THE BELL WEEKLY: Russian propaganda on the Middle-East conflict

The Bell

Hello! This week we highlight the main Russian propaganda talking points on the Israel-Hamas conflict. We also cover how the arrest of a US-Russian reporter marks yet another escalation in Russia’s campaign against independent journalism, and why Putin wants to bring back sporting parades beloved by Josef Stalin.

Pro-Kremlin media’s talking points on the conflict in the Middle East

After the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, Russian propagandists have scrambled to push the focus away from events in Ukraine and onto the situation in the Middle East. The Kremlin’s loyalists on TV and in print quickly started talking up the West’s role in the conflict and favourably compared the conduct of Russia's military in Ukraine with the actions of Israel in Gaza. Meanwhile, pro-war Telegram channels have openly posted antisemitic content. The Bell has analyzed the four main themes of the pro-Kremlin media’s response to the conflict.

  • ‘The Russian military’s humanitarian work’. On one talk show, pro-government analysts talked about the humanitarian efforts of the Russian army in Ukraine, contrasting their approach with the current situation in Gaza. According to them, unlike the Ukrainians or Israelis, Russian forces are only launching strikes against military targets. “We are fighting [in Ukraine] to protect [civilian] lives. And in response, they are imposing sanctions on all Russians, cancelling all Russians. They are imposing sanctions on all Palestinians,” claimed Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, Vladimir Solovyov. His comments come a week after a Russian missile hit a cafe and shop in the village of Groza in Ukraine’s Kharkiv Region, killing 59 civilians.
  • ‘The West sponsors Hamas militants’. Several Russian propagandists have drawn connections between the equipment used by Hamas militants and weapons sent to Ukraine by the United States since the start of the war. They claim that uniforms intended for the Ukrainian army ended up in the hands of the terrorists who attacked Israel, and that Hamas’ drone pilots were trained in Ukraine. “We will take this into account,” wrote propagandist Igor Maltsev in the loyalist state newspaper Vzglyad. Another well-known propagandist —  war correspondent Alexander Kots — claimed Hamas militants bought Western arms that were intended for Ukraine on the darkweb. There is no evidence that Hamas, or any other militants, had access to any Western weapons.
  • Antisemitism. Leading pro-war Russian Telegram channels seemingly banded together after the start of the war in the Middle East to start publishing openly antisemitic material. “Not a drop of pity or sympathy,” wrote influential war correspondent Dmitry Steshin, who claimed Israel is in the grip of “Yid Banderaism,” combining a deliberately offensive slur against Jewish people with the “Banderaism” label, a term used to link pro-Kyiv fighters with Nazism. The Grey Zone channel, believed to be linked to Russia’s Wagner group, responded to Israel’s president saying the country had suffered the highest number of Jewish casualties in a single day since the holocaust with a meme that read: “Not many.”
  • ‘Nobody cares about Ukraine anymore.’ Propaganda outlets did not pass up the opportunity to link the conflict in the Middle East with Western “fatigue” over the war in Ukraine. They claim that from now on all Western efforts will be focused on supporting Israel, leaving Kyiv to fend for itself. “Nobody will support Ukraine in the long term. And it costs too much,” concluded an opinion piece published by RIA Novosti. “It turns out that Zelensky was turned away,” wrote Putin’s favorite paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda. US officials have said that the country will not stop supporting Ukraine and President Joe Biden has stepped up efforts to push a $100-billion-plus package of support for both Israel and Ukraine through Congress.

Why the world should care:

Israel condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but did not join the West in hitting Russia with sanctions or providing offensive weapons to the Ukrainian military. Now it finds itself the latest country on the receiving end of a Russian propaganda offensive.

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Another US journalist arrested

Last week, Russian police arrested journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir service. Kurmasheva, who holds Russian and American citizenship, is accused of failing to register as a “foreign agent.” This is the first criminal case in Russia under laws that require anybody who “purposefully” collects unclassified information on military matters to register as a “foreign agent.” Kurmasheva, who returned to Russia back in May on a personal matter, now faces up to five years in jail.

  • Kurmasheva lives in the Czech Republic with her husband and two children. She went to Russia on May 20 to deal with “urgent family needs.” On June 2, while waiting at the airport to depart Kazan (the capital of the Tatarstan region, sometimes known as Russia’s “third capital”) and return to Prague, she was arrested. She originally faced charges of failing to inform the Russian authorities of her US citizenship — a requirement under Russian law. Kurmasheva was fined and her passports were confiscated. While awaiting their return, on Oct. 18 she was arrested again on the new charges.
  • The article under which Kurmasheva is charged was added to Russia’s criminal code in 2020. At first, it only applied to those who “purposefully” collected military information inside Russia. But in 2022, after the invasion of Ukraine, its scope was widened to include all citizens, even those based abroad. Lawyers interpret the law as a de facto ban on collecting any information whatsoever about military issues, even if that info is in no way confidential. 
  • The current FSB order lists 60 different types of information that are covered by the law. For instance, without voluntarily registering as a “foreign agent” — a label human rights activists regard as discriminatory —  it is not permitted to collect information on the deployment and movement of Russian forces, or the progress of mobilization, or report on “predictions regarding the development of the military-political situation.”
  • Even journalists that analyze official data published by Russia’s defense ministry are at risk because there is no definition of what “purposeful” collection of information actually means from a legal standpoint.
  • A Kazan court Monday ordered Kurmasheva be held in custody until Dec. 5. Now she is in a pre-trial detention center, a prison where suspects are held until their cases are heard in court.

Why the world should care:

Kurmasheva’s case matters for several reasons. First, Russian law enforcement is using a new repressive tool against a journalist for the first time. Now it is clear that anybody working in the media who lives abroad, or in any way deals with topics that the Russian authorities deem sensitive, is at risk of being arrested if they return to Russia — even for personal or family reasons.

Additionally, this is the second instance in which a journalist with an American passport has been arrested this year. In March, Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich was arrested and accused of espionage. He faces up to 20 years in prison. It is possible that Russia’s authorities will continue to build up what analysts have called an “exchange fund” — a pool of US citizens that Russia can use to barter for the release of Russians imprisoned in the United States.

Putin resurrects another Soviet tradition

Last week, Vladimir Putin called for the return of sporting parades on Moscow’s Red Square. This long-forgotten Soviet ritual, beloved of the Stalin era, represents the latest staging point on Russia’s rose-tinted march into its Soviet past.

  • The first such sporting parades, which involved the so-called “Vsevobuchs” (men taking part in compulsory military training), took place on Red Square in 1919, less than two years after the Bolshevik revolution and in front of the first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin. But they reached their peak under Josef Stalin when they started to be held annually throughout the 1930s. In 1936, every single republic of the USSR sent representatives to Moscow to join the parade. By 1938, it had been elevated into a typical Soviet grandiose spectacle, with thousands of people, clad in sportswear, carrying portraits of Stalin through Red Square while performing acrobatic feats (video). Director Alexander Medvedkin shot one of the first ever Soviet color films at the 1939 parade.
  • In 1945, Red Square hosted a parade to celebrate victory in the Second World War. As the Soviet Union moved to mark its victory over Nazi Germany in what it calls the “Great Patriotic War” through large-scale Red Square parades, the sporting marches were moved to Dynamo stadium in the north of Moscow. After Stalin’s death, they fizzled out, with only two more held after 1953 and athletes being merged into May 1 celebrations of Soviet labour.
  • Last week, at a conference dedicated to Russian sport, the head of the International Boxing Association (IBA) Umar Kremlev, urged Putin to consider bringing the parades back. Putin said he liked the idea. “Today, one of the leading tasks facing the Russian authorities is to get 70% of Russia’s population involved in organized sports,” the president said. Putin also appeared unhappy that so few Russians had taken up table tennis. “A table might not fit in every apartment, but could certainly appear in every stairwell,” he said, in comments that quickly triggered a string of memes on the Russian-language internet.

Why the world should care:

Russia’s steady return to the Soviet era is a popular narrative which has been extensively discussed in society and across Russian media. Persecution of dissidents, mass denunciations, propaganda, and unanimous votes in parliament are just a few of the Soviet traditions that have found a second life in Putin’s Russia. Sport is not exempt from this trend, with many Soviet-era initiatives — like the Komsomol’s “Ready for labor and defense” physical education initiative — being brought back. Russian universities already award several “bonus” credits to new students based on their sporting achievements. The next step seems to be a revival of Stalinist sporting parades.


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