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How Russia Misled South Africans on the Russia-Ukraine War

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked the continuation of its regional conquest that began in 2014. Initially aiming to annex Ukraine entirely, Russia's ambitions quickly faltered, leading to a prolonged conflict concentrated in the eastern Donbas region. - writes Štephan Dubček.

This war, which has been ongoing for 2 years now, has seen severe casualties among Ukrainian civilians, destroyed critical infrastructure, and triggered mass displacement not seen since the Second World War. Meanwhile, Russia's reputation in the international community, among which it is now considered a pariah state, has been severely tarnished by reports of extensive violations of the laws of war. Its embassies around the world, including in Pretoria, have been engaged in a sophisticated misinformation campaign aimed at positively tilting public opinion, especially in the developing world, in Moscow’s favour.

As with many Russian missions abroad, the Russian Embassy based in Pretoria has been engaged in an aggressive social media campaign on X (formerly Twitter) which seeks to flip the tables and portray Moscow as a victim of Western and NATO aggression. Between February and April 2024, the embassy was responsible for the publications of 466 posts, also reposting 231 old pieces of content, and amplifying 66 pieces of propaganda from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to its 171,000 followers. These efforts resulted in nearly 24 million views and almost 800,000 engagements, showcasing the substantial reach of their campaign.

Visual representation of the themes and narratives identified in the X (formerly Twitter) posts shared by the Russian Embassy in South Africa. The larger the word, the higher occurrence of the word or phrase.

An analysis by the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC) highlights the embassy's strategic focus. Instead of  promoting bilateral relations between Moscow and Pretoria, or furthering the country’s economic aims at a time of severe crisis, the embassy’s activity on social media has instead focused on pushing two primary narratives, namely portraying the U.S. and the West more generally as imperial aggressors. This narrative employs South Africa's historical grievances, and seeks to align Russia with anti-colonial sentiment that the embassy believes will resonate with citizens. Posts also glorify Russia's military prowess and depict Ukraine's leadership as a "Nazi" regime which is supported by Western imperialism.

The central message which these efforts seek to promote is that Russia is not an aggressor at all. Rather, Moscow should rightly be seen as the last sole defender against Western encroachment, defending its allies in the developing world in particular from modern day imperialistic tendencies. Posts oft claim that NATO is establishing bases in Ukraine with an eye towards threatening Russia and its allies and that the government of Ukraine has no legitimacy, but instead, is a terrorist regime. Top of the agenda, according to the embassy, should be the "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine.

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Through these social media efforts, the Russian military is praised for standing up to these threats. President Putin's rhetoric is amplified, drawing “obvious” connections to Russia's historical resistance to Western attempts at domination. Efforts are pushed forward without any regard for Russian losses throughout the course of the conflict, and without any regard for the severe economic impact. A Rand Corporation report estimated that the war cost Russia between $81 billion and $104 billion in GDP losses in 2022 alone. This does not even account for the sheer cost of its military campaign, only focusing on the cost to the economy. The Military Balance in a 2024 report, noted that Russia lost over 2,900 battle tanks, about as many as it had in active inventory at the start of the operation in Ukraine.

The Embassy in South Africa engages with local influencers, with an eye towards having them amplify relevant narratives. Julius Malema, the leader of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) organization, has taken up the call and vocally supported Russia, framing the conflict as something which must be supported as it is a stand against imperialism. In an interview with the BBC, Malema expressed his desire to "align and arm" Russia against imperialist forces, such as the United States, Europe and their allies. Similarly, student leader Nkosinathi Mabilane of UNISA, the largest correspondence university in the world spoke out praising Russia's historical resilience against Western expansionism. This was done through the drawing of far-fetched parallels between Russia’s current actions and its past resistance against Western colonial forces. Mabilane, at a diplomatic event with the Russian Ambassador Ilya Rogachev, the student leader praised Russia’s stance against Western imperialism, urging fellow citizens of South Africa to see Russia as a model of sovereignty and independence to be emulated and replicated.

TikTok has also been used as a means of getting the message across. Influencers such as Lulama Anderson has been recruited to disseminate Russian propaganda. One such video, which attracted around 1.8 million views, made the false claim that Russia is winning the war despite Western military support. Another such video made the case against Ukraine joining NATO, as it has the potential to ignite World War III. This further echoed Mabilane's earlier remarks about the West pushing smaller nations toward global conflict, identifying a coordinated effort to push similar messaging.

The Ukrainian Embassy in South Africa's social media presents a very different reality, with a minimal presence. From January to April 2024, anything which it did post was primarily focused on the documentation of Russian aggression. It made a point of highlighting the destruction of critical infrastructure, and called for an end to the war alongside the return of prisoners of war and abducted children in line with international law. Even the posts by the Russian Embassy’s account which were not directly related to the war, ended up finding a military connection. Such were the two posts celebrating South Africa's Freedom Day, which ended up being posts nostalgically recalling Russia's support during South Africa’s liberation struggle, and naturally depicting Russia as a longstanding ally.

The disparity in the volume on the respective social media accounts underscores the Russian Embassy's rather aggressive strategy to dominate the online space and thought, to win South African hearts and minds. Ignoring the reality on the ground in what is a blatant attempt to dictate reality as Moscow sees it, the embassy's tweets often paise Russia and President Putin for efforts to eliminate what it calls, the “Nazi Kyiv regime”, all the while ignoring completely the heavy toll on Russia’s economy and military capacity. A post on May 9th for example, quoted Putin, asserting that the Russian Armed Forces' actions in Ukraine are proof of Russian military valour, likening soldiers to their ancestors who fought in the Great Patriotic War.

This aggressive misinformation campaign has been bolstered by local influencers and political figures, with a very clear aim in mind; the distortion of public understanding of the war. It is crucial for South Africans to critically evaluate the information they find in the online sphere, look for counterbalancing perspectives, and most importantly, only rely on credible sources. This becomes ever more important as global conflicts play out in the digital realm. Media literacy and critical thinking are thus becoming paramount for counteracting the pervasive influence of propaganda.

Russia's strategy in South Africa reflects a broader geopolitical tactic which it employs in other locales as well; that of narrative control. Through the unabashed manipulation of historical fact and with the help of local influencers perceived by the public to be reliable, Russia seeks to undermine international support for Ukraine and reposition itself as the true victim of Western aggression. The integrity of the global information environment is dependent on our ability to differentiate between truth and manipulation with an eye towards promoting more informed understanding and when necessary, debate, in this era of toxic misinformation.

Štephan Dubček received his graduate degree student at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice and is currently advancing his research on the history of colonial legacies in Africa.

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