Russian diplomats and state media last week continued to focus much of their attention on developments around the conflict in Ukraine. On December 7, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a virtual meeting to discuss escalating tensions between NATO member states and Russia. Russian state media’s preview of the talks was mixed, with some outlets noting it could reduce the risk of conflict, and others saying it was a “step to war.” Kremlin-linked media elevated optimistic remarks on the outcome of the meeting, which Putin said was open and positive. However, RT took a shot at Biden, tweeting, “Breaking News: Biden survived his meeting with Putin!” After the talks, news broke that Biden hoped to hold a follow up discussion between the United States, NATO allies, and Russia. State media used critical Western commentary to frame the proposed meeting as a “retreat” by Biden and a “concession” to Putin. Moscow-backed accounts also highlighted that some NATO members were against follow up discussions. Meanwhile, Russian propagandists continued to blame NATO for escalating tensions, saying the alliance is taking “reckless and irresponsible behavior,” “pushing Kiev toward aggressive steps,” and disregarding Ukraine’s “large-scale violations of human rights.” State media translated Putin’s claim that the conflict in eastern Ukraine “looked like a genocide” into at least six languages. On December 10, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that NATO rescind a 2008 commitment to Ukraine and Georgia that they would one day be able to join the alliances. The foreign ministry also demanded “legal guarantees” that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward and insisted the alliance commit to not deploying weapons to countries that border Russia. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded to a G7 statement threatening “severe costs” if Russia intensified its war in Ukraine by arguing that Western interventions created Ukraine’s conditions.
Russian accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 also attempted to discredit the Summit for Democracy, which took place virtually on December 9-10. Zakharova argued that the United States designed the summit to “to destroy the international order based on international law” and “to make use of the chaos it itself has created.” State-backed outlets contended that the summit was meant to cause a “Cold War-style two-camp polarization of the world.” Sputink ran a piece explaining how the summit was driving China and Russia closer together, with RT adding that the summit was held to disguise U.S. “plans to interfere in the affairs of other countries.” State-controlled media also disparaged U.S. democracy. One Russian ambassador retweeted a post that said the United States could teach the world how to “systematically exclude, erase, displace, dispossess, commit genocide and get away with it.”
Russian state media also used the U.S. push to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the United Kingdom to paint U.S. policymakers as hypocritical on human rights.
Closer to home, Russian officials and state-controlled outlets highlighted growing ties between Russia and India. Last week, the two countries signed a series of trade and arms deals during Putin’s visit to New Delhi for talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. State media celebrated the Indian acquisition of Russian S-400 air defense missile systems despite U.S. objections. Putin told Modi that Russia “views India as a major power.” There were also talks between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers. Lavrov praised India for pursuing a vision similar to Russia’s for a “more just, democratic and polycentric world order.” He also noted that both sides had expressed “serious concerns” about U.S. activities in the Indo-Pacific. He emphasized AUKUS—the partnership between the Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom—was particularly threatening to regional stability.
As was the case in the first week of December, “democracy” remained the most frequent key phrases in tweets from Chinese accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0, especially among tweets from Chinese officials and diplomats. On December 5, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a report titled “The State of Democracy in the United States.” Accounts that directly mentioned the report included Chinese diplomats in Spain to Samoa. In particular, state media and Chinese embassies in Africa (including but not limited to embassies in Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, South Africa, and Uganda) were particularly keen to share the report on Twitter.
The Summit for Democracy was explicitly mentioned in every daily Chinese MFA press conference last week. On Monday and Wednesday, Hungary’s non-invitation and subsequent opposition to a joint EU position were raised, presumably to highlight internal European divisions and delegitimize the EU’s presence at the summit. On Thursday, U.S. attempts to coordinated democratic efforts on Internet/tech governance were the target of the Chinese MFA’s ire. And on Friday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin simply reverted to well-rehearsed arguments about crimes against Native Americans as well as other human rights abuses in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. This coincided with the promotion of two hashtag campaigns—#whatisdemocracy and #whodefinesdemocracy—that questioned the benefits of Western democracy. The campaigns were the fourth and fifth most used hashtags by monitored accounts last week.
Relatedly, the Chinese Consul in Beirut created a viral sensation with the promotion of the #NoMore hashtag—an online movement opposing U.S. foreign policy that has gained significant traction, especially in relation to the conflict in Ethiopia. The clever use of this hashtag earned the consul six of the ten most retweeted tweets out of all the Chinese accounts monitored on Hamilton. In his most popular tweet, he shared an Instagram-worthy photo of a latte with #NoMore swirled into the foam. He also used the hashtag to criticize the United States over the war in Iraq, to attack Western media’s alleged bias, and to take direct hits at the Summit for Democracy.
Because of the hectic activity around the summit, the growing chorus of countries announcing that they would diplomatically boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing was not as extensively covered by Chinese officials and state media as one would have expected, with notable exceptions. MFA spokespeople Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying were dismissive of political boycotts, while Chen Weihua, the bombastic editor of the China Daily in Europe, tweeted that President Biden was “not invited and not welcome” and that he hoped the president would “live long enough to see China boycotting [the] Los Angeles Summer Games.” (That tweet has since been deleted.) Other state media voices also attacked the U.S. decision to boycott the games, with China Daily labelling the boycott as “politically motivated,” Xinhua warning that China would “hit back,” and CGTN sharing French President Macron’s refusal to join the movement. While the U.S. boycott announcement received the most attention, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada also received blowback over their decisions to not attend the Games. China Daily noted the “Anglo-Saxon” constellation of boycotting countries, while the Global Times used different countries’ wording on the matter to speculate on divisions among Five Eyes countries.
Finally, Nicaragua’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing was predictably celebrated by Chinese diplomats and state media alike. In the aftermath of the Nicaraguan government’s decision, Beijing donated one million doses of the Chinese-produced Sinopharm vaccine to the country.
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