Diplomacy by disinformation: Russian embassies’ role in Kremlin’s information war

Just days after the European Union imposed sanctions on Russian state media over the spread of propaganda, the Russian embassy in Bulgaria launched a new format on its social media channels.

On March 11 2022, by way of pre-recorded video, ambassador Eleonora Mitrofanova started her “weekly briefings on currents affairs on the international agenda and the state of bilateral relations”. The initiative was explained with the need to respond to “the growing anti-Russian rhetoric.”

Since the EU introduced sanctions on Kremlin media like RT and Sputnik in March 2022, Moscow has been forced to rely much more on its diplomats abroad for spreading its information influence. The Russian government’s employees in the EU and other Western countries are to a great extent in a position of diplomatic isolation. They are not invited to official events or meetings and their contacts with local authorities are reduced to a minimum. Meanwhile, their presence on social media is growing.

On Twitter, for example, the overall number of posts by Russian diplomatic missions increased by 26 per cent in just a month after the war began. This is according to the Hamilton Dashboard – a database created by the German Marshall Fund to track the public messages coming from Russia and other states through media and social networks. The data shows also that the number of reactions and retweets of the Russian embassies’ posts over the same interval grew by over 200 per cent, while the disinformation in them became more blatant and aggressive.

Russian missions’ tweets are shared repeatedly by a number of profiles created since February 2022, which raises suspicions of a coordinated information operation according to an internal EU report quoted by Politico. Similar conclusions were reached by a Canadian investigation last year, which found that the majority of retweets of posts by the Russian embassy in Ottawa came from profiles created since February 2022.

One of the diplomatic missions with a record growth in Twitter followers was the Russian embassy in London – their number increased by 93 per cent since February 2022 and is currently over 190 000. In the same interval the embassy published an average of nine tweets every day, while its publications were liked 1.4 million times overall and were retweeted almost half a million times. Another very influential mission on Twitter is the one in Tokyo – it has fewer followers but way more tweets. It tweeted an average of 22 times a day since the beginning of the war. The embassies in Spain, Italy, Mexico and South Africa are also particularly active and popular.

The main task of Russia’s missions abroad is to disseminate and amplify the official positions of the state and the foreign ministry. The Russian foreign ministry itself strengthened its social media presence since the war began. Since then it has acquired over a quarter of a million new followers on Twitter and the social media profiles of all Russian embassies on a number of platforms reproduce all the statements of foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and spokesperson Maria Zakharova to their audiences. In 2022 and 2023 for example, the Facebook profile of the Russian embassy in Sofia presented 50 statements by Lavrov and over 35 by Zakharova to its followers. Those statements contained claims typical for Russian propaganda. The embassies also publish links to articles on Russian media as well as their own content.

The Russian embassy in Sofia continued publishing its “weekly briefings” on social media through May 2022. On Facebook, where the mission’s profile has 66 000 followers, the March 11 video was seen 27 000 times, it provoked 400 comments and 2800 reactions. The content was also shared on the embassy’s Telegram channel, where the video was seen 3800 times and had about 200 interactions.

Although the format is not in use any longer, the Russian embassy continues to spread false and misleading claims on social media. Other Russian embassies around the world are also busily engaged in the same activities. Factcheck.bg collected some of the claims they have been spreading.

Russia uses the term “denazification”, coined to describe processes in Germany after the Second World War, as an attempt to justify its illegal attack against Ukraine. Like in many other countries in Europe, there are also fringe neo-nazi groups in Ukraine. However, they are not represented in parliament and can not be considered politically influential. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky himself is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust.

According to the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner 8490 civilians had been killed in Ukraine by April 2023 and over 500 of them were children. Since the beginning of the war, Russia has hit a large number of civilian targets, among which residential buildingsschoolshospitalsevacuation corridors, a breadline in Chernihiv, the train station in Kramatorsk, the theatre in Mariupol, the hospital in Izyum, a shopping centre in Kremenchuk and many, many more.

The accounts of mass murders of civilians in Bucha are “a cynical, horrible provocation in the style of the nazi-fascist forces during the Second World War,” says a Facebook post by the Russian embassy in Sofia published on April 3, a year from the day when the tragic events took place. The claims that Bucha was a staged provocation were also spread by other Russian embassies – they are present in 26 tweets by the embassy in London, 19 by the one in Madrid and nine by the Russian embassy in Mexico.

The Russian army’s war crimes in Bucha have been described in detail in a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. According to a BBC report there were over 1000 civilians killed during the city’s occupation, at least 650 of whom were shot by Russian soldiers. Associated Press journalists says they saw dozens of bodies in the streets of Bucha, while at least 13 were found in and around a building used as a base by the Russian army according to locals. The agency’s reporters on the ground say many of the vicitms had been shot at close range, while some had their hands tied and a group of six people had been burned together.

The narrative about the existence of American biolaboratories in Ukraine, allegedly developing biological weapons, has been used as justification for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine since as far back as 2014. During this time it has been evolving and adapting to current contexts. Those claims come from Russian state institutions or from Kremlin-controlled media and are not based on any real evidence.

The Kremlin has been using energy resources as an instrument to create insecurity and exert pressure. The US actually overtook Russia as the number one oil supplier on the European market as early as March 2022. The EU also increased its oil imports from other sources like Norway, Kazakhstan, the Middle East and West Africa. The diversification of deliveries allowed the EU to impose a ban on the import of Russian oil by sea, which entered into effect in December 2022. The embargo did not have a significant effect on oil prices, which stabilised around levels lower than those in the months leading up to the war.

On October 23 2022 Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Ukraine of preparing a provocation through the use of a so-called “dirty bomb” – a conventional bomb containing radioactive waste, which an explosion could spread over a large area. The allegations were made by Shoigu in phone calls to the defence ministers of the US, UK, France and Turkey.

Over the next few days, the claim about an imminent radioactive incident were repeated publicly by Russian institutions and were shared multiple times by the profiles of Russian foreign missions on social media. In the interval October 25 to 27, the Russian embassy in Sofia shared two Facebook posts warning about the “dirty bomb” prepared by Ukraine according to the Kremlin. The posts have over 100 comments in total and were shared more than 340 times. The same content was published on the embassy’s Telegram channel, where the two posts were seen 1300 and 1400 times respectively.

The Kremlin’s claims about the “dirty bomb” Ukraine was presumably going to use on its own territory were also spread by Russian diplomatic missions on Twitter. They featured for example in nine tweets by Moscow’s embassy in Spain, seven by the Russian mission to the UN and three by the embassy in London. Twitter’s moderation has labelled those tweets as false or misleading and potentially harmful to vulnerable populations. No such measure was introduced to mark the diplomats’ posts on Facebook or Telegram.

According to US think tank Institute for the Study of War the likely goal of the disinformation campaign was to provoke fear, slow down or stop military aid and weaken the unity among NATO countries in their support for Ukraine.

An inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency did not find any evidence in support of Russia’s allegations. Although the warnings about radioactive pollution never came true, the claim that Ukraine was working on a “dirty bomb” was repeated by Sergei Shoigu in December 2022 and was shared yet again by Russia’s diplomatic missions on social media.

On May 2 2014, during clashes between pro-Ukrainian activists and pro-Russian separatists in Odessa a fire broke out at the Trade Unions House, killing 42 people. Russian propaganda describes the events as deliberate arson, claiming that the victims were “burned alive” because of their pro-Russian beliefs. Posts to that effect marked the anniversary of the events on the Facebook profile of the Russian embassy in Sofia in 2022 and 2023. The same posts were also published on Telegram. Over the past year posts on that topic also appeared on the Twitter profiles of the Russian embassies in South Africa, Paris, Berlin, London, as well as Moscow’s mission to the OSCE, which has mentioned Odessa on Twitter 20 times since the beginning of the war.

The misrepresentation of events in Odessa in 2014 is part of a major propaganda narrative used by the Kremlin to incite hatred against Ukrainians among the Russian population. The Ukrainian side has been criticised by international organisations for failing to hold anyone responsible for the deaths in the fire. However, an investigation group comprised of representatives from both countries concluded the clashes were the result of a provocation on behalf of the pro-Russian side and the fire at the Trade Unions House was not caused deliberately.

The story about Russia as a guardian of spirituality and the Orthodox Christian faith is not new. Russia’s diplomatic missions contribute to it regularly by publishing photographs of churches in different parts of the country on social media – the embassy in London alone posted over 50 such images over the last couple of years.

The image of Russia as the bearer of a superior Orthodox spirituality includes the understanding that all its opponents or critics are morally depraved enemies of the Christian faith, among whom Ukraine holds a prominent position. Over the last few months Kremlin propaganda has been actively promoting disinformation about hostility against Orthodoxy and persecutions of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine. Those claims are being used to incite hatred towards Ukrainians and justify the military aggression against the country among Orthodox Christians in Russia, as well as other countries, including Bulgaria. 

The Russian embassy in Sofia has been contributing to that effort too, through several Facebook and Telegram posts over the past months.

In March, the Russian embassy in Sofia shared a statement by Zakharova, where she expressed concern about the situation of Ukrainian refugee children in the EU member states. In her statement she claimed that child protection services in Europe were specifically targeting Ukrainian refugees and taking away their children in large numbers. The statement came only days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued an arrest warrant for president Vladimir Putin and the Russian children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova because of the illegal deportation of thousands of children from the occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia. Zakharova’s words were widely shared by the profiles of Russian diplomatic missions on social media.

The claims about large numbers of Ukrainian refugee children removed from their families in EU countries are not based on any actual evidence. They are part of the large-scale Russian narrative of the West as enemy of the family and traditional values.

By creating their own “echo-chambers” on social media, Russia’s diplomatic missions can at least partially compensate for the restrictions imposed by the EU and other western countries on the spread of disinformation by Kremlin-controlled media. In this way representatives of the Russian state can speak directly to the citizens of “unfriendly countries”, just as Mitrofanova did in her “weekly briefings” last year. And when their messages are reproduced by other profiles, even if those were created specifically for the purpose, the messages can echo louder, creating the impression of a genuine engagement of the public with the Kremlin’s positions.

(Screenshot of Mitrofanova via BNT)

This article first appeared on factcheck.bg

Vassilena Dotkova

Vassilena Dotkova is a graduate of Sofia University with a degree in English. She has worked in print and online media. As editor at the printed daily Dnevnik and the news website dnevnik.bg she was part of a team covering environmental issues and the green transition. Her other interests include diverse areas such as literature, sociolinguistics, social sciences and international relations. She has translated fiction and philosophical works from English into Bulgarian. She spent years of her life in the UK and Scandinavia and also has a working knowledge of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.