- Escalation of the situation on the borders and the military threat
- An attack using migrants
- The issue of recognition of Crimea
- Energy security
- Distraction and a shift in the agenda
Escalation of the situation on the borders and the military threat
Over the past month, pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine have been working together to aggravate the situation, creating a media backdrop favorable for the Kremlin. Moscow approached the Biden-Putin talks with demands that were doomed to fail, including guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward and would withdraw the invitation for Ukraine and Georgia to join the Alliance. Essentially, the Kremlin has outlined the reason for the escalation: Putin does not want to admit Moscow’s geopolitical loss and seeks to rethink the balance of power that has been established since the end of the Cold War.
To promote pro-Kremlin narratives in the Ukrainian media, several areas closely related to Belarus were actively employed: the militarization of the region; the escalation of the situation on the borders and military threats; the attack using migrants; the issue of the recognition of Crimea; and Ukraine’s energy security. Each of these topics is of interest to Moscow in its own way, and they all fit into the logic of the Kremlin, which is to clearly define and, if possible, strengthen the line of confrontation between the Union State and the so-called «collective West.»
At the same time, the directions of informational influence have not changed. They are aimed at the disintegration of NATO and the EU and the dissemination of theories of supposed aggression by the U.S. and Ukraine as a puppet state. It is argued that the war is over values: on one side of the barricades are the U.S., Poland, NATO, and Ukraine, and on the other are Russia and Belarus.
When it comes to the militarization of the region, escalation, and military threat, pro-Kremlin media portray Ukraine as an aggressor that is preparing a military solution to the issue of de-occupation of the Donbass and Crimea. At the same time, NATO countries are accused of «pumping» weapons into the perimeter of Russia and Belarus and of creating a military faction against Moscow.
For example, on November 11, the Telegram channel VESTI, commenting on the joint aviation patrolling by Belarus and Russia not only along the border with Poland and the Baltic countries, but also the border with Ukraine, posted the following directly: «Confrontation between the countries is heating up and the situation with Iraqi refugees has only accelerated the rhetoric and decisions that would have been taken anyway given the current dynamics of relations. And now the two coalitions officially look like this: Ukraine, Poland, and the U.S. on the one hand, and Belarus and Russia on the other.» On December 2, the same channel wrote about «the escalating situation with Ukraine and the West on one side and Belarus and Russia on the other.» On December 6, Strana.ua offered that a «new Cold War is Gaining Momentum,» declaring that «the geopolitical confrontation between the U.S. and its allies on one side, and Russia and its allies on the other, is not only not subsiding against the backdrop of Russian-American negotiations and preparations for […] Biden’s videoconference with Putin, but is growing.» On December 9, Strana.ua, in an article titled «Local conflict with Ukraine: why people have started talking about it in Minsk,» accused Ukraine of provoking conflict: «If we add to this that a Ukrainian combat helicopter recently crossed the Belarusian border illegally, then the words about the threat of a local conflict seem justified. Moreover, the threat comes from the southern side of the border. It is only not known whether it was a conscious decision or done out of stupidity.»
At the same time, the tactic of publishing many news reports with manipulative headlines emphasizing the buildup of NATO and Ukraine forces on the border with Belarus is used. Concurrent with the recorded build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, Lukashenko’s statements about the strengthening of the Russian military presence in Belarus, up to the deployment of nuclear weapons, are circulating in the media. The gradual escalation of the rhetoric and actions by the Belarusian regime and their consistency with Russia’s foreign policy statements once again confirm that Lukashenko is moving in the wake of Russian propaganda and voicing the Kremlin’s threats.
On November 20 Strana.ua wrote «Lukashenko has not ruled out a nuclear war between Russia and NATO over Belarus.» On November 24, they then published an article with the headline «Armored vehicles are driving from Kyiv to the border with Belarus. Video.» The headline of a Strana.ua news item on December 3 also speaks for itself: «Poland is negotiating the deployment of NATO troops on the border with Belarus.»
There has also been an increase in the number of information messages in pro-Kremlin media about the possibility of a local conflict between Belarus and Ukraine, which may have «unpredictable consequences.»
On December 8 Strana.ua disseminated the following news in which it referred to a statement by State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich: «Belarus has conceded a local conflict with Ukraine because of the tension on the border.» And here again are accusations made against Ukraine: «Under the guise of fighting illegal migration, [Ukraine is deploying] a group of armed forces, heavy weapons, and employing helicopters and combat aircraft…» along with reports about the breach of the Belarusian border by a Ukrainian helicopter.
An attack using migrants
Pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine are also actively covering the hybrid attack by migrants, orchestrated by the actions of the Lukashenko regime with the support of the Kremlin. They take part in information campaigns to discredit the actions of Brussels, which is trying to prevent the influx of migrants, and depict imaginary contradictions among EU countries regarding approaches to resolving the crisis. At the same time, significant emphasis is placed on «whitewashing» Russia’s role and demonstrating its innocence in organizing attacks using migrants on the EU.
For example, on November 13, Strana.ua published a story titled «Poland and Europe are betraying each other. What Western media are writing about the crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border.» Here are repeated several Russian propaganda messages, including about the clash between NATO and Russia, a lack of evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the migration crisis and Lukashenko’s independence of actions, and calling the EU an accomplice in crimes committed.
On November 17, Strana.ua, in an article titled «Water cannons for refugees: the new face of the European Union» wrote the following regarding the use of water cannons on the Polish-Belarusian border: «And here 2014 is remebered, when all of civilized Europe condemned the use of a water cannon by Viktor Yanukovych’s security forces against the radicals who threw Molotov cocktails at them… Objectively, it looks cynical, but in fact such a contradicting moral for the West is the norm.»
The situation with migrants is essentially being used to legitimize the Lukashenko regime. For this, the message about the need for the EU to negotiate directly with Lukashenko is being sent out. To strengthen this campaign, statements by Russian officials and Putin himself are being actively employed. This message in the media has since been evolved into a statement that the EU and international organizations are negotiating with the self-proclaimed president. Lukashenko’s telephone conversations with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel were also interpreted in the same context.
On November 15, the Telegram channel Klymenko Time, in covering a conversation between Putin and Macron, emphasized the need for direct contacts between EU leaders and Lukashenko. At the same time, regarding the call from Merkel to Lukashenko, Klymenko Time wrote that «the very fact of the call is important. It is a kind of legitimization of contacts between European leaders and Lukashenko following the 2020 elections.»
Almost all pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine, during the period of Merkel’s calls to Minsk, actively disseminated information that the EU was negotiating with Belarus and had already recognized Lukashenko. On November 17, the Telegram channel VESTI commented on the second conversation between Lukashenko and Merkel: «The entire problem is brought up to the level of Belarus and the EU, while decision-makers… are immediately enteingr into negotiations to resolve the crisis…» On November 22, Klymenko Time wrote that «the EU has started negotiations with Belarus to return migrants home.» On November 22 Strana.ua said also that «the EU has started negotiations with Belarus to bring migrants home.» In the sum up of the week of November 23, Strana.ua wrote directly that «for the sake of refusing refugees, the EU recognized Lukashenko.»
Again, the migration crisis is used to demonstrate the aggressive behavior of the West against Russia and to justify the participation of Russian troops in a potential conflict and the militarization of Belarus. On November 9, VESTI posted the following: «One of Lukashenko’s key messages is ‘If Belarus makes a mistake, it will immediately involve Russia, which is the largest nuclear power.’ This is, among other things, a direct message to Europe and NATO if they decide to cross the border even by a centimeter. A decision is now being made in Warsaw on the involvement or non-involvement of the Alliance troops.»
Also, in a coordinated fashion, pro-Kremlin media disseminated narratives about the transferring to Ukraine of illegal migration channels to Europe, Kyiv’s increasing military presence on the border with Belarus under the pretext of combating illegal migration, disinformation about the crossing of groups of migrants from the Belarusian-Ukrainian border and the use of weapons against them by Ukrainian border guards.
The unfair and selective accusation levied by the EU of the Lukashenko regime’s involvement in organizing channels of illegal migration, which is allegedly conducted by other countries, is also emphasized.
On November 8, the Klymenko Time Telegram channel wrote that not only Lukashenko, but also Erdogan used illegal migrants in their interests. On November 23, Ukraine.ru, in their article «Not Belarus: a Polish political scientist named the country that is the center of the moving of migrants to the EU,» wrote that «while the attention of the Polish authorities and the media was occupied by the migration crisis on the Belarusian border, illegal migrants from Ukraine freely enter Poland» and that «the main center for the transfer of guest workers to the European Union is Ukraine.»
The issue of recognition of Crimea
Pro-Kremlin media covered and commented on statements by representatives of the Lukashenko regime on the recognition of Crimea as Russian. There are several main messages here. First, the comments of Ukrainian Foreign Ministry officials on statements made by representatives of Belarus about Russia’s rights over Crimea were used as evidence of Ukraine’s aggressive policies. Second, these channels reinforced the idea of the severing of Ukrainian-Belarusian by decision of Ukraine and owing to its weakness.
On November 10, the Telegram channel VESTI commented on a statement made by Vladimir Makei «that Crimea is now Russian territory»: «Another blow to Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. If they exist still in at least some form.» On November 30, Strana.ua, in an article titled «China and Kazakhstan will be next. Why did Lukashenko recognize Crimea as Russian and what will the consequences be?» wrote the following: «This was the result of the severing of relations with Belarus, which was begun by the Ukrainian government under Zelensky. From the president’s non-recognition after the 2020 elections to sanctions against Belavia and military exercises on the border with Belarus after the migrant crisis.»
It is already standard practice to use the topic of Ukraine’s energy security and critical dependence on imports of energy resources and oil products in information campaigns. This concerns both their cost and their ties to supplies from Belarus and Russia. At the same time, the vagueness and ambiguity of Kyiv’s official position towards the Belarusian regime has been used, in part to push media pressure for recognition of Lukashenko.
For example, the Telegram channels National Politics and VESTI talk about an inevitable increase in electricity prices, and Strana.ua on November 18 in their article «The End of the World Coming From Belarus» said the following: «if such dependence (on electricity) cannot be avoided, what had to be done is what any sane leadership would do – that is, it would recognize the government of a neighboring state. Moreover, there is no benefit to us from current non-recognition… In Europe, the movement to recognize the authority of President Lukashenko has already begun.» And on December 1 Telegram-channel National Politics said that «despite all his statements in the previous interview, Lukashenko is now doing 100 times more for the survival of Ukraine than all Western countries combined.»
Distraction and a shift in the agenda
The situation with migrants helped to completely remove the Lukashenko regime’s repression of political prisoners from the media agenda. There is almost no mention of the Belarusian opposition, the internal political situation in Belarus, and the tightening of repressions by the regime in Ukrainian pro-Kremlin media. Individual references to democratic forces are used only in a negative context or are juxtaposed with the position of Minsk.
For example, on December 9-10, news was disseminated through pro-Kremlin media networks about the alleged detection in Belarus of 10 attempts within a year to commit terrorist attacks by opposition members with support from Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. For example, Strana.ua wrote that “[i]n Belarus, ten terrorist attacks by the fugitive opposition were prevented over a year – Alexander Lukashenko.” They also try to portray Ukraine as a threat to stability and security in Belarus and the region.
It should be noted that pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine serve another function. Working from Lukashenko’s statements or oftentimes calling him the initiator of conflicts, they divert the focus from the direct organizers and initiators of the escalation of relations with the West who are seated in the Kremlin.
In this way Lukashenko has become a hybrid proxy for the Kremlin, relaying Russian narratives and threats. Russia is trying to regain its role as one of the global decision-making centers, but at the same time the only methods available to it are energy blackmail and the threat of military aggression.