13/04/2021Maria Avdeeva, European Expert Association, iSANS expert
Strengthening the Kremlin’s anti-European rhetoric: main narratives in Ukraine
The Kremlin is intimidating Europe with a military threat and at the same time is stepping up anti-European propaganda. This is clearly seen in the narratives of pro-Kremlin media in Ukraine, the main direction of which is now set by the statements of Russian top officials. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, «the confrontation between the West and Russia has reached the bottom» and that everyone «understands the risks that are associated with the escalation of further tension.»
The Kremlin is demonstratively pulling up its troops to the Ukrainian border. In response to Russia’s actions, the U.S. European Command has raised the monitoring of the situation from «possible crisis» to «potentially imminent crisis» – the highest level. Analysts have started talking about a significant increase in tension in the region. Russia is sending an open military threat along with information operations.
The rhetoric of the Russian Foreign Ministry that accompanied Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow in February 2021, can be considered the beginning of a new stage in the anti-European campaign across pro-Kremlin media. The press conference, during which Lavrov lectured Borrel on camera, triggered the Kremlin’s media pool. This was followed by a series of statements by Russian officials about the almost total lack of development of cooperation between Russia and the European Union.
A significant difference in the current information campaign is its complete coordination with the actions of the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries. It has become particularly apparent the extent to which the Russian media and those under their control are deeply embedded in the power system of the Russian Federation and are one of the pillars on which Kremlin power rests, along with the special services, the military, and the administrative apparatus.
The worsening of the situation in Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s preparation the Zapad-2021 exercises has been accompanied by an increase in the threat of an attack by the Russian Federation from within Belarus. Experts regard such actions by the Kremlin and the rise in the degree of Russian official rhetoric as signs of a possible transition of Russia from a hybrid war to a cold one.
That which accompanies the transition to a new level of worsening of relations we will trace through an analysis of the anti-European agenda in pro-Kremlin media and Telegram channels in Ukraine. This includes large media outlets with a focus on Ukraine directly funded from Russia, such as Ukraina.ru from the Rossiya Segodnya media holding, and Ukrainian pro-Russian media, such as Strana.ua and NewsOne.
It is not necessary to delve into the texts, which are a set of standard propaganda templates and clichés – the titles speak for themselves. In the articles there is often no logic of presentation, contradictory narratives are used, and the balance of opinions and standards of journalism are violated.
The main goal is to discredit Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, fuel distrust of the authorities, and disrupt the course of negotiations in the Normandy Four format to resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin, as before, is trying to construct a negative attitude towards the EU among Ukrainians and is frightening them with imaginary threats.
Pro-Kremlin media are promoting the following narratives:
- Despite a significant deterioration of relations between Russia and the European Union, Brussels is holding talks with Moscow, including on the issues of Ukraine and Belarus
- Negotiations on the Ukrainian issue are being held without the participation of officials in Kyiv
- Individual European Union countries, in particular Germany and France, are ready for dialogue with Russia and speak out about the need for cooperation with the Kremlin
- Ukraine is an unreliable partner for the European Union because of its constant violations of its obligations
- The signing and implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU is disadvantageous for Ukraine and only leads to an increase in utility tariffs and people’s impoverishment
- Ukrainians in the EU are treated as second-class people
Ukrainian pro-Kremlin media are relaying Russia’s position on the European Union for their target audience. An example is an article on Strana.ua titled «Relations between Moscow and the European Union have been completely destroyed – Lavrov.» In a piece on the results of the visit of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s head to China, Lavrov is quoted saying «Moscow has no relations with the European Union as an organization; they were all destroyed by Brussels. And while we have no changes on the Western Front, in the East we have a very intensive agenda that is getting richer every year.» At the same time, the idea is being promoted about a common enemy of the Russian Federation and China – the United States – which «declares its task to limit the possibilities of technological development of both Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.»
In February, pro-Russian media published several statements in a row by Vladimir Putin, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, and Foreign Minister Lavrov, in which Ukraine is called a project of the West.
Here are the titles and dates of publication of those articles:
- February 17, 2021 – «Putin says that the West is trying to make Russia pay for their geopolitical project in Ukraine»
- February 18, 2021 – «Peskov calls Ukraine a ‘project of Western countries’ and a state unfriendly to Russia»
- February 19, 2021 – «The West needs to annoy us.’ Lavrov makes a statement about Ukraine»
The last article quoted Lavrov saying that «they (the West – ed.) need the Ukrainian regime only for one thing: to constantly irritate us and look for new reasons for Russophobic politics. They want to weaken everything that is around us. Belarus, Central Asia, and now Transcaucasia.»
These official statements are aimed at splitting the European Union and promoting the narrative of the EU’s failure. Such messages can be traced, for example, in a Strana.ua article titled «He had to stand up to Lavrov. Already 80 MEPs are demanding the resignation of the head of EU diplomacy Borrell.»
At the same time, the positive experience of interaction between Germany and France with Russia is underscored. Information about Moscow’s cooperation with Berlin and Paris is presented in Ukraine in such a way as to demonstrate the supposed failure of Ukrainian authorities. The Kremlin is trying to show that decisions related to Ukraine will be made without its participation.
On March 27, Strana.ua published an article titled «Putin, Merkel, and Macron are able to discuss the worsening in Donbass without Zelensky.» A note with reference to the President of the Russia’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov refers to the organizing of a video conference by Moscow of the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France. The meeting was to discuss the agenda of the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the exacerbation of tensions along the line of demarcation.
Following this, NewsOne on March 29 published a piece titled «Merkel, Putin, and Macron Lost Zelensky.» The article refers to the exclusion of the Ukrainian president from the club of leaders of states negotiating at the highest level, which is supposedly a natural result of Kyiv’s failure to comply with the Minsk agreements and refusal to implement the agreements of the Normandy Four. It is emphasized here that the heads of Russia, Germany, and France are not the only leaders of world powers who ignore the Ukrainian leadership even on issues directly related to Ukraine.
Ukraina.ru on March 30 published an article titled «Without Zelensky. Paris and Berlin want it, but Moscow refuses,» in which Ukraine is accused of breaking the Minsk agreements and asserts that the worsening of the situation in Donbass is concerning for the the guarantors of the Minsk agreements – Russia, Germany, and France.
Strana.ua on March 31 continued to disseminate the Kremlin narrative: «The Normandy Troika. Why Putin, Merkel, and Macron teleconferenced about Donbass without Zelensky.» The article emphasizes that «[i]t is interesting that initially the negotiations within the framework of the Normandy Four were proposed by Vladimir Zelensky. But in fact, they were carried out without him.» The article also communicates Russia’s perspective on the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
On March 22, pro-Kremlin media commented on Putin’s conversation with EU Council President Charles Michel, for example, the article Strana.ua titled «Putin and President of the European Council Michel discussed the situation in Donbass by phone.» This and other articles put an emphasis on the situations in Ukraine and Belarus and the Russian Sputnik vaccine.
The Kremlin is exploiting the topic of vaccination and the Sputnik V vaccine to demonstrate its desire to normalize relations with individual European countries. Any information on the recognition and interest of the EU countries in the acquisition and use of Sputnik V is actively used.
On March 24, NewsOne published an article titled «Germany has asked the EU to buy Sputnik V from Russia to vaccinate Europeans,» which states that the German government has called on the European Commission to purchase the Russian vaccine to vaccinate Europeans.
The Telegram channel Kremlin Mamkoved (140K subscribers) called the issue of supply and production of Sputnik in the European market «the legalization of Putin in the EU through the Russian vaccine.» It is also predicted that agreements on the production of the vaccine in Spain, France, Germany, and Italy will probably remain in force. The media highlighted the prospects for purchasing Sputnik by Austria, Hungary, Norway, Slovakia, Czechia, and Croatia. Statements with positive rhetoric about the Russian vaccine with reference to German representatives were especially active.
Pro-Russian media and Telegram channels are also actively spreading theories about the calls of individual EU countries to deepen cooperation with Russia. On March 28, a Strana.ua article titled «Poland announced its readiness for dialogue with Russia ‘on difficult historical issues» states that Polish Ambassador to Russia Krzysztof Krajewski «called for better relations with Russia.»
Many publications in the pro-Kremlin media portray Ukraine as an unreliable international partner that does not respect agreements reached. Primary examples include exacerbations on the demarcation line in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and attempts to accuse Ukraine of non-compliance with the Minsk agreements. Information is being disseminated about alleged violations of human rights by Ukraine in Crimea and in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In March, Strana.ua, describing the situation near Shumy, Donetsk region, where the situation is constantly provoked, states that «Ukraine, in fact, disavowed the coordination mechanism for the ceasefire to which it agreed.»
On March 23, Strana.ua accused the Ukrainian side in the death of a civilian and of provoking an armed escalation: «The pensioner fed chickens and was killed by a sniper. This is why in Donbass civilians started to die again.»
On March 28, Strana.ua published an article titled «Death of children, non-payment of pensions, illegal arrests. Why do Ukrainians complain so much about Ukraine to the ECHR,» in which the ECHR is also criticized when it makes decisions in favor of the Ukrainian state.
Pro-Kremlin media depict a dismissive attitude by the EU towards Ukrainians and economic difficulties are presented as results of the development of cooperation between Ukraine and the European Union. In the same context, the EU’s introduction of COVID passports is used, presented as an infringement of the rights of Ukrainian citizens who are visiting the EU.
On March 27, in an article titled «They are kept like cattle and are paid with food. How Ukrainians become enslaved in secret tobacco factories in Europe,» Strana.ua writes that «more and more Ukrainians, because of economic hardship, illegally enter Europe and are often enmeshed in slave labor, literally working for food. Many have their passports taken away and are forced to toil for pennies under inhuman conditions.»
112 Ukraine regularly publishes materials promoting anti-European narratives. For example, in the video «Ukraine is in an extremely disadvantageous position under the terms of their agreement with the EU – Suslov,» the ex-Minister of Economy of Ukraine Viktor Suslov comments on the terms of the agreements between Ukraine and the EU. A second video titled «Boyko: In not having received access to the European market, we lost the markets of the CIS countries» depicts Yuri Boyko, co-chairman of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform – For Life, discussing Ukraine’s relationship with the EU and sanctions against Russia.
On March 22, Strana.ua published an article titled «Exactly 7 years ago Yatsenyuk signed an association with the EU. But Ukraine is still not in the European Union.» It argues that Ukrainians «instead of the European salaries, pensions, living standards, and fair justice they were promised, they received hyperinflation, astronomical tariff increases, the collapse of the economy, and closed schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and libraries. In the European Union, Ukraine has not been seen and is not considered.»
On February 26, in the article «Ausweis for the elite. Why is the EU introducing covid passports and will Ukrainians be able to get them?» it is suggested that the entry of Ukrainians to Europe due to EU restrictions and a shortage of vaccines will be cut off for a very long time.
The Kremlin is using another group of anti-European narratives to intimidate Ukraine with a war on its territory. Moscow is moving forward the idea of a possible intensification along the line of demarcation with the temporarily occupied territories and on the possible start of hostilities throughout Ukraine. The narratives used in such materials include the following:
- The European Union is under pressure from the United States
- An axis of the U.S.-EU global confrontation is being formed at one pole and the RF-PRC at the other
- The territory of Ukraine will be used by NATO and EU countries to launch military operations
- Ukraine’s actions are leading to an exacerbation of the situation in the temporarily occupied territories
- The Ukrainian military is preparing an offensive on the so-called «Donetsk People’s Republic»
The Kremlin seeks to show that Ukraine is not a subject of foreign policy in relations with the European Union and is viewed by NATO as a training ground for military operations against Russia.
Following the adoption of Ukraine’s new military security strategy in March, the Kremlin warned of NATO’s using Ukrainian territory to wage war against Russia. Pro-Kremlin media push the idea that the entire population of Ukraine will take part in hostilities. At the same time, the supposed superiority of the Russian army is promoted.
This can be considered an overt demonstration of Russia’s readiness to enter into military conflict with NATO countries. The Kremlin also imposes on Europe the need to view Belarus as an adversary and expect a military invasion launched from its territory. Therefore, the holding of Zapad-2021 joint military exercises can be used by Russia to demonstrate to Europe its control over Belarus.
At the same time, the Kremlin is intimidating the population of European countries by demonstrating its readiness for an armed conflict. Through these actions, Moscow wants to intensify the inconsistencies in the EU.
In an article from February 5 titled «The Defeat on the Vistula. How Poland simulated a war with Russia in an exercise and lost it in 5 days,» it is stated that according to the results of the exercise, the Polish aircraft and fleet after an attack from the border with Russia and Belarus were completely defeated in five days, despite NATO support. The article also shows the superiority of the Russian army and the unpreparedness of the transport infrastructure of Western Europe for the conducting of hostilities.
On March 26, an article titled «The entire population is under the gun and refuses to compete with Russia. What is laid out in Ukraine’s new military strategy» was published on Strana.ua. The article maintains that the main accents of the Ukrainian strategy of military security adopted are «confrontation with Russia and emphasis on the militarization of the entire population, with the war mainly on its territory.» Ukrainians are frightened by the concept of «total war,» where military operations are conducted «by all available means, and not only by professional armies.» The Kremlin forces the idea that Ukraine will be compelled to fight in the event of a conflict between NATO and Russia, even if it is not attacked.
On March 29, as a foreign policy outcome of the week, NewsOne posted an opinion that stated that «The confrontation between the U.S. (with the assistance of the EU) and China and Russia remains the main trend in international politics.» It was then predicted that «in the foreseeable future, this confrontation will only worsen, pushing Moscow and Beijing towards even closer cooperation.»
On March 30, Ukraine.ru in the article «Accidental Peace with Dangerous Ukraine» stated that «America needs to involve Russia in full-scale hostilities that could be turned into a war of some kind of «European coalition» against Moscow.» The article emphasizes that «Russia is openly conducting diplomatic and informational preparations for war, using a demonstration of its readiness for a worst-case scenario.»
Moscow wants to deprive Ukraine of support and exclude it from the European agenda. To achieve this, Russia uses the lack of a unified position among European politicians on the need to continue dialogue with Russia and on areas of work in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, the Kremlin discredits Ukraine as a reliable international partner and alarms Ukrainians with the consequences of developing cooperation with the EU.
In displaying a military threat to Europe, the Kremlin seeks to sow doubt and fear among Europeans. Russia uses the same narrative to anchor Belarus in its orbit, forcing both Ukraine and Europe to assess the possibility of a military invasion through Belarus. It can be concluded that the Kremlin is using anti-European narratives to split the European Union and damage the relationship between the U.S. and the EU.
A consolidated position is needed to respond to hybrid threats from the Kremlin. No less important is systemic support for democratic transformations both in Ukraine and in Belarus.