The war that is looming in Ukraine will not only be played out on the military level. The deployment of the elements of language used Monday by Vladimir Putin to justify his recognition of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which suggest a larger-scale invasion, is also at the heart of the battle for Moscow. Especially among Ukraine’s closest neighbors.
In regions that are traditionally closer to pro-Russian positions, Moscow’s discourse is already well anchored. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said this week that 85% of his compatriots will “always side with Russia, no matter what.” Serbian tabloids repeated unverified information that Russian forces had destroyed two Ukrainian armored vehicles that had entered Russia: “Ukraine has attacked Russia!” They shouted on Tuesday February 22, a few hours later the announcement by Vladimir Putin that he was going to recognize two separatist regions in Ukraine and order the dispatch of troops.
Putin’s words hit home
Misinformation, which also comes with misleading videos or grossly diverted, in full swing in other regions normally animated by deep anti-Russian resentment, those formerly attached to the Soviet Union (USSR). With some success: dodgy publications and anti-Western outings are making surprising inroads as the regional crisis deepens.
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In Slovakia, a neighboring country to Ukraine, misinformation about the situation is widely disseminated, even by members of parliament. After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech questioning the very existence of Ukraine, Lubos Blaha, a member of the left-wing opposition party Smer and followed by 170,000 people on Facebook, said he was “convinced that [Poutine] wants peace”. He also claims on his website that Ukraine “provoked and threatened Russia” while “the West harassed it”. According to him, Ukraine is “controlled by oligarchic clans, neo-Nazism and Russophobia are growing there and corruption is in full swing”.
The country of 5.5 million people, which shares a 97 kilometer border with Ukraine, this month signed a defense agreement with the United States, allowing American troops to operate on its soil. This treaty aroused strong opposition from the opposition and a significant part of the population, becoming a privileged target of disinformation and propaganda. As a result, anti-American, anti-Nato and even anti-European Union sentiments are on the rise in Slovakia.
According to a poll carried out last month by the Slovak Focus agency, 44% of those questioned hold the United States and NATO in particular responsible for the rise in tensions between Russia and Ukraine, while only 35% accuse Moscow .
Painting Ukraine as a ‘corrupt failed state’
Same pattern in the Czech Republic. “As early as January, there was a massive rise in disinformation aimed at justifying Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Bohumil Kartous, a spokesperson for the Czech Elves, a network of hundreds of vigilantes who monitor the web. “This subject far exceeds all the others, including the Covid”, underlines the one whose group publishes monthly reports on the false information shared in the country and in the region. The “fake news” seeks to portray Ukraine as a “corrupt failed state” ruled by “fascists” and practicing “genocide on its Russian-speaking population”, write the Elves in one of their reports on the conflict.
In the weeks leading up to Vladimir Putin’s decision to allow Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, various videos purporting to show Ukrainian troops preparing to enter Russia circulated in the region. AFP Fact Check found that many of them actually show military exercises unrelated to the current situation and were filmed years earlier. Some of these sequences notably dated back to 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. One of the videos, from 2018, posed as a BBC report.
According to Bohumil Kartous, some of these forgeries “present NATO as responsible for the current situation, while Russia is supposed to simply resist long-standing efforts threatening its security”. “It resonates with part of the population,” he said, referring to the Czech Republic, even as Prague sent ammunition to Ukraine. “For some, it builds on similar prior claims and cements their beliefs. For others, it creates a sense of insecurity which, in turn, leads to resistance to government efforts. [tchèque] to help Ukraine defend itself.”
Disinformation also spreads in Western countries through the regime’s channels – Sputnik and RT. Their existence in these countries is therefore logically called into question. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that his government has requested, on Wednesday, a review of the license granted to the Russian public channel in English RT. At the beginning of February, Germany had already banned RT on its territory. In response, Moscow had closed the office of German radio and television Deutsche Welle in Moscow.
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