In the context of invasion to Ukraine, narratives about the Western sanctions against Russia are an even more prevalent topic than ever - one out of five messages about the war were focused precisely on economic sanctions. Two main themes are observed: narratives promoting the pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments, and those advocating for the “effective response” to the Russian aggression.
Among the EU members, included in the monitoring, anti-sanction messaging constituted the largest percentage, up to 31% of disinformation messaging, was focused on Slovakia and Hungary, as well as in the Russian-language segment of the Baltics. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban regularly makes anti-sanctions statements that get picked up and broadcasted by pro-Russian messengers across the region. Opposition politicians in Slovakia use the sanctions to criticize the current government in the context of the upcoming parliamentary election, and the issue is also used to serve their Eurosceptic agenda. Throughout the Baltics, propagandists publishing in Russian refer to rising housing tariffs for the population (such as gas and heating) and claim that trade and transport connections with Russia are crucial to sustain the local economy.
In Poland, Russian propaganda is preoccupied by distorted history, and the topic of sanctions is not a major focus. Messages questioning the sanctions were observed in June, but they were not numerous and did not appear to be appealing to the audiences. Infrequent anti-sanction messaging has also been observed in Czechia, particularly in connection with energy issues and domestic political topics.
In Bulgaria and North Macedonia, pro-Kremlin voices often quote and refer to Russian or Western politicians and experts to discredit sanctions. In Bulgaria, sanctions are mentioned predominantly to argue that the country chose “the wrong side” by agreeing to be one of the “marionettes” of the West.
The topic is not prevalent in the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian language segments, as it does not exceed 8% of all the messaging. Latvian and Estonian audiences are targeted with far-right, security-focused (even anti-Russian) and anti-refugee agendas that do not correlate with the anti-sanctions discourse. In Lithuania, the sanctions are primarily debated in the context of the Kaliningrad transit dispute. Although the issue was resolved diplomatically, the alleged danger of what is called “anti-Russian” policies has continued to be widely debated, with economic sanctions being pointed to as a direct source of threats to Lithuanian security.
In Georgia, there has been an alarming trend of increasingly mainstream actors, including government officials at the highest levels, echoing Russian narratives that the West wants to involve Georgia in the war and blame opposition parties for assisting the plot. Anti-sanctions messages are frequent, but they are mostly intended to contribute to the broader picture of Russia’s inevitable victory, and the Western short-sighted, counterproductive approach toward the Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.
In Ukraine, disinformation about sanctions aims to undermine the citizen morale and trust in Western partners by stating that the West is weak and divided, quickly running out of money, and seeking ways to return to “business as usual” with Russia. Pro-Russian actors claim that Western support will end very soon, leaving Ukraine face-to-face with its economic collapse.
Six main narratives were observed in the Russian-based propaganda messages.
1. The EU shot itself in the foot
The phrase “with a sanctions gun, the EU shot itself in the head” was first used by Dmitriy Medvedev on July 12, 2022. A week later, it got echoed by Viktor Orban: “EU shot itself in the lungs.” The statements provoked a wave of publications with “EU shot itself in ...” in headings, that kept circulating for weeks.
This narrative portrays the sanctions’ effect on the EU economy as disastrous. Statistics and economic figures are manipulated to exaggerate the negative consequences of the sanctions on the EU itself. Messengers claim that many businesses across the EU are going bankrupt and are pushing the governments to lift the sanctions, portraying the bottom-up pressure as enormous and the cancellation of the sanctions as inevitable. The sanctions policy is criticized for neglecting the fact that the EU economy is dependent on Russian supplies, namely gas, oil, and wheat.In their articles, the speakers manipulatively ignore the security shortcomings of such dependence and exaggerate the impact of sanctions versus other economic forces.
2. Sanctions are part of the US war against Russia and the EU obeys
This narrative relies on the myth that the US is waging war against Russia and underpins the broader narratives of the American dominance in Europe and the lack of unity in the West. The EU is portrayed as a puppet of the US, with the US not being concerned with the price European citizens will pay, and the sanctions are showcased as a part of the US-Russian economic warfare at the expense of Europeans. The narrative goes as far as to claim that there are forces in Europe who try to resist the US dictatorship,” but the governments are controlled by “weaker, more obedient” individuals.
3. Sanctions provoke conflict
According to this narrative, the West did not leave Russia with any choice but to protect its legitimate interests militarily.
4. The EU’s future will be cold and hungry
The propagandists predict rising inflation, recession, and a massive energy crisis in Europe while pointing out restrictions on energy and food supplies and high prices for food and petrol caused by the sanctions. Figures are manipulated and exaggerated to appeal to citizens’ fears to make an already difficult situation seem impossible. Attempts to use alternative energy and food supplies, such as green energy, are labelled as senseless. The most common prediction is that Europe will be “crawling back” to Russia by the end of autumn. The narrative underpins the broader frame of Kremlin propaganda that Russia is a global power that the West must respect.
5. Sanctions do not harm Russia and even make it stronger
The increasing strength of the Russian rouble is cited as evidence of booming Russian economy. According to this narrative, Russia will easily find alternative markets, such as India or China, for their goods, and receiving payments in alternative currencies will make its economy more diverse and resilient.
6. The US economy is also suffering; the US is seeking ways to restore business with Russia
According to this narrative, the US leads a double life: on one hand, it encourages Europe to persist with sanctions, and on the other hand, the US is pragmatic enough to maintain trade with Russia. Fake stories “exposing” American secret negotiations and trade agreements with Moscow are circulating within the monitored media landscapes. It is claimed that the US economy is being undermined by the sanctions it imposed, and it wants to restore normal economic relations with Russia due to the growing stakes of competition with China.