‘Sanctions do not work’: Russian disinformation narratives about sanctions in the EU, in Ukraine, and in Russia itself


This contribution does not express EEAS official position. The EEAS cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained within the publication.

The EU has imposed successive rounds of sanctions against Russia in response to its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine, aiming to effectively thwart Russia’s ability to continue the aggression.

So far, sanctions have already hindered Russia’s ability to produce weapons that require Western-made components. The Russian state budget has lost trillions of roubles due to restrictive measures in trade which have hit oil and gas revenues, the two main pillars of the Russian economy. Removing sanctions now would immensely benefit the Kremlin. That is why its disinformation network produces lies and conspiracies with the goal of sowing discord and giving the impression that sanctions are ineffective.

Three organisations recently took a closer look at disinformation about sanctions. European Digital Media Observatory and its fact-checking network analysed sanctions-related disinformation in the EU, while two Ukrainian organisations (StopFake and Texty) looked at the Russian and Ukrainian media ecosystem, respectively.

Our main findings include that pro-Kremlin disinformation on sanctions tailors its narratives to different audiences. In the EU, sanctions disinformation focusses on dividing the EU and its member states. Inside Russia, disinformation tends to allege that sanctions have strengthened Russia. And inside Ukraine, disinformation tries to create the perception that sanctions are not working because the West is more concerned with its own economic problems than about Ukraine.

Disinformation narratives on sanctions in the EU

To explore this topic, we used EDMO briefs, investigations and insights, and examined articles published by EU fact-checking organisations and members of EDMO’s fact-checking network gathered in the EDMO database about Ukraine.

Our main findings include that pro-Kremlin disinformation on sanctions tailors its narratives to different audiences. In the EU, sanctions disinformation focusses on dividing the EU and its member states. Inside Russia, disinformation tends to allege that sanctions have strengthened Russia. And inside Ukraine, disinformation tries to create the perception that sanctions are not working because the West is more concerned with its own economic problems than about Ukraine.

Inside the EU, sanctions against Russia were not the main focus of pro-Kremlin disinformation. Narratives tended to concentrate on battlefield events, Ukrainian refugees, and Ukraine as an allegedly Nazi state. In the months following the invasion, the share of Ukraine-related disinformation dropped significantly as a share of the total.

Graphic from the 17th EDMO monthly brief about disinformation detected in the EU in October

At the beginning of autumn 2022, a well-spread disinformation narrative in the EU claimed, among other things, that EU governments were violently repressing protests against rising prices. It targeted EU member states, governments, and politicians, blaming them for price increases, drastic punishments, and alleged repression while rarely mentioning sanctions. In recent months, this narrative has faded.

From the 16th EDMO monthly brief, about the disinformation detected in the EU in September

The overall narrative about sanctions alleged that they are harming EU member states’ economies. This was spread mostly in Eastern Europe and particularly in the Baltic States (e.g. 1, e.g. 2, e.g. 3, e.g. 4, e.g. 5, e.g. 6, eg. 7). The narrative echoed Putin’s statements about Europe committing ‘economic suicide’ through sanctions on Russia.

A sub-narrative downplayed the impact of the sanctions on Russia’s economy, although it did not spread widely in the EU. Examples tended to highlight fear-mongering by European politicians and pundits or claims that the West should ask itself if sanctions are damaging Russia or Europe.

Other sub-narratives included claims that sanctions are exaggerated, stupid, or discriminatory against Russians (e.g. 1, e.g. 2) and that Russia shut down gas exports because of sanctions (e.g. 1, e.g. 2) and not by an autonomous Russian decision. The second sub-narrative went viral, particularly in Germany, and it circulated especially on Twitter and Facebook.

Disinformation narratives on sanctions in Russia

Over the years, Russia has painstakingly built an entire disinformation ecosystem inside the country for fabricating false narratives about Western democracies. This ecosystem went into high gear on 24 February 2022 at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. While relying on classic narratives about the ‘illegality’ of Western sanctions, Russia has produced a number of new narratives aimed at discrediting democracy in general.

There is a difference between narratives about sanctions that appear in the European information space and narratives that are aimed at a domestic Russian audience. In the EU, disinformation about sanctions is aimed at dividing society and strengthening anti-Western sentiment. But in Russia, feature articles on sanctions are aimed at raising spirits, uniting Russian society, and creating the illusion of Russia’s self-sufficiency and omnipotence. Russian narratives about sanctions aimed at domestic audiences can be divided into 3 separate blocks.

Usually, a surge of new sanctions narratives correlates with the adoption of new sanctions packages by the EU and the US.

For example, on the day of the publication of the 9th package of EU sanctions against Russia on 16-17 December, Russia’s largest state media outlet, RIA Novosti, published 79 articles about the new sanctions. Of the total number, 30 messages (almost 40% of the articles) turned out to be disinformation or to contain information manipulation. For comparison, on 9-10 December, RIA Novosti published only 31 news articles about sanctions. Of these, seven articles turned out to be disinformation or information manipulation.

To summarise, the spread of disinformation narratives in the Russian information space depends on the occasion. That is, the number of fakes grows enormously when the EU and the US present new sanctions packages. On average, the level of disinformation on sanctions grows by 45-55% on the day a new sanctions list is published.

Messages about sanctions in Russian news

As sanctions grew more painful, Russian outlets wrote about them less.

Disinformation narratives on sanctions in Ukraine

Since the full-scale invasion started, Russian official media outlets and their mouthpieces in Ukraine have lost most of their influence on Ukrainian audiences. Pro-Russian TV channels (the so-called ‘Medvedchuk media empire’) were closed even before the war began, and pro-Russian online publications either closed down, changed their position to a demonstrably pro-Ukrainian one, or were blocked along with official Russian media. Therefore, the main channel for Russian disinformation in Ukraine has become messenger apps and social networks, primarily Telegram. There, you can see most Russian narratives about sanctions adapted for the Ukrainian audience.

On one hand, leading Ukrainian media cover the topic of sanctions against Russia as fully and mostly as neutrally as possible. They report on each sanctions package and try, with the help of experts, to satisfy the readers’ desire to know how destructive it will be for the Russian economy.

On the other hand, Ukrainian news aggregators in Telegram are preparing their substantial audiences for unverified, emotional news. And although in the large majority of such messages there is not even a trace of Russian disinformation, the emotional format itself contributes to the spread of disinformation narratives, including:

  1. If the US and the EU had imposed sanctions earlier, the invasion would not have started. This narrative has become a way to discredit and lessen the perceived impact of the sanctions imposed after the invasion.
  2. Reporting and posts often used the words ‘collapse’ and ‘crash’ to describe each wave of sanctions and the Russian economy’s response to them, especially in the first months of the war. These words contributed to the false impression that only sanctions can stop the advance of Russian troops. Comments from ‘experts’ also alleged that due to sanctions, Russia only has resources left for the war ‘until next Sunday’.
  3. After a few months, when a collapse didn’t happen, Russian propagandists could then claim that sanctions and Western help are not enough, that sanctions do not harm Russia, and that the West is not interested in sanctions because of its economic problems.

However, these narratives are not widespread and the dominant discourse is still a positive one, highlighting the large amount of aid to Ukraine from partner countries

Flexible lies

This comparative analysis shows that the Kremlin’s propaganda is nothing if not flexible. Within one topic, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets come up with various narratives, often mutually exclusive ones, based on their target audiences. For example, in the EU, Russian narratives are aimed at driving a wedge into European unity on sanctions. But in Russia itself, the Kremlin’s mouthpieces aim to persuade the country’s population that sanctions do not work and that Russia is a powerful self-sufficient economy. Even in Ukraine, where Russian official media have lost their influence, anonymous Telegram channels spread manipulative narratives about sanctions to break the spirit of Ukrainians and undermine their trust in Western assistance.

Countering the Kremlin’s disinformation about sanctions is essential for maintaining pressure on Russia and making sure that it has as few funds and opportunities as possible to fuel its war of aggression against Ukraine. Our findings remind us that the Kremlin’s lies and disinformation are as dangerous as Russian missiles.



Cases in the EUvsDisinfo database focus on messages in the international information space that are identified as providing a partial, distorted, or false depiction of reality and spread key pro-Kremlin messages. This does not necessarily imply, however, that a given outlet is linked to the Kremlin or editorially pro-Kremlin, or that it has intentionally sought to disinform. EUvsDisinfo publications do not represent an official EU position, as the information and opinions expressed are based on media reporting and analysis of the East Stratcom Task Force.

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