11/08/2021Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert
From denial to insults and devaluation
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s carefully prepared visit to the U.S. and her meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden and several other iconic American politicians were praised by the world’s leading media.
This means that the visit could not be left untouched by the Kremlin media. A feature of the current information campaign was that they did not have a coordinated line of conduct and, after a brief period of confusion, began to actively seek opportunities to discredit both the visit itself and its culmination in a meeting at the White House on July 28.
In short, all the information noise generated from the Kremlin can be described as follows: «We have nothing to say, the U.S. controls everything, so let’s focus on the cookies.»
Another feature of the propaganda coverage of the visit included information attacks on Ukraine. The source for the manipulation was Biden and representatives of his administration having already met with Tikhanovskaya, whereas a meeting with President Zelensky, scheduled for August, may be postponed until September.
At the same time, an information campaign is being carried out aimed at the possible recognition of Crimea as Russian by Lukashenko in response to the meeting between Biden and Tikhanovskaya. After all, an illegitimate president who is in international isolation is simply unable to hold a meeting of similar importance.
When there is nothing to say, personal insults remain
From among Russian officials, Maria Zakharova was instructed to discuss the visit. She repeated the standard themes about the insidious West and its puppets, which are just waiting for an opportunity to damage Belarusian stability. This official representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, continuing a trend set by Putin, compared Tikhanovskaya to a delinquent child and then set off into a jungle of analogies of cookies and cookie files.
Having no real arguments against the Biden-Tikhanovskaya meeting, Zakharova gave Kremlin media the opportunity to at least send out personal insults. Indeed, many pro-Kremlin channels and news agencies reposted Zakharova’s words, reaching a conclusion with layers of meaning: «Cookies are access to and management of the most important client data.»
Perhaps we will still hear statements from other Kremlin officials with their conclusions of the visit, but at this stage the Kremlin is probably trying not to play on increasing Tikhanovskaya’s popularity through limiting official references to it.
An analysis of the media coverage by the pro-Kremlin media group on Tikhanovskaya’s visit to the U.S. makes it possible to highlight the following main narratives:
- Tikhanovskaya is a project of the “collective West” and the U.S. is interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus.
- The U.S. is pushing Belarus to integrate with Russia.
- Belarus and Ukraine are not independent actors – their future is determined by the U.S. and Russia.
A separate group includes theories and narratives aimed at discrediting Svetlana Tikhanovskaya herself and the democratic forces of Belarus:
- Tikhanovskaya only needs money and opposition leaders have argued over funding.
- Tikhanovskaya’s activities, in particular the demand for sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, harm primarily the Belarusian people.
- Tikhanovskaya is a Western puppet whose task is to undermine the Belarusian authorities.
This monitoring does not consider the propaganda campaign in Belarus itself, carried out through Lukashenko’s and the pro-Russian media, which comes down exclusively to personal insults, including from Lukashenko himself. Media resources and Telegram channels with Ukrainian audiences were analyzed.
How pro-Russian media’s interpretation of the visit has changed
In general, the analysis shows that the Russian propaganda media covered Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s visit to the U.S. reacting mostly after the fact. The newsmaker for them was Tikhanovskaya herself and people from her team. Essentially, after the meeting at the White House, the Kremlin had no other options but to ridicule and insult Tikhanovskaya personally.
Some Russian media and promoted Telegram channels that have their audience in Ukraine – for example, Nezygar – have changed their rhetoric and interpretations of the results of the visit several times already.
This was especially noticeable in the example of the change in narratives after the meeting between Tikhanovskaya and Biden, when the pro-Russian media latched on to “cookies” topic and began to insult the leader of the Belarusian protest to devalue her success.
In general, these media sources went through the following stages:
- the visit has been poorly prepared and is a tourist trip;
- Biden refused to meet with Tikhanovskaya;
- a meeting with Biden and the «cookies of the State Department» – a well-known topic introduced by Russian propaganda during the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.
At the first stage, the Telegram channel Karaulny on July 18 disparagingly described Tikhanovskaya’s meeting with the Belarusian diaspora in the U.S.: «The Voice of America journalist looked at the Belarusian diaspora in the U.S. There were one and a half housewives who want to make Belarus Great Again that went out to meet the housewife Tikhanovskaya.»
On July 19, Yulia Vityazeva, who escaped from Ukraine, wrote about her meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State: «Judging by the length of the meeting, Sveta was not even offered a cup of tea…»
On July 21, the Telegram channel Sputnik Near Abroad published an assessment by a representative of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry of Tikhanovskaya’s visit to Washington: «A two-week tourist trip paid for by American taxpayers.»
After the first results of the visit of the Belarusian delegation, pro-Russian channels began to actively disseminate speculations on Biden’s refusal to meet with Tikhanovskaya, which was connected to her lack of political prospects in Belarus.
On July 19, TASS, referring to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, wrote: «Biden is not scheduled to meet with Tikhanovskaya right now.» Other Telegram channels and media provided the same information, for example, RIA Novosti, Karaulny, and others.
The Telegram channel Nezygar, known for its «insiders» and «likely» forecasts, wrote on July 19: «President Biden’s refusal… to meet with her is a clear signal that the White House does not see political prospects in her. Biden and his advisers are allegedly ready to rely on new leaders and coordination with Moscow. The Americans do not hide their disappointment with Tikhanovskaya’s activities.» On July 20, Nezygar again writes: «Biden’s refusal to meet with Tikhanovskaya is a clear signal that this project has no prospects.»
On July 21, Strana.ua published a story with the loud title «Tikhanovskaya failed to meet Biden in Washington.»
On July 22, Vityazeva writes: «The tour of the Sveta Tikhanovskaya roving bandwagon in the U.S. was quite eventful. But they did not even let her in to the door of Karabas Barabas’s [a reference to Tolstoy’s puppet master] theatre.»
However, after the Biden-Tikhanovskaya meeting on July 28, the rhetoric of the Kremlin mouthpieces changed dramatically. The «cookie» topic is introduced, which then saw itself published in almost every Russian and pro-Russian media alongside a reference to Tikhanovskaya as a «housewife» – a long-standing insult of Russian propaganda.
The context for the narrative dispersed was outlined on July 29 through the RT Telegram channel: «Biden’s foreign policy team knows full well what Moscow means by ‘cookies from Victoria Nuland,’ symbolizing decisive, victorious U.S. intervention in the affairs of post-Soviet states.»
Strana.ua, referring to its own Telegram channel National Politics, picks up the RT narrative: «It is immediately clear that she (Tikhanovskaya – ed.) does not know the story of how Victoria Nuland handed out cookies on the Maidan.»
From the Telegram channel Karaulny on July 29: «Svetlana Georgievna Tikhanovskaya has completed her journey in the Euro-American food chain. Simply put, there weren’t enough cookies for Sveta-kotleta – the textbook example kind.»
The projections of Nezygar can be cited as a vivid example of a change in agenda. On July 19, they published the following post: «For all international players, it is obvious that Tikhanovskaya’s case is almost finished… She will unlikely be allowed to act again, however, in the Belarusian Case…» On July 20, Nezygar continues along the same line: «Biden’s refusal to meet with Tikhanovskaya is a clear signal that this undertaking has no prospects. New leaders are expected to appear in London, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and Washington.»
But already on July 29, after meeting with Biden, the channel’s rhetoric changed: «Biden’s meeting with Tikhanovskaya will openly prolong the project of the Western party in Minsk… In all this, Tikhanovskaya will play the role of a puppet whose task is to strengthen the media background and systematically loosen the structure of the Belarusian government, ensuring the transition of people like Makei.»
There is a separate narrative that claims that the high level of Tikhanovskaya’s visit to the U.S. leaves Lukashenko no choice but to deepen integration with Russia.
On July 29, the Russian version of the RT Telegram channel, assessing the results of the visit of the Belarusian delegation to the U.S., wrote: «There will no longer be any multi-vector approach that so annoyed many in Moscow. There is only one vector left. One hope, one sponsor, one partner, and one savior… There is no more room to maneuver. And there is no «western alternative.» Cookies in the White House have already been prepared, but not for him (Lukashenko – ed.).»
What does Ukraine have to do with anything?
Russian propaganda has long been promoting the narrative that decisions regarding Belarus and Ukraine are made in Russia and the U.S. Before the visit, they used stories on agreements on the division of spheres of influence made during the Biden and Putin’s meeting in Geneva. Now a demonstration of the supposed weakness of Ukraine and Belarus in the field of international politics has been added. Tikhanovskaya is depicted as a project of the «collective West,» and in the context of Ukraine they emphasize dependence on relations with the White House.
On July 22, at an official briefing by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Zakharova said the following: «Behind the supposedly independent political figures of Belarus who are now outside its borders, there are forces completely unconnected with the country… We need to talk not about independent political figures representing this part or another of Belarusian society, but about those forces outside Belarus that recruited people from the ranks of citizens of this country they needed to carry out their own agenda.»
At the same time, the Kremlin is conducting an information campaign to have Lukashenko recognize Crimea as Russian, and it is suggested that Tikhanovskaya’s visit and reception in the U.S. should be used as an excuse for this.
On July 29, the Telegram-channel Kremlevskiy Bezbashennik wrote this about the meeting: «An increase in stakes would look like a response in the form of, for example, recognition of the new status of Crimea by Belarus and a trip by Lukashenko on an August vacation somewhere in the Crimean Foros.» Kommersant continues on the subject of Crimea: «International pressure on Minsk is increasing, while deep integration with Russia is still somehow imperceptible. And Lukashenko has not yet even traveled to Crimea, despite persistent invitations.»
A feature of the coverage of Tikhanovskaya’s visit to the U.S. by the pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine was the attacking Zelensky’s image to undermine the internal political situation.
On July 17, Yulia Vityazeva wrote: «Biden will not meet with Tikhanovskaya and is not eager to see Zelensky. Squeamish or something?»
The Telegram channel SOLOVYOV from July 28: «But now Zelensky is wildly insulted. He was pushed back to August 30, and the lady pushed him out and skipped the queue. And it is really irritating for Navalny. Who advised him to return to Russia?»
On July 28, Strana.yu published all their material about the meeting of the leader of the Belarusian protest with the American president under the manipulative headline «Before Zelensky. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya met with Joe Biden at the White House.»
Regnum.ru continues to pierce the bottom of journalism standards by publishing an article under the headline «They’ll give him a cookie that Tikhanovskaya didn’t finish? Zelensky is waiting for a meeting.»
The goal is to discredit the Belarusian protest
Russian propagandists are trying to use the visit to discredit the leaders of democratic forces in Belarus. In general, the main messages echo narratives employed previously, superimposing them on the results of and commentary on the visit.
On July 19, Nezygar published a post pitting Tikhanovskaya against the Belarusian protesters: «Speaking officially as the opposition leader of Belarus, Tikhanovskaya splits the opposition remaining in her homeland into two unequal groups. On the one hand are the victims of clashes with the security forces… On the other are Tikhanovskaya and her supporters, attending high-level foreign receptions and looking for new investments…»
On July 22, at a briefing by an official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Zakharova said: «What are these calls for the Western community to impose new sanctions against Belarus and the economy and citizens of this country? Is it serving to consolidate society, is it beneficial for Belarus as a state, or is it part of the realization of national interests? We believe that those who call for tougher sanctions against their own country and people scarcely have a political future. We presume that only Belarusian citizens and their legal representatives, and not self-appointed «leaders of democratic forces» and their Western coordinators, have the right to decide the fate of their country.» This statement was subsequently used by several pro-Kremlin media outlets, including the Telegram channel Sputnik Near Abroad.
It is also worth acknowledging the attempt to use the religious factor, namely the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, to discredit Tikhanovskaya and the democratic opposition forces. This factor is likely to be used in the future.
On July 28, the Telegram channel Sputnik Belarus reposted an article from the channel of RIA Novosti journalist Sergei Stefanov on the possibility of Tikhanovskaya’s appeal to Constantinople for the recognition of «schismatics» from the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (BAOC). The post says that one of the strategic goals is to create a BAOC along the lines of Ukraine.
Media monitoring of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s visit to the U.S. and her meeting at the White House gave many examples of manipulative methods of Russian propaganda. The primary one was ad hominem – discredit your opponent if you cannot counter their successes.