Russian officials and state media last week posted more than 800 tweets about Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership, making “NATO” the most frequently used keyword by Kremlin-linked accounts. On May 16, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had “no problems” with the two Nordic countries joining NATO but added that NATO military infrastructure moving into those territories would “certainly evoke a response.” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov emphasized that NATO expansion was a “grave mistake that might have far-reaching consequences.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs piled on by claiming NATO expansion would damage European security by provoking a “military-technical” response from Russia. The ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova promised a “surprise” military response. Zakharova also asserted that the Swedish public didn’t support NATO membership and argued that “Americans call the shots for the Swedes.” Meanwhile, state media highlighted Turkey’s threat to block Finland and Sweden’s membership, with RIA Novosti saying Turkey “coerces Finland and Sweden into public humiliation.” Sputnik also amplified calls to kick Turkey out of NATO.
Kremlin-affiliated accounts also sought to discredit accusations that Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine was prompting a global food shortage. Russian officials claimed that the West had launched an information campaign to blame Russia for damaging food supplies in order to promote anti-Russian sentiment around the world. They blamed Western sanctions for sparking the food crisis. Russia’s ambassador to the UN argued that the “West is literally holding the whole developing world hostage, driving it towards famine.” The deputy Russian ambassador alleged that Ukraine had caused the food crisis by mining its ports and preventing ships from moving safely. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that Russia was both meeting its commercial commitments to deliver food and distributing food to those in need. State media echoed claims that the West was manufacturing a food crisis.
Russian propagandists criticized the new $40 billion dollar package of military and humanitarian aid that the United States extended to Ukraine. Sputnik warned that the spending would further drive up U.S. inflation. RT said that the package had “no stipulation against sending weaponry directly to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.” RT also noted that Ukraine was seeking additional aid and asked, “Who says the American welfare system doesn’t breed dependence?” Several state media outlets picked up one congresswoman’s claim that the aid package looked “like a money laundering scheme.” Criticism of the U.S. assistance was paired with criticism of President Joe Biden’s mental fitness, popularity, and economic policies. Biden’s trip to Europe received little coverage.
Russian officials and state media also continued to comment heavily on the fighting in Ukraine, presenting Russian forces as victorious liberators and Ukrainian soldiers as neo-Nazis who had committed war crimes. Much of the coverage centered around Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant, a final holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city that was surrendered last week. RT celebrated the “complete liberation” of the Azovstal plant. The Ministry of Defense released a video of Ukrainian fighters laying down their arms, and RT claimed they had “Nazi tattoos.” Sputnik also accused Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol of having “objects associated with satanic and pagan cults.” Meanwhile, state media showed off a new Russian combat laser “capable of burning drones in five seconds,” and a website linked to Russian intelligence advocated for parts of Ukraine to join Russia.
“NATO” was the fifth most frequent key phrase and the seventh most frequent hashtag in tweets from Chinese diplomats and state media outlets last week, mirroring Russia’s topical focus. Finland and Sweden were, unsurprisingly, the two most mentioned countries in those tweets, far outpacing Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Some commentators, like CGTN-affiliate T-House and the Global Times, accused the United States of seeking to drag the two Nordic countries into war. Other accounts like that of the Chinese Consul General in Belfast and that of a well-known CGTN presenter continued to quote Russian talking points about “Russophobia” and military escalation. Turkey was the fourth most mentioned country in NATO-related tweets as Chinese diplomats and state media sought to accentuate the internal divisions in the organization. CGTN’s more hawkish affiliates T-House and Frontline both shared a video segment of Michael McFaul declaring that U.S. diplomats lied to Ukraine about its possible adhesion to NATO in 2021.
“Shanghai” and “COVID/Covid19” remained the top key phrases and hashtags in tweets from the Chinese network last week. Both diplomats and state media claimed that the city had almost beaten the disease and that China’s zero-covid approach worked. While China boasted about the implementation of its zero-covid policy, the United States was mentioned almost as frequently as China in covid-related tweets last week. Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying, the Consul General in Belfast, CGTN affiliate T-House, and the People’s Daily were among the many accounts focusing on the death toll in the United States, with the first three ironically quoting the “Better dead than red” motto. Many Chinese diplomats, including Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Zhao Lijian, the MFA’s official account, and the Cultural Counsellor at the Embassy in Pakistan, also drew a connection between the U.S. authorities poor handling of covid and their failure to stop the frequent shootings taking place in the country. Chinese diplomats and state media also sought to undermine U.S. outreach to ASEAN, highlighting China’s positive role in those countries while accusing the United States of manipulating them.
With an enlarged BRICS group meeting last week, the MFA stressed the significance of this group in its Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (there were 41 occurrences of the word “BRICS” on Friday alone). And while the head of China Daily in Europe contrasted the supposedly peaceful BRICS with the warlike NATO, Zhao openly minimized the Russian invasion when asked about the BRICS’ image in light of Russia’s aggression.
After declining to ascribe responsibility to either Israel or Palestine for the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in early May, MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian called on “both sides, Israel in particular,” to exercise restraint. He added that Chinese officials “deeply regret the acts of the Israeli police” in his Monday press conference. His colleague Wang Wenbin repeated this statement almost verbatim on Friday.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.