The Kremlin is deploying new tactics by drawing on favorite themes and conspiracy theories of rightwing Republicans.
As Russia’s ruthless war against Ukraine has faced major setbacks since it began a year ago, the Kremlin has deployed new disinformation themes and tactics to weaken US support for Kyiv with help from conservative media stars and some Republicans in Congress, according to new studies and experts.
Moscow’s disinformation messages have included widely debunked conspiracy theories about US bioweapon labs in Ukraine, and pet themes on the American right that portray the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as an ally in backing traditional values, religion and family in the fight against “woke” ideas.
Further, new studies from thinktanks that track disinformation have noted that alternative social media platforms such as Parler, Rumble, Gab and Odysee have increasingly been used to spread Russian falsehoods since Facebook and Twitter have imposed more curbs on Moscow’s propaganda.
Other pro-Russian messages focused on the economic costs of the war for the US have been echoed by Republicans in the powerful far-right House Freedom Caucus such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Scott Perry and Paul Gosar, who to varying degrees have questioned giving Ukraine more military aid and demanded tougher oversight.
Since Russia launched its invasion last February, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Trump ally – turned influential far-right podcaster – Steve Bannon have promoted some of the most baseless claims that help bolster the Kremlin’s aggression.
For instance, Bannon’s War Room podcast in February 2022 featured an interview with Erik Prince, the wealthy US founder of Blackwater, where they both enthused that Putin’s policies were “anti-woke” and praised Putin’s homophobia and transphobia.
Last month too on the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion, Carlson revved up his attacks on US support for Ukraine claiming falsely that Biden’s goal had become “overthrowing Putin and putting American tanks in Red Square because, sure, we could manage Russia once we overthrow the dictator”.
Analysts who track Russia’s disinformation see synergies between the Kremlin and parts of the US right that have helped spread some of the biggest falsehoods since the start of the invasion.
“Russia doesn’t pull even its most outlandish narratives out of thin air – it builds on existing resentments and political fissures,” Jessica Brandt, a policy director at the Brookings Institution who tracks disinformation and foreign interference, told the Guardian.
She added: “So you often have a sort of harmony – both Kremlin messengers and key media figures, each for their own reasons, have an interest in dinging the administration for its handling of the Ukraine crisis, in amplifying distrust of authoritative media, in playing on skepticism about the origins of Covid and frustration with government mitigation measures.”
“That was the case with the biolabs conspiracy theory, for example, which posits that the Pentagon has been supporting the development of biological weapons in Ukraine. The Charlie Kirk Show and Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, among others, devoted multiple segments to the claim. It’s not so much that we’re witnessing any sort of coordination, but rather an alignment of interests.”
Brandt also noted that Russia had an “interest in promoting authentic American voices expressing views that align with the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. And that’s why you often see them retweet Americans that make these arguments.”
Likewise, two reports issued separately last month by the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the Atlantic Council, reveal how Russian state media have shifted some messaging themes and adopted new tactics with an eye to undercutting US backing for Ukraine.
Joe Biden speaks in Warsaw on Tuesday.
The Alliance report documented a shift in messaging in the US and Europe from directly defending Russia’s invasion to stressing the energy and economic impacts that it was having, themes that seem to be resonating with some Republican politicians.
In the first six months of the war, Alliance data revealed that Russia-linked accounts on Twitter mentioned “Nazi” in more than 5,800tweets.
But in the following six months from August 2022 through January 2023, “the number of ‘Nazi’ tweets dropped to 3,373 – a 42% decline”. Likewise, mentions of Nato by Russian-linked accounts on Twitter dropped by roughly 30% in the second six-month period.
By contrast, in the most recent six-month period the report said that “tweets mentioning both ‘energy’ and ‘Ukraine’ increased by 267%, while tweets mentioning ‘cost of living’ increased 66%” compared to the first six months of the war.
In another twist, Bret Schafer, who leads the Alliance’s information manipulation team, told the Guardian: “In response to restrictions and crackdowns by major tech platforms, accounts and channels affiliated with Russian state media outlet RT, which has been banned entirely on YouTube, have fanned out across alternative social media and video sharing platforms like Rumble and Odysee that have less restrictive content moderation policies and that allow RT to operate without labels or restrictions.
“Those platforms also tend to cater to audiences who are not necessarily pro-Russian, but are certainly more apt, based on the other videos found on those platforms, to oppose continued support for Ukraine.”
Despite Moscow’s disinformation offensive and the $100bn plus in military and financial assistance that has flowed to Ukraine in one year, the ex-Republican House member Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said that “most GOP members still support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression”.
But Dent stressed that “the hardest edge of the Bannon-Carlson wing of the Maga movement in Congress is more sympathetic to Russian arguments and has an isolationist view of American foreign policy. There are some members who are less willing to push back against autocrats. There are others too who find common cause with Russia’s professed socially conservative orientation.”
Those voices are especially loud in the Freedom Caucus which is wielding growing influence with the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, who has said he will not support a “blank check” for Ukraine and this week declined the invitation of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to visit Kyiv.
Freedom Caucus member Greene from Georgia at the recent CPAC conference said flatly: “We’ve done enough.”
Democrats are especially worried about the embrace of pro-Kremlin disinformation by the American right.
The Democratic senator Chris Murphy blasted US conservatives for echoing Kremlin propaganda and traced its roots back to ex-president Donald Trump, who at the start of Russia’s invasion lauded Putin as “savvy” and a “genius”. Murphy said Trump’s “admiration for Putin” has “turned into a collective rightwing obsession”.
Murphy noted that among the obsessed on the right are Donald Trump Jr, whom he follows on social media, and who is “relentlessly making fun of Zelenskiy online”.
Meanwhile, Putin’s own words and propaganda have lately shifted as he has tried to influence opinion in the US and the west, and blunt Russian dissent.
“Millions of people in the west understand they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe,” Putin railed last month in a wildly hyperbolic speech that homed in on “the destruction of families”, and related themes.
Russia experts warn that Putin’s rhetoric and Kremlin messaging on these themes is far removed from the reality in Russia.
“One of the glaring mistakes of far-right propagandists is to view Vladimir Putin as some kind of defender of Christendom, of family values and as a protector of the white race,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “They repeat the Kremlin talking points and get excited about the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ law. Nothing could be further from reality.
“Today Russia is the leader in Europe of high divorce rates, HIV infections, and low church attendance and practice.”
Senator Murphy expects Putin to count “on the [American] right wing to advance Russian propaganda and exploit our internal divisions.”/The Guardian/