Russian Disinformation in 2022: Following the Historical Blueprint
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, battles are not fought just on the physical battlefield but also online via disinformation campaigns. A key fact to keep in mind is that Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns have not been solely focused on Ukraine in recent years, other post-Soviet states have also been targeted.
Lies and threats
By now the justifications for the Russian invasion of Ukraine are well known. Moscow argues that this special military operation is to “denazify” and remove “extremist” elements from Ukraine that threaten the Fatherland. Russian TV channels have stressed not only constant victories on the ground but also how Ukrainians are supposedly welcoming Russian forces as liberators, while also arguing that the atrocities committed in Bucha are “fake.” Maintaining the support of the Russian population is an obvious priority for the Kremlin, hence facts are either denied or twisted.
For example, regarding the human rights abuses in Bucha, Robert Mackey writes in The Intercept: “Russian viewers, instead of being discouraged from seeing videos that implicate their soldiers in war crimes, have instead been forced to watch the brutal images of dead bodies lining the street of Bucha over and over — but always accompanied by conspiratorial claims that the victims were either actors, pretending to be dead or people who were killed by Ukrainian forces after Russian forces left.”
It is important to note how even regional governments that have cordial and strong ties with Moscow have not escaped accusations and threats in recent years. Kazakhstan is a good example. Nur-Sultan announced in April that it would suspend military parades for the Defender of the Fatherland Day, and Victory Day, due to budgetary concerns. The 2020 and 2021 parades were canceled due to the pandemic. Upon learning about Kazakhstan’s decision, Tigran Keosayan, a Russian TV presenter, threatened the country with a “Ukrainian scenario.”
Again, this is a country with which Moscow has enjoyed three decades of close ties at the diplomatic, trade, and defense levels. Kazakhstan even requested aid from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help restore order during the January protests, which saw Russian troops deployed. At the time, this was viewed as an example of close bilateral ties, however, it seems that Russian policymakers and commentators have no problem threatening Kazakhstan for any domestic policy decision not to their liking.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that such offensive statements have occurred. Back in 2020, in an interview with Russia’s Channel One, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian lawmaker, said, “Kazakhstan simply did not exist, Northern Kazakhstan was not inhabited at all. They (Kazakhs) existed much further south. And the territory of Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union.”
Another Moscow-friendly country that has received such threats is Azerbaijan. Anti-Azerbaijan propaganda campaigns are quite common. For example, there is a conspiracy theory that Azerbaijanis somehow control Saint Petersburg since Governor Alexander Beglov was born in Baku in 1956. “Beglov’s mismanagement of various facilities and services in Russia’s second city and Putin’s hometown was not merely unprofessionalism, but a sinister plan of Britain, Turkey, and their proxy Azerbaijan to quietly destroy Saint Petersburg and make it vulnerable to potential sabotage,” argued a Telegram post from November of 2021, which has been viewed 45,000 times.
Even more, in March, Mikhail Delyagin, another Russian lawmaker, called for the “punishment” of Azerbaijan for “aggressive actions” in Karabakh. Delyagin reportedly even polled his Telegram channel regarding a potential nuclear strike against Azerbaijan’s oil industry. While Delyagin ultimately backtracked from the comments, the damage was already done.
Cleaning Shokay’s name
There is a historical angle to keep in mind here, as Russia has a long history of smear campaigns against individuals, or entire societies, that do not support its policies. One example occurred during Soviet times. I have previously discussed the life and legacy of Mustafa Shokay. While Shokay wrote and worked to unite Turkic people throughout the 1910s-1930s, fate had other plans.
After the defeat of the movement for an independent Turkestan by the Bolsheviks, Mustafa Shokay emigrated to Paris via Istanbul. When the Second World War broke out, he was arrested by the Nazis, and he died in captivity in 1941. Whether it was due to natural causes or murder is up for debate. After the war, the Soviet disinformation machine carried out a smear campaign about Shokay, labeling him a Nazi collaborator – due to his alleged role in creating a Turkic Legion. This was part of Moscow’s plan to create a common, single national identity and erase local identities, and drag Shokay’s name through the mud and his objectives of a united, independent Turkestan, free from Soviet control.
Shokay’s life and legacy continue to be revisited. Case in point, Kazakhstan’s National Academic Library hosted in early April an academic conference titled “Mustafa Shokay’s heritage in domestic and foreign studies,” which included a speech by Dmitry Zhuravlev, Director of the Institute of Regional Problems of the Russian Federation. The conference was sponsored by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Culture and the International Turkic Academy.
The conference described Shokay as “the ideologist of [a] free Turkestan, a fighter for the interests of the Kazakh people.” One of the speakers, Dr. Gulzhaukhar Kokebaeva, professor of History and Ethnology, argued that “an important discovery made by archivists, which [has not been widely reported], is that Mustafa Shokai never collaborated with the Nazis.”
The conference included an exhibition that included “scientific publications, books and articles dedicated to Mustafa Shokay and an exhibition of copies of his manuscripts and letters from the funds of the National Archives of the Republic of Kazakhstan were presented,” explains a media report. The documents also include meetings between Shokay and Alikhan Bukeikhanov, the leader of the Kazakhstani national liberation movement Alash, which demonstrates that Shokay’s dream of a free Turkestan never disappeared.
Disinformation and smear campaigns are vital components of warfare. For individuals like Mustafa Shokay, decades had to pass, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union, for a more truthful and honest analysis of his life and legacy to occur. It is concerning that conspiracy theories and even threats made by the Kremlin are not solely aimed at Ukraine, but even allies like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.