Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.
President Vladimir Putin said at a video conference on Tuesday that the peak in Russian cases has passed, as he promised to launch the canceled victory day parade with safety restrictions in place. Elsewhere, in the Middle East, Syria is still the main focus of Russian disinformation.
On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin declared that the Covid-19 peak in Russia had passed. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Russia has recorded 370.000 cases of infection and 4,000 deaths – officially making it the third most-affected country in terms of cases.
If those numbers are accurate, though, Russia has a startlingly low mortality rate compared to other countries where the virus is widespread. For this reason experts have repeatedly questioned the figures being published by Russia.
Putin is not the only one to claim that the peak has passed. In Britain, prime minister Boris Johnson came to the same conclusion earlier this month. In light of this news, Putin also promised to bring back the Victory Day Parade.
The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War was supposed to be marked in Russia on May 9 with a military parade. The pandemic got in the way, and the ceremony was cancelled. Putin has now ordered for preparations to begin for a military parade to be held on June 24.
Bombastic Identity Building
Military parades as such are not uncommon anywhere in the world. But, as Niels Bo Poulsen, head of the Institute for Military History and War Studies at the Royal Danish Defence College, points out, Russian parades are usually accompanied by bombastic messages about not only the Soviet war effort during the Second World War, but also the magnitude of the ceremonies themselves.
“Russia uses military parades big-time as public diplomacy and soft power,” Poulsen says, “to remind the world that Russia saved the world from Nazism, and that Russia has been an unselfish balancing power, saving Europe since the Napoleonic wars. At the same time, they use it to overly shame countries like the Baltic states and Poland and drive a wedge between members of NATO and the European Union.”
Military parades in Russia, as in other countries from democratic France to totalitarian North Korea, also serve multiple other, often propagandistic purposes. For one thing, they aim to build identity within the military itself but also in the nation as a whole.
“Internally, the Great Patriotic War is a centerpiece in the narrative about Russia and being Russian,” adds Poulsen. “It is a big part of the narrative that Russia was attacked without warning and against all odds, defeated the Nazi empire while liberating countries in Eastern and Central Europe.”
Business as Usual
While it’s good news for Russia that the number of infections is steadily declining, it spells bad news for Ukraine. The country has abruptly found itself, once again, in a role it knows too well: the scapegoat of pro-Kremlin media outlets.
In a recent article, the English-language version of Russia Today stated that the Maidan Revolution that overthrew pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich in 2013/14 was a pro-Western and ultranationalist joint effort to topple a legitimate government. While it is true that right-wing movements such as the Azov Movement were present on the ramparts, the Revolution of Dignity, as it is called in Ukraine, was also attended by plenty of less extreme groups and individuals with no affiliation to the far right.
The revolution in Ukraine came, in fact, as a reaction to the former president Yanukovich’s attempts to forge closer ties with Russia and move further away from the European Union. While Ukraine still struggles with corruption and other issues, democracy and freedom in the country have improved since the revolution, according to the think tank Freedom House.
The Hungarian version of News Front has also retold a story from Radio Sputnik about how Ukraine deliberately shot children as part of the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The monitoring mission OSCE has indeed recorded four wounded children at the beginning of May. But it does not blame either side for the injuries.
In the Middle East, Russia Sticks to Syria
Russia and Iran have been siding with the Assad regime in Syria for years, and that is also where the Russian disinformation campaigns are focused, according to an assistant professor of political studies at the American University in Beirut, Ohannes Geukjian.
“The most Russian disinformation can be observed in Syria. In my view, Russian disinformation has no significant role in the Middle East, with the exception of Syria, where the Kremlin does not report the exact number of Russian casualties because of domestic considerations,” Geukijian wrote to IranWire.
Past disinformation campaigns have thus been directed at organizations like the search and rescue organization, The White Helmets: claiming, for instance, that they are terrorists and linking them with the use of chemical weapons in Idlib.
In Geukjian’s assessment, people are preoccupied with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ongoing wars and conflicts in Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. In other words, Russia does not hold the same sway over public opinion in this region, and few people pay attention to pro-Kremlin disinformation.
“[Russian disinformation is] not effective,” he concludes. “We need to consider each country separately rather than referring to the Middle East as a uniform. In Syria, for example, Russia is a friend, ally, and supporter of the regime. The media in Syria is state-controlled, and nobody pays attention to whether there is Russian disinformation or not. In Lebanon, where there is a free media, the focus is on Lebanese domestic economic and financial problems in addition to the pandemic - not on Russia.”
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