Last week, Russian state media and diplomats focused heavily on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s campaign to seize control of the country. Alongside coverage of the unfolding chaos and humanitarian crisis, Russian accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 made predictable attacks on the United States’ role in Afghanistan, categorizing the U.S. presence in the country as imperialism, blaming the CIA for empowering the Taliban, and criticizing a supposed U.S. strategy based on “democracy, dollars, and M16s.” Russian state media also amplified domestic criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the crisis, running critical op-eds by former U.S. military members and amplifying Republican claims that Afghanistan is “President Biden’s Saigon.” Russian state media also shared videos of Taliban members dancing and circulated talking points from Taliban spokespeople, including messaging that the group would “protect Afghan women’s right and honor,” a commitment that many in the international community fear the Taliban will not keep. In coronavirus coverage, Russian state media and diplomats continued to highlight protests against vaccines and pandemic-related restrictions. Demonstrations in France were a particular focus, with articles and videos capturing details from the country’s fifth consecutive weekend of mass protests against vaccine regulations. Russian state media also covered related demonstrations in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, while continuing to focus on fallout surrounding alleged police brutality that took place at a similar demonstration in Germany earlier this month. As usual, Russian diplomats and state media promoted the safety and efficacy of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, drawing attention to one study that found Sputnik V was more effective at combating the delta variant than other vaccines. Diplomatic accounts also highlighted deliveries of Sputnik V vaccines to multiple countries in South America, with one account tweeting that the vaccine shipments would “further strength[en] the strategic alliance” between Russia and Argentina. Russian state-backed messengers also covered developments around the flow of migrants from Belarus to Lithuania, which Lithuanian officials have claimed is being orchestrated by the Belarusians as retribution for sanctions imposed on Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Russian state media argued that Lithuania had previously forced migrants to leave for Belarus to put pressure on Lukashenko, while also covering the Lithuanian army’s mobilization to the border, a shipment of barbed wire from Ukraine to Lithuania to be used at the border, dangerous migrant crossings, and stories of individuals fleeing Lithuanian migrant camps. There was limited coverage of escalating tension between China and Lithuania over the latter’s relationship with Taiwan. Finally, Russian state media highlighted news that the U.K. High Court had allowed the Biden administration to expand its efforts to extradite Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is wanted by the U.S. government on espionage charges. RT published one op-ed that argued Assange was a “political prisoner” facing a “rigged judicial system” and another that questioned if the United States and United Kingdom wanted Assange to commit suicide. State media also highlighted that Assange appeared ill at his hearing and that former U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joined a protest against the court’s decision on the U.S. extradition request.
Afghanistan was the fourth most mentioned territory by Chinese media and government officials last week, registering slightly more mentions than Taiwan. A prominent thread in China’s messaging was an effort to cast the United States as an unreliable ally; Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian shared a cartoon showing a selfish Uncle Sam abandoning shell-shocked Afghans, while CGTN quoted a Chinese Foreign Ministry official saying that the United States bore “an inescapable responsibility for the current situation.” Relatedly, a Chinese diplomat based in Durban, South Africa accused the United States of committing “crimes” during the 20-year war, and the Chinese ambassador to Austria posted a tweet in which he highlighted the plight of the “abandoned” Afghan people. The connection to China’s strategic interests was made explicitly clear in a series of articles by the Global Times on Monday (outside the scope of this report), which explicitly warned that U.S. “treachery” should be a lesson for Taiwan. China’s messengers also used the situation to hint at a geopolitical repositioning in the region. China’s Consul General in Cape Town shared two Global Times articles—one suggesting China “could play a ‘bigger role’” in the country and another claiming India would be limited to a “minor role in Afghan issues” because of its excessive dependence on the United States. Lithuania was also a frequent target last week over its decision to open a new representation on the island and to allow Taiwan to do the same in Vilnius under the Taiwan name—as opposed to the Taipei name that China usually tolerates. A CGTN video announcing China’s decision to recall its ambassador to Lithuania and to have the Lithuanian government recall its ambassador to Beijing was the fourth most viewed Chinese state media YouTube video of last week. Following MFA spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s announcement of the Chinese decision, many diplomats tweeted their support for the decision. This included, among others, Chinese diplomats in Austria, Australia, Barbados, France, and Lebanon. The Chinese authorities were keen to stress that China was a victim and that Lithuania was the one harming China’s “territorial integrity.” A counsellor in the Chinese embassy in Pakistan posted a compilation of videos showing “protests in the capital of Lithuania”; although, the protests appear to be entirely unrelated to Taiwan and were undated. The nationalist tabloid Global Times and its always provocative editor-in-chief were even more abrasive, calling Lithuania “crazy,” “tiny,” and “ignorant.” As is typical, a fair amount of the criticism aimed at Lithuania also found a way of taking a few swipes at the United States. Finally, Chinese diplomats and state media again devoted a significant portion of their efforts last week to repeat some of their better-rehearsed narratives. Concerning Covid-19, usual figures like Zhao and the Global Times continued to spread conspiracy theories surrounding Fort Detrick’s alleged role in creating the virus, and the usually more reserved China Daily published a cartoon implying that the United States might be behind AIDS. There was also a new slew of denials against accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang with diplomats pushing back against accusations of forced labor, extolling the happiness of the region’s tomato pickers, and boasting about tourism income in the region.
Unsurprisingly, the regime in Tehran, like other governments, seems to have been caught by surprise by the speed of the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, with state-backed media reporting as recently as four days ago that U.S. intelligence predicted Kabul could fall “within 90 days.” Iranian diplomats expressed concern over escalating violence, and Iranian media reported on the dire situations many civilians face. Some accounts associated with the Iranian military celebrated the chaotic U.S. withdrawal and even mocked the quality of weapons and aircraft with which the U.S. had supplied the Afghan military. At the same time, the more conspiracy-minded among the Tehran-backed media ecosystem, with the help of U.K.-based conspiracy theorist Marcus Papadopoulos, alleged that the United States and United Kingdom have cut a deal with the Taliban to ensure continued influence in the country. Some articles also called out a comment by Biden that Afghans must “fight for themselves” as evidence that Americans think they’ve been doing the fighting for Afghanistan. Fars News Agency framed the withdrawal as certain to hurt U.S. credibility in the region going forward. Despite the preeminence of Afghanistan coverage, the withdrawal was somewhat overshadowed by anger over a diplomatic photo opportunity. The Russian and U.K. envoys to Tehran touched off a storm of criticism from Iranian officials after their ambassadors posed together for a photo at the Russian embassy staged to evoke the 1943 photo of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin taken in the same spot. Outgoing Foreign Minister Zarif called the picture “extremely inappropriate” and said Iran’s destiny is no longer determined “in foreign embassies or by foreign powers.” Iranian media reported heavily on the faux pas, criticizing it as insensitive to the history of foreign interference in Iranian affairs.
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