Last week, Russian government officials and state-funded outlets focused heavily on Russia’s parliamentary elections, which were held from Friday to Sunday and resulted in President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party maintaining its majority with the help of apparent ballot rigging. Much of the coverage revolved around calls to get voters to the polls, claims about the elections’ security and legitimacy, and general updates about turnout and vote tallies. Russian accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 also amplified claims that the Kremlin possessed “incontrovertible evidence” of U.S. efforts to interfere in the parliamentary elections. The chairwoman of Russia’s Central Election Commission argued that Western states were carrying out “purposeful work to discredit” the elections at “an unprecedented scale.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state media that U.S. interference was “serious.” These interference allegations largely centered around Apple and Google’s temporary resistance to Russian government demands that the tech giants remove the Smart Voting app, which is intended to help Russian opposition voters cast ballots for candidates best positioned to defeat United Russia members. Russian state-backed actors argued that Apple and Google were attempting to intervene by “spreading extremist content,” that the U.S. Department of Defense was tied to the voting app, and that Smart Voting prevented Russians from making their own decisions. Interestingly, there was only limited celebration when “Apple and Google cave[d] in to Russia’s pressure” and removed the app. Russian officials and state-backed outlets also claimed that the United States, Ukraine, and Germany launched cyberattacks against Russian websites designed to interfere with the election. Moscow-linked accounts noted that the Kremlin threatened to impose sanctions for the attacks.
Outside of election coverage, Russian-backed messengers provided extensive coverage of the fallout from Australia’s decision to renege on a $66 billion submarine deal with France and instead work with the United States and the United Kingdom. State-backed outlets repeatedly amplified commentary from outraged French officials, most notably French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s statement that the deal was “really a stab in the back.” Russian state media also circulated Le Drian’s claims that the “brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision” was reminiscent of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. There was also a push to elevate statements from French officials about how the submarine deal could impact the future on NATO. In addition to repurposing French concerns about NATO, Russian state media urged France to leave the alliance, arguing it would be the “most dignified response that France can now make.”
Russian officials and state media’s coverage of Afghanistan dropped considerably last week. For example, Russian accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 mentioned “Afghan” in 565 tweets last week compared to 1,088 references from September 6 to September 12. However, Moscow-linked Twitter did highlight the U.S. Defense Department’s acknowledgement that a drone strike killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan during the U.S. withdrawal, circulating criticism of the strike from U.S. senators and arguing that the Pentagon only took responsibility for the mistake after it was uncovered by journalists. There were also routine arguments that the United States attempts to “resolve all problems with force or coercion,” and claims that Washington has helped support radical jihadist organizations. Russian-linked accounts celebrated the Kremlin’s decision to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan while also hammering the Taliban’s brutal rule.
Russian government-backed messaging around the coronavirus remained consistent with past coverage, including critiques of Western vaccines, highlights of protests against coronavirus restrictions, and claims of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine’s efficacy. As usual, Kremlin-linked actors directed the most criticism at the Pfizer vaccine, elevating claims that it is ineffective against the delta variant and highlighting concerns that it could negatively affect younger people. State media shared images and videos from demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions in France, Australia, and Greece. Meanwhile, Sputnik V’s Twitter account made claims that the vaccine aged like “good wine,” becoming better at defending against the coronavirus overtime.
After Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom announced they would be deepening their security partnership in the Indo-Pacific region last Wednesday, Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian criticized the initiative, saying it “undermined regional peace and stability (…) and undermined international non-proliferation efforts.” Chinese diplomats followed suit decrying the new pact as constituting a dangerous escalation for the region. The Global Times warned that the agreement “potentially [made] Australia the target of a nuclear strike,” while a CGTN host cautioned Taiwan against making similar alliances. The idea that the United States had somehow stabbed its ally France in the back was also repeated by several accounts, including messages trolling the Biden administration’s diplomatic ineptitude and mocking the leadership of the newly formed AUKUS. In the final days of last week, Chinese coverage painted an increasingly bleak portrayal of the situation, with the Global Times declaring “a crisis of trust between Western allies,” the Chinese ambassador in Paris finding “the fury of the French government (…) completely understandable,” and the Chinese Consul in Cape Town sharing a People’s Daily piece warning that the “Australia nuclear sub ‘backstab’ could permanently change NATO.” On Monday, Hua Chunying tweeted about the recognition of the PRC by the French government in the 1960s, insisting on “China-France friendly relations.”
Before the AUKUS announcement captured Chinese diplomats and state media’s attention in the second part of last week, events in Afghanistan were, yet again, the most prominent topic of discussion. Spokespeople Zhao and Hua both spent considerable time on the issue, with Zhao attacking the United States for covering up civilian deaths and enriching itself off of the war, and Hua pleading for dialogue and a smooth transition “on a path to peace.” Zhao also used his Tuesday press conference to break down a cartoon Hua had posted the previous week about the latest U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan titled, sarcastically, “the funeral of two-year-old terrorists.” Both also retweeted the same video of Julian Assange claiming that the war in Afghanistan was initiated for the purpose of U.S. “money laundering.” Other diplomats followed suit, with some vehemently criticizing the United States and others focusing on a possible way forward for Afghanistan.
Former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blasted the “US, UK, Australia, and France – all self-proclaimed champions of non-proliferation” for their participation in a submarine agreement that will bring nuclear-powered subs to a new navy. (France, of course, is not participating in the deal.) He further described the deal as a “SERIOUS PROLIFERATION THREAT” and warned that “the world is watching.” Some in the Tehran-linked press sought to play up disputes within the NATO alliance, with Fars News amplifying the most hostile exchanges between the Australian and French diplomatic and defense establishments. Press TV used the submarine news as a hook to establish a false equivalency between a recent train-based ballistic missile test by North Korea and a recent submarine-launched ballistic missile test by South Korea, and the outlet criticized the United States for issuing a statement only about the North Korean test.
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Abbas Salehi continued to harshly criticize the Taliban on Twitter this week, though most in the Iranian media and government have taken a more ambivalent or “wait-and-see” approach. A Press TV story, for example, seemed to mock the anti-Taliban resistance in Panjshir and reported on equipment they had left behind as they fled the Taliban advance. Most stories focused on harm done by the U.S. occupation or withdrawal or on the ways in which Iran is helping the Afghan people. The bid of the Islamic Republic of Iran to become the 9th permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a political, economic, and security alliance covering much of Central Asia) was accepted at the organization’s summit in Dushanbe. The other permanent members are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Iranian diplomats and journalists promoted Iran’s acceptance into the organization, as it helps the regime frame itself as a responsible regional partner on security issues, with the foreign ministry highlighting a meeting between Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
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