What disinformation narratives do Russia spread in Eastern Europe in order to achieve its political objectives?
Research teams from 14 countries monitored the media environment in June-October 2022 to identify common and distinctive narratives of Russian propaganda. Detector Media analysts studied the data from the 5 months of joint monitoring and prepared a study on Russian disinformation messages and narratives in Eastern Europe.You can find the first study based on the results of the July monitoring here.
This study was made by Victoriya Namestnik, Ira Riaboshtan, Oleksiy Pivtorak, Olha Bilousenko, and Orest Slyvenko.
Monitoring period: June-October 2022; for Belarus, Romania and Serbia — September-October 2022.
In total, over the 5 months of monitoring, the analysts recorded 6,727 disinformation messages. Most of the disinformation was found on social media (56.2% of the total number of messages), the least — in the content of radio programmes, and news, as well as in opinion-based media (expert comments, columns, etc.).
In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, researchers conducted simultaneous monitoring of content in the local and in Russian. Information related to content in the national language is marked by the name of the country. Russian-language content of the three countries is combined into one category — Russian-language content for the Baltic States.
The largest number of messages spreading narratives of Russian propaganda was recorded in Ukraine — almost 20% of the total number. The least such messages were found in Romania — 1.4%, but it should be taken into account that the monitoring of disinformation in this country lasted for two months only.
Most of the disinformation was related to the events of the Russo-Ukrainian war (55%). Most of the disinformation concerned the economic consequences of sanctions (17.7%) and military assistance to Ukraine (9.3%). Somewhat less disinformation was spread about Ukrainian refugees (4.9%). The least amount of disinformation was spread about the situation with Russian-speaking minorities and Russian culture (about 4% of the total).
The most intensive in terms of the number of disinformation was September (1649 messages). The lowest density of disinformation messages was recorded in June — 885. Although the dynamics for individual countries differ from the general trend. For example, in Ukraine, the most disinformation was recorded in July, while in the Czech Republic — in August.
Baltic countries (Russian-speaking segment)
In the Russian-language content for the Baltic States, propagandists placed the greatest emphasis on the so-called Russophobia of a certain country. Latvia was most often accused of Russophobia.
In June, Russian propaganda reacted to the decision to partially ban transit cargo transportation between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of Russia through the territory of Lithuania and spread messages about the ‘blockade of Kaliningrad’, referring to the blockade of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during World War II. The Russian propaganda machine attempted to persuade the Baltic states that such a decision ‘would have catastrophic consequences’. This message was also spread in July, although the Russian propaganda machine focused its main efforts on promoting the message that ‘sanctions harm the West more than they do Russia’. In August, September and October, the focus shifted to promoting the message of ‘Russophobia in the Baltic States’.
Also, in the Russian-speaking segment of the Baltic States, they promoted messages that ‘Ukraine is losing the war’ and tried to convince the society that ‘Ukrainians attack civilians and commit other war crimes’.
A relatively small amount of attention was paid to the message that ‘Ukrainians do not deserve help’ throughout the Russian-language content for the Baltic States.
In contrast to the Russian-language content, the most frequent messages written in Latvian focused on ‘inflation and the energy crisis in Europe caused by the wrong political approach’. In June, the most promoted messages were that ‘sanctions harm the West more than Russia’ and ‘Ukrainian refugees undermine the internal stability of host countries’. In July, the messages about sanctions remained, while the rhetoric about Ukrainian refugees changed to suggest that Ukrainians have priority over Latvian residents. Also in July, there were attempts to convince Latvians that ‘the war in Ukraine is not real or is staged’.
In August and September, the most promoted messages in the Latvian media landscape were those about the economic consequences of sanctions: ‘inflation and energy crisis in Europe caused by the wrong political approach’, ‘politicians take care of Ukraine at the expense of their own citizens’, ‘Europe is facing an energy crisis’, etc. In October, after Ukraine applied for NATO membership, they began promoting the message that ‘Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO caused the war’, although, at that time, the full-scale invasion in Ukraine lasted about 8 months.
In the Lithuanian media landscape in June, the most frequent references were to Lithuania ‘aggravating the war’ or ‘escalating the situation’. Other similar messages about the escalation of the war were also spread: ‘the West is using Ukraine to wage war against Russia’ or ‘there is a hidden agenda behind the war in Ukraine’, and ‘reports of Russian war crimes are fake or exaggerated’. Similar trends continued in July. Other Russian disinformation messages were added to those of June: ‘the war in Ukraine is part of a global conspiracy’, allegedly ‘certain parties benefit from the war’, and those who support Ukraine are ‘ridiculous or stupid’.
In August, the focus of Russian propaganda in Lithuania shifted to the fact that the Ukrainian military ‘attack civilians and commit war crimes’, ‘Ukrainian leadership is corrupt and incompetent’, and ‘governments of other countries use the war in Ukraine to restrict the rights of their citizens’.
In autumn, the most promoted messages were about ‘the incompetence of the Western leadership, which caused inflation and energy crisis’. Also, after the accident on the Russian gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on September 26, messages were spread in the Lithuanian media landscape that ‘the West or the US are guilty of sabotaging the gas pipelines’.
In Estonia, the most widespread disinformation was the message about Ukrainian refugees ‘undermining the stability of the host countries’. At the same time, in June, one of the main trends of Russian propaganda was stories about ‘US biolaboratories in Ukraine’. In general, Russian disinformation in the Estonian media landscape in June 2022 covered almost evenly several topics. In particular, they wrote that ‘Ukraine should not join the EU’, ‘Ukrainian refugees are ungrateful’, ‘The West forced Russia to attack Ukraine’, etc.
In July, the Russian propaganda machine shifted its focus to the message that ‘Ukrainian refugees undermine the internal stability of the host countries’. In August, the trends changed again. Most often, Russian propaganda wrote that ‘the war in Ukraine is part of a global conspiracy’, ‘Ukraine is losing the war’, and talked about ‘war crimes committed by the Ukrainian army’. In September and October, Russian propaganda again made efforts to convince Estonians that ‘Ukrainian refugees undermine the stability of the host countries’ and that ‘Ukrainian refugees have priority over the citizens of the host country’.
Among the Russian propaganda messages recorded in Estonia, the fewest mentioned military aid for Ukraine. In most cases, it was written that ‘military aid is not being used for its intended purpose’.
There were unique messages and narratives of Russian propaganda in the Bulgarian media landscape, in contrast to other countries. In particular, propagandists distributed videos inviting Bulgarians to move to Russia. For ‘motivation’ they talked about Russian cuisine, beautiful women, cheap gas and electricity, art, utilities and Russian vodka.
Or they spread messages that ‘the regime established in Bulgaria after 1990 is anti-Bulgarian, genocidal, anti-people, anti-national, arrogant, vulgar and gangster in politics, economy, education, defence, science, health, culture, sports, media. The mafia holds most of the power in the country.’ Allegedly, in just 30 years, the ancient nation and country have turned into a ‘black hole of Europe and rags of European civilization’. The same rhetoric is often present when discussing the countries that were under the influence of the Soviet Union. Allegedly, they are not separate, sovereign, ‘full-fledged’ countries, but only exist ‘thanks to Russia’.
Among the messages typical for other countries, the most frequently recorded in Bulgaria was that ‘Ukraine is losing the war’. In June, the most frequent message in the media landscape was that ‘Ukrainians are Nazis’.
In July, Bulgarians were bombarded with disinformation about ‘Bulgaria being dependent on Russia’, ‘Russia and its allies are strong/powerful’, and ‘nuclear catastrophe is inevitable’. In August, the emphasis shifted to the idea that ‘the Russian army is making progress’. The following month, the Russian propaganda machine again switched mainly to messages about ‘Ukraine losing the war’, but also added messages about ‘Russia not fighting at full strength’.
In September, Bulgarians were actively being persuaded of the ‘legitimacy’ of the Russian pseudo-referendums in the occupied Ukrainian territories on September 23-27. In October, the main focus shifted again to the message ‘Ukraine is losing the war’. This time it was reinforced by the messages that ‘the West is using Ukraine for war with Russia’ and ‘NATO is directly involved in the war’.
In the Czech Republic, the most widespread disinformation pertaining to the Russo-Ukrainian war was that ‘Ukraine is losing the war’.
In June, there were messages about ‘foreign mercenaries fighting for Ukraine’ and stories about ‘war crimes of Ukraine’ in the Czech media landscape. Propagandists did not abandon the topic of the ‘theft of military aid’ provided to Ukraine. They also tried to convince the Czechs that ‘the West plans to use nuclear weapons’. In July, the trends were almost the same, but propagandists wrote that ‘Russia will use nuclear weapons because it is losing the war’. Also in July, Russian propaganda reacted to the adoption of another package of military aid to Ukraine from the Czech Republic and began to spread messages that the provision of military aid ‘weakens the country that provided it’, ‘prolongs the war’, and ‘is being used for other purposes’.
Instead, in August, the greatest emphasis was placed on the fact that ‘Ukrainians attack civilians and commit war crimes’. This message was reinforced by reports that ‘Ukraine is committing terrorist attacks against Russian civilians’.
In September, the Russian propaganda machine claimed that ‘the US is directly involved in the war in Ukraine’, but despite this, ‘Ukraine is losing the war’ because ‘Russia is not fighting at full strength’. In October, in the Czech media landscape, propagandists spread messages that ‘US actions lead to the escalation of the war in Ukraine’.
In the Georgian media landscape, Russian propaganda used similar tactics to Bulgaria. Most often it was written that ‘Georgia will have a second front against Russia’, sometimes it was specified that ‘the West, Ukraine or Georgian opposition parties’ wanted this.
In June, analysts also recorded the most posts claiming that ‘Ukraine is losing the war’. Many propagandists also wrote that ‘sanctions harm the West more than Russia’. Russian propaganda also reacted to Georgia’s failure to receive EU candidate status and began to promote messages that this happened because Georgia did not impose sanctions against Russia.
Similar trends continued in July. The key messages included the following: ‘The West forced Russia to attack Ukraine’, ‘Western military assistance to Ukraine is useless’, as it only ‘prolongs the war’, etc.
In August, messages about a Russophobic campaign were spread in the Georgian media landscape. According to them, certain groups deliberately spread Russophobia in Georgia. The Russian propaganda machine also tried to convince Georgians that ‘the West considers Georgia as its province’ and ‘controls Georgia’.
In September, Russian propaganda again emphasised Georgia’s desire to become an EU member and spread messages that ‘Georgia should abandon its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and join Russia’. This was accompanied by smaller messages: ‘Georgia should benefit from Russia’s assistance in circumventing international sanctions’, ‘the West is punishing Georgia for not imposing sanctions against Russia’, and ‘the West will impose sanctions on Georgia’.
The message that ‘there will be a second front against Russia in Georgia’ was the most popular in both September and October. However, in October, it was circulated alongside messages that ‘the USA provoked the conflict between Russia and Ukraine’, ‘citizens of Western countries do not support sanctions against Russia’, ‘NATO is directly involved in the war’, etc.
Russian disinformation was spread in the Hungarian media landscape on a wide range of topics. In June, the dominant themes were the events of the Russo-Ukrainian war and the economic consequences of sanctions. In particular, propagandists wrote that ‘sanctions harm the West more than Russia’, ‘Ukraine is losing the war’, ‘the West is weak’, ‘the Russian army is making significant progress’, while the Ukrainian military ‘attacks civilians and commits war crimes’. In July, the following messages were added to these ones: ‘Ukrainian leadership is corrupt and incompetent’, ‘the West is losing interest in helping Ukraine’.
In August, the Russian propaganda machine focused on promoting disinformation about the full-scale invasion. The Hungarians were told that ‘the Russian army is making significant progress’, while ‘Ukrainians refuse to fight’. It was also claimed that ‘foreign mercenaries’ are fighting in Ukraine. A propaganda piece pushing the idea of ‘Nazism in Ukraine’ claimed that ‘Ukrainian soldiers are cannibals’. However, the video used by propagandists was not recorded by a military member, but by an unknown blogger to generate hype.
In September, the aforementioned messages that ‘third world countries choose Russia as an ally’ evolved into more global ones — ‘Russia has the support of the whole world’. Similarly to Bulgaria, in Hungary, Russian propaganda spread messages that Russian pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine are ‘legitimate’. Also, messages were promoted in the media landscape that ‘the West/US are guilty of sabotaging the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines’.
There was a slight change in dominant themes in October. The Russian propaganda machine switched attention to the fact that ‘Western society does not support Ukraine’, ‘certain countries should not help Ukraine because of past historical conflicts’, and ‘Ukraine commits terrorist attacks against civilians’. Hungarians were also being persuaded that ‘Ukraine is preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’’.
The media landscape of North Macedonia, as well as Hungary, was targeted with very disparate disinformation messages. However, no disinformation was spread about Ukrainian refugees over the 5 months of monitoring.
In June, propagandists wrote that ‘Russian troops are making progress’ despite the fact that ‘foreign mercenaries are fighting for Ukraine’. Researchers also recorded a large number of messages aimed at glorifying Russian President Vladimir Putin. In particular, the head of Formula 1 Bernie Ecclestone was engaged in such propaganda. In July, the focus of propaganda shifted somewhat. In the media landscape, messages were recorded that the US / West is trying to ‘divide the Slavs’ or even ‘Orthodox Christians’. It was also reported that ‘the Russian army is making progress’, although ‘not fighting at full strength’. As for the consequences of economic sanctions, the key messages in June were that ‘sanctions do not harm Russia’ or ‘harm the West more than Russia’.
In August, the most popular message was that ‘military aid weakens the states that provide it’. In this way, the Russian propaganda machine reacted to the fact that North Macedonia gave Ukraine tanks and planes. They also wrote that ‘Ukraine commits war crimes’, at the same time calling Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities legal. In the media landscape of North Macedonia, analysts also recorded the message that ‘Putin will wipe out Europe with Sarmat missiles’, despite the fact that these missiles are still not in service in the Russian army.
In September, the dominant themes of Russian propaganda were supplemented with messages that ‘World War III and a nuclear disaster are inevitable’, ‘the Donbas is Russian’, and Russian troops are ‘making progress’. A similar trend continued in September: ‘Russia and its allies are strong’, ‘Ukraine is losing the war’ and ‘will use a dirty bomb’. Macedonians were also led to believe that the West ‘wants to destroy Russia’ and ‘is responsible for the accident on Russian gas pipelines’.
Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has sheltered the most Ukrainians who needed help, and lobbied for Ukrainian interests. Therefore, Russian propaganda targeted the Polish media landscape more than any other European country.
One of the most common messages of the Russian propaganda machine in Poland was the statement that ‘Poland should not help Ukraine’. Most often, the Volyn tragedy and other controversial historical events were exploited to promote this narrative. For example, in June, in order to discourage Poles from supporting Ukraine, they circulated photos from Kyiv, allegedly showing people enjoying summer, and asked whether they really looked like they ‘needed help’.
In July, the key message was supplemented with references that Ukrainian refugees ‘allegedly have priority over Poles’ and ‘undermine the internal stability of the host country’. In Poland, the message ‘Ukrainians are Nazis’ was also promoted. Propagandists also wrote about Poland’s intentions to ‘annex Ukraine’. Similar trends continued in July-August. Russian propagandists wrote that ‘Ukrainians attack civilians and commit other war crimes’. Polish Telegram channels also recorded references to ‘American biolaboratories in Ukraine’, which allegedly developed the coronavirus and monkeypox.
In autumn, analysts recorded messages in the Polish media landscape about politicians who ‘take care of Ukraine at the expense of their own citizens’, ‘Ukrainian refugees are spoiled and ungrateful’, ‘Western media are lying’, ‘Ukraine is gradually Ukrainizing Poland’, etc. Also, in autumn, the Russian propaganda machine conveyed to Poles that ‘mobilisation in Russia is successful’.
In Slovakia, during the 5 months of monitoring, the most frequently recorded message was that ‘sanctions harm the West more than Russia’. In June, it was also supplemented with the notion that ‘sanctions do not harm Russia’. Propagandists also wrote that ‘Ukraine is losing the war’, and military aid ‘prolongs the war’ and ‘weakens the country that provides it’.
In July, among the most common messages were the following: ‘EU/NATO/West are weak and will soon collapse’, ‘inflation and energy crisis are caused by wrong political approach’, and ‘EU is under US influence’.
In August, Russian propagandists wrote that ‘Ukraine harmed Slovakia because it stopped gas transit’. Slovaks were also being misled into thinking that the West is an ‘aggressor’ that ‘provoked Russia to attack’ and ‘uses Ukraine for war’. The Russian propaganda machine also attempted to persuade the residents of Slovakia that ‘Ukraine shelled the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant’.
In September, Russian messages that ‘Slovakia is allegedly controlled by the United States’ became prevalent in the Slovak media landscape. Propagandists argued that ‘Western media are lying’ and the West itself is ‘undermining peace negotiations’. At the same time, ‘the US and EU leadership is incompetent’, which led to ‘the inflation and energy crisis’. As for the events of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the message that ‘life under the Russian occupation is better than under the Ukrainian government’ was promoted in the Slovak media landscape. In October, messages were recorded that ‘World War III is inevitable’, ‘Ukraine is not a sovereign state’, and the Ukrainian army ‘commits terrorist attacks against civilians’.
In September and October, teams from Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria joined the monitoring of Russian disinformation. According to the study, no disinformation messages about Russian-speaking minorities and Russophobia were recorded in these countries.
In Romania, most of the disinformation was focused on the 'inflation and energy crisis in Europe’, allegedly caused by ‘a wrong political stance’. The most widespread messages concerned the events of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Most of the time, it was reported that ‘Russia and its allies are strong’, ‘the US provoked the war’, and the West ‘undermines peace negotiations’. The Russian propaganda machine also attempted to convince Romanians that ‘Western citizens do not support Ukraine’.
Researchers recorded a message on Facebook that ‘Ukraine is actually historic Romanian territory’. Disinformation about Ukrainian refugees was not being spread in the Romanian media landscape during this period.
In Serbia, Russian disinformation mainly focused on the economic consequences of sanctions. Allegedly, ‘sanctions harm the West more than Russia or do not harm Russia at all’, ‘the West secretly trades with Russia’, etc. In September, the most promoted narrative was that ‘the West is using Ukraine for war with Russia’. In addition, the Russian propaganda machine tried to convince Serbs that ‘the Donbas is Russian’ and the West is ‘guilty’ of the war.
In October, among other topics, they promoted messages that ‘nuclear catastrophe is inevitable’, ‘NATO is directly involved in the war’, and ‘Ukraine is bankrupt’.
In Belarus, disinformation emanating from Russia is perhaps the loudest because the state-controlled Belarusian media landscape is under powerful Russian influence. Almost the entire spectrum of Russian propaganda narratives and messages that ‘justify’ Russia and accuse the West of ‘all possible sins’ have been recorded here.
In particular, propagandists tried to hide the real role of Belarus in the Russo-Ukrainian war. To do this, they promoted messages that ‘Belarus is not involved in the war’. The Russian propaganda machine also spread the message of the self-proclaimed president Alexander Lukashenko that ‘NATO or the West will attack Belarus’, and therefore ‘Belarus is ready to mobilise in case of war’. The propagandists also claimed that the Ukrainian military was allegedly provoking Belarus to engage in hostilities.
When it comes to Ukrainians, propagandists spread narratives about ‘Nazis’ and argued that ‘the Ukrainian army commits war crimes’.
Russian propaganda daily attacks the Ukrainian media landscape with numerous fakes, manipulations, messages, and narratives, which the Detector Media team refutes and explains in near real-time. Most notably, information attacks accompany massive missile strikes. Numerous fakes and manipulations fuel concerns regarding the crisis in the Ukrainian energy system. Disinformation walks alongside Ukrainian refugees seeking refuge from the full-scale invasion abroad, exploiting topics related to Ukrainian women and representatives of the LGBT community.
Telegram and other social media have become the most successful platforms for spreading Russian disinformation. Recently, Detector Media published a study on pro-Russian and occupation Telegram channels.
Russia systematically uses disinformation to achieve its geopolitical goals. In particular, a study by Princeton University (USA), ‘Trends in Online Foreign Influence Efforts’, showed that Russia is a global leader in the use of disinformation on the Internet during influence campaigns. Russia is responsible for 62% of such interference in the internal affairs of other countries. ‘Instead of following a fixed political ideology, Russian FIEs (Foreign Influence Efforts) appear to be quite pragmatic and sophisticated when it comes to what kinds of changes will support their geopolitical goals,’ the researchers wrote. That is, Russia is using information quite successfully as a weapon. For example, studies show that certain narratives of Russian propaganda, such as ‘Ukraine is a failed state’ or ‘the Maidan was a mistake’, having migrated from Russian to pro-Russian Ukrainian media, have indeed influenced the perception of events by Ukrainians. According to sociological surveys, in December 2021, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, only 65% of Ukrainians believed that Russia was the first to start the war in Donbas in 2014: while 17% of Ukrainians said that the Ukrainian government started the war, 18% remained unsure. Almost 60% of respondents believed that the events on the Maidan in 2014 were a revolution of dignity, a just uprising against the authoritarian government; 24% — that it was an illegal coup d’état, while 16% remained uncertain. And almost 40% thought that Ukraine was under external control due to cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, 38% believed that this cooperation provided crucial economic assistance, while 22% remained uncertain.
The results of the research conducted by Detector Media and its partners also prove that Russia uses a consistent set of disinformation narratives and messages related to Ukraine and replicates them in the media landscapes of other countries. Most of these narratives and messages aim to discredit Ukraine as an independent country and the Ukrainian leadership, which, according to Russian propaganda, is allegedly under the influence of outside forces. Russian propaganda manipulates reality through disinformation: it shows that Ukraine as a state did not exist; uses pseudo-historical facts to persuade the world that, historically, Ukraine was Russia; accuses Ukrainians of Nazism to justify its invasion, etc. At different times, repeated messages of Russian propaganda appeared in the media landscape of different countries, which were adjusted to the current world events. For example, a number of messages appeared after the explosions at the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines. Notably, propaganda blamed the countries of the so-called West for the accidents. In addition, repeated messages and narratives, for example, that Ukraine was losing the war, also appeared in the media landscape as a reaction to the slightest defeat or success of the Ukrainian army on the battlefield.
During the monitoring of the media landscape in Eastern Europe, analysts categorised disinformation narratives and messages into several main groups: events of the Russo-Ukrainian war; economic consequences of sanctions; disinformation about Ukrainian refugees; ‘discrimination’ of Russian speakers and Russian culture; military assistance to Ukraine; military threats to Eastern Europe. In total, more than 300 such messages and narratives were identified during the five months of monitoring. Russia needs all of them to persuade the world that its actions are justified. In particular, they are designed to justify the war, convincing that without it, other countries would only be worse off; to compel governments of countries supporting Ukraine to stop supplying weapons since they are allegedly being stolen on the ground; to convince Western societies that they will not survive without Russia’s support and, in particular, its energy resources, etc.
Such disinformation is dangerous because it polarises European societies and promotes divisive ideas. In particular, disinformation narratives are harmful at a time when people in EU countries are beginning to feel the social and economic consequences of the war in Ukraine.
The study was prepared based on the results of weekly monitoring of the media landscape in Eastern European countries and was conducted by the following CSOs using a consistent methodology:
- Bulgaria — Analyses and Alternatives;
- Czech Republic — Prague Security Studies Initiative;
- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania —Debunk.eu;
- Russian-language content in the Baltic States — Civic Resilience Initiative;
- Georgia — GRASS;
- Hungary — Atlatszo;
- North Macedonia — MOST;
- Poland — Fakenews.pl;
- Slovakia — Slovak Security Policy Institute;
- Romania — Global Focus;
- Serbia — European Western Balkans;
- Belarus — Press Club Belarus;
- Ukraine — Detector Media.
This publication has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Detector Media and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.