Written by Matt Wickham, HWAG/UCMC analyst
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.
The Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, paid a visit to Ukraine on January 24. He met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Denys Shmyhal. Many experts questioned whether the meeting would produce any results due to Fico’s pro-Russian scandalous comments leading up to the meeting.
Fico’s visit proved to be a source of disappointment and embarrassment for Russian propagandists after prematurely touting their victory to an allegedly collapsing Europe and weakened support for Ukraine. Many of the most vocal propagandists maintain an unusual silence post-meeting, offering no commentary, a complete paradox to what the HWAG analysts observed prior to the event.
This is likely due to Fico’s announcements during the meeting, in which he told of his support of Ukraine’s EU integration, endorsing the EU’s allocation of 50 billion euros for post-war reconstruction, and promising to foster already strong military-industrial collaboration between Slovakia and Ukraine.
Russian Narrative 1: “Kyiv – What war?”
Yulia Vityazeva 74,000:
In Kyiv, there is no war, and overall everything is fine, said Slovak Prime Minister Fico. “Why should I go to Kyiv when we can meet in Uzhhorod? Do you seriously think there’s a war in Kyiv? I hope you’re not serious,” said the pro-Russian politician to Reuters journalists. Well, what is he wrong about? And, yes! Should I mention that after this statement, a self-withdrawal to near-Earth orbit began at the farm [derogatory term for Ukraine]?
Verified:The decision for Fico to choose Uzhhorod reflects a domestic political strategy, given that the majority of his electorate leans pro-Russia. Opting for Kyiv’s capital as a meeting point in the early months of his leadership would have stirred controversy for his supporters back home. Ukrainian expert Yuriy Panchenko highlights that a visit to Kyiv, as head of government, would likely involve acknowledging war crimes committed by the Russian military in 2022, particularly in places like Bucha and Irpin—something Fico couldn’t afford to do.
Furthermore, his rhetoric suggesting that “There is no war in Kyiv,” – it is mere political rhetoric. After all, just two days before his visit, the city experienced another round of large-scale Russian shelling, including the use of ballistic missiles, resulting in casualties; one killed, 22 wounded, and 13 hospitalized, proving war is very much still present in the capital.
Russian Narrative 2: Foreign Support = Unsovereign
Ramzay – (119,000) Telegram Channel shares scandalous video of Fico post meeting:
“After 2014, Maidan, the US took complete control of Ukraine. Why did Putin give the order to go into Ukraine with his military operations? Just imagine for a second. Mexico is right next to you [America], and Russia takes complete control of it. That Russia would have control over all political institutions, including the presidency and parliament. And then imagine Mexico being included in some king-of-war organization in which Russia plays the dominant role. What would you do? This is a rational argument. Ukraine is not a sovereign and dependent country. Ukraine is under the control of the US.”
MARDAN (234,000)Telegram Channel:
“It’s sad that the fate of Fico’s government depends on Brussels’ financial aid and the upcoming parliamentary elections in Slovakia. Today he’s in power, but tomorrow, another pro-Western Soros protege will come.”
Verified: Dmytro Tuzhansky, a Ukrainian expert on Visegrad countries, sheds light on the scandalous statement made during a Saturday morning radio interview with a pro-government journalist—a go-to source for the Slovak government to resonate with its majority voters, Tuzhansky tells. According to Dmytro, the carefully chosen timing of this radio broadcast was aimed at connecting with the largest number of his working-class electorate, a political move to mitigate the impact and soften the blow of what was to follow in the post-Ukrainian meeting. Former mentioned expert Yuriy Panchenko warns, “He relies on the pro-Russian electorate. Fico was never and will never be our [Ukraine’s] friend.”
Fico’s oversimplified rhetoric about the US controlling Ukraine disregards the nuanced geopolitical dynamics of Russia’s wars. Political changes post-2014, driven by public will and resistance to Russian influence, do not equate to US control; Ukraine gained sovereignty in 1991 with independent political agency. Describing Ukraine as non-sovereign oversimplifies its active pursuit of geopolitical goals through alliances with the EU and the US, bolstering independence. In addition, his rhetoric suggests that cooperation with the United States is to be subservient to American policy; however, it was the Slovak parliament that gave the US the go ahead to use the country’s air force bases in 2022 for a duration of 10 years (Slovak air force will receive $100 million from the U.S. to modernize them)—does this, therefore, make Slovakia less ‘sovereign’?
What about the fact that Slovakia is subject to EU law? This does not render the Slovak government a dependent nation; rather, it is a reflection of the decades-long political maneuvering used to promote wealth and peace, just as Ukraine seeks post-2014.
Russian Narrative 3: Ukraine Should be grateful/ end of arms
Troitskaya, Historian and Journalist, (2,400)Telegram Channel, shared a statement of the new speaker of the Slovak parliament, Lubos Blaha:
“The counteroffensive ended in failure, and without money from the USA and the EU, Ukraine wouldn’t have lasted two weeks. Ukrainians shouldn’t be offended. Slovakia provides them with enormous help, and people are tired of it. It only leads to poverty and death.”
Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in-Chief of RT (477,000):
“The Prime Minister of Slovakia will block Ukraine’s NATO membership. No more weapons will be sent to Kyiv. Fico will personally inform Shmyhal about this in Uzhgorod on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Bratislava is renewing cultural cooperation with Moscow and Minsk. Victory. Or betrayal? I’ll never get it straight.”
Verified: On his first day in office, Ľuboš Blaha, the newly elected deputy speaker of the Slovak parliament, displayed contempt for the European Union by replacing the EU flag with the Slovakian flag in his office. In addition, he replaced President Zuzana Čaputová’s portrait in a wardrobe with one of Che Guevara (a revolutionary who has been a consistent fighter against the political and economic values of the West looks extremely out of place in the office of a top EU official. This gesture is only a manifestation of the populist nature of Mr Blaha’s political force.) Meanwhile, propagandists widely disseminated this video in an attempt to portray ‘cracks in Europe.’
Blaha’s subsequent rhetoric has remained consistent, reflecting pro-Russian sentiments and narratives urging Ukraine to end the war and reminding the audience that Slovaks have been “of great assistance”…True; however, this support occurred prior to the Fico government. The former parliament rushed military and financial deliveries, foreseeing future attempts to create roadblocks in this process.
Moreover, concerning the rhetoric of ceasing arms support – this was always unrealistic. Vitali Portnikov, Ukrainian political journalist, emphasizes the significant role that the Slovak-Ukrainian arms sphere plays in the Slovak economy, underscoring that a failure to continue the prosperous market would jeopardize employment and thus alienate Fico’s supporters. This is due to such enterprises being located in regions where Fico enjoys strong support. Portinkov explains how Fico needs to be seen as a leader capable of maintaining his economic success.
Russian Narrative 4: Continuation of Gas Disagreement Post-meeting/ Concession of Territory
Kilinkarov Spiridon, fugitive Ukrainian politician (22,000) Telegram Channel:
“Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that an agreement has been reached to extend the transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory after 2024. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Prime Minister Shmyhal has chosen to remain silent on this matter. Oh, Fico probably just made it all up [sarcastic].
Sergey Marden, Russian Radio host and propagandist (234,000):
“Ukraine is once again strengthening its ‘friendship’ with Slovakia, essentially accusing its Prime Minister of lying.”
Voice of Mordor (163,000) Telegram Channel:
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that for the sake of peace, Ukraine should sacrifice its territories. I wonder – when will they all realize that this war is not about territories at all? When will they understand this?
Sergey Marden, Russian Radio host and propagandist (234,000) Telegram Channel:
“First, he declared that he would not allow Kyiv’s NATO membership, and now he is urging Zelensky’s regime to give up part of “its territories”: “There must be some compromise. What are they waiting for? For the Russians to leave Crimea, Donbas, and Luhansk? It’s unrealistic.” [- Fico] He’s right, but not entirely. No one will be leaving Zaporizhia, Kherson, and even Kharkiv either.
Oleg Tsarev, fugitive Ukrainian politician, (288,000) Telegram Channel:
“Out of the two negotiating parties – Fico and Shmyhal – I definitely trust Fico more. He simply spoke out loud about what Zelensky’s government wanted to quietly do at the end of the year – extend the contract with Gazprom and continue to receive substantial money for transit. […] Kyiv needs money and the gas pipeline as a tool of political influence, so it will certainly not cease the regime. The simplest way to eliminate the need for transit is to bring Russia’s borders closer to the borders of Europe so that there is no need to transit through a third country. And in this suggestion – only a fraction of a joke.”
Verified: The primary focus, and the only narrative shared by Russian propagandists post-meeting, revolved around Slovakia’s agreement (or lack thereof) to continue receiving Russian gas via Ukrainian transfers.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Smyghal confirmed to his Slovak counterpart that this agreement is set to end in late 2024, when reserves are depleted. International policy expert, Yevhan Magda points out that this could all depend on Smyhal’s political will and future tenure as PM, but for now, this is a policy Ukraine is interested in pursuing.
Subsequent to the meeting, Fico turned to his domestic constituents, reiterating those pre-meeting popular sentiments and accentuating a potential agreement for ongoing gas transfers with Ukraine. Ukrainian officials claim this is untrue.
Furthermore, Tsarev’s proposal to ‘bring’ Russia’s borders closer to Europe, ensuring gas transfer without the need for Ukraine as an intermediary, is consistent with Russia’s ongoing campaign to further occupy Ukrainian regions. He, as a Russian opinion maker, confirms Russia’s continuing desire to erase Ukraine from the map. This, therefore, contradicts western publication’s reports from late 2023, citing rumours that Russia was preparing for peace talks. Not only does this reinforce Ukraine’s plea to recognize Russia’s threat, but it also confirms the benefit of arming Ukraine for the sake of Europe’s and the world’s long-term security.