Pro-Kremlin propaganda running out of gas

September 08, 2022

    This week, the Kremlin finally showed its cards when spokesperson Dmitry Peskov admitted the obvious. Namely, that Russia’s gas supplies to the EU have been and will stay on hold not because of supposed maintenance of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, but because gas is a tool of political blackmail in the Kremlin’s toolbox of influence.

    Now, if you are getting confused about Russia’s stance on EU sanctions – don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s them. While one part of their disinformation ecosystem keeps hammering day in and day out that EU sanctions have no effect whatsoever on Russia and hurt the EU instead, other parts of the Kremlin keep doing their utmost to make the EU drop its sanctions.

    That said, energy is a gift that keeps on giving to Kremlin propagandists. For some time now, they have been painting an apocalyptic vision of the upcoming winter in Europe, foreseeing an energy deficit and mass protests. They go so far as to claim that Russia should prepare ‘tourism packages’ for Europeans who will come to ‘survive’ winter in ‘comfortable Russia’ and that without Russian gas Germany will turn into an agrarian state. In short, they argue that Europe has no other option but to betray Ukraine, as we supposedly have no alternatives to Russian gas. This is simply not true: while the EU does have to adjust its energy portfolio and this will require quite some effort – the sooner the EU frees itself from the dependence on Russia’s energy, the better in the long run.

    Image courtesy of DG MEME

    Continuing on the topic, a fairly bizarre video depicting the EU suffering a harsh winter due to the alleged lack of Russian energy was uploaded on Telegram on 3 September. The video quickly went viral and spread to other platforms like VKontakte, Twitter, and YouTube as well. Messages including the video gathered over 2.4 million views on Telegram only. The video was amplified by a number of outlets – e.g. Tsargrad TV – linked to the Kremlin disinformation ecosystem.

    If the video is someone’s attempt to make EU citizens lose their good night’s sleep over the coming winter, it’s a sloppy one. First, the music used in the video is set to lyrics written by Yurii Vizbor, a well-known bard and poet born to a Lithuanian father who died in Stalin’s purges and a Ukrainian mother. Secondly, the video featuring wind turbines and solar panels could almost pass as an ad for renewable energy. Lastly, some of the footage presented in the video as frozen Europe is actually shot in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk.

    The sanctions are not working, but we will try to evade them regardless

    Energy is not the only sector where the sanctions are hurting Russia. EU sanctions on five prolific pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets, instrumental in supporting Russia’s war efforts, are making the Kremlin’s disinformers work extra hours in trying to reach even a fraction of their previous audience here in the EU.

    Just to recap. On 2 March 2022, only a week after Russia launched its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, the EU suspended the broadcasting of RT and Sputnik – two very prolific pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets. The decision to blunt the Kremlin’s self-described information weapons was timely, broadly welcomed across the EU, and legally sound, as judged by the European Court of Justice. In early June, the EU suspended the broadcasting of three additional Russian state-controlled channels.

    Though the Kremlin keeps dismissing EU sanctions as ineffective, their disinfo outlets keep looking for ways to evade them. In Italy, for example, a Telegram channel belonging to the Italian edition of Sputnik is posting content on the social media platform Sfero on a daily basis. Curiously, Sfero is an ‘alternative social media platform’ that claims not to censor any content. It offers an advertisement plan, guaranteeing 30,000 views per post for a 90 EUR payment. According to independent Italian fact-checkers, the platform seems to offer visibility to channels known for spreading mis- and disinformation, mostly related to COVID-19 and conspiracy theories. And while the name and the platform of delivery might have changed, the content promoted on the new channels traces back to the same source.

    Recent attempts to evade sanctions can be seen in Germany as well. Some Telegram channels share links redirecting users to RT mirror domains, others are used as intermediate channels to request access to private Telegram groups, and others still aggregate the services offered by other pro-Kremlin Telegram channels.

    Yet another example of the Kremlin’s attempts to evade EU’s restrictive measures is rebranding the content of the sanctioned disinformation outlets. For example, a Spanish language YouTube channel, ‘Sepa Más’, simply posts videos produced by the Spanish edition of RT. They have just replaced the RT logo with a Sepa Más banner. Another section of the channel features links redirecting to articles published on esrt.press, one of the mirror domains used by RT Spanish.

    EUvsDisinfo and others have picked up and exposed similar attempts for months now. The lengths that pro-Kremlin disinformers go to in the attempt to bypass EU sanctions and get their messages through is evidence in itself – even if anecdotal – that restricting access to pro-Kremlin propaganda hits them where it hurts and hinders their war effort.

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    Even if they did not say it, let’s just claim they did

    Pro-Kremlin disinformers have really kept themselves busy over the past week. On top of everything else, they went after EU High Representative (HRVP) Josep Borrell. Lavrov and even Putin are seeking targets by twisting, misrepresenting and inventing words suggesting that the HRVP called Russia a fascist regime.

    Firstly, HRVP Borrell did not call Russia and its regime as fascist. In the course of an interparliamentary exchange, when reacting to questions, he referred to a point made by a previous speaker. Secondly, the life, statements and the overall track-record of the HRVP shows very clearly which side he is on – he always opposed Franco’s regime, participated in the anti-Franco struggle and defended democracy and human rights. Any statement suggesting otherwise is just pure delusion and show of absence of knowledge of facts that are widely accessible. Taking words out of context and twisting them to suit one’s needs is a quintessential tactic that pro-Kremlin disinformers have used for ages. So nothing new there, really.

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