Moscow’s approach to the 1 October referendum in Catalonia—in which 90 percent of the 40 percent of the electorate who participated supported independence from Spain—highlighted an important contradiction in Russian foreign policy. On one hand, the Kremlin claims it staunchly defends the autonomy of the nation-state in the international system. On the other, Catalonia’s independence movement presented Moscow with a tantalizing opportunity to undermine a key U.S. ally and crucial key member of both NATO and the European Union. Although its coverage to some extent reflected these conflicting approaches, the Kremlin media largely focused on spreading narratives designed to undermine the status quo.
Calling the referendum an “internal Spanish matter,” most Russian officials declined
to officially comment on the independence vote or on the accompanying violence that saw hundreds injured as police used batons and tear gas against crowds of Catalans. The Russian Foreign Ministry echoed that line on 2 October , prompting the Spanish Embassy in Moscow to tweet its gratitude
at Moscow’s stance on the “illegal referendum.”
Individual officials, however, were highly critical of Spain’s actions. Lawmaker Andrei Klimov accused the West of hypocrisy, contrasting its “silence” on the violence in Spain with reactions to events in Ukraine in February 2014, when, Western leaders called on Kyiv not to use force against protesters during the Euromaidan unrest that ultimately forced Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from office. Aleksei Pushkov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker and chair of the Federation Council's committee on information policy, echoed that sentiment via Twitter, complaining about Europe’s double standards: "In Catalonia the police [have] started beating peacefully protesting people who are not making provocations. PACE and the OSCE will definitely not notice this. Democracy!”
Russian state media, including Sputnik, RT, and Pravda, disseminated reports more consistently favorable to Catalan independence. Evidence
suggests the Russian media also played
up tensions in the region. Sputnik ran articles that highlighted corruption in the Spanish government, and quoted North Korean officials about the lack of conflict resolution in Spain. Other major media narratives included:
An emphasis on state-led violence against pro-independence Catalonians.
Highlighting Catalonia’s impending declaration of independence with little discussion of legal issues, other options, or Madrid’s point of view.
Discussions of the potential “ripple effect” of Catalan independence in other European countries, particularly to delegitimize democracy and expose European “hypocrisy” (these mainly concern Kosova, but they also include ethnic minorities in France and the Walloons in Belgium).
Focusing on the pro-independence views of Catalonia’s iconic soccer members team FC Barcelona, as well as a tongue-in-cheek Twitter exchange regarding what league FC Barcelona team might play when Catalonia becomes independent.
Speculating that Brussels had “ordered” Madrid to carry out “repressive action” to nip the referendum in the bud.
The most striking feature of Sputnik’s coverage was the attention it paid to the tweets of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. According to El País, Assange was the principal international commentator for Sputnik on Catalonia. Two machine scans of Twitter traffic using the word “Catalonia” on 20 and 24 September revealed the WikiLeaks founder to be the most-mentioned user, with more retweets than any other.
Writing on Facebook, pro-Kremlin political commentator Sergei Markov—a former lawmaker for the ruling United Russia party—said Moscow’s “very cautious” position was the result of several factors. Russia, he said, believed interfering more overtly would be “counterproductive” and that the EU would notice its good behavior. He added: “The allegations in the U.S. are more than enough. Russia is literally being hounded”—a reference to allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election which brought Donald Trump to victory. Nonetheless, Markov wrote, Moscow wanted to “underline that the European Union has no moral right to lecture Russia.” He added that Russia had no particular “compassion” for Spain, which it sees as part of the front of Western powers pressuring Russia with sanctions. “So Russia for the moment is silent, and Russian television stations are focusing on the violence in Catalonia,” Markov wrote.