Kremlin-linked messengers last week pushed a series of false claims about Ukraine’s pursuit of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. On Sunday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had documents that show Kyiv ordered the “emergency destruction” of deadly pathogens like anthrax and the plague at a U.S.-funded bioweapon laboratories in Ukraine. Earlier in the week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. Defense Department had built chemical bases in Ukraine, and RT reported that Ukrainian forces were mining warehouses that stored ammonia. Russian state media and intelligence-linked websites also claimed to have documents about Ukraine’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. A top Russian intelligence official said the United States offered to “lend a helping hand” with Ukraine’s nuclear program, and Sputnik ran a quote about NATO wanting to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia. Later in the week, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Ukrainian forces planned to blow up a nuclear reactor and then blame the Russian army. That prediction came after Russian forces shelled Europe’s largest nuclear plant and then blamed Ukrainian nationalists for the attack.
Kremlin-funded outlets also accused Ukraine of widespread human rights abuses last week. RIA Novosti reported that Ukrainian radicals were carrying out ethnic cleansing, while the FSB-linked outlet SouthFront said Ukrainians were preparing “mass murder provocations in Mariupol.” There were allegations that the Ukrainian military shelled a school, damaged a children’s hospital, and hijacked more than a dozen cars from an OSCE mission. State-backed media posted interviews with individuals asserting that Ukrainian forces had fired at residential buildings and had stolen from non-combatants. President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed that Kyiv was taking civilian hostages and using them as human shields. Throughout the week, state media showed Russian forces providing humanitarian aid.
At the same time, Moscow-directed outlets claimed that Ukrainian forces were laying down arms and Ukrainian elites were fleeing. Russian officials said last Monday that more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers had laid down their arms within 24 hours. Later in the week, state media picked up claims that another 104 Ukrainians had switched sides. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that the Ukrainian troops who fought on Snake Island—and who famously said, “Russian warship, go f*** yourself”—were “promoted as martyrs by Western MSM” (main stream media) but had “simply laid down their arms.” RT posted a video claiming to show those soldiers criticizing the Ukrainian government. State-controlled media also spread rumors about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s location, while a Russian intelligence-linked site claimed that he had fled to Poland in February and is being “imprisoned in a bunker by CIA and MI-6 employees.”
That played into a broader effort to paint Kyiv as a Western puppet. Lavrov called Ukraine a “loyal vassal” of the United States. Expanding the scope, Lavrov said the United State had “subjugated” all of Europe and compared the U.S. administration to Napoleon and Hitler. State media also claimed to have found a laptop with “NATO markings” at the headquarters of a far-right Ukrainian group. FSB-linked NewsFront concluded that the laptop showed “NATO has long been in charge of Ukraine’s armed forces.” Russia’s foreign intelligence agency also made unsubstantiated statements about the United States forming terrorist units and sending them to Ukraine via Poland.
On the information front, the left-leaning outlet Redfish called new restrictions on Russian state media a “blatant attack” on free speech, and it posted a tweet saying, “remember how it ended last time for totalitarianism in Europe,” which featured a GIF of someone waving a Soviet flag. A Russian intelligence-connected site said the regulations were a “sign of weakness, despair, and staggering hypocrisy.” RT picked up a quote calling the move “a fascist measure,” and Sputnik posted a quote saying media restrictions were “used as missiles of war.” One post asked, “What’s next, Nazi-style book burning?” Sputnik called social media platforms seeking to label Russia state-backed accounts “a witch hunt.” Afshin Rattansi, an RT host, said Twitter had “defame[d] me & my account” after it was labeled. There were also efforts to promote state-backed outlets on alternative platforms. These attacks—along with claims that the West had launched an information war—were used to justify a new law that threatens Russian citizens with up to 15 years in prison for sharing “false information” about the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin has also shut down or restricted access to a number of domestic and international outlets operating within Russia.
Russian propagandists reacted with similar aggression to Western sanctions, which Putin said were “akin to a declaration of war.” RT ran a quote calling the economic measures “illogical and difficult to explain.” Much of the coverage, though, focused on the harm sanctions will cause the West. State media showed gas and commodity prices skyrocketing, jobs being lost, and companies asking for the sanctions to be stopped. There were also warnings about a “global economic meltdown,” the West losing its financial dominance to China, and Western investors forfeiting $170 billion. In a bit of whataboutism, RT asked why the United States and NATO had never been sanctioned for starting wars. There were also attempts to show that Moscow could weather the sanctions, with one post saying “the world is too big” for the West to isolate the Russian economy. Other tweets claimed Russian wealth in China was a “secret weapon” and that Beijing would “provide a life line.”
Finally, Russian state-directed outlets covered the refugee crisis closely. RedFish and others highlighted the racist treatment of African and Indian individuals fleeing Ukraine. RT said that European countries were upset by “the behavior of Ukrainian refugees.” RT also elevated disagreements between France and the United Kingdom over the management of the humanitarian crisis. Russian-language state media provided extensive coverage of Russian troops allegedly helping Ukrainian refugees.
Last week, Russia and Ukraine were the second and third most mentioned countries by Chinese state media (after China), and the third and fourth most mentioned countries by diplomats and government officials (after China and the United States). While presenting a decidedly pro-Kremlin view of the war, Chinese officials continued to attempt to thread the needle of neutrality, particularly during the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) daily press conferences.
On Monday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin declined to openly condemn Russia, criticized NATO expansion, and denounced Western sanctions—without committing to helping Russia weather those sanctions and other restrictive measures. On Tuesday, Wenbin clarified that his previous assertion that “one country’s security cannot be at the expense of another’s” was directed at NATO, not Russia. On Wednesday, he addressed the news of a Chinese citizen being wounded in Ukraine without mentioning the Russian version of events that Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” were behind the incident. On Thursday, he defended China’s decision to abstain from the UN General Assembly vote by falling back on “the history and complexity of the current crisis.” He also quoted George Kennan, Thomas Friedman, and Tulsi Gabbard as U.S. voices legitimizing China’s point of view on NATO’s eastward expansion. And on Friday, in what came closest to an expression of displeasure toward Russia, he declared that China was “gravely concerned about the safety and security situation of nuclear facilities in Ukraine.”
Chinese state media were more willing to uncritically share Russian statements about the conflict, whether amplifying Putin’s claims that Ukrainian neo-Nazis were shooting at Chinese students or sharing Russian statements about their supposedly imminent victory over Ukrainian armed forces.
Both Chinese diplomats and state media continued pushing the narrative that NATO was the main culprit behind the crisis in Ukraine. A 2015 speech by John Mearsheimer was one of the pieces of content used by voices such as MFA official Hua Chunying and nationalist tabloid the Global Times to back up this version of events. Another narrative spread by several Chinese diplomats and state media outlets was Western media’s double standards. The Global Times juxtaposed TIME magazine covers after Russia’s invasion and the 1995 bombing of Serbia to highlight alleged editorial discrepancies. Relatedly, top MFA officials Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying shared clips of Western journalists deploring the death of Europeans living in “civilized countries.” CGTN Arabic and other state media outlets further amplified this narrative of Western disregard for non-white lives.
In more China-centric news, Chinese officials expressed displeasure with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s suggestion that the United States give up its strategic ambiguity policy with regards to Taiwan. The MFA also had choice words for former U.S. Vice President Mike Pompeo’s “lunatic remarks” that the United States should recognize the island as an independent country. In response to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s address at the UN Human Rights Council about the Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Chinese diplomats and state media once more defended their country’s policies in the territory. They also counterattacked by highlighting century-old killings of Native Americans, a common trope in China’s whataboutism arsenal.
While Chinese diplomats and state media focused a lot of attention on geopolitical conflicts last week, the most frequent key phrases and hashtags for both networks reflected other priorities. Beijing2022, this time for the Paralympic Games, was still in the top three key phrases and hashtags for both state media and government officials. And last weekend’s “Two Sessions,” the annual meeting of China’s top legislature, also drew significant coverage from both Chinese diplomats and state media. However, while these issues may have been the subject of extensive Chinese coverage, they were not the issues that generated significant engagement on Twitter or views on YouTube.
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