Through disinformation, Putin’s economic war with the West persists and now targets business confidence.
During the war with Ukraine and the period preceding it — the target of Russian disinformation were and are not only western countries and governments but also western businesses such as companies and brands. The aim is to deepen the economic crisis and chaos in western countries.
The fatigue of European countries with the prolonged military conflict in Ukraine is used by Russian propaganda. The dire economic situation in many European countries, such as the energy crisis and growing inflation, has the greatest influence on deteriorating social moods. These deteriorated moods offer susceptible grounds for disinformation.
Whole (strategic) sectors are targeted, i.e. energy, the arms and food-agricultural sectors, and individual companies. A similar mechanism emerged during the pandemic when content appeared suggesting American pharmaceutical corporations were getting rich from the sale of vaccines.
Narratives about the continuous process of ‘the rich getting richer,’ suggesting that the U.S. and western European countries prey on the war in Ukraine, are readily accepted during an economic crisis. The United States is portrayed as a country with the greatest economic and strategic interest in maintaining the war in Ukraine.
This war supposedly allows Americans to rebuild their rule over the world, strengthen spheres of influence, develop their defence industry and get richer by doing business. Similarly positioned, though to a lesser degree, are western European countries like France or Germany.
On the other hand, Poland is often presented as the one which, in its naivete, will pay a high price for its aid to Ukrainians.
Figure 1: Mapping two narratives on Twitter concerning sanctions on Russia in Poland
Nord Stream 2 as a Recipe for the Energy Crisis
Russia plays it out with its raw materials. Energy matters have always been an inseparable part of relations with Russia, and it was the energy context that, to a large extent, decided the timing of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The energy dependence of not only Poland (the launch of Baltic Pipe and the expansion of the LNG terminal in Świnoujście) was soon to end.
A similar situation was to take place with the other countries in the region with an LNG terminal in Klaipeda and the Poland-Lithuania gas interconnector. For Russia, this would potentially lose a ‘gas blackmail’ tool against neighbouring NATO countries. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such a hypothesis was presented by Krzysztof Wojczal.
So the war broke out, and in the summer of 2022, Russia stubbornly returned to positioning itself as the guarantor of energy security. To this end, it spins a positive narrative around NS2 as an investment. The significance of which will be felt quickly and directly by every European.
The prices of household gas would stabilise thanks to Russian gas. Especially the Germans, in this context, are presented as being ready for concessions toward Russia to avoid an energy crisis. In this way, anti-German sentiment is fueled on the Polish Web, which also plays into Russian hands by further dividing Polish society and further antagonising its relationship with its western neighbour.
With the upcoming heating season, Ukraine and, by proxy, the US, which is militarily supporting them, are accused of maintaining the energy crisis in Europe. What is being underlined is the hypocrisy of Ukrainian authorities demanding sanctions against Russia from Western countries while at the same time using the energy resources coming from Russia.
The energy crisis is also being used to incite further and scare Polish society. On the one hand, there is the ‘we fear no winter’ attitude and the narrative saying that energy supplies are guaranteed. On the other hand, we are to use raw materials from Germany, which de facto come from Russia and are more expensive.
The Blooming of the American and West European Defence Sector
Together with the subsequent tranches of American aid for Ukraine, there appear to be theories which assert the war is in the interest of the US. This is because ‘America is making money on the war in Ukraine.’ Such remarks as those of Henry Kissinger, create the impression that Ukraine has never been treated seriously by the West.
In Davos, Kissinger stated that the best solution to the war in Ukraine would be a return to the borders before 24 February 2022, which gave rise to the narrative: ‘Kissinger wants Ukraine to give up part of its territory to Putin.’ According to these theories, Ukraine was only an object in political games between the superpowers.
The American defence industry is pointed out as having a significant interest in prolonging the war in Ukraine. The Americans are accused of preying on the war ’till the last Ukrainian’ and treating Ukraine as a training battleground. ‘Bankers of Jewish descent’ and ‘secret Jewish associations’ from the US are accused of lobbying for the war with Russia to achieve financial benefits.
More frequently, the blame for the outburst of the war in Ukraine is placed on countries such as France, as they are reminded of arms sales to Russia despite EU sanctions. Very suggestive examples of French weapons being utilised in massacres of Ukrainians, such as French Thales weapons sights on Russian vehicles in Bucha or French military equipment in the Mariupol region, are used in these narratives.
Wheat Instead of Gas
With the end of the heating season, Putin’s propaganda very fluently switched from gas to wheat as a tool of blackmail.
In 2021, the food and agricultural products sector was the target of disinformation. According to IBIMS (the Institute for Internet and Social Media Research), Polish food producers were and are one of the most often attacked targets of pro-Russian disinformation on the Web and social media.
Within the context of the war in Ukraine, there appears a Polish theme about increased commercial contingents for agricultural products from Ukraine. They are destined mainly as products for export to countries endangered by famine.
However, the problem is that these products end up on the Polish market and in other EU countries instead of in Africa. Although the problem is real and must not be downplayed, it is interesting to note that the messages on this topic, aimed mainly at Polish food producers, started to appear before the phenomenon occurred.
These propaganda actions aimed to limit the export of agricultural products from Ukraine to the West due to a lack of social acceptance among Poles because ‘Ukrainian wheat will ruin Poland.’
Within the context of the food crisis, messages appear asserting that the imperial US is behind the spectre of hunger because ‘Americans crave for a hunger catastrophe.’ Voices emerge, among others, stating that further US support for the war in Ukraine will devastate the Ukrainian economy and, as a result, lead to mass starvation.
According to those narratives, the US is responsible for the ‘artificially created global hunger.’ The supposed intentional destruction of food production in the US or payments to American farmers for destroying their crops are given as proof.
The narrative about the ‘buyout’ of Ukraine by American corporations targeting, among others, Monsanto, Dupont and Cargill, according to which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was to sell 17 million ha of agricultural land to the Americans, gains in popularity.
In this context, voices are raised about Americans sending weapons to Ukraine to protect those corporations. Interestingly, in addition to the ‘buyout’ of Ukrainian land, there appear names of such investment funds as Vanguard, BlackRock and Blackstone. These funds earlier received comments on social media for being engaged in the ‘plandemic’ and the international globalist conspiracy.
Against this backdrop, Russia appears as a defender of the oppressed because ‘Russia wants to help in the export of wheat from Ukraine.’
Figure 2: The prevalence of the topic of gas blackmail and food crisis on Twitter
Western Business – Putin’s Victim or Collaborator?
According to the EMIS report, by the end of 2022, over 1100 western companies declared plans to limit their activities in Russia. The report included over 300 companies which decided on a total withdrawal.
The most significant number of firms which have terminated their business in Russia originate from the US Poland is in fourth place behind the UK and Germany. LPP (Reserved, House and Cropp), Hortex, and Allegro are among those who have said farewell to their Russian clients.
To ordinary Russians, who most often did not have the opportunity to benefit from the ‘blessings of the decadent West,’ this exodus signifies the weakness of capitalist corporations, which lost to their Russian competitors. That is how it is presented to them by Putin’s propaganda.
Meanwhile, in Poland, there was a visible increase in negative sentiment against brands which remained in Russia. The consumer boycott influenced the image of these companies, including Burger King, Auchan and Decathlon.
However, its impact was mainly visible on social media. Despite loud appeals and declarations, there was a lack of determination and implementation in real life. The message that only a naive Pole participates in boycotts and loses by overpaying while the Ukrainian living in Poland continues to shop in Auchan has quickly become commonplace.
Also characteristic is the example of the informational chaos around the Pfizer corporation, allowing the anti-vax movements to become active under the guise of the boycott because ‘Pfizer will not pull out from Russia and whoever holds a Pfizer needle in his vein is a Russian collaborator.’ As part of this narrative, examples of popular brands are boycotted as belonging to foreign companies remaining in Russia despite offering employment to Poles (i.e. Winiary and Nestle).
A different situation occurred around companies that pulled out of Russia — the Polish consumer’s sentiment towards them was univocally positive. In March 2022, IBIMS warned that there exists a high risk of a disinformation attack by organised working groups against companies leaving Russia.
These attacks would be conducted by, for example, presenting their products as still available on the Russian market, using web broadcasts of different instore provocations, spreading disinformation about the activities of companies on the Russian Federation’s territory or attacks on reader’s sentiments by distorting discussions and attempts to change the perception of companies which have pulled out.
One should note that under the slogan of ‘pulling out,’ there existed different forms of limiting activity on the Russian market — from temporary suspension or a ‘stalling for time’ to a total pull out from the market.
Within the context of warfare, it had its rational justification but was prone to various manipulation. The case of the clothing giant LPP is a clear example that appeared in Polish social media discourse. Since the beginning of the war, voices have appeared accusing the company of lies about pulling out from the market and continuing its activity in Russia in an unchanged format.
The most recent posts from July 2022 refer to, among others, the negation of the fact of selling the Russian company to the Chinese and continuing LPP activity under a changed brand name.
Naive Like a Pole
Russia’s supporters are using the increasingly difficult economic situation in Poland. Gas blackmail and problems with the supply of coal after the introduction of the embargo are escalating Poles’ fear of the country’s energy future.
This fear constitutes an easy area for the operation of Russian propaganda, which aims to discourage Poles from supporting Ukrainians. Russians are more frequently posing the question to Poles: ‘is it worth it?’ while at the same time hitting the EU, blaming it for the high energy prices.
The topic of the legitimacy of supporting Ukraine will appear more often in disinformation materials. The economic crisis and the coming fall and winter seasons with significant price increases of heating fuels only intensify such narratives.
Poland is often presented as the greatest loser of the current war because of the costs related to the immigration crisis. Even the participation of Polish companies in rebuilding Ukraine after the war is presented as an example of the naivete of Poles.
According to these theories, it will be, of course, the Germans who will make money from rebuilding what is destroyed and remains under Ukrainian control. On the other hand, Poland is to be engaged in rebuilding the territories occupied by Russia.
As can be seen, pro-Russian disinformation, besides its (geo)political goals, also aims for economic ones. At the same time, it portrays its economy as solid and stable because ‘Russia is managing despite western sanctions’ and is a reliable partner.