How Russian propaganda adjusts its tones. Using Zelensky’s visit to Romania as an example

Written by Marianna Prysiazhniuk, UCMC expert

President Zelensky paid a visit to Bucharest on Tuesday, October 10. The president, along with his Romanian counterpart, Klaus Iohannis, announced a new phase in bilateral relations: a strategic partnership between the two countries. The visit of Zelensky has already been dubbed historic and long-awaited by Romanian media. However, the arrival was “long-awaited” not only for official Bucharest, but also for Russian agents, whose representatives diligently heated up the Romanian information space, attempting to derail the high-level agenda. And they succeeded.

The visit by Zelensky to Bucharest was the first since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said a number of specific and important things about Ukraine.  For example, “Ukraine’s victory is in Romania’s national interest” and “Romania will support Ukraine in this for as long as it is necessary.” But let’s focus on the information dimension and Russia’s hybrid influence on this visit.

A Tactical Victory for Russian Agents in Bucharest

According to Romanian media, President Zelensky’s schedule included a speech to the Romanian parliament, which was abruptly (at first) canceled. President Zelensky stated during the press conference that the speech was not planned, but Romanian media, citing politicians, reported that the parties canceled Zelensky’s speech to avoid provocations by pro-Russian MPs in parliament. 

Senator Diana Shoshoaka and the leader of the AUR party, MP Gheorghe Simion, who is accused of collaborating with the FSB, are the most prominent figures in Romanian politics who openly support Russia, cooperate with the Russian Embassy in Bucharest, and contribute to destabilization in the country in any way possible. These two people’s political activity resembles a theater of the absurd rather than political activity. This, however, does not make it any less dangerous. As a result, neither Shoshoaka nor Simion are taken seriously. How can one take Shoshoaka’s tantrum behind the parliamentary rostrum, during which he wore a dog muzzle, seriously? How can a “legislative initiative” to return “primordially Romanian lands” that are now part of Ukraine be taken seriously? 

Shoshoaka promised on the eve of Zelensky’s visit to “break the legs” of the Ukrainian president, who “has nothing to do on Romanian soil.” However, the systematic visits to the Russian embassy should be of greater concern, especially in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. That is, the war on Romania’s borders (a sensitive subject for the Romanian audience). Given the circumstances, neither Kyiv nor Bucharest wanted to be exposed by Zelensky’s speech in parliament, but they also did not plan their “traps” for Russian henchmen in advance. And this is the issue.

As a result, the cancellation of the Ukrainian president’s speech is a tactical victory for Russian propaganda, and local pro-Russian figures have shown that they can influence high-level diplomatic processes simply by organizing a circus that is gradually gaining support among voters. While the scandalous AUR party received about 10% of the vote in 2019, Romanian media reports that this figure is now as high as 20%.

“Ancestral lands” and the technology of revanchism

Russia has traditionally relied on instilling revanchist sentiments in Ukraine’s relations with neighboring states, spreading narratives about territorial encroachment and “historical justice.” This campaign has been and continues to be executed not only through information influence, but also through diplomatic and political contacts. 

When Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, was still alive in 2014, he sent a letter from the Russian Federation’s State Duma to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting dividing Ukraine’s territory. Similar suggestions were received in Hungary and Romania. Zhirinovsky has since died, but the idea lives on, and pro-Russian Romanian henchmen such as Diana Soșoaca continue to spread it. In this context, I’m referring specifically to the Romanian masses.

On the day of Zelenskyy’s visit to Bucharest, Shoshoaka arrived at the parliament with a map of Greater Romania (the Romanian kingdom at its peak after World War I) and staged another show. “Zelensky has nothing to do with the desecration of Romanian land,” the scandalous senator yelled. “Zelensky is a Nazi who has no place in Romania.” However, the regional context may be even broader, and the charge of “Nazism” leveled against Ukraine’s president is not coincidental.

Let’s move to another part of Europe

Unknown individuals vandalized a Jewish restaurant in London on Tuesday, October 10. These events were preceded by an attack on the state of Israel by the Palestinian armed group Hamas and the declaration of war by Tel Aviv in response, which emotionally shook Arab immigrant communities around the world (as well as Jewish ones). Following the start of these events, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy increased security measures for Jewish communities in order to prevent terrorist threats, and this attack demonstrated that such fears are justified. 

Russian propaganda, for its part, was better prepared than ever. The rhetoric of both Russian officials and the propaganda machine changed on the eve of the escalation. Accusations of “Russophobia” against Ukraine have given way to accusations of “Nazism,” with the instrumentalization of anti-Semitic discourse playing a key role here.

“Zelensky is a disgrace to the Jewish people,” Putin said on the eve of the Gaza conflict.

From “Russophobes” to “Nazis”

As a result, a pro-Russian MP in Bucharest accusing Zelensky of “Nazism” on the day of his arrival is an eloquent indicator of the shift in Russian propaganda’s emphasis, while the Kremlin is counting on chaos in Europe. Such information will not only allow them to accuse Ukraine of “arms smuggling,” but it will also provide impetus to harass Ukrainian refugees, further discredit Ukraine using Nazi methodology, and eventually destabilize Europe.

Russian propaganda campaigns against Ukraine employ a variety of scenarios, including both active measures of influence involving specific individuals and information campaigns based on fabricated events. As a result of this, a fertile environment for the consolidation of certain cognitions is created, which is then used to create a narrative that can adapt to various circumstances, such as existing social tensions, diplomatic and political realities. This is exactly what happened during President Zelensky’s visit to Romania.

For a long time, Russia has portrayed itself as a victim: accusations of “Russophobia” and alleged violations of the rights of Russian speakers have been a general line of propaganda that has served as a pretext for aggression and interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Although this methodology is still in use, American historian Timothy Snyder’s devastating speech at a UN Security Council meeting was a conditional bifurcation point for this strategy. The scholar argued in his speech that Russia uses the ideologeme of “Russophobia” to justify aggression (including hybrid aggression) and war crimes. Therefore, the intensification of accusations of “Nazism,” given the geopolitical context and escalation surrounding Israel, poses a significant risk for the further deployment of information threats.