Having broadly endorsed the insurrection at the Capitol as a “peaceful protest,” Kremlin-controlled propagandists found themselves in quite a predicament trying to condemn massive demonstrations that rocked Russia last weekend to protest the jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. After being poisoned with a nerve agent by Russian intelligence operatives, Navalny was treated in Germany. Immediately upon his return to Russia, he was arrested.
After Navalny’s apprehension at the airport, his team released a damning video alleging that an enormous seaside palace was built for Putin to the tune of $1.37 billion, reportedly funded by the Russian president’s associates and described in Navalny’s video as “the biggest bribe in history.” Tens of thousands of people across Russia marched to express their deep dissatisfaction with Putin's leadership and their outrage was palpable. Protesters demanded Navalny’s release, chanting “Putin is a thief” and “Freedom to Navalny.” More than 3,000 people were detained by police all over the country.
Appearing on state media channel Rossiya-1 show Saturday Vesti, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the actions of the United States Embassy in Moscow because it simply published a map of the planned protests, urging American citizens to avoid those routes for the sake of their own safety. Since the area of the Kremlin was included on the list of places to avoid, Zakharova leapt to the conclusion that the U.S. Embassy was advertising “a run on the Kremlin.” She pondered out loud: “What was that? A call to action? An instruction? Motivation?” Zakharova called it America’s interference in Russia’s internal affairs, with obtuse indifference to the fact that Russia’s government-controlled media recently described the storming of the U.S. Capitol as an appropriate, peaceful action.
While Russian government officials and Kremlin-controlled state media condemned domestic protests, pro-Trump rioting in the United States was met with their total approval. Evgeny Popov, the host of Russian state TV program 60 Minutes, repeatedly described the Capitol rioters as “unarmed, peaceful protesters” and mocked the use of the National Guard to protect U.S. lawmakers from potential future attacks. Appearing on the same show, Andrey Isaev, deputy chairman of Putin's United Russia party, described one of the rioters, Ashli Babbitt, as a “female veteran who was simply shot for breaking some glass.” Babbitt was fatally shot by police as she attempted to enter the Capitol by climbing through a broken glass pane in the door. Isaev started to say that Babbitt was shot while “storming the Capitol,” but quickly caught himself and awkwardly stammered, referring to the event as mere “unrest.” Isaev condemned the U.S. authorities for their supposed brutality towards the rioters, even though most of the participants were able to leave the scene of the crime before being arrested days, or even weeks, later. Despite police brutality being notoriously commonplace in Russia, Isaev proceeded to disingenuously extol Russian police for their “humane” treatment of demonstrators, urging everyday citizens “to praise God for having been born in such a kind and democratic nation as Russia.”
“Whataboutism” is an art form in Russia. Navalny’s damning exposé of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s billion-dollar seaside palace was met with Putin’s unconvincing denials and followed up with Russian state media’s repeated references to Navalny “eating lobsters and drinking champagne.” Likewise, reports of Russian police brutality during Saturday’s protests were repeatedly downplayed, as the state media attempted to overshadow them by airing clips from rallies and demonstrations elsewhere in the world. Never mind the palace, look at these lobsters. Forget the oppression, things are even worse abroad. Reject the evidence of your eyes and ears and learn to love the Motherland.
Appearing on the program Studio 5 on state TV channel Rossiya-24, Maria Zakharova accused Navalny and his supporters of lying to the people. She told anchor Stas Natanzon: “The real victims are the people who have been lied to. People have suffered from fake information, from disinformation, because of lies that have been disseminated not only on the Internet, but first and foremost on the platforms of American digital companies: American social media and U.S. video hosting.” Zakharova meant to deride the motivation behind the Russian protests, but unwittingly described the avalanche of disinformation that led to the violent events of January 6th at the Capitol.
For, of course, Russia not only benefited from the divisive rhetoric of the former U.S. President Donald Trump and the destructive events that it caused, but actively participated in the dissemination of Trump’s “Big Lie” about the alleged election fraud. The Kremlin’s mouthpieces baselessly claimed that millions of dead voters and illegal immigrants unlawfully voted for Joe Biden. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov derided the reliability of mail-in voting. Russian state media dutifully repeated Trump’s lies about a “stolen election” and disseminated information about the planned “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6th. These reports were heard not only in Russia, but in the United States, where Russian-speaking influencers were actively spreading the same falsehoods and encouraging other Americans to participate in challenging the official outcome of the U.S. presidential elections.
On his way to Washington, DC, Russian-speaking blogger Steve Doudnik compared the storming of the Capitol to the Russians riding into Berlin on tanks in WWII. He said, “I hope that everyone will come back alive.” Doudnik’s videos posted in the days before the insurrection were entitled, “The first stop before the battle,” “We’re going to visit Mike Pence,” and “Tomorrow is Day X.” After the storming of the Capitol, various Russian-speaking individuals in Doudnik’s videos admitted on-camera to being “in the front rows” of the mob that breached the Capitol. One by one, they complained about Trump’s failure to push the events to the desired conclusion, wherein the Dear Leader would be “carried into the Capitol” by his followers, to stay in power. “It’s so insulting,” Doudnik said with great disappointment, “This crowd could have overthrown Washington and taken power into its hands. People were determined.” In other videos, he incredulously complained that Trump could have arrested the multitudes of Democrats, but for some reason never followed through. Doudnik added: “And don’t believe bullshit, there was no antifa, no Black Lives Matter. We didn’t see any of them there.”
Shortly thereafter, Doudnik and other Russian-speakers were welcomed on Russian state television, where—contrary to categorical assertions in their own videos—they blamed antifa and not Trump supporters for storming the Capitol. Their disappointment with the inglorious conclusion of the uprising was shared by Russian Duma Deputy Alexei Zhuravlyov. Appearing on 60 Minutes, Zhuravlyov rejoiced at the thought of American blood being spilled and regretted only that Trump didn’t push the insurrection to the point of overturning the outcome of the presidential election. “Trump crapped in his pants,” Zhuravlyov grimly surmised.
The circle of propaganda was now complete. Inspired by Trump’s false claims and rhetoric, generously amplified by the Russian state media, Russian speakers in the United States took part in the unsuccessful uprising that deeply wounded U.S. democracy—and subsequently delivered an infusion of fresh disinformation right back to Moscow, as “eyewitnesses” and first-hand participants. But their claims about omnipresent “antifa” were easily debunked, and now Russian propagandists have moved on to another conspiracy theory. In lockstep with some Republicans, they claimed that the storming of the Capitol was a “false flag” operation, designed to discredit former President Trump. In perfect harmony with the GOP, Russian Senator Andrey Klimov claimed that the Capitol riots “resembled a theatrical performance” that aimed to help President-elect Joe Biden and harm Trump.
While domestic protests were widely condemned, events in the United States were viewed and portrayed through an entirely different lens, especially in light of the backchannel between the pro-Trump rioters and the Russian state media. Incongruence between the way these protests were covered in Moscow laid bare the new depths of hypocrisy.
Russian government officials were quick to blame “foreign countries’ specialists” for “organizing unauthorized rallies in Russia.” Andrey Klimov, who chairs the commission of the Federation Council for the Protection of State Sovereignty and Prevention of Interference in Russia's Internal Affairs, claimed the protests were inspired not by the domestic opposition, but by foreign meddling, condemning “the actions of foreign states” and supposed calls to action “made on foreign digital platforms and messengers,” referring to Navalny’s Twitter posts about the upcoming protests, as well as viral posts by his supporters on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.
Meanwhile, Russian-speaking influencers in the United States announced that they are “going into hiding” by moving their most controversial posts in support of former President Trump to services like Telegram, as well as Russian social media networks V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki, and urging their followers to do the same, while explicitly acknowledging that Russian social media accounts are heavily monitored by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). In one of his videos, Doudnik casually noted that he’d rather be watched by the FSB than the FBI.
Meanwhile, even as they lashed out at domestic protesters, Russian state media figures attempted to distance Russia from any meddling in the U.S. Capitol attack—and hinted that the Biden administration should be punished for supporting Navalny. Studio 5 anchor Stas Natanzon asked Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman: “If the United States had even the mere suspicion that someone from the Russian Embassy was in contact or helping Trump supporters in their activities, our diplomats and officials would have been immediately expelled. Is it possible for us to expel those U.S. officials who maintain contacts with the organizers of the protests?” Zakharova coyly replied: “I’d rather not answer, we’re only getting started.”