19.09.23 Propaganda Review

'US Intelligence Is Planning to Assassinate Zelensky': Pro-Russian disinformation in Central Europe in August 2023

The war in Ukraine continues to be a fiercely contested topic in European public opinion, primarily at the level of mass consciousness. According to data from VoxCheck, a monitoring agency for Central European media, pro-Russian populism persists in employing a consistent set of narratives. Monitoring results offer insights into the evolving strategies of pro-Russian propaganda and the narratives and storylines that have proven most effective thus far. Towards the end of the summer, a prevailing theme in European media remained the idea that the West is manipulating Ukraine. This narrative is coupled with claims about the failure of the Ukrainian offensive and the inevitability of Ukraine's defeat, often embellished with sensational details about Ukrainian losses. In Poland, discussions have been dominated by speculation about Ukrainian refugees. The significance and effectiveness of such a narrative background naturally intensifies amid conditions of information fatigue from the war and the emotional burnout of the pro-Ukrainian European media mainstream.

As Re:Russia recently highlighted, while support for Ukraine in European public opinion may appear relatively stable, it is far from monolithic when dissected along national lines and, one can presume, social strata. European public opinion remains an arena of ideological struggle, particularly at the level of mass consciousness and the perceptions of ordinary Europeans. Pro-Russian populism navigates through conspiratorial myths, portraying political arguments and strategies as mere facades for elite and governmental interests, often neglecting the concerns of the population and 'ordinary' citizens. Even outlandish falsehoods and fabrications, when they reach the threshold of sensationalism, increase the penetration of fundamental narratives which can coexist alongside more intellectually crafted interpretations.

VoxCheck's ongoing project monitors European media for pro-Russian propaganda, narratives, and disinformation, analysing media content in Poland, Germany, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The latter three countries are among the areas with the lowest levels of support for Ukraine among European nations. In Poland, the high level of support for Ukraine is complicated by factors such as the significant influx of Ukrainian refugees, significant spending to support them, competition with Ukraine in agricultural markets, approaching elections, and historical grievances. Germany, on the other hand, plays a pivotal role in shaping the pan-European policy regarding the Ukraine conflict.

The monitoring results provide insights into the shifting strategies of pro-Russian propaganda and the most successful patterns and narratives at present. In August 2023, the project identified 1,150 cases of the use of persistent anti-Ukrainian narratives and disinformation about Ukraine across 83 media outlets in the above-mentioned countries. The highest number of such cases was discovered in Polish (242), German (217), and Hungarian (203) media outlets. This figure is slightly higher than the average for the preceding three summer months, during which more than 3,000 cases were recorded. The majority of these cases were attributed to publications from Poland (600), the Czech Republic (568), and Hungary (558), with slightly fewer from Slovakia (544) and Germany (502).

A recurring theme in pro-Russian narratives in European media during late summer was the idea that the West is manipulating Ukraine. For instance, pro-Russian propaganda in Poland claimed that the Ukrainian people are devoid of political agency and have effectively been sold into slavery in the United States. It also suggested that the setbacks in the Ukrainian military offensive would be compensated for by the assassination of Vladimir Zelensky, a plan allegedly orchestrated by US intelligence. German pro-Russian propaganda similarly diminishes Ukraine's agency, asserting that the United States is experimenting with biological weapons in Ukraine and sabotaging peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to prolong the conflict to suit its own interests. In August 2023, Hungarian media circulated the idea that the West is using Ukraine to change the leadership in Russia and directly eliminate Vladimir Putin. Czech media, meanwhile, depicted Ukraine as lacking agency and being merely a bargaining chip in a grand game between the West and Russia.

In the summer of 2023, the narrative of the failure of the Ukrainian offensive and the inevitability of Ukraine's defeat was accompanied by discussions on the futility of providing Ukraine with military equipment and its low quality. Pro-Russian disinformation in German publications centred on 'data' suggesting that, since the start of the full-scale invasion, no less than 500,000 Ukrainians had been killed in combat. It was further claimed that Ukraine had lost around 20% of the military equipment it had been provided within just one week, with Ukrainian commanders allegedly selling the received weapons to other countries. In Hungary, reports asserted that the Russian military remained so formidable that, if the West were to supply Ukraine with F-16 aircraft, they would all surely be destroyed within a month.

In addition to common disinformation narratives, VoxCheck identified unique storylines tailored to suit individual countries. For instance, anti-Ukrainian propaganda in Poland in August 2023 was intertwined with the country's upcoming election. There was speculation revolving around Ukrainian refugees, with the media claiming that the ruling 'Law and Justice' party was providing conditions for refugees which allowed them to live more comfortably than ordinary Poles. Some reports even alleged that refugees were allowed to carry weapons and drive vehicles under the influence, and that some were carriers of cholera. Hungarian media spread claims that Ukraine was deliberately sabotaging peace negotiations with Russia, going as far as to prohibit them by law.

According to VoxCheck expert Elizaveta Chekhovskaya, Italian media has persistently discussed the idea that the expansion of NATO was the cause of the war between Russia and Ukraine, which allegedly provoked Russia's leadership to invade Ukraine. Slovak media have also maintained their own unique pro-Russian narrative throughout the summer of 2023, consistently circulating 'information' that Russia would soon capture Odesa. Czech media reports have their own disinformation innovation, with rumours that Russia will not only achieve a significant victory but will also be the reason for NATO's dissolution. Moreover, most Western governments have supposedly already decided to cease providing aid to Ukraine.

If we use VoxCheck data to assess trends in the volume of pro-Russian propaganda by the selected countries using VoxCheck data, it becomes evident that, in August 2023, significantly more disinformation was present in Germany and Poland. The significance and effectiveness of such a narrative background naturally increases in the conditions of information fatigue from the war and the emotional burnout of the pro-Ukrainian European media mainstream.