The U.S. Department of State details how, amongst its top “persistent disinformation narratives,” is Russia’s “innocent victim” Russophobia argument. Indeed, Putin’s use of racism and Russophobia to support his attack on Ukraine mirrors the strategies of his Kremlin predecessors.
The term “Russophobia” emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period of mass socio-political upheaval in Europe, the Kremlin struggled to maintain a monarchist system and keep the Russian Empire together. The term “Russophobia” became a tool to suppress the arguments of oppositionists across the empire.
Putin is leveraging this tactic again during the war in Ukraine. He has repeatedly claimed that the Ukrainian government is “openly neo-Nazi;” the Russian imperialist has tied these accusations to the West, arguing that the West’s mission in Ukraine is to “set the task of creating an aggressive ‘anti-Russia.’”
The term has flooded Russian media. Dmitry Medvedev, former President and deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council” criticized the West for provoking “disgusting” Russophobia. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted demands from Maria Zakharova, the Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Information and Press Department, that the West stop promoting Russophobia.” Russia’s MFA also tweeted remarks from Lavrov on how the West has “encouraged the onset of neo-Nazism & Russophobia.”
The Kremlin has flooded the internet space with claims of Russophobia and neo-Nazism to distract from its wrongdoings. During the global fuel crisis stemming from sanctions on Russian oil, a Russian Embassy in USA tweet claimed White House officials were blaming Russia for the crisis “to earn political points on #Russophobia.”
It has become evident to some of Putin’s propagandists that they may face charges in a war crimes tribunal and ironically they are strengthening the case for the prosecution with their own words.
Jakub Janda, a Director of the European Values Center for Security policy in Prague, describes how Russia uses the Russophobia argument in instances like the fuel crisis “to portray itself as the only defender of the Russian world as the supreme one.”
Monika Richter, a Fellow in public diplomacy at the American Foreign Policy Council, emphasizes how Russophobia is a form of “weaponized victimhood” the Kremlin uses “to stoke opposition to supposed Western “hegemony” and to challenge the liberal-democratic consensus of the international order.”
What Russia is doing today is a typical tactic from its KGB Cold War playbook. During the Cold War, the Kremlin disseminated propaganda concerning racism in the United States to provoke domestic tensions. Like Soviet leaders, Putin has leveraged terms such as “neo-Nazi” and “Russophobic” to exploit the morals of Western audiences.
Russia has also historically used disinformation about the West’s racism to hurt the West’s international reputation and redirect blame. The Soviet Union spread propaganda that the U.S. was developing ethnic weapons to target Africans, African-Americans, and Arabs with the U.S.-“made” HIV virus. Similarly, this past March, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, brought claims to the UN that the Pentagon was manufacturing “ethnic weapons” in Ukrainian labs to use as bioweapons against the “Slavic ethnicity.”
Russia’s claims of Russophobia and racism seek to sw chaos and distract the West. E Rosalie Li, a graduate scholar specializing in disinformation at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, details how “People in democracies care about equality and racism. Russia knows this. They are playing into what we care about and weaponizing it against us.”
Ian Garner, a historian of Russian culture and war propaganda, describes how the Kremlin’s weaponization of Russophobia seeks “to infect the public sphere with this discourse of uncertainty where every move we make we have to second-guess whether we are doing things right by our moral standards.”
Indeed, this “discourse of uncertainty” about “moral standards” has bled into Western media. In a recent MSNBC opinion piece, columnist Zeeshan Aleem argues that the West’s domestic punishment of Russia, seen in the cancellations of concerts, films, and other events tied to Russian performers, represents “an ad hoc effort to more broadly stigmatize Russia as a country.”
Russia’s Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoigu, has openly said Russia views information as a weapon and Russia has a long history of using information warfare, including weaponizing Russophobia, to deter the West. So, what should we do about it?
According to Janda, Russia uses Russophobia “as a reflexive control operation” to “paralyze part of Western defense reflexes.” Through reflexive control, Russia disseminates information, like propaganda about the West’s racism, to influence audiences to make decisions desirable to Russia.
Scholars like Garner say fighting against Russophobia is “an impossible battle… Take the example of Tchaikovsky. If we do not play Tchaikovsky they will say why don’t you play it, this is a great art, you are Russophobic. If we do play it, they we simply use it as evidence that Russia is a great country with a great culture.”
Other experts, like Richter, warn that we cannot spare another minute sitting on the sidelines. She stresses how “Democratic governments must learn to be ruthless in pushing back against Russia’s lies and hypocrisy, both at home and abroad, through fact-based public diplomacy and strategic communication.”
Russia is throwing a variety of disinformation into the public sphere to see what can disrupt us. Russia will not stop its weaponization of Russophobia anytime soon. Instead of falling into Russia’s trap, we must take this information war seriously and fight back. While this will require a massive information offensive, as Richter states, “it is indeed possible to fight fire with fire without sacrificing truth or values.