Unraveling the Russian State’s Propaganda tactics at the 2023 Russia-African Summit

Amid Russia’s full-scale invasion and growing isolation from democratic nations, Russia turns to Africa. But who is best suited to do so in this age of desperation and disinformation? Leading this effort is Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs, known for her manipulative and history-twisting tactics. In this article, we’ll scrutinize her summit conferences, exposing the propaganda methods she used to win over African leaders.

  1. Emotional Appeal: Gratitude for Your Courage

“We know how much pressure is currently being placed on people, and we know the facts, tendencies, and weight of it all, so thank you for your courage in not betraying the memory of our forefathers.”

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Zakharova begins with the method she is most familiar with: emotional appeal. Zakharova has perfected emotional manipulation after years of standing on the podium, week after week, putting on a show for the internal audience in her weekly press conference, often with emotions you would expect from an act at the theater, not a political figure. This method is visible right from the start, with her gesture of great gratitude to African leaders for attending even when under pressure not to do so.

“The African people have chosen a different path to that of the West, the path of truth.”

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Furthermore, Zakarova’s statement about those present at the summit attempting to preserve history and fight for true freedom is another example of an emotional appeal. By framing the African people’s choices as “a different path to that of the West ” and associating them with the “path of truth,” she aims to evoke a sense of pride and righteousness among the representatives.

2. Demonizing the opposition: Why Africa and why now?

“The thing you have to realize is that we existed as one nation and then suddenly became something else. Everything started from scratch. We had to completely edit our constitution.”

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Zakharova replies to a journalist asking, “Why Africa, and why now?”. Here Zakharova speaks of the collapse of the Soviet Union as the reason for the African partnership delay, although many already knew the answer. This was the most construed and prepared question prior to the summit, with Russia attempting to control the narrative. Russia does not want the African continent to believe that their presence is now the result of a failure in its war on Ukraine, but rather of a mutually beneficial process that has been long anticipated and has been in the works for many years. 

Zakharova attempted to portray the collapse of the USSR and Russia’s ability to recover economically as a monumental feat, one of, if not the primary reason, for the lack of relations with Africa prior to now. She repeats the ‘reset’ rhetoric, claiming that the dissolution of the union was a reset for the state, and that it had to focus on countries bordering Russia’s vastly resourceful country. 

The technique of demonizing the West by portraying it as an antagonist or opposing force is observed, despite the fact that the West’s policy was to build friendly relations with Russia, as evident by the well-known (and failed) reset launched by the Obama administration in 2009, just one year after Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation, Georgia. 

This strategy is intended to galvanize support for Russia while  undermining the credibility of its adversaries with false claims, ultimately strengthening Russia’s narrative of victimization.

3. Misleading facts: The Reforming of Global Order

“They talk of this solidarity, but what solidarity? They have now degraded their own independence and sovereignty, voluntarily, controlled by the same strange obligations that don’t reflect the will of the people.”

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Zakharova tells how this change in world order is due to the west’s inability to adhere to the rule of law, and instead, western states have lost their sovereignty after becoming slaves to structures such as NATO. She tells of her amusement at how “Western countries, that were always colonists, became colonized.” Once countries that used to impose their will on others are no more, she tells.

Zakharova goes on to mislead and construe the facts of Germany’s economy, telling how the once hugely successful economy has, in reality, fallen apart. She tells, “Look what the US and the collective west have done with the biggest independent economy in the European Union.” But in reality, this is a bitter consequence the German government took in order to reduce its dependence on a hostile country’s resources, Russia, for a safer future.

Zakharova’s rhetoric focuses on highlighting changing global relations and the emergence of a multipolar world in which the African continent is included. By portraying the current changes in global relations as factors driven by the West’s failure, rather than Russia’s actions, she seeks to appeal to the African world, promising how they too can become a significant player on the global stage if they join ranks with Russia.

4. Distortion of history: The Greedy West

“Look at what happened when we asked NATO [referring to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine] why the member states are encircling our country. Or just because we revealed how US money has been spent on the killing of the Russian-speaking population of Donbas for the best part of eight years.”

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Zakharova portrays Russia as a victim in an unfair war, unjustly outnumbered despite its good will, hospitality, and efforts to create a prosperous and safer world by sharing its abundant natural resources. She argues that their openness to globalization was exploited, depicting the West as an untrustworthy enemy, claiming how the West has no interest in laws; apparently they aren’t even written down.  Moreover, Zakahrova claims that the West will never agree to mutually beneficial contracts, unlike Russia. 

This narrative is misled further by her highlighting Russia’s ability to empathize with African states, having faced constant attacks from colonizers. She propagates the idea that they share a historical enemy, the West. However, while both Russia and some African countries have experienced historical conflicts and colonization by European powers, the specific adversaries and historical contexts differ significantly.

5. Glittering Generalities: Russian troops fighting for Africa’s freedom

“Do you really not see us fighting? You don’t see our men sacrificing their lives; they don’t just speak and hold talks; they give their lives. Not only for the African continent, but for the entire world to be free.” 

Maria Zakharova, Head of the Press Department of Russian Foreign Affairs

Zakharova replies, unable to conceal her emotions when asked what Russia is doing to help Africa retain its sovereignty.

This lie is taken further with Zakharova claiming there has never been a ‘Russian-Ukrainian conflict.” She claims that the two countries lived peacefully until US interference followed the state coup (Maidan) and how Crimea was never an issue, with not one statement from the president, nor government officials being issued addressing Crimea before 2014.

However, in 2008, a short time after Russia invaded Georgia, Putin stated how Crimea is de-jure Ukrainian and Russia accepts Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders: “Crimea’s sovereignty is non-questionable”. Although he didn’t call then for the annexation of Crimea, there were many of his political puppets who did; Zhirinovsky, head of the so-called liberal Democratic Party and propagandist show favorite, told in 1991 how Crimea and all eastern parts of Ukraine belong to Russia. Also, Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow in 2008, told how Crimea was unlawfully given to Ukraine and how Sevastopol (a Crimean city) must be returned to Russia, thus proving Zakharova’s claim was in fact disinformation.

Zakharova employs “Glittering Generalities” by making broad statements about Russia and Ukraine’s peaceful coexistence for 30 years until apparent US intervention and by arguing that Crimea’s sovereignty as Russian was undeniable. These assertions are promoted as moral goals, seeking support and goodwill while ignoring the complex facts and historical backdrop of the battles and territorial disputes.