As the United States continues to investigate the massive leak of classified Pentagon documents that include key strategic insights into plans for a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russian propaganda is trying to make the most of the situation (Euromaidan Press, April 10). In doing this, propagandists are utilizing diametrically opposing messages.
On the one hand, they argue that the leaks have caused enormous reputational damage to the US. Russian expert Malek Dudakov notes that the further evidence regarding the United States watching its allies has already angered Israel and South Korea. Dudakov’s assumption is that “many are threatening that they will share less intelligence with America. And I believe that this can really happen” (Lenta.ru, April 11).
On the other, many pro-Kremlin experts insist that the published information is a carefully planned disinformation campaign by US intelligence agencies. According to these commentators, it indicates that Washington is reconsidering its position on aid to Ukraine and looking for an excuse to cut back. The propagandists claim that the “uncontrollable” behavior of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or difficulties in relations with allies could serve as a pretext for such a move (YouTube, April 9).
It seems that betting on the weakening of Western aid to Ukraine is indicative of growing desperation in the Kremlin, considering its inability to score any significant military victories and proliferating rumors of an impending Ukrainian counteroffensive. To this end, besides stoking fears of World War III (Izvestiya, March 11) and claiming that sanctions are mostly hurting Western countries (Sputnik.kg, April 18, 2022), Moscow is actively trying to demonize Ukraine.
As the Russian oppositionists note, the purpose of such an approach is to create a negative image of the victim, which can alienate, if not Western, then at least neutral countries. This opinion was expressed by Russian opposition political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky when discussing the murder of a pro-Putin war correspondent and ex-combatant Maxim Fomin, known under the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky (YouTube, April 5).
Fomin died on April 2 in a cafe in St. Petersburg, where he held a meeting with some of his fans. A former supporter of Alexei Navalny and a participant in anti-war rallies, 26-year-old Daria Trepova, has been accused of his murder. Allegedly, Trepova brought a bust of Tatarsky to the meeting, which contained explosives. The resulting explosion killed the propagandist on the spot and injured several dozen people (Vedomosti.ru, April 3).
In the following days, several versions have cropped up regarding how the attack was carried out. According to the official statement from the Russian Federal Security Service, the attack was organized by the Ukrainian security services, which took advantage of a girl with dissident views. Trepova herself claims that she thought she was working for Ukrainian journalists and carried out their task believing that the bust contained a wiretap, not explosives. She claims that the people she worked for framed her (V1.ru, April 4).
Many experts are inclined to believe that the 26-year-old was used “blindly” by some groups within the Russian elite that decided to settle scores with the “inconvenient” military correspondent Fomin, who had repeatedly criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense. Opposition politician Gennady Gudkov, a former officer of the Soviet and Russian security services, believes that the criminal past and meteoric rise of Fomin made him objectionable to rival groups. Gudkov also believes that the murder could be a signal of increased internal repressions within Russia (24tv.ua, April 4).
Some experts also accept the version that the Russian security services themselves initiated the attack to place blame on Ukraine as well as Russian anti-war dissidents. Yet, these same commentators do not exclude the possibility that the murder could have been committed by radical representatives of the “anti-war underground.” Formally, the so-called “National Republican Army” associated with former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev claimed responsibility for the explosion (News.ru, April 4). However, many observers consider this version to be “unlikely” (Echofm.online, April 3).
At the same time, Pastukhov and Khodorkovsky agree that the Kremlin does not need any special pretext to intensify domestic repressions. In their opinion, the repressive authorities can imprison up to 10,000 political prisoners right now, and this would cause little outrage in Russian society. They believe that making Ukraine look like a “terrorist state” is necessary not so much for internal propaganda but rather for the external audience. Against this backdrop, these analysts say that the image of Ukraine as a victim of aggression may fade, and as a result, neutral states will begin to present this war as a local conflict, in which it is difficult to determine who is to blame (YouTube, April 5).
The opinion of opposition experts also resonates with the conclusions of pro-Kremlin political scientists, who claim that it would be quite easy to form a negative attitude in Russian society toward pro-Ukrainian citizens. They also warn the state against exaggerating the danger to avoid causing excessive anxiety and fears throughout society (Tlgrm.ru/russica2, April 7).
Ultimately, Moscow is seriously concerned with its image in non-Western countries and is actively trying to increase its influence in countries of the Global South (referring generally to the low to middle income states across Africa, Asia and Latin America) and the East (see EDM, April 11). However, despite the titanic efforts of repressive agencies and propagandists, several points here work against the Kremlin. To begin with, regardless of who exactly used Trepova and for what purpose, her very experience suggests that there are Russians who are ready to fight against the war, even if it means putting themselves in harm’s way. This is also evidenced by the example of former Federal Protective Service officer Gleb Karakulov, who recently spoke out against the war (Dossier Center, April 4).
Moreover, overly optimistic hopes for a change in Western policy and increased support from the East also suggest that Russia does not have the internal resources to win the war against Ukraine (see EDM, April 10). As such, one can only hope that the international community will not succumb to the Kremlin’s provocations and forget who is the real victim and who is the true aggressor in this war.