Disinformation and Propaganda about the Ukrainian Far-Right in Slovakia and Ukraine: Shaping the Narrative

March 24, 2023
Together with our partners from the Slovak NGO Adapt Institute, we decided to monitor and analyze the development of Russia's "Nazism in Ukraine" narrative.

Since the beginning of Ukraine’s EU-integration processes and the country’s Euromaidan protests in 2013, Russian propaganda has been constructing a disinformation campaign to portray Ukraine as a “failed state full of Nazis and radicals."

They have disseminated these narratives with the help of a variety of resources and actors. These messages were first injected into the Ukrainian information environment by pro-Russian media, bloggers, and politicians in order to draw divides between Ukraine's  West and East with emotional appeals about  memory politics, spoken language, and cultural identity. They then appeared in the Russian information environment to discredit and dehumanize Ukrainians by making Russians see them as "Nazis."

In 2022, this "Nazism in Ukraine" messaging was turned into "denazification of Ukraine" as one of the aims of Russia`s full-scale war against Ukraine.

Finally, these narratives appeared in information environments abroad, and in the  EU in particular, distributed by Russia-linked propaganda outlets or far-right and far-left political actors and opinion leaders. In this case, their aim was to cut away at international support for Ukraine and discredit it.

Together with our partners from the Slovak NGO Adapt Institute, we decided to monitor and analyze the development of Russia's "Nazism in Ukraine" narrative. In our study of the Ukrainian and Slovak information environments on Facebook from 21 November, 2013 to 1 May, 2022, we found several consistent patterns. However, there were also a number of country-specific features. The complete study will be published at the end of March 2023.

Ukraine: Historical confrontation and appeal to fighting "Nazism in Ukraine"

Our monitoring of Facebook posts from 2013 to 2022 found 7583 posts containing keywords. It's worth noticing that due to the Ukrainian government shutting down certain actors in 2021 and 2022, particularly big media channels and outlets (Strana.UA, Gazeta Vesti, NEWSONE TV, 112.ua, and Nash) and pro-Russian bloggers (Anatolii Shariy) that shared pro-Russian narratives and used to have big audiences, most posts from the data collection were no longer available or blocked. Thereby, we narrowed this number down to 207 relevant posts disseminating narratives of Russian propaganda. It is important to underline that 2022 saw a significant decrease in the quantity of posts containing Russian propaganda narratives in comparison to  the relative peaks in 2019 and 2021.

  • This could be explained by eternal social and political context in Ukraine.

Firstly, 2019 was the year in which Ukraine held both presidential and parliamentary elections. Thus, propagandistic appeals to  memory politics of WWII, religion, language, East-West divides, and anger about  the Revolution of Dignity can be interpreted as an attempt to create a space for a revanche of pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine.

2021, in turn, had discussions already underway about the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion, and messages can be seen as an attempt to destabilize the situation inside Ukraine.

We found five main narratives: historical confrontation, a "Nazi and radical" Ukrainian government and society, Western support for  "Nazism in Ukraine," "radical parties and activists threatening Ukrainian statehood, foreign policy, and society," Ukrainian volunteer battalions as "penal military units," and "radicals ruining Ukraine's reputation in the West."

Historical confrontation is certainly  the biggest narrative, and consists of two main aspects: World War II memory politics and portraying the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as "Nazis."

This narrative had two functions: to create a false divide between Western and Eastern Ukraine in their memory politics and commemoration of WWII, and to portray the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the idea of fighting for Ukraine's independence as "Nazi."

While Ukraine has been changing how it commemorates WWII and distancing itself from Soviet-Russian traditions USSR by adopting the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation on  May 8 (as opposed to May 9, when Russia celebrates victory), Russian propagandists have invoked the legacy of the "Great Patriotic War" to convince audiences that their ancestors' fight with "Nazis" in Ukraine is ongoing. They use these emotional appeals to demonize Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as to sanctify Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas in 2014 all the way to the full-scale invasion  in 2022.

Another narrative that deserves attention is the portrayal of Ukraine's  society and government as "Nazi and radical."

There are two different aspects to this: a historical one focusing on Ukraine's fight for independence, and a modern one, which focuses on "anti-semitism in Ukraine," the Euromaidan protests, modern Ukrainian culture, and church politics.

Again, emotional appeals over religion and ethnicity are used to demonize Ukrainians and portray Ukraine's choice of European integration and distancing from Russia as "Nazi," though nationalist parties didn't get significant support and win either presidential or parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2019. Other related narratives include harping on threats from radicals and volunteer battalions.

In these cases, Russian propagandists aimed to construct a reality where Ukraine has become a "dangerous place to be" since 2014 and to portray any Ukrainian cultural, national, or historical identity that is separate from that of Russia and the USSR as is "Nazi."

Lastly, it is also essential to note the narrative of the "West supporting Nazism in Ukraine," insofar as it targets not only people in Ukraine, but also people abroad, particularly in the EU.

By drawing false  parallels between Nazism and Ukraine's fight for independence from Russia, Russian propagandists not only create a fictional reality where Ukraine is "Nazi state" and the West "supports genocide of Russian-speaking people," but also aim at legitimising Russia's brutal war and savage repression of Ukrainians in the occupied territories who believe in their people's statehood s as "fighting Nazism." It also seeks to portray Ukraine as a "failed state" that has no agency or right to independence.

To conclude, posts found in the Ukrainian information environment were mostly focused on constructing East/West divisions, manipulating history, and fear mongering over "Nazis" in power.  Appeals to historical memory, Russo-Ukrainian kinship, language, religion, as well as public fear of "Nazism" aimed to destabilize Ukraine and help the fortunes of pro-Russian forces.

Slovakia: The "Ukrainian far-right" as a tool to shift public opinion towards the Kremlin

Since 2014, an ecosystem of various pro-Russian actors has developed in Slovakia. These actors systematically reproduce pro-Russian propaganda narratives about Ukraine and try to legitimize Russian policies. When we speak about pro-Russian actors in Slovak public discourse, we are referring to political, media actors and public opinion makers who spread their views predominantly on Facebook. Therefore, we decided to analyze their content on theplatform.

  • Our longer monitoring period allowed us to observe the main trends in the use of the  "Nazism in Ukraine" narrative, which is one of the most powerful in both the Slovak and Ukrainian information spaces.

In the Slovak part of our study, we monitored 133 actors and their behavior on Facebook. Based on keyword selection of posts from within the study period, we identified 1,203 posts referring to the "Nazism in Ukraine" narrative.

More than 37% were published during the first four months of 2022, which demonstrates how pro-Russian actors intensified their activity during the Russian preparation for the full-scale war and its first months. Over the study period, they used this narrative in various forms to interpret current events in Ukraine, such as the Maidan protests, the subsequent Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine's memory politics, and the full-scale invasion in 2022.

The most influential actors in Slovakia (in terms of Facebook interactions) were far-left and far-right politicians like Ľuboš Blaha (MP and member of the Smer-SSD party), Štefan Harabin (2019 presidential candidate and leader of the Vlasť party in the 2020 parliamentary election) and Milan Uhrík (MEP and chairman of the Republika party). The most posts were published by the Russian Embassy in Bratislava.

The content from pro-Russian actors in Slovakia can be divided into 8 different sub-narratives regarding modern "Nazism in Ukraine," broken down by the topics and events they referred to.

The most common of these sub-narratives concerned "criminal activities of far-right organizations" about alleged activities of the far right in the war in Donbas (and Crimea), and about Ukraine's allegedly far-right political elite. Another specific and relatively important sub-narrative was historical revisionism. It naturally focused on distorted interpretation of historical contexts, which were also linked to the present in order to create an overarching portrait of "Nazism in Ukraine". A comprehensive look at all the sub-narratives through which the examined narrative manifested itself in Slovakia shows some similarities to Russian propaganda narratives in Ukraine.

In both countries, pro-Kremlin actors sought to discredit the Ukrainian political elite, the military, and the country's overall defense against Russian occupation through accusations of sympathy for the far right. The same efforts targeted both Ukrainian society and the West, which was allegedly supporting the rise  of the far right in Ukraine. The narratives also overlapped in describing the criminal activities of far-right organizations and their involvement in the war since 2014.

Slovak pro-Russian actors used the narrative of "Nazism in Ukraine" to discredit actors outside of Ukraine. Their targets were the West, pro-Western Slovak politicians, and the mainstream Slovak media, which they portrayed as supporting the Ukrainian far-right.

  • This strategy has two main aims: to discredit actors who are critical of Russian policies and to weaken Slovak solidarity with Ukraine.

Historical revisionism was a crucial strategy of pro-Russian actors in both countries. In the Slovak content, it was used not to stoke an East/West divide as it was in Ukraine, but rather to demonize Ukrainians as murderers, criminals, and Nazi collaborators, to portray Ukrainians who want their country to be free from Russian control as Nazis,  or to present Ukrainians as ingrates who have forgotten who liberated them from Nazism. The simplistic images of OUN and UPA, portrayed as murders and Nazi collaborators, served to discredit Ukrainians and their alleged efforts to rehabilitate and glorify "fascism."

In both countries, we explored the continuity of Russia's contemporary narratives with those of Soviet propaganda.

The Soviets had a practice of labeling any opponent as 'fascist,' and would do this not only with Ukrainians and the Ukrainian resistance, but also with other anti-Soviet movements in Eastern European nations. Today's Russian propaganda follows this 'tradition.' Of course, they adapt the rhetoric to current events and use modern technology to influence public opinion. In today's context, both in Ukraine and outside, pro-Kremlin actors seek to portray Ukraine's resistance to Moscow's imperialism as invariably Nazi, and portray Moscow's influence and aggression as Ukraine and Europe's only salvation from Nazism.

Article is an output of the project Content, Development and Dissemination of the Central Legitimizing Narrative of Kremlin Propaganda in Slovakia and Ukraine (Obsah, vývoj a šírenie ústredného legitimizačného naratívu kremeľskej propagandy na Slovensku a Ukrajine), based on the contract No. MVZP/2022/2/1 on the provision of a subsidy in the field of International Relations and Foreign Policy of the Slovak Republic within the competence of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.  

The views and statements expressed do not represent the official position of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic. The authors are solely responsible for the content of the document.