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Politics

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

March 5, 2022
Florencia Montaruli and Hannah Somerville
12 min read
How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a flood of information issued by those on all sides of the war, by neutral observers, and parties that have a stake in it (or think they do). No longer is war coverage the domain of a trusted few TV and newspaper correspondents. The digital age gives new opportunities to document the realities on the ground, moment to moment. But it also gives bad actors room to thrive, and falsehoods fertile ground in which to take root. 

Kremlin-controlled propaganda outlets have naturally gone into overdrive in all languages, including Spanish. But so have platforms affiliated with states that would be Russia’s ally, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Venezuela. We’ve written in the past on how Iran and Hezbollah drew in new support from citizens of Latin America, appealing to socialist sentiment, anti-Americanism, grassroots Islamism and the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution. Now, “news” platforms linked to these states are trying to stir up pro-Russian sympathies on both sides of the Atlantic.

HispanTV (Spanish IRIB)

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

Like other platforms whose proprietors are in hock to Putin, the Spanish arm of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting mostly describes the invasion as a “crisis”. In an article on Friday, HispanTV tried to position Iran as a potential peace broker, the way Russia had been in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as having told his Irish counterpart that "War is not the solution to the Ukraine crisis and no other problem" and “the roots of the crisis should not be overlooked”. The article went on to say of Tehran’s position: “The Persian country has declared its readiness to help resolve the Ukraine crisis through dialogue and diplomatic channels without the intervention of third countries [how this could be the case with Iran involved was not clarified].” 

The article was published shortly after Iran abstained from - rather than downvoting - the UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions on Wednesday. Another article published by HispanTV on the same day also appeared to be trying to paint Russia as a non-aggressor. It quoted Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as accusing NATO of deliberately fanning the conflict by arming Ukrainian defense forces, and Kyiv of using civilians as “human shields”. In the final line, “the West’s attempts to destroy Russia” was tellingly presented as a statement of fact rather than conjecture.

Several relevant “opinion” pieces were published on HispanTV in January and February. On February 24, an article by Alejandro Kirk (also Chile correspondent for the Venezuelan government-controlled Telesur TV) gave a fairly even-handed analysis of immediate reactions to the invasion, but was misleadingly headlined: “Putin: ‘We Won’t Repeat the Mistake of 1939 With the Nazis”. The same article was reproduced verbatim, under the same byline, on Telesur TV. On February 30, another by Kirk entitled “Ukraine: Do Not Provoke the Russian Bear” accused NATO of orchestrating the conflict and framed what was to come as a pushback against global hegemony. Another ostensibly on warfare tactics on January 30 also blamed NATO for sowing panic, and called the Spanish government “pathetic” for sending frigates and arms to Ukraine of its own volition.

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

There was also a revealing piece published on February 28 by Pablo Jofre Leal, which tried to promote the idea of the Iranian, Chinese and Russian governments being part of a new “Alliance against hegemony” fighting back against the so-called “US unipolarity policy”. It read like a manifesto, written by Iran, appealing for a new “axis” made up of the three states to be formed. Pablo Jofre Leal is a Chilean writer who has also worked with Telesur and RT as well as the Spanish arm of  Al-Mayadeen: an obscurely-funded Lebanese broadly pro-Hezbollah, pro-Bashar al-Assad TV channel.

Finally, HispanTV shared a scaremongering piece by Carlos Santa Maria, a “political analyst”, on January 22 that declared those who believed Putin was poised to invade Ukraine were either stupid or had “malevolent intent”, denouncing in an article that did not age well “the incredible falsehood and hysteria raised in the Mass Media of Disinformation (MMofD)”. Santa Maria claimed NATO had “taken over” the European Union and changed WWII history “to become the victims and winners”, that Putin was acting as a peacemaker in the “self-proclaimed Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk”, that there was no credible evidence of ill-intent on the part of the Kremlin, and to claim that there was was misleading the public “just as is done [by foreign bad actors] about Iran or Venezuela”. In order for NATO to invade other countries, the article blustered, “The use of the Goebbels Nazi doctrine has been used ad nauseam, occupying a large part of continents such as Latin America, full of catastrophes and political genocides by the Anglo-American Zionist 'armies of freedom'.”

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

HispanTV also has some unofficial "satellite" Facebook pages that reproduce information from the website. One is Hispantv.América Latina, which this Friday shared an article in which Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela declared:  "Venezuela is ready to give oil stability to the world." The article explained that international sanctions against Russia have triggered record oil prices, and posited Venezuela as the saviour in the face of a potential energy crisis belying the fact that Venezuela is also sanctioned. In the article, too, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is again referred to as a "crisis".
 

RT Spanish

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

Like other Russian-language propaganda channels, the Kremlin-controlled RT Spanish appears to have laid the groundwork to try to justify the invasion to Spanish audiences weeks in advance. Part of this was through conspiracy theories and disinformation. In a since-removed YouTube report on February 15, debunked and archived by EUvsDisinfo, the channel claimed: “US Companies Promote War in Ukraine to Sell Weapons”. On February 11, a Spanish-language RT TV show called ¡Ahí Les Va! (There They Go!) sought to gaslight unsold viewers by telling them NATO had funded research on “how to hack our brains” for psychological warfare purposes. As EUvsDisinfo notes, this was a highly distorted reading of an academic study on the concept of cognitive warfare; the Russian AlV presenter, a deputy director of RT Spanish, repeatedly claimed that NATO had funded the study, when it had had nothing to do with it.

The day after the invasion on February 25, RT Spanish - now off air in the European Union -  cited Putin as saying the aim was “to protect people subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime” and Lavrov’s claim that the objective was “de-Nazification”. It also shared a widely-ridiculed TASS news item of March 4 claiming Russian troops had given 280 tons of food aid to the Ukrainians whose country they were invading. On Friday, the channel unproblematically repeated the Kremlin’s claim that self-sabotaging Ukrainian nationalists, rather than Russian rocket fire, were behind the blaze that broke out at Zaporizhia nuclear power plant as it was being taken over by Russian forces.

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

An opinion piece on February 11 by a Spanish writer who was fired from the Armed Forces in 2014 aimed to dissuade Spanish readers from trusting mainstream news sources in the run-up to the war, calling the newspaper El Mundo “a gazette for the Ukrainian neo-Nazis” and El Pais a platform “founded by Francoists” now seeking to excuse “NATO expansion”.

RT Latinoamerica, an RT-affiliated Facebook Page, published this Thursday an interview with the former Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who declared: “The interventionists are the US and NATO… to claim that Russia is the invader is totally wrong.” Morales also criticized "Western" media, calling it "worse than an atomic bomb." 

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

Some Facebook pages also appear to act as "satellites" of RT and not all have yet been taken offline by the platform. One of them is the Spanish-language FB page Russia Today Rojo en Español 4, which has more than 42,000 followers, and uses the platform to spread such claims as "NATO started the war in Ukraine" and also financed "the Nazi Ukrainian government".

Telesur

Telesur, a Latin America-wide terrestrial and satellite television network based in Caracas, Venezuela and sponsored primarily by the Venezuelan and Cuban governments, reproduces the same views as RT and HispanTV on the Russian invasion. There were also some eyebrow-raising news items: its website cites an article dated March 5 that stated the UN is "holding negotiations between Russia and Ukraine." IranWire could find no other website or outlet reproducing a report that said the same thing. Quite the contrary, most websites on that same date highlighted that the UN will investigate Russia for possible human rights violations.

In line with most pro-Russian websites, Telesur also published an article trying to blame Ukraine for the incident at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. According to the website, "Ukrainian nationalists perpetrated the sabotage intending to create a global scandal."

Sputnik Mundo

To the chagrin of its operators, the Russian state-run propaganda site Sputnik has been blocked by Google Europe and the European Union. Access to the website was intermittently down on Friday in a number of other jurisdictions around the world. IranWire used the Tor browser to examine the content of its Spanish page, Sputnik Mundo, during one of the down-periods at 2pm GMT on Friday, and again when access was temporarily restored on Friday evening. Sputnik also announced that its newsroom in Spain has now also been disbanded, a shock to many who will not have presumed it needed a newsroom.

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers


How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

True to form Sputnik Mundo headlined on Friday night with a bizarre, unverified statement attributed to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR RF), that “ISIS terrorists” were trained at the American Al-Tanf airbase in early 2021  “to be used in Donbass”. ISIS fighters, the article went on, “received special training on the methods of sabotage and terrorist combat with a view to the Donbas region… The ISIS fighters were then taken to a US military base in northern Iraq, from where they were transferred to Ukrainian territory.” There is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim.

The website also carried several “reports” of so-called “false flag attacks” by Ukrainian forces in an apparent blame-shifting exercise. One quoted a Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson claiming that such an operation was taking place “with the cooperation of Western media” in Kharkhiv; a days-long barrage of Russian bombing has reduced parts of that city to rubble. The sole “evidence” Sputnik provided was Ukrainian soldiers having allegedly placed rocket launchers “between houses” in one street (and instructed residents to stay indoors, as would be expected in a city under shelling).

Elsewhere, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Vershinin was afforded a personal headline and one-paragraph article on Sputnik Mundo in which he accused Kyiv of using Ukrainians as “human shields”, with no evidence given. Shockingly on Friday, Sputnik also devoted a lengthy article to the same idea that Ukrainian “saboteurs” had set fire to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant rather than the Russian forces at that time engaged in firing rockets at it. 

Again Sputnik’s only source for this was a Russian government spokesperson. The website also published a related article attacking the Argentine news website Infobae, which has published a number of articles investigating Tehran and Hezbollah’s cultural infiltration of Latin America.. Here, the firing by Russian forces on the Zaporizhzhia power plant was described as “a new Infobae hoax”. Infobae is often the target of attacks by pro-Russian or Iranian-affiliated websites that have seized on the owner being Jewish.

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

The same article tried to downplay the severity of the attack, complaining: “It is true that a fire broke out due to the rocket in question. However, the Argentine media resorts to parables to exaggerate the threat to all of Europe… There were a few shots that hit the power block, but they didn't do any damage.” Later on Friday the UN Security Council would condemn Russia at an emergency meeting for its “reckless” attack on a nuclear facility, with delegates demanding assurances it would not happen again.

How Putin's War is Being Sold to Spanish Speakers

Finally, Sputnik Mundo also headlined on Friday afternoon with a story lifted from Russian state broadcaster TASS claiming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had fled to Poland. The sole source was a Telegram post by the Russian Speaker of Parliament. The story gained currency online within hours and was even shared by Chinese state-affiliated media, but had been expressly denied by the Ukrainian parliament on its official Telegram channel. In the end, Zelensky himself appeared on camera to affirm he was still in Kyiv. The story on Russia-affiliated sites remained uncorrected.

Sputnik Mundo is not without its backers, however. On March 1, the website published an article on Twitter's decision to label certain accounts  "Russian government-affiliated media". Sputnik's press service, which is Russian government-affiliated media, wrote that "this is another scandalous step by the American social media, a 'witch hunt' and a direct persecution of our journalists." It also claimed the Federation of Journalists of Latin America and the Caribbean (FEPLAC) had expressed its "rejection of the recent decision of the Twitter company to qualify as ‘media affiliated with the Russian government’ the personal accounts of dozens of journalists from the region”. The Buenos Aires Press Union also issued made a statement against Twitter's decision: one that closes by adding, "the US and NATO must cease their aggressive policies against Russia."

Russia on Twitter

On Twitter, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a dedicated Spanish-language account, @mae_rusia, with which it spreads disinformation about Ukraine. One of the recent tweets claimed: “The antisemitism, xenophobia, racial discrimination that are flourishing today in Ukraine are the phenomena we talked about for eight years, that the West turned a blind eye to." Elsewhere, the official account tweeted: “We would like to remind you that, starting in 2014, accomplices of Nazi Germany began to be glorified in Ukraine at the state level": accompanied by images of the Ukrainian flag and a Nazi swastika.

Related coverage:

Iran's Overseas Propaganda: How Hezbollah Courted Argentina

Is Tehran Leveraging 'National and Popular Islam' in South America?

The Holocaust-Denying Cleric Bolstering Hezbollah in Argentina

The Peruvian President-Elect's Ties to Pro-Islamic Republic Recruiters

Tip of the Iceberg: Hezbollah’s Narco-Terrorism in Latin America Exposed

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Dangerous Relationship Between Venezuela, Iran and Hezbollah

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