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Elections are battlefields for the Kremlin: Sow distrust and discontent

From 6-9 June, the next elections to the European Parliament will take place across EU Member States in the largest European democratic exercise for hundreds of millions of people. These elections will give a mandate to the European Parliament for the next five years.

In this series of articles, we show examples of key tactics, techniques, and procedures employed by pro-Kremlin manipulators and disinformers targeting the European Parliament elections. We examine attempts to smear leaders, foment distrust, flood social media with falsehoods, turn the public against Ukraine, and avoid comparisons uncomfortable to Putin’s Russia. We will also follow how the election results are portrayed.

Technique - Erode the foundation, sow discontent, doubt and division

In the first article, we analysed the technique to smear prominent political leaders by inventing scandals, twist or take things out of context or, as ‘doppelgangers’, clone or hijack their online identities to lure the target audience. Closely associated with the first technique is the second: sow discontent, doubt and division.

We have documented increasing attempts by Russian state-sponsored and pro-Kremlin outlets targeting the EU to influence public discussions.

The European Parliament elections offer plenty of occasions for pouring fuel on already heated political topics. It is worth recalling that public debates between different views are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy – healthy political discourse. In free societies, people have the fundamental right to hold and express opinions. While intense discussions could be misinterpreted as discontent and distrust in the democratic system, they actually show people’s trust in the strength of democracy. Public authority and societal cohesion rest on acceptance and trust from the people.

By posing as media, pro-Kremlin manipulators exploit the open society’s functionality: its open debates and feedback loops where free media transmits information. We have long since passed the point where key Russian state and pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets moved from resembling some sort of media to being weaponised instruments of war.

A ‘rotten EU system’

Russian state- or pro-Kremlin outlets try to make us believe that the EU system is amoral and one big hypocrisy or that the EU itself is “dysfunctional”, “existing in a parallel reality” and on the verge of collapse. If the system is surviving then it is a puppet of Washington. Why vote for such a rotten system?

The Kremlin has been advancing the “imminent collapse” narrative since the global financial crisis in 2008, during the COVID-19 pandemic, during the winter of 2022-23 in relation to energy issues and again in relation to EU sanctions on Russia: ‘EU destroying its own industry and economy’. Moscow seeks to portray the EU system as on the point of a collapse in which a discontented and disenfranchised public will overthrow Member States’ governments and institutions.

Any publicly debated topic can be used to sow distrust, but there are some topics that are especially popular for Moscow: Western support to Ukraine (financial, military, humanitarian), the cost of living for Europeans, or the irresponsible “Russophobic” policies of the “egoistic European elites” disregarding the needs of ordinary people. European sanctions against Russia, cuts in energy imports etc. have for a long time been presented as ‘just harming Europe rather than Russia” – see examples in our case database.

Piggyback and exploit public demonstrations

Russian and pro-Kremlin messages exploit demonstrations in EU countries concerning, for example, social, economic, environmental or other non-Ukraine related issues. One such example is the recent demonstrations by farmers in several European cities, where Russian flags suddenly appeared on tractors even if the manifestations concerned agricultural regulations.

This technique also includes examples where a few individuals pop up in the margins of larger gatherings or demonstrations devoted to other issues and flash banners with slogans against Ukraine or pro-Kremlin symbols. Sudden billboards with little connection to local topics also appear. It seems that the purpose is to record footage which can be spread online to a multitude of audiences, giving the illusion of large-scale public gatherings in support of Russian policies and actions.

More extreme and radical

The content in Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets has become more extreme, in some cases, even radicalised. It seems that the Kremlin believes that this can ignite more fires in European debates and swing voters. Previously, they had mostly reserved the ‘Nazi’ label for Ukraine. Now, it has become mainstream to accuse anyone taking a position sceptical towards Moscow’s policies of being ‘Nazi’; just being a ‘Russophobe’ no longer seems to be enough.

According to senior Russian leaders and leading pro-Kremlin outlets ‘most of Europe was with the Nazis’ and fought against the Soviet Union during WWII. That is the latest twist in the Kremlin’s historical revisionism. Wild as it sounds, the perverted logic is that even if your country had been under Hitler’s occupation, your ancestors fought against the Soviet Union.

Nuclear scaremongering and its opaque logic

The Kremlin has tried to whip up public fear of a nuclear Armageddon both inside and outside of Russia if European leaders don’t accept Moscow’s demands. This fear is supposed to stimulate western audiences to demand an end to support to Ukraine. Like during the 1970s and 1980s with anti-nuclear and peace demonstrations across Western European states, the Kremlin hopes that popular influential groups will demand a more Russia-accommodating policy from their ‘reckless’ leaders.

This political extortion at gun-point may not win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Europeans for Moscow, but that’s not even the point. There is a growing notion in leading Russian circles that the connection with Europe is lost anyway, at least for a generation. Recently, Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov seemed to almost revel in breaking the connection to Europe. The Kremlin makes Europe less attractive in the eyes of the Russian public to galvanise Russian domestic politics.

Stirring up popular distrust in Western societies resembles the Russian and pro-Kremlin approach during the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2020, Moscow massively beamed messages to audiences inside the EU, promoting dissatisfaction and distrust in EU countries’ abilities to manage the health crisis or reject vaccines (unless they were Russian-made) as we documented in our four extensive special COVID-19 FIMI reports.

All these pro-Kremlin efforts aim to sour the atmosphere in the run-up to European Parliament elections and beyond.


Article and pictures first time published on the EUvsDisinfo web page. Prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.


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