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Russia’s disinformation war

by
01 March 2024

Putin is stepping up efforts to discredit and vilify Ukraine, argues Jonathan Luxmoore

Alamy

President Putin listens to Patriarch Kirill speak at the plenary session of the World Russian People’s Council, in November

President Putin listens to Patriarch Kirill speak at the plenary session of the World Russian People’s Council, in November

THE second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale assault on its Ukrainian neighbour provides an opportunity to take stock of how the war has affected the two countries, and what the bloody conflict has meant for Christians around the world.

When President Putin launched his much-vaunted “special military operation”, known by its Russian acronym as SVO, on 24 February 2022, his stated aim was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine, while simultaneously resisting Western efforts to “impose pseudo-values” on Russia.

According to Putin’s understanding of history, Ukrainians had never really existed as a separate nation. They had been allowed to have their own state after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but they had been manipulated and tempted into going it alone and venturing outside the “Russian world”. So Russia was now obliged to reincorporate them — and this would all be done in a few days.

President Putin badly miscalculated, falling victim to the military vainglory and imperial hubris that have plagued Russia for centuries. But the essential message, repeated by Putin’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and other officials, has remained unchanged: Russia has not invaded Ukraine, they say; it has acted in self-defence, while saving Russian-speakers in the Donbas from “abuse and genocide”.

A similar justification was referred to by Hitler for his attack on Poland in 1939; and, sure enough, emotive associations with valiant Russian sacrifices during the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War have been promoted to maximum effect.


YET Moscow’s professed purpose has also expanded in the two years since — helped by the inflammatory ideological incitements delivered week after week by Patriarch Kirill, in his “First Hierarchical Word” sermons on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Kirill backed the war initially in hopes of reclaiming his Church’s lost resources in Ukraine and stifling the country’s Orthodox “schismatics”. From his glittering monastic ivory tower, he now believes that Moscow is engaged in a wider mission to save authentic Christian truths from satanic corruption by a debased and decadent West. The mission is gaining enthusiastic support from like-minded forces around the world, the Patriarch assures his audiences; and the resulting accumulation of military and spiritual power is making Russia “truly invincible”.

This collective psychosis guarantees Mr Putin a further term as President — after 24 years at the top — in elections this month. It has also, in effect, given the Russian state the hallmarks of fascism: a single unassailable leader and expanding war economy, backed by mass fear and hysteria; the elevation of national symbols; the suppression of opposition and independent views; and permanent mobilisation against perceived enemies.

The myth of Russia’s “massive war machine” has been severely dented by its failures and losses in Ukraine. But Moscow’s capacity for disinformation remains as adept as ever; and well-meaning Western Christians should be especially wary.


IF THERE were ever doubts about Ukrainian self-awareness, the bitter experience of a war for survival has removed them, instilling a sense of national identity and pride forged in the face of deprivation and suffering, and helped by the extraordinary leadership of President Zelensky.

But exhaustion and sorrow have taken their toll, fuelling anxieties about the national struggle’s long-term sustainability, as Western support appears to waver. And this is where Russian propagandists are likely to focus their efforts, building on President Putin’s bid to discredit and vilify Ukrainians in the eyes of world opinion.

As an impoverished former Soviet republic, Ukraine was dealt a poor hand when its independence was ratified by a national referendum and recognised by the United Nations in December 1991. It has since made great efforts, enduring crisis and instability, to build democratic institutions, fight corruption, and ensure the rule of law, in hopes of one day qualifying to join the European Union.

Its gains in all these areas have, of course, been endangered by the war. But we should not be fooled into thinking that this somehow reflects national failings, or a drift towards authoritarianism which might justify Russian accusations.

Similarly, the claim that religious freedom is being undermined in Ukraine should be treated with great caution. Ukraine’s Security Service has so far initiated proceedings against 73 Orthodox clergy for supporting Russia’s invasion, obtaining 22 court verdicts. Given the murky depths to which Orthodox communities are being used, it is surprising that number is not higher.

Contrary to some claims, meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s much-criticised draft law 8371, held up for a year to comply with international standards, will not ban the country’s Moscow-linked Orthodox Church, the UOC, but merely gives authorities the power to examine whether religious groups are maintaining ties with “a state carrying out armed aggression against Ukraine”. In the current struggle for national survival, this does not seem unreasonable.

As numerous church statements on this second war anniversary have suggested, Christians in Britain and around the world should stand firm with Ukraine and brook no accommodation with Moscow, as long as its callous, misguided actions continue.

They should also have no dealings with the Russian Orthodox Church as long as Patriarch Kirill remains at its helm, cocooned in a super-reality of myth and fantasy, spurring on Russia’s authoritarian rulers to ever greater brutality.

Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing (Books, 23 May 2016).

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