How Russia turned the energy crisis in Europe into a propaganda tool

The energy crisis sweeping Europe this winter isn’t just of interest to Europeans. Russian propaganda keeps a close eye on the difficulties of its western neighbors. On social media and some media channels, articles and videos convey the discourse of a “frozen Europe,” without heat and electricity, on the brink of starvation. 

After invading Ukraine nearly a year ago, EU countries decided to impose economic sanctions on Moscow, including an embargo on Russian oil and a cap on the price of Russian black gold. In response, Vladimir Putin banned the sale of his oil to countries to which the measure applied. So, without rethinking their retaliatory measures, Russian propaganda predicts a cold winter for Europeans from which they may not recover.

Russian propaganda targets to undermine the EU sanctions police

Two days before December 25, Russia Today (RT) published a video* on Russian television and its website showing a European family on New Year’s Eve. We see parents and their daughters celebrating Christmas as usual in 2021, without electricity in 2022, heat and food in 2023, and utter poverty.

The inscription “Merry Anti-Russian Christmas!” at the end of the video is aimed at Europeans, who, according to the video, should think twice before starting a gas and oil war with Russia.

“The whole narrative about energy, we’ve been through for months. It’s helping to discredit the sanctions and reduce support for them in Europe,” said Marie Peltier, a propaganda and conspiracy expert, and historian. “It’s a way of twisting reality and making people believe that Europeans caused this price increase. Blaming democracies for what they do is typical of dictatorships, not just Russia,” she said.

By fueling the myth that Europe is trembling, the video serves a dual purpose: to cast doubt among Europeans and to reassure Russians by convincing them that things are much worse in the west than in their country. The video was also used as an ad for RT, which has been banned in Europe since March 2. “If your media doesn’t tell you how to proceed, RT is available via VPN,” it said at the end.

In this way, the broadcaster encourages its former viewers to use software that allows them to circumvent this broadcast ban.

Mocking energy crisis clip

The RT video was not the only one shared on social media. On December 27, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, tweeted a video of what he called “Russian propaganda.” We saw a father and his children at Christmas in Birmingham (UK). He encourages his two sons to be “bad guys” for a gift of coal. After all, energy has become a luxury in Europe.

In the upper left corner, we can see the logo of the British broadcaster ITV. However, given the dubbing, it’s unlikely it came from British television. The first appearance date of the video appears to be December 27 on a Russian VKontakte account* called “Information Warfare”. It spreads this video without identifying its source.

On November 2, Taras Berezovets, who claimed to be a “Ukrainian from Crimea and served in the Ukrainian special forces,” also mocked a “winter 2023” shooting on Twitter, a pro-Russian propaganda video. In the pictures, a British woman who can’t heat or light her home logs on to a dating site and becomes smitten by a Russian man who she pictures with a radiator, gas stove, and even Posing in a hot bath. An unstoppable asset when the price of kWh explodes.

In his tweet, Taras Berezovets attributed the video to “Russian television” but gave no details. The video has no logos to identify its source. Still, thanks to a reverse image search on the Russian search engine Yandex, we found it posted on November 1 on a Telegram channel called “Russia for All”*. The account presented itself as a “discussion group for those who unite with those who support Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Pure disinformation

In addition to producing beautiful, professional-quality content, many amateur films are circulating on social media.

“Russian propaganda is so perfect that the Kremlin doesn’t even have to think about a massive coordinated propaganda campaign. It has an army of volunteers who have been persuaded and don’t need orders, including those in our society”, explained Marie Peltier, a propaganda historian to FranceInfo.

On YouTube Shorts*, the TikTok equivalent, a Russian citizen captured a flash of light unleashed during oil exploration with a clear message: “Cry, cold Europe.” These video edits are almost always distributed without references and sources, making it difficult to verify them. Another video showing Russia stopping gas exports to Europe was wrongly attributed to Gazprom by many netizens (and media outlets).

We watched as an employee of the Russian gas giant turned off the tap, leaving Europe in freezing air. Western cities stagnated, while Russia continued to produce large amounts of energy. It’s all about the melody of Et l’hiver sera grand* by Russian singer Varvara Vizbor. 

France 24 explained that if the video used images of Gazprom employees, several factors could prove it was not from the Russian company.

“Gazprom has never posted the video on any of its social networks or websites. The company has not denied it. According to the Russian research newspaper Fontanka*, the perpetrator was Artur Chodyrev. He lives in St. Petersburg, and he’s a journalist at Fotomontage*. The video was posted on the Russian social network “VKontakte” on March 6.

“Dictatorships have understood the potential of social networks. They rely on certain structured repeaters, but above all on the far right, sometimes the far left, who only ask to be fed by this alternative narrative.”

Marie Peltier, propaganda historian to FranceInfo

The Russian media needs to be unanimous in its perception of the propaganda. Newsfront*, a Russian newspaper known for its disinformation business, has even waged an outright influence war to spread pro-Russian rhetoric. 

Based in Russia but published in nine other languages, including French, the paper targets European readers and feeds the myth that Europe will die from the cold. For example, in early December, it hit the headlines: “The worst phase of Europe’s energy crisis is yet to come” or “Kyiv is benefiting from an energy crisis.”

The propaganda power of these articles is based on a mixture of information and fake news. Based on hostile rhetoric about the EU, elites, and immigrants, Newsfront has successfully got European citizens angry at their leaders. Newsfront has collected 871 examples on the website containing disinformation articles.

The propaganda machine is directed by the Kremlin

However, traditional publicity has remained. At the end of October, the account of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal agency, invited Europeans to sunbathe in Russian cultural centers in major European cities. According to a text on Telegram*, the agency offers European families “a cup of tea, charging their phones, watching a movie or cartoon for their children.”

The text ends: “We remind you that Russian homes are out of politics .”However, this agency plays a highly political role as an instrument of Russian soft power, according to the historian Maxime Odinet in La Revue Russe in 2016. Its assets in France have also been frozen.

Rossotrudnichestvo is an autonomous Russian federal government agency under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and cultural exchange. Rossotrudnichestvo operates in Central Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe

According to the Ministry of Economics and Finance of France, Rossotrudnichestvo “finances various public diplomacy and propaganda projects, consolidating the activities of pro-Russian actors and spreading Kremlin narratives, particularly historical revisionism”.

“In addition, its director and deputy director “clearly demonstrated their support for the war.” According to an investigation by the British newspaper The Times, Rossotrudnichestvo is behind several demonstrations supporting the war in Ukraine in European cities.

The promotion of such narratives is nothing new for Russia, but isn’t this the work of the notorious military unit 54777, which specializes in spreading propaganda and promoting narratives abroad?
Read more about military unit 54777:

* Links marked with an asterisk refer to articles in Russian.

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