An old meme reappeared on Facebook on 18 March, the eve of the Russian presidential elections, in a clear attempt to bolster the Russian regime’s democratic legitimacy and wrap the Russian electoral process in a mystic cloak. However, despite the meme’s biblical tone, as well as the ecstatic attitude of Putin adorers on social media, the effort by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to implant a positive narrative could not overpower the scandal about the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK. In Romania, this international scandal undermined the pro-Putin propaganda efforts, but unfortunately revived some of the classic anti-West narratives.
Putin’s unsurprising victory sparked a rare demonstration of pure propaganda. A Sputnik editorialist presented Putin as “the best son of Mother Russia” and as nothing less than a savior, very much in line with the messianic tone abounding online among pro-Putin groups and pages.
The propaganda campaign surrounding the Russian presidential elections allowed Putin’s Romanian adorers to align with other international Putin supporters and redistribute positive content atypical of the flurry of otherwise negative narratives distributed by Russian disinformation in Romania – both anti-Western stories and those focused on domestic politics. Romanian propagandists took the opportunity to blow new life into older narratives and – as in the above-mentioned Sputnik article – restate some of the main pro-Kremlin narratives: the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine was a Western-orchestrated coup; the annexation of Crimea was a rightful restoration of Russian territory; Putin brought order and prosperity to the country; and so on. In brief, the Kremlin propaganda machine described the elections as one step in the transformation from President to Leader, a formal confirmation that Putin is the incarnation of the holiness of the Russian people.
But the general adulation of the Russian president was brief. Western support of the British retaliation to the Skirpal poisoning caused the Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus to switch back into confrontation mode. The fog of doubt generated by the Kremlin around the Skripal case has been exposed and debunked by the UK Foreign Office as well as the EU’s East Stratcom team.
Russian media accused the West of fabricating the Skripal case as a means of attacking Russia, reinforcing pre-existing stories about Russia as a peaceful but besieged country that needs to defend itself. Also reactivated were War with Russia narratives and assertions that Romania is unprepared for war (mainly because the country been cheated by the Americans, who sold it an ineffective Patriot missile defense system). In some cases these articles, using misleading titles to spread panic and confusion, did not come from known pro-Kremlin outlets, but rather from media with no apparent tie to pro-Russian outlets. Old memes about Russia’s military superiority and, in contrast, the destruction brought about by the West, flooded pro-Russian Facebook groups. The goal of such an information maneuvering is to exemplify the duplicity of the West and its pernicious, self-debilitating actions.
The Romanian online disinformation environment shows just how well-coordinated is the attempt to develop Putin’s personality cult after his electoral victory. But the need to counter the West’s reaction to the Skirpal case blunted the effectiveness of the pro-Putin propaganda. As a result, Russian propagandists missed an opportunity to project and build a positive, pro-Kremlin narrative after the Putin election victory. Still, the pro-Kremlin disinformation machinery provided yet another by-the-book manipulation campaign and a recapitulation of the main anti-Western narratives. The machine hinted at conspiracies, revived older narratives that were reinforced by repetition, weaponized emotions, and sowed distrust in democratic institutions within western populations. In Romania, undermining the credibility of the country’s Western partners by cultivating doubts their reliability and the wisdom of the strategic choice Romania has made to join the Western alliance, may prove more successful in swaying the populace than efforts to lionize Putin.