Russian diplomats and state media last week promoted new evidence to support their conspiracy narrative about the presence of U.S.-funded bioweapon labs in Ukraine, though the number of tweets from Russian propagandists with the term “biological” dropped by 58 percent compared to the previous week. On Thursday, the Russian Ministry of Defense released documents to support its allegations about a Pentagon-backed effort to build bioweapons in Ukraine. One of the documents, however, speaks to U.S. and Ukrainian efforts to prevent the “proliferation of technology, pathogens and expertise” that could be used to develop biological weapons. State media again made the claim that U.S.-supported biolabs were training birds to carry pathogens to Russia, though an alleged document from a Kharkiv lab showed birds migrating towards Europe, not Russia. Kremlin-linked messengers also continued to claim that Ukraine turned its territory into a “biological testing site” and tied the labs to several virus outbreaks in the region, including avian influenza and tuberculosis. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that the labs were a danger to all of Europe, and Russia’s United Nations envoy warned that the coronavirus would “pale compared” to the potential impact of the biological labs. Moscow-linked accounts also amplified Chinese diplomats, who called on the United States to provide more details about biological labs in Ukraine.
Russian propagandists last week mentioned “China” or “Chinese” in 406 tweets, with 358 of those posts coming from state media and 48 coming from diplomats. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Moscow and Beijing’s relationship was “inherently valuable” and “not subject to momentary international conjecture,” and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that the two countries would strengthen cooperation. State media, meanwhile, amplified a range of China’s anti-Western propaganda. RT, Tass, and Zvezda News promoted Global Times articles that criticized NATO. Kremlin-backed media also picked up quotes from Chinese officials pushing back against sanctions on Russia, “U.S. disinformation,” and U.S. cyber operations. RT ran a piece that claimed, “Beijing is the only major power to benefit” from the war in Ukraine.
Russian officials also continued to warn about Ukrainian false flag operations. Russia’s National Defense Management Center warned “the entire civilized world” that Ukrainian Nazis were preparing to frame Russia for multiple chemical weapons attacks, including at a chemical plant in Sumy, which was later attacked by Russian forces. Officials also claimed that Ukraine was planning a false flag terrorist attack against Western diplomats in Lviv. Moscow said that a Ukrainian intelligence agent volunteered information on the plot. The Russian FSB warned that mines placed by the Ukrainian Navy at Black Sea ports could drift toward the Bosporus and Mediterranean seas. And, as with previous weeks, Russian diplomats said that Ukraine was bombing its own nuclear facilities.
Russian diplomats kept up their attacks on accurate reporting coming out of Ukraine. Lavrov said there was “no such thing as independent Western media,” and multiple diplomatic accounts posted a video about “the West’s web of lies.” Over a dozen diplomats tweeted or retweeted #DebunkingFakes to push back on reports that Russian forces bombed a theater in Mariupol. The spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs singled out several Western outlets for allegedly spreading disinformation, including Bild and La Stampa. One left-leaning Russian outlet acknowledged the Kremlin’s war crimes, but then claimed NATO had committed the same offences. This type of whataboutism came up after U.S. President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”
Monitored Russian accounts generally expressed optimism about peace talks with Ukraine, while continuing to claim the country was overrun with neo-Nazis. Throughout last week, various Russian officials said that the continuation of talks were a positive sign and that progress had been made, though negotiations were “hard and slow going.” After noting the two sides were “halfway” on the issue of Ukraine’s military neutrality, RT reported that the talks about denazification of Ukraine remain “rather strange.” Meanwhile, Russian state media said that Ukraine was committing genocide and “everyday Ukrainian neo-Nazis kill between 80 and 235 civilians.”
“Sanctions” was the sixth most used phrase by Russian diplomats and state media on twitter last week. RT argued that Western sanctions against Russia will impact the international economy “more than the conflict in Ukraine itself.” Putin said that the sanctions were “backfiring on the Europeans and Americans,” citing higher prices for gas and food, along with job losses. Lavrov said the West’s economic measures proved that the West was an “unreliable” economic partner. The Foreign Minister also argued that sanctions are meant to “marginalize Russia” and stop the country’s development. However, Tass amplified Russian officials claiming “Russia’s economy will never collapse,” and RT reported on the ruble’s rise.
Chinese diplomats and state media’s messaging around Ukraine was relatively consistent last week with weeks prior and remained largely aligned with Russian messaging. “NATO” was the tenth most used key phrase in Chinese tweets last week, as Chinese officials and state media continue to frame potential NATO enlargement as the root cause of Russia’s invasion. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Monday press conference also criticized the U.S. “hacking empire” for a slew of cyberattacks allegedly battering Russia.
Chinese messaging also continued to resort to whataboutist rhetoric focusing on U.S. interventionism is past decades to divert attention from the current and ongoing Russian aggression. For instance, Serbian football fans calling out U.S. interventions throughout the world were relayed by Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Hua Chunying, Xinhua, the Chinese Consul General in Barcelona, and the account of a prolific wolf warrior diplomat based in Pakistan.
While the rhetoric around the supposedly ubiquitous U.S. biolabs was somewhat dialed down last week compared to the previous week, MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian still pushed the conspiracy narrative in press conferences on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Monday featured a particularly excruciating exchange between Zhao and a BBC journalist challenging him on the supposed evidence for the claim that the U.S. embassy in Kyiv deleted documents related to bioresearch in the country, a topic covered in ASD’s review of Chinese messaging around Ukraine. The term “bio*” also drew roughly 25 percent less tweets in the last four days of last week as it did in the first three days of the week, perhaps suggesting waning interest.
Chinese diplomats and state media were particularly defiant about U.S. warnings that Chinese assistance to Russia could be met with sanctions. Hua Chunying and the Chinese Consul General in Belfast tweeted that “intimidation has never worked on China.” In addition, the head of China Daily’s Europe office and the Consul General in Beirut were among those calling sanctions ineffective and unfair for civilians. Relatedly, MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Consul General in Perth, CGTN, and the Global Times all had different takes on how the dollar is being supplanted as the world’s preeminent currency.
Chinese coverage of last week’s call between President Biden and Xi was largely restrained and dispassionate. Hua Chunying, Xinhua, and other diplomats all referred to the call as “a candid and in-depth exchange of views.”
For all the attention on Ukraine, it was not the center of Chinese attention last week. The top key phrase in Chinese tweets was “COVID” and the top hashtag was “#covid19.” Additionally, China continued to promote itself through its #AmazingChina soft power campaign, often featuring touristic images and videos of Xinjiang. Other top content (based on Facebook interactions) featured China’s technological achievements.
Finally, China’s Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang’s appearance on Face the Nation Sunday morning drew significant attention from state media, who claimed that the ambassador was treated unfairly due to repeated “interruptions” from CBS’ Margaret Brennan. Although outside the scope of the report, a scathing CGTN op-ed about the interview published on Monday claimed that people like Brennan are “little more than uncouth and ignorant barbarians.” The author bizarrely concluded that China could take a lesson from Eminem because if “a white person like Eminem can rise to the top of the hip-hop world,” China could learn to compete in the pugilistic arena of American talk shows.
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