Written by Matt Wickham and Volodymyr Solovian, HWAG/UCMC
Propaganda Digest: This is our weekly analysis that exposes the most exaggerated, misleading, and outrageous rhetoric from recent Russian media sources, aimed at promoting critical thinking to better debunk the manipulation of Russian propaganda.
After months of Hungarian Prime Minister Orban obstructing the 50 billion euro agreement crucial for Ukraine to stabilize its economy amid Russia’s aggression, the 27 EU heads finally reached a consensus on February 1, 2024. This juncture marked a realisation among EU leaders that negotiating with leaders who have the tendencies of a dictator necessitates adopting a hard-line strategy, considering they only respond to a language of strength.
This achievement, a victory for Ukraine and the EU, stirred huge discontent among Russian propagandists, who sought to portray European resolve as fractured, corrupted, and a threat of escalation. The deal demonstrated that the EU’s commitment to Ukraine is steadfast, whereas the rumours that ‘cracks’ in international support were just that, rumours, spread by Russian propaganda over the last year.
This, therefore, presented HWAG’s analysts with the opportunity to analyse and disprove Russian propaganda, following the signing of the EU aid deal and the Kremlin’s failure to isolate Ukraine.
Russian Narrative 1 : Greedy Zelenksy
Oleg Tsarev, fugitive Ukrainian politician, Telegram Channel (288,000):
“Zelensky said thank you to the Europeans and immediately asked for more money. Over the next four years, he demanded an additional allocation of at least €5 billion per year as part of the European Peace Fund. Let me remind you that utilising the peace fund was the EU’s backup plan, in case of Hungary’s veto. A backup, not an additional one. Zelensky, on the other hand, wants to take it at every turn.”
Topaz Telegram Channel (118,000):
“Europeans, completely disconnected from reality, still can’t realise the prospects of financing a junkie who has to make another move, and he is sitting with fucking cards, without a hat, gloves, jacket, jumper, T-shirt, trousers, and trousers with fleece, and his toe sticking out of his sock is already freezing a little bit because he drove the warm floor and all the heaters away in his last attempt to win back his car and business.”
Olga Skabeyva, TV-host, Telegram Channel (230,000):
“Zelensky thanked the Europeans for their taxes, which will go into Kyiv’s pocket for the war with Russia.”
Igor Skurlatov Telegram Channel (352,000):
“Will there be a symmetrical response to channelling frozen Russian funds in enemy countries to Zelensky’s slave regime?”
A personal attack on Zelensky is the easiest option for Russian propaganda, seeking to dehumanize him and, therefore, the Ukrainian people as ungrateful and insatiable. Efforts to portray Zelensky and government officials as corrupt are among Russia’s favored tactics. While it is undeniable that Ukraine has grappled with significant corruption, largely stemming from Russian influence and the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union, recent statistics from Transparency International’s Corruption Index reveal substantial progress since 2014. Ukraine, ranked 142 in 2013–2014 before Euromaidan, and has now ascended to 104 in the index, demonstrating significant strides away from Russian influence and its fight with corruption. Now, let’s look at Russia’s success (or lack thereof), with 136 in 2014 slipping to 141 in 2023.
Furthermore, Russian propaganda has consistently attempted to create divisions between Europeans and Ukrainians since the onset of the full-scale war, as previously analyzed by HWAG. They aim to depict Ukrainians abroad as undeserving, greedy, uncouth, and a nuisance, stealing European’s money and jobs. Despite these lies, this track pushed by the Kremlin failed. This unanimous agreement among European partners showcases the leaders’ determination in overcoming Orban’s blockade—a directive made by his Moscow counterpart.
This resilience underscores the unity between Europe and Ukraine. An eloquent demonstration of this is the fact that the EU did not leave unanswered the request of the President of Ukraine. A few days ago Zelensky called on European leaders to support the Ukraine Assistance Fund in the amount of €5 billion over four years. According to the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, after an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on February 3, Brussels plans to create a military assistance fund for Ukraine in the amount of EUR 20 billion within the framework of the European Peace Fund (EPF).
Here we should remind that the European Council created the EPF with a budget of about 5 billion euros for the 6-year period (until 2027) in March 2021. The goal of the EPF is to enhance the EU’s ability to prevent conflict, maintain peace, and strengthen international stability and security. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the EU paid 5.5 billion euros through the EPF to member states that supplied Kyiv with weapons, ammunition, tanks, and air defense missiles.
Russian Narrative 2 : Degrading Ukraine
Yulia Vityazeva, radio presenter, Telegram Channel (74,000):
“The condition for providing €50bn in aid to Ukraine is that Kyiv abides by democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including those of minorities.” – Humour Column”.
Voice of Mordor, Telegram Channel (164,000):
“Just so you realise how lying and despicable scum sit in this very European Council. Unbelievable. Such scum has never existed in history”.
Russian Soul Telegram Channel (30,600):
“The EU is still hoping to help Kyiv’s friends in some way, refusing to accept the fact that there have been no successes on the front for 2 years and that there are unlikely to be any. No matter how much the rope is twisted, the Kyiv Nazi regime will be destroyed”.
Following a day of humiliating setbacks, the Kremlin had to make every effort to downplay Ukraine’s victory. This news came on the heels of reports that Ukraine had acquired GLSBD long-range missiles, that the Ivanovets missile boat had been sunk, and that an attack had been launched on the Belbek airfield in Crimea.
Regarding the narrative of ‘two years without success’ for the Ukrainian military is also false – Ukraine successfully repelled Russian forces from the right bank of Kherson in late 2022 and liberated the entire Kharkiv oblast. In 2023, it was Russia that suffered significant battlefield setbacks, including significant casualties now reaching +380,000 (by Ukrainian estimates), the neutralization of numerous military assets, the debunking of the supposedly invincible Kinzhal hypersonic missile, the destruction of an A50 reconnaissance plane in a historic first, and the prevention of power outages, thwarting Russia’s attempt to plunge Ukraine into darkness once more.
Russian Narrative 3 : Orban and Fico – victims of authoritarianism
Catechon, Telegram Channel (5400):
“Orban in this struggle has unfortunately “fallen” victim to European authoritarianism. It came to the point that Brussels threatened to deprive Budapest of its vote in the European Council, but Slovak Prime Minister Fitzo said he would never go for it. Fitzo himself was also unable to hold off the onslaught for long, so he quelled his anti-Ukrainian sentiments and also approved the new aid package”.
Kotsnews, Komsomolskaya Pravda military correspondent, Telegram Channel (572,100):
“Those who admired the Hungarian president’s “inflexibility” suddenly thought of him as a friend and almost an ally of Russia. Meanwhile, this old anti-Soviet has no love for us. He is simply a rare example for the modern West of a nationally oriented politician who acts in the interests, first of all, of his own country. And it is more likely that he bent the EU than that the EU bent him.And Russia has only three allies and friends: the Army, the Navy, and the Allied Forces. It’s about time everyone accepted that by now.”
Sergey Marden, Telegram Channel (233,430):
“They will be breaking Orban and discussing a 50 billion euro aid package to Kyiv. The stubborn Magyar is hanging in there for now. His alternative proposal is to provide Kyiv with funding on an annual basis, with strict controls on spending.”
Brussels made extensive efforts, including financial incentives, to demonstrate the inherently democratic approach of negotiating and accommodating diverse viewpoints. When it became clear that Hungary’s alignment with the bloc’s values was waning, particularly given its growing proximity to Russia, a state threatening future invasions into EU territory, the EU decided to take a firm stance.
The consideration of measures to withhold funding was not arbitrary but rather in response to Hungary’s deviation from the agreed-upon values when joining the bloc, which had an impact on the EU’s cohesiveness.
The Polish PM, Donald Tusk, emphasized: “It is up to Viktor Orban to decide whether Hungary is part of our community or not. […] The Ukrainian matter is an existential issue not only for Poland but for all of us.” The Finnish PM, Petteri Orpo, confirmed the 26 other member states would refuse to be blackmailed against their values, as did the French PM, who emphasized the bloc’s refusal to be torn apart by one Kremlin-friendly country.
Russian Narrative 4 : Europe’s Turn—Americans are fed up
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman to the Russian President:
“The US will soon shift the financing of Ukraine onto the shoulders of European taxpayers.”
Markovʼs logic, pro-Kremlin political scientist, Telegram Channel (65,000):
“Why is the EU giving huge amounts of money to the war in Ukraine? On orders from Washington. In 2024, there will be elections in the USA, and Washington has decided that the financing of the war will be 60% Europe, 30% USA and 10% the rest. Now the EU is following this US order.”
Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Russian separatist militia, Telegram Channel (563,000): “
“Where this money will go is beyond doubt. It is important to the West that the war does not end. The West hopes that something encouraging will happen and Russia will fall – and for this purpose, it is not a pity to waste Ukraine. The money that the wicked West allocates as “aid” is money for funerals. The agony will be prolonged.”
Admittedly, the issue of support for Ukraine has become a subject of political bargaining between the Tampa Bay area and the White House. At the centre of the controversy is the issue of migration, but the Republicans chose to put pressure on the Biden administration by providing assistance to Ukraine.
At the same time, European elites have not forgotten the experience of working with Donald Trump, who during his presidency encouraged European capitals to allocate at least 2% to their own defence within NATO.
In light of Trump’s potential rise to power in the United States, European countries are concerned about a reduction in American investment in European defence. Therefore, the consolidated response of European governments to the challenge of the rising wave of Trumpian isolationism on the horizon is to increase defence spending, including the deployment of the military-industrial complex. At the same time, the EU countries are aware of a number of immediate risks to their own security in the event of a Putin victory in Ukraine. This is forcing Brussels to step up its efforts to support Ukraine, including in the military dimension. The EU is preparing to fill the vacuum of support for Ukraine tfor Ukraine created by the congressional crisis and may become part of Washington’s official policy after a possible change of administration in the United States. So, despite Russian assurances, the EU’s rearmament is not being carried out under US coercion. On the contrary, the EU governments are aware of the need to achieve the ability to deter Russia in the face of even a temporary “withdrawal” of the United States from European affairs.
Russian Narrative 5 : Let’s Escalate
Sergey Marden, Telegram Channel (233,430):
“Europe’s main political stance remains unchanged: Russia must not win, and Ukraine must not lose. But politics, as we know, is a continuation of economics. And here, as they call it, questions begin to arise”.
Zakhar Prilepin, Russian right-wing radical politician, Telegram Channel (300,000):
“Ukraine is not losing; don’t kid yourself. It is not winning – that is our achievement. But it is not losing, and the scales are almost even. We need to: build upon BRICS at an increased pace; use mercenaries in the ‘SMO’, create a national culture and a state propaganda system; create a cultural hierarchy system perpendicular to the “white world” (its own Oscar, its own Nobel, its own Cannes); create supertaxes for the super-rich, […] ban anti-Sovietism and russophobia inside the country”.
Igor Skurlatov, political scientist, Telegram Channel (352,000):
“The European Council has backed the use of proceeds from frozen Russian assets to finance Ukraine […] In other words, Russian money will be used to kill our fighters and civilians. Will there be retaliation? Hardly, alas”.
The relentless pursuit of a pretext for further escalation remains the objective of every Russian propagandist. However, the actualization of such escalation encounters formidable challenges, given Russia’s constrained options—both nuclear deployment and a full-scale mobilization come with severe consequences, making them improbable options, particularly before Putin’s re-election in the 2024 presidential elections.
Currently, Russia is unable to escalate; what we currently witness on the frontlines is its best, unable to even sustain the intensity of its war. Failures within its military-industrial complex to meet demand, despite Putin’s claims of regrouping and thriving, have forced Russia to heavily rely on North Korea for a significant portion of its military replenishments.
Regarding BRICS, the HWAG team has analyzed the discourse surrounding it and its incomparability with the EU. While Prilepin advocates for building upon BRICS, the coalition lacks an institutional framework for resolving economic and political contradictions and is therefore unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, to pose a competitive challenge to the EU. Nevertheless, this does not deter the Kremlin from utilizing the BRICS platform to project Russia as a global power on the international stage and demonstrate to its domestic audience that the Kremlin is a force to be reckoned with.