Russian Disinfo Patterns: the Kremlin's Defensive World Cup Narrative
As some football fans followed Putin’s call not to mix sports and politics, his propaganda outlets did exactly that. Russia is enjoying an unrivalled level of international media attention as thousands of fans have poured into Russia for the FIFA 2018 World Cup. Countries like Ukraine and Netherlands that have suffered death and destruction at the hands of the Kremlin regime sent clear signals to the international community that this year, the tournament is not only about sportsmanship. Protests have been organized and a boycott urged.
In recent years, Russia has found itself more isolated than it has been in decades after a series of actions and accusations that have shaken up international politics. Putin also needed the festival of football to push his domestic approval rating up. Even if the event is short-lived, it serves as a distraction from the severe social and economic failings of his rule.
But even before the tournament started, Putin was able to use it to make gains in the international domain. We observed that a number of narratives involving the World Cup championship have been used by the Kremlin to try and undermine evidence and accusations of its wrongdoing.
In the latest instalment of our ‘Russian Disinfo Patterns’ series, we investigate several examples. Here is what Kremlin wanted you to think about FIFA 2018 before it actually started.
Accusations against Ukraine
Ukraine is one of the countries most targeted by Russian propaganda, and narratives exploiting FIFA 2018 were no exception. Soon after it was clear that the championship would take place in Russia, the Kremlin started using it to attack accusations against it. In the case of Ukraine, the argument that the ‘Ukrainian army will take of advantage of the World Cup to launch an offensive’ was widely used.
There were many examples in shows broadcast on state broadcaster 1TV.ru (Первый канал). One was the talk show Vremya Pokazhet (Время покажет). On 26 February, 2018, a conspiracy theory was presented that there were signs of preparations for possible attacks along the demarcation line and that the number of ‘provocations’ had increased. The commentators on the programme claimed that the main reason to carry out the attacks was to attract the attention of the world community. Empty rooms at the Munich Security conference supposedly demonstrated that Ukraine was losing international attention, and the period of the presidential election in Russia and the World Cup could be a perfect time for ‘provocations’.
On 21 May, 2018, on the same show, the presenter and commentators implied that Ukraine was planning to launch a large-scale offensive in Donbass during the World Cup to provoke a humanitarian disaster and an exodus of the population. According to them, the goal of the Ukrainian army was to create a situation that by autumn would allow Ukraine to push through the idea of bringing in armed international peacekeepers by branding Russia the aggressor.
Lastly, on 6 June, 2018, a report by Interfax news agency commented on a call during Putin’s annual ‘Direct Line’ broadcast, which purports to allow members of the public to freely ask him questions. One of the callers asked Putin about ‘military operations planned by Ukraine’ during the FIFA 2018, citing information allegedly in the possession of the so-called ‘Donetsk People Republic’. Putin said he hoped that such provocations would not happen, because such an attack would have serious consequences for Ukrainian statehood.
There many other examples. As usual, no proof was presented and the claims came in a fevered atmosphere of conspiracy theorising.
Accusations against the United Kingdom
In the case of United Kingdom, the main narrative was that ‘the UK media is trying to sabotage the Russian World Cup’. This narrative appeared soon after the UK took concrete actions to investigate the Skripal poisoning and began discussing a boycott of the tournament. As six more countries started considering a boycott, Russian media pumped out stories to denounce these actions and attack the UK.
Examples of media articles and shows accusing UK media of trying to sabotage the Russia World Cup. Image Sources – Sputnik News, The Moscow Times, Rossija 1.
One of the first mentions of this narrative was noted on Russian state-funded TV channel Russia-1, in the news show Vesti Nedeli (Вести недели) on 13 March, 2018. The show host is Dmitry Kiseliov (Дмитрий Киселев), known as the chief Kremlin propagandist, who relentlessly pushes the official line, often with a sneering tone. He claimed that the UK had staged the attack on Skripal to ‘feed their Russophobia’ and engineer a boycott of the World Cup.
On 13 March, 2018, an article in the Moscow Times said that Russia’s Foreign Ministry had accused Western media of conspiring to sabotage the event because it was “unable to forgive Russia for winning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in a fair fight.”
On 31 May, 2018, Sputnik News published an article quoting the Foreign Ministry's ambassador-at-large, Andrey Nesterenko, who expressed his concerns about the UK media. According to Nesterenko, UK media reports may have been linked to the overall policy of the country's leadership, which wanted to prevent Russia from hosting the tournament.
In this case, accusations made by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs where amplified on Russian media channels. Since many of the articles were published in English, it can be argued that Western countries were the target audience.
We also noted a number of other minor narratives predicated on the World Cup. Despite the smaller numbers of media articles and shows covering these narratives, they show the wide range of possible uses of this narrative.
On 15 September, 2017, an article appeared on the website of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Независимая газета) newspaper, discussing Georgian ex-President Mikhail Saakashvili’s actions in Ukraine. It claimed Saakashvili was carrying out destabilizing activities as part of a CIA plan to disrupt the World Cup and to influence the Russian presidential election. This was one of the earliest uses of FIFA 2018.
On 24 May, 2018, Sputnik News published an article describing the shooting down of MH17 as ‘politicized’. It was written by Serbian analyst Stevan Gajic, a researcher at the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade, who claimed that the MH17 investigation was prejudiced against Russia. Gajic said he was not surprised about the timing of the investigation’s report, since the World Cup was only a couple of weeks away. As happened with the Sochi Olympics, a large amount of negative PR and ‘Russophobic propaganda’ would be unleashed, he claimed.
On 1 June, 2018, a whole show on the NTV (НТВ) channel, Mesto Vstrechi (Место встречи), was dedicated to a discussion of why the West was trying to ‘sabotage’ FIFA 2018. A number of recent Kremlin crimes were presented as attempts by the West to spoil the World Cup. The simulated murder of journalist Arkady Babchenko, the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the downing of MH17 in 2014 were claimed to be part of one big disinformation campaign planned by the West.
As usual with Kremlin information attacks, the World Cup was used to throw a number of narratives against the wall and see what sticks. As our examples show, the defensive narratives started as early as 2017, and were in use right up until the start of the championship. All the main aggressive acts recently committed by the Kremlin were presented as sabotage by the West. However, just as none of these arguments hold water, no surprise attacks were carried out in Donbass by the Ukrainian military.
It is important to understand that in the dark arts of disinformation, the Kremlin is willing to exploit any convenient event to push its agenda, both for domestic and international audiences.
The World Cup is yet another excellent example of the Kremlin’s cognitive dissonance: calling on the world not to mix sports and politics, while at the same time using FIFA 2018 in its disinformation campaigns.
Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.