.” 

Isolated and cornered, Putin is trying to maneuver his way out of this crisis using whatever limited tools he has and the ideology of Eurasianism, however murky, is one of them. Some have speculated that the Eurasian Union could also help the Kremlin to evade sanctions via the union’s non-sanctioned partners, but here is a good piece that explains why its economic use is very limited.

BEYOND THE BUBBLE 

Like my bubble, yours too is probably yellow and blue: Zelensky is a PR genius and Putin is on the backfoot. But in the rest of the world, the picture looks very different, reports Coda’s Isobel Cockerell in a piece that explains why the West is not the target of Russian disinformation. 

Across the African continent and in places like India, the Russian narrative of the war seems to be gaining traction. Disinformation researcher Carl Miller has shared with us some of his findings about networks springing up around #IstandwithPutin hashtag on Twitter. It recently began to trend on Twitter, after thousands of accounts, many of them fake, who normally tweet in support of other leaders like India’s Narendra Modi, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and former South African President Jacob Zuma, suddenly started using the hashtag to cheer Putin’s invasion.

While there is nothing authentic about the coordinated behavior of thousands of trolls on social media, there are human and legitimate reasons why Russia’s narrative is more acceptable to many countries outside the West.

“All communication around the war and Ukraine in the Middle East is going through the prism of comparison,” said Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of media freedom watchdog the Samir Kassir Foundation.

“It’s not about whataboutism, it is about trying to see what would happen if the conflict happened in the Middle East and people resent the rhetoric of the Western media on Ukraine because they know from experience that their plight was covered differently.” 

Russian state media networks, especially RT and Sputnik, have spent years forging local partnerships and building robust non-English language networks. The war has prompted the EU to sanction both RT and Sputnik, and Britain’s regulator has also now banned RT. But the network’s footprint in the English-language market was always insignificant, so small in fact that the channel often did not even register on British ratings. In Spanish and Arabic, the picture is very different.

In Lebanon, Sputnik Arabic is broadcast on the largest FM frequency in the country. The station, called Voice of all Lebanon, also rents its airtime to the BBC’s and Deutsche Welle’s Arabic news programs for profit. But there is, Mhanna argues, something more compelling about Sputnik because “it sounds more local, more in tune with the people. When the BBC comes on, people just turn off,” he said.  

RT has also been inventive in its distribution. Mhanna says that in Lebanon, RT had few actual viewers, but it actively re-packaged its content for WhatsApp and other messaging platforms. “People would receive and share content from RT without realizing that it was coming from Russia,” Mhanna told me. This is similar to the networks the Kremlin media built in Spanish which we covered here.

TRENDS WE ARE WATCHING: 

SOCIAL MEDIA CENSORSHIP: Having blocked Western social media platforms, the Russian government is now busy streamlining its narrative on the homegrown ones. This week, censorship on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook reached new levels: posts that mention the war in Ukraine are immediately taken down and groups that deviate from the Kremlin’s message have been deleted.

ALGORITHMIC CENSORSHIP: But Russia is not the only one doing the censoring. In the West too, Ukraine is disappearing from people’s social media feeds.Is the war over?” my 14-year-old nephew in Britain asked me this week. It has apparently vanished from his TikTok feed. But it’s not the war, it’s our attention span. As the novelty of it all wears off, as we find ourselves less surprised to the resilience of Ukrainians or less shocked by the images of bombed out cities and fleeing refugees, we spend fewer nano seconds hovering over the Ukraine news. Algorithms take notice and serve up something else. It is a harrowing thought: Ukraine’s survival may depend on the ability of the collective West to stay focused and yet the algorithms written in the Silicon Valley are already telling us to move on. Since changing the algorithms is not in our hands, the only solution is to play by their rules and engage by watching, liking or sharing images that we hate seeing.

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