Shortly after the outbreak of violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 13, Kremlin-funded media outlets began comparing the incident to the Maidan protests in Ukraine and accusing U.S. commentators of hypocrisy in their response. This narrative was picked up and amplified by leading far-right and nationalist activists in the U.S.
Background: The Kremlin, Ukraine, and Nazis
The Kremlin and its amplifiers have long pushed the narrative that the 2013–2014 Ukrainian Maidan revolution was dominated by neo-Nazis, using this notion as partial justification for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. On March 18, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself claimed that “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup [and] continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day”; he also claimed that Russia annexed Crimea to “defend the rights and lives” of Crimea’s inhabitants.
This narrative has continued into the present, with Kremlin officials and pro-Kremlin trolls alike using the argument to discredit Ukraine and the Western countries that support it.
In Western press outlets much has been written about genuine neo-Nazi manifestations in Ukraine. Most notably, outlets like The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Financial Times, and Foreign Policy have all published pieces describing the notorious Azov battalion. Kremlin officials and amplifiers have consistently pointed to the existence of this force to portray the Ukrainian government and its supporters as Nazi apologists:
Weaponizing the narrative: Ferguson 2014 and #Afromaidan
Ever since the 2013–2014 Maidan peaceful protest movement, pro-Kremlin commentators have used the narrative of “Nazi Ukraine” to undermine the U.S. and its support for the movement and the government which emerged from it. In November 2014, when race riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, Russian media and internet users pointed to the riots as an example of U.S. hypocrisy: the U.S. had supported the Maidan protests in Ukraine, and yet now denounced all violence in Ferguson.
Social media users coined the hashtag #Afromaidan and the term “Chernorossiya” (“Black Russia,” a play on the separatist term “Novorossiya” or “New Russia”) to sharpen the parallel:
The narrative of “Nazi Ukraine” thus served a double purpose: it allowed the Kremlin’s apologists to justify the illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine while simultaneously deflecting Western — especially U.S. — criticism of those operations. This is a classic distraction technique, long part of the Russian (and Soviet) repertoire, referred to as “whataboutism.”
Pro-Kremlin trolls were still using the “Nazi Ukraine” narrative in early August 2017 to discredit Western support for Ukraine:
2017: Recycling the narrative
Russian efforts to use the violence in Charlottesville as a way of attacking U.S. foreign policy began almost immediately. On August 13, the Kremlin -funded outlet Sputnik ran the following comment from a Russian parliamentarian:
Instead of lecturing the whole world regarding the way of organizing life in this or that part of the planet, the United States should learn how to peacefully solve own internal problems and conflicts.
The same day, Alexander Gontar, a Facebook user in Donetsk, Ukraine, posted a long denunciation of the events in Charlottesville, including this comment:
The American comrades’ desperate fight against “Nazis” is comical. They are shocked by a torchlit procession in Charlottesville, while regular torch processions in the capital of Ukraine, which they so desperately support in its “fight for democracy,” do not shock them.
Gontar is an outspoken supporter of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and an opponent of Ukraine. His comment shows how rapidly the “Nazi Ukraine” narrative resurfaced both in the Kremlin media and on pro-Kremlin social media.
On August 14, Sputnik host Lee Stranahan, who was previously instrumental in spreading the #FireMcMaster campaign against United States National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, published several Periscope and YouTube videos linking the riots to the “Nazi Ukraine” narrative:
In the videos, Stranahan argued that the United States had backed the Ukrainian Maidan revolution — which he termed “Nazi-led” — but was now condemning neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, thus revealing its hypocrisy. He went on to suggest that the events in Charlottesville were a set-up for a violent coup backed by billionaire George Soros to take out U.S. President Donald Trump.
At the end of each video, Stranahan called on his viewers to spread the story and explicitly asked them to tag the controversial leaks website WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange (a former host on Kremlin broadcaster RT).
In fact, Assange had already drawn an implicit comparison by tweeting images of two torchlit marches, one in Charlottesville, the other in Ukraine, although he did not specify the source of either picture.
Pro-Kremlin media outlet Russia-Insider.com filled in the gaps and wrote an article on Assange’s tweets, saying that they were “exposing the disconnect between U.S. domestic and foreign policy.”
Shortly after Stranahan’s videos, RT published an article titled, “Far-right in U.S. & Ukraine — same problem, different approach among politicians and media,” and a video report titled, “McCain condemns far-right violence in Charlottesville while supporting Ukrainian nationalists.”
All these pieces from overtly pro-Kremlin or Kremlin-run media and commentators should be seen in the context of the long-standing narrative of “Nazi Ukraine” and its use to undermine the Ukrainian government, defend Russia’s illegal actions, and discredit Western critics.
Finally, on August 15, U.S.-based alt-right conspiracy site InfoWars released a 49-minute video interviewing Stranahan, exposing the story to an additional 2 million potential viewers:
The channel summarized the story:
Soros-funded NGO’s have been able to achieve regime change in other countries by quite literally teaming up with Neo-nazis and “moderate” terrorists. Now, investigative reporter Lee Stranahan reveals the same players involved in the Ukraine overthrow are working behind the scenes to oust President Trump.
Stranahan thus emerges as a pivotal figure in the transmission, via InfoWars, of the “Nazi Ukraine” narrative from Russia to the U.S. alt-right and nationalist scene.
Into the U.S. fringe
Over the same period, a very similar narrative developed on the fringes of the U.S. media, especially the far right. On August 13, the conspiracy forum MoonofAlabama.org ran a piece headlined, “Charlottesville: What You Wish Upon Others, You Wish Upon Yourself.” Its argument was similar to that of the Kremlin, but more geographically diverse, referring to Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, in that order.
The article was posted by an anonymous user whose only identifier was “b.” The article combined two targets — U.S. foreign policy and U.S. “liberals” — into one:
To claim, as “liberals” do now, that such marches as in Charlottesville, “is not what and who we are”, is a lie. Ask people from outside the U.S. how the empire appears and acts towards them.
On August 14, StalkerZone, a media outlet linked to Oleg Tsarov, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine and a “speaker of the parliament” of unrecognized “Novorossiya,” translated Gontar’s Facebook post into English:
Both articles were re-posted verbatim by the pro-Kremlin website TheRussophile.org, which @DFRLab previously identified as an amplifier of fake stories. The Mint Press News story was also picked up by the conspiracy site TheLastAmericanVagabond.com, the fringe site BBSNews, and the anti-Semitic conspiracy blog JewWorldOrder.
Together, these stories contributed to a rise in Twitter traffic on the words “Charlottesville,” “Ukraine,” and “Maidan”:
Social media and McCain
By August 15, the attacks had become more personal and more especially aimed at United States Senator John McCain, who is a familiar target for pro-Kremlin commentators due to his criticism of Russian policies. (These commentators include Gontar, who responded to the announcement that McCain has cancer by accusing him of Russophobia.)
McCain recently drew fire from the U.S. far-right for this tweet:
McCain visited Ukraine during the Maidan protests in late 2013, meeting a number of Ukrainian government and opposition figures. During the visit, he was photographed on stage with the Ukrainian nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok, whose far-right Svoboda movement has neo-Nazi roots.
A number of the Twitter attacks on McCain came from influencers linked to RT and Sputnik. For example, George Galloway, a host of a show airing on RT, tweeted:
RT correspondent Sameera Khan also commented on the subject:
They were joined by some of the leading voices of the American alt-right and nationalist scenes. These included Paul Joseph Watson, of InfoWars, who has 676,000 followers, making him a significant amplifier.
Watson himself rejects the term “alt-right,” but espouses very similar positions. In his posts he uses the pejorative term “libtards” (short for “liberal retards”) to refer to commentators and voters who are less right-wing. He has compared Islam with mental illness and has called for the Qur’an to be banned as hate speech.
Watson was followed by Jack Posobiec, who was heavily involved in the spread of the #MacronLeaks hashtag ahead of the 2017 French presidential election and who reportedly boasted of “raping” French President Emmanuel Macron as a result. Posobiec used the same image as Watson:
Like Watson, Posobiec rejects the term “alt-right,” preferring the term “Slav-right.” This is a somewhat obscure term; it appears to be based on ethnocentric Slavic nationalism, but Posobiec’s own tweets appear to identify the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Hungary as “Slav-right.” Not one of these nations is Slavic, making the concept of the term ambiguous.
The image shared by both Watson and Posobiec originated from a site called TheMadJewess.net, where it was posted on July 6.
This blog has content defending Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and rejecting the accusation (which is backed up with substantial evidence and endorsed by an international investigation) that Russia provided the missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The blog appears to be particularly hostile toward McCain.
The blog is linked to two blocked accounts on Twitter, and to an account on Gab (@MadJewessWoman). On August 17, this Gab account repeatedly attacked McCain over his Ukrainian visit:
Intriguingly, the website holder made a post on August 15 complaining that its image had been stolen by “conservatives”:
A similar image also spread on Twitter could be taken to show McCain shaking hands with Tyahnybok:
This image is a cropped version of a larger image in which McCain is addressing then-opposition leader (and future premier) Arseniy Yatsenyuk:
Such posts spread widely. Watson’s post gained over 5,000 retweets; Posobiec garnered 500 more. However, the attacks on McCain appear to have been amplified, at least in part, by automated “bot” and semi-automated “cyborg” accounts.
For example, the account @angeelistr was created on August 8, 2017, and had posted 891 tweets by August 17, at an average rate of 89 a day. The account’s avatar image is a photo stolen from Instagram star Lorena Rae.
On August 17, this account posted a tweet linking McCain to the Ukrainian far-right:
The amplifiers also included the pro-Kremlin cyborg site @TeamTrumpRussia, which used, among others, the image from TheMadJewess.net:
This account is functionally anonymous, having posted 125,000 tweets since it was created in January 2016, at an average rate of over 220 tweets a day — typical bot behavior. Many of its shares are of pro-Kremlin or Kremlin-funded accounts such as RT, Sputnik, and Russia Insider. However, it also posts what appear to be authored tweets, marking it as a semi-automated cyborg rather than a bot.
More attacks on McCain
Further Twitter activity was generated by the launch of the hashtag #ExplainMcCain. This was first used by Twitter account @RealKevinMain on August 14, in conjunction with the same image from TheMadJewess.net. This account is strongly pro-Trump, with little interest in Russia. It does not appear to be a bot, although its number of followers (10,900) and the number of accounts it follows (10,800) are very close, possibly suggesting a bot presence in its community. (Near-identical follow and follower numbers have often been linked to such presence.)
By the evening of August 17, the hashtag had garnered just 379 uses. Many of those came from just a handful of accounts: the top ten users alone generated 103 tweets, almost one-third of the total.
One account alone, @Kyra_28803, posted 31 tweets on the hashtag between 01:54:14 and 01:58:38 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on August 17; all were retweets. The account was created on July 1 and had posted 5,161 tweets and 5,109 likes by August 17, with an average rate of 107 tweets a day. As of August 17, 99 percent of its most recent posts were retweets. This behavior is characteristic of bots designed to amplify selected messages.
In this case, the presence of such amplifiers was insufficient to effectively spread the hashtag.
The narrative that Ukraine’s Maidan revolution was led by Nazis began in Russia, and long pre-dates events in Charlottesville. It has been repeatedly used by pro-Kremlin commentators both to justify Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, and to attack the Ukrainian and U.S. governments.
The fact that this narrative was revived by pro-Kremlin commentators in light of the events in Charlottesville is therefore no surprise.
The instrumentalization of the same narrative by alt-right commentators in the United States is more striking, given how peripheral Ukraine is to the U.S. domestic debate. The narrative appears to have entered the English-language space via a number of channels — notably RT and Sputnik (which are known to be favored outlets among the alt-right), and, ultimately, InfoWars.
Once the narrative emerged, it was picked up by leading far-right and nationalist amplifiers and used to attack the mainstream U.S. establishment, especially those figures, such as McCain, who had been most outspoken in their criticism of both the Charlottesville neo-Nazis and, earlier, the Russian annexation of Ukraine. This is a marked difference from the Russian reaction to the Ferguson riots, which was not widely amplified in the U.S.
Given the number of channels that propagated the narrative at the same time, it is not possible to say whether a single channel or many different channels inspired the U.S. activists’ linkage of Charlottesville and Ukraine. However, to the extent that a single source can be held responsible, Stranahan’s InfoWars appearance seems a likely candidate.
What does appear probable is that the U.S. activists derived their narrative directly from the Kremlin and its supporters — and thus amplified Russian disinformation in America.