Extremist discourses about Russia's war against Ukraine

2022-08-09

Russia’s war against Ukraine has opened a brand-new front for disinformation and influence operations. A major influx of refugees in neighbouring countries is creating avenues for exploitation of local nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Western narratives, already on the rise. In the frame of the project UKRAINE MONITOR (Monitoring of Networks of Influence Tactics and Operations in the Region), Political Capital and its partners aim to analyse these phenomena in four countries: Hungary, Poland. Romania, and Serbia.

Political Capital with its partner organisations – GlobalFocus Center (Romania), Reporters’ Foundation (Poland), European Western Balkans (Serbia) – researched the narratives about Russia's war against Ukraine, spread mainly by extremist, populist radical right and pro-Kremlin actors, primarily related to the following four themes:

  1. Ukranisation
  2. Peace
  3. Sanctions and Energy
  4. Territorial Revisionism

1. “Ukranisation”

The fear of "Ukrainization" is present in several countries, at least in Eastern Europe, but the meaning varies according to local situations. While Poland's far-right and pro-Russian groups are primarily afraid of the strengthening of the Ukrainian minority and the blurring of Polish identity, in Romania they are most afraid of the subversive activities of Transylvanian Hungarians and the "parallel state". In Hungary, revisionist dreams are revived by the vision of the disintegration of the Ukrainian state, while in Serbia, they see the flare-up of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

What is “Ukranisation”?

Originally, the term referred to Soviet policies to placate the various groups and communities living on contemporary Ukrainian territory through deportation or assimilation. The post-Soviet Ukraine authorities have continued, to some extent assimilationist policies towards ethnic minorities allowing nationalists in neighbouring countries, including Russia, to accuse Ukraine of continuing Ukrainization policies. The initial, obvious, meaning of the term “Ukrainianization” in pro-Russian propaganda and toxic discourse draws from this and refers to the treatment received by ethnic minorities in Ukraine. The associated narratives accuse the Ukraine state that it has a hostile policy toward other ethnicities.

This "Ukrainization" narrative is present in very similar forms in Poland, Hungary and Romania since all three nations have significant diaspora in the country. It targets not only assimilationist policies but also post-2014 politics of limiting Russian influence and strengthening the Ukrainian language and culture. It is also present in Serbia but not prominently, due to the lack of a significant Serbian diaspora in Ukraine.

A second meaning refers to the dissolution of the fundamentals of the state including its territory. This is presented in a very different ways in Poland and Romania and seems less present in Hungary and absent Serbia.

Hungary

The term “Ukrainization” is completely absent in Hungary. Nevertheless, narratives, which are related to this term and present in the other project countries, as described above, are indeed prevalent in Hungary, too.

  • “Ukraine is a chauvinist state that deserved its fate”: According to this narrative, the state of Ukraine has oppressed the Hungarian ethnic minority living in the Western part of the country, the Trans-Carpathian region, and deprived them of basic rights, especially cultural ones, mainly related to education in the Hungarian language. Thus, in far-right circles, Ukraine, for its “anti-minority” policies, is often called a “chauvinist state” that has deserved its fate which shall be regretted. Moreover, based on the experiences of the Hungarian minority, Russia’s argumentation regarding defending the rights of the Russian minority in East Ukraine sounds all the more plausible for some Hungarians. This narrative has a touch of anti-West sentiments as well. The West is accused of having supported and encouraged Ukraine’s strict policies against ethnic minorities, and second, of applying double standards. According to this narrative, a war “to defend the rights of American or Jewish citizens” was legitimate, but a war in defence of the Russian ethnic minority was not allowed.
  • “The territorial disintegration of Ukraine is a chance for Hungary to regain historical territories”: According to this narrative, the dissolution of the territorial disintegration of the Ukrainian state could open the door for Hungary to regain the territory of Trans-Carpathia, which was part of Greater Hungary until the Trianon Peace Treaty in 1920.

The ad-hoc report is available here (pdf, 17,4MB): “Ukrainization” in pro-Russian propaganda in Romania, Poland, Serbia and Hungary 

A Hungarian summary of the report can be found on the blog of Political Capital: Ahány ország, annyi jelentése van – az „ukranizáció” 

2. Peace

Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the topic of peace has become almost unavoidable. Since the outbreak of the war, different peace narratives have appeared in every country, disseminated by both the extreme and populist right actors. In Romania, Poland and Serbia, the most dominant narrative claims that the defeat of Ukraine is inevitable (defeatist narrative), which in the first two countries is complemented by the narrative emphasising the primacy of the own national interest of the given country (egoistic narrative). The latter narrative plays the main role in Hungary as well, where in addition, narratives legitimising Russia are also dominant. However, while in Poland and Romania, these peace narratives are spread by the peripheral extremist and pro-Russian actors, in Hungary and Serbia, the governing forces are also spreading them.

Peace narratives

In our analysis, we have identified three regional, cross-country narratives that refer to peace.

  • The defeatist narrative claims that the defeat of Ukraine is inevitable, so peace should be promoted, negotiated or pushed for as soon as possible. It is often draped in humanitarian discourse: peace is claimed to be in the best interests of Ukraine or the Ukrainian people.
  • The egoistic or "national interest" narrative claims that peace ought to be achieved as soon as possible in order to ensure security for the target country and that until this is achieved, the national interest is perhaps best achieved by neutrality.
  • The Russia-legitimising narrative, which is the least commonly explicitly articulated, argues that the Kremlin's claims are legitimate and, therefore, should be taken into account.

Hungary

Since the beginning of the war, according to the government’s communication, the main "Hungarian interest” is establishing peace as soon as possible. The following peace narratives appear in the communication of Fidesz:

  • The humanitarian narrative focuses on the protection of human lives. It uses a moral and humanitarian argument: peace is essential to prevent bloodshed and human suffering.
  • The security narrative focuses on the security of Hungary, emphasising the importance of the country’s physical and social security. According to it, peace must be preserved in Hungary, and Hungary must stay out of the conflict; the war is between the Ukrainians and the Russians, and Hungary must not interfere.
  • The economic narrative focuses on the economic conditions and difficulties caused by the war and the policies of the West, especially the EU’s sanctions policy, which does not work, as it hurts us more than Russia. Hence, the war must end, the economic war against Russia must end, the sanctions must be forgotten, and Russian energy must be bought. The economic narrative has two sub-narratives:
    • One focuses on economic conditions, emphasising the security of the energy supply, the shrinking of Hungary’s export and import markets, and the price increase of raw materials and upstream products.
    • The other one focuses on economic and social difficulties. It emphasises that economic problems (e.g., rising prices for energy and other goods, increasing inflation, a rapidly deteriorating exchange rate of the Hungarian Forint, and the budget deficit) are solely caused by the war and, therefore, require peace as soon as possible. In reality, these developments largely originate from government spending and flawed economic policies before the election.

Although emphasising the importance of peace plays a central role in the government's communication, the way it should be achieved is rarely discussed: through Russian-American negotiations on security guarantees formulated by the Kremlin by partially satisfying the Kremlin's demands. According to the government, Western aid to Ukraine only prolongs the war. That is also why the government insists that only Hungary is on the side of peace and that, according to them, most Western states are not interested in establishing it. However, this argument not only indirectly legitimises the Kremlin's argument, but also implies that Ukraine must make territorial concessions to Russia. In addition, the Hungarian government thereby disputes Ukraine's independent decision-making and acting capacity, its right to self-defence, and, ultimately, its sovereignty.

From the very beginning of the war, the government-organised media actively disseminated disinformation narratives about the war, justifying Russian aggression. These narratives were adopted either from official Russian communications or the pro-Kremlin media. Their focus was on blaming America, the West, the EU and NATO, and they were also fond of using conspiracy theories spread by the Kremlin.

Pro-Russian disinformation sites also actively speak about peace, in line with the Kremlin’s narrative. According to this, Russia is in favour of peace. It is seen as the initiator of negotiations, while Ukraine, partly under Western pressure, is shying away from it, maintaining the war.

The ad-hoc report is available here: Toxic Pacifism in Extremist Discourse about the Russia-Ukraine War 

A Hungarian summary of the report can be found on the blog of Political Capital: Mérgező pacifizmus – békenarratívák az Ukrajna elleni orosz háború kapcsán

3. Sanctions and Energy

The topic of energy security is of growing importance throughout Europe due to the situation resulting from of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Growing concerns about energy supply and prices are being used by extremist and populist actors to spread pro-Kremlin and anti-EU narratives that portray the EU as weak and the sanctions policy as flawed.

The energy-related, primarily anti-EU narratives are present in all four examined countries, however by different actors and intensities. In Hungary, the topic of energy and sanctions are dominant and, in addition to being present on pro-Russian sites and among far-right actors, it primarily appears in the government's communication. In Serbia, the topic is stronger among far-right actors, but to some extent it also appears in the governmental media outlets, while in Romania and Poland, these narratives are mostly present among far-right actors.

Hungary

The topics of sanctions and energy security are one of the most dominant topics in Hungary since sanctions on energy transfers were put on the EU’s political agenda. The narratives on the topic are primarily present in the government’s communication that is using them as a scapegoat to shift the blame for Hungarians’ hardships to external actors, primarily the EU.

We identified four main narratives on the topic of sanctions and energy, that are spread by at least two of the examined three actors (the government, the far right, and pro-Russian sites). These narratives were all present from the beginning of the war and they have strengthened since then.

  • The economic, energy and food crisis is caused by the policy of Brussels/the West (present at all three actors) – According to the narrative, European energy and sanction policies are inefficient and harmful, they increase inflation and create energy shortages across Europe. Unexpected effects of sanctions, such as the increase in food prices and the food shortage and famine in Africa is because of bad Western policies. The role of Russia is not discussed at all.
  • Sanctions cause more damage to Europe than Russia (present at all three actors) – The narrative claims that Russia is not affected by sanctions, it is selling the sanctioned raw materials elsewhere, while in turn, sanctions cause significant damage to Europe.
  • Europe is divided, some countries (e.g. Hungary) do not support the EU’s sanction and energy policy (present at all three actors) – The main focus of the narrative is on the EU's flawed sanction policy and opposition inside the EU, showing how divided the EU is on energy security matters. However, what is not discussed is that the Hungarian government did not only approve the EU sanctions but that they would not have been in place without their approval.
  • Western geopolitical and economic interests are behind the war and sanctions, and the main goal is to weaken Russia (present among far-right and pro-Russian actors) – The narrative is primarily about the United States; the European countries are listed here almost exclusively as American allies. The entire war or sanctions policies are presented as part of a Western plan that was created to bring Russia to its knees.

The ad-hoc report is available here: Energy Security and the ‘Harsh Winter’ in Extremist Discourse about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine 

A Hungarian summary of the report can be found on the blog of Political Capital: „Brüsszel a hibás” – szankciókkal és energiával kapcsolatos narratívák Magyarországon 

4. Territorial Revisionism

In Central and Eastern Europe, the far-right groups of almost all nations cherish revisionist dreams, which the Kremlin has been trying to ride on for a long time to weaken the region and expand its influence. The current Russian aggression against Ukraine has reinforced revisionist narratives against Ukraine, which are used by pro-Kremlin actors to fuel conflicts between EU regional member states and Ukraine, thereby weakening European unity and undermining solidarity towards Ukraine.

Although – due to different historical memories and grievances – the specific revisionist narratives are significantly different in the four countries examined, the revisionist discourses have similarities. Nationalist and far-right groups dream of a bigger motherland in every country - Great(er) Serbia / Romania / Poland / Hungary. In all three countries bordering Ukraine, narratives are present in some form concerning the division of Ukraine or the annexation of specific areas. In the case of Romania, Russian troops are present on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, which is perceived as part of the motherland by Romanian nationalists. In Poland, there is historical opposition to Russia, but a partition of Ukraine would align with the interests of some nationalist groups. In Hungary, there is compatibility between the interests of Russia and those of the revisionist nationalists. Finally, Serbia has no common frontier with Ukraine, but some hope that a stronger presence of Russia in the Balkans would help -mainly through reducing Western influence -foster Serbian territorial ambitions as seen by nationalists.

Hungary

In Hungary, the topic of territorial revisionism regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war is primarily present in the communication of far-right actors, and it was especially strong in the first weeks after the start of the war. Two main narratives can be differentiated on the topic of territorial revisionism:

  • "Transcarpathia needs autonomy”: This is one of the main narratives of the far-right party Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) regarding the war. According to this narrative, Ukraine's Zakarpattia oblast (Transcarpathia region) must receive autonomous status within the country after the current war. The basis of the narrative is the Ukrainian independence referendum held in 1991, in which the residents of Zakarpattia oblast (Transcarpathia region) were also asked about the region's special self-governance status. While the vast majority supported the province's autonomy, the central government denied the area autonomy in 1992.
  • "Transcarpathia should become part of Hungary again”: According to Our Homeland, in case of Ukraine's territorial disintegration, Hungary should demand Transcarpathia be a Hungarian territory again. Hence, a commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not in Hungary's interest. According to the far-right paramilitary Hungarian Self-Defence Movement (Magyar Önvédelmi Mozgalom), this is "not a revisionist nostalgia but the only rational vision". According to Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement (HVIM), just like a hundred years ago, today Hungary still has the right to its historical territories and "we will get them back at the first opportunity".

Pro-Russian sites in Hungary also regularly publish on the topic, but usually not with the aim of pushing specific revisionist demands. Instead, their goal is to keep the topic on the agenda and thereby spread uncertainty and confusion and incite tension.

The Hungarian government has a clear and consistent position on the subject: they are committed to and support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. As the government has expressed this several times, the idea of territorial revision appears neither in the government's communication nor among Fidesz politicians. At the same time, the government implicitly contradicts its own commitment by recognising the Kremlin's security needs as legitimate, urging Russian-American negotiations to end the war, and not considering Ukraine's victory to be conceivable. In practice, all this means that – according to the Hungarian government – Ukraine must give up some of its territories.

The ad-hoc report is available here: Territorial revisionism in the wake of the War in Ukraine - A report on radical and far-right discourse

A Hungarian summary of the report can be found on the blog of Political Capital: „Nem mondunk le a területeinkről” - Revizionista narratívák az Ukrajna elleni feszültségkeltés szolgálatában