How the Kremlin uses conspiracy theories

Michael Gentile & Martin Kragh outline the key principles of Russia’s information warfare strategy in Ukraine

A smiling Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko greet each-other the welcoming ceremony for the 2019 Commonwealth of Independent States Summit.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) during the welcoming ceremony for the Commonwealth of Independent states in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 20 December 2019. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov via Getty Images.

In this blogpost, we outline how conspiracy theories are used in Russian information warfare. Drawing on research conducted in Ukraine in the summer of 2020, we highlight two key aspects of the Kremlin’s strategy. First, that the Russian government deliberately pushes multiple conflicting conspiracy theories to undermine accurate explanations of events without advancing its own coherent narrative. Second, that the Kremlin capitalizes on this mistrust to take advantage of political situations which could otherwise cast it in a negative light. Our findings illustrate the importance of fighting disinformation both in the long term — to offset the background of mistrust that conspiracy theories help create — and in response to significant malicious propaganda events.

Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories in Ukraine

Conspiracy theories — unverifiable allegations of malicious secretive cooperation among powerful groups or individuals — are central to Russia’s information warfare strategy. Where single items of disinformation can be debunked, conspiracy theories cannot because they are patently unfalsifiable: any attempt at doing so risks being absorbed into the wider narrative of conspiracy. Arguably, Russia is the most notorious producer of disinformation for strategic purposes. While the impact of Russian disinformation is possibly exaggerated in public discourse, its main goal — and partial success — lies in its ability to amplify existing societal fissures.

Conspiracy theories have been a staple of the Russian information warfare arsenal for years, with Ukraine being Russia’s main target since at least the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005. Ukraine is especially vulnerable due to its historical political divisions, which are heavily linked to its foreign policy orientation. As a result, until recently Russia found valuable allies among the local pro-Kremlin media, most notably the television channels (banned since 2021) thought to be under the indirect control of Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk (now under arrest). A prominent conspiracy theory vented by Moscow and its local allies proposes that the country is under external rule, including by George Soros who is said to run a network of disciples — the Sorosiata, or Soros Piglets — willing to fulfil his commands. Even so, and despite Soros’s and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish heritage, the Ukrainian government is described as ‘Nazi’, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissing this evident contradiction by suggesting that ‘the most ardent Anti-Semites are, as a rule, Jews’.

In the Russian narrative, Ukrainians are not a ‘real’ people, and the Ukrainian state lacks both agency and legitimacy. Instead, they are ‘One’ with the Russians. Simultaneously, they are Nazis that need to be eliminated, their language and culture destroyed. These points have been made explicitly by Vladimir Putin himself, both in a ‘historical essay’ and, more recently, in his speeches recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ on 21 February and declaring the start of the ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine on 24 February. Crucially, Putin’s and Lavrov’s comments demonstrate that the Kremlin has sought to undermine the Ukrainian government by pushing purposefully incoherent anti-Semitic conspiracy theories designed to create doubt in target populations.

Disinformation in Mariupol

In the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, the long and brutal siege of Mariupol, a city of approximately 450,000 inhabitants before 24 February, had been a key focus of Russian resources before its eventual fall on the 16 May 2022. Prior to this, Mariupol was temporarily occupied by the forces of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in 2014, but returned to full government control in June of that year. Before the current invasion, it remained a frontline city that occasionally came under fire, most notably on 24 January 2015, when a Russian/Donetsk People’s Republic attack on the city’s Vostochnyi neighbourhood resulted in 31 deaths and over 100 injuries. Throughout this period, Mariupol’s strategic position made it a key target for Russian propaganda efforts and a crucial example for understanding the effects of pro-Kremlin propaganda on a target population.

A public opinion survey we conducted in Mariupol during the summer of 2020 shows that Kremlin-pushed conspiracy beliefs were widespread. About two-thirds thought that Ukraine was under the external rule of George Soros’s or Bill Gates’s organizations and every other person believed that the US was conducting secret medical experiments in Ukraine. More worrying from the perspective of Ukrainian national security, more than half thought that the shelling of the Vostochnyi district was perpetrated by the Ukrainian armed forces — whether by mistake or as a false flag operation aimed at discrediting Russia and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Most worrying, however, was the low share of those who rejected or confidently rejected these conspiracy theories. Only just over 5% confidently refuted the claim that Vostochnyi was shelled by the Ukrainian side. This indicates that even where not wholly effective in pushing a singular coherent alternative, pro-Kremlin conspiracy theories were able to achieve their objective of undermining confidence in the correct explanation of events.

The 2020 Belarusian election: capitalizing on unfavourable events

Conducting our survey during the summer of 2020 also allowed us to observe the effect of Russian disinformation campaigns in response to the rigged re-election in neighbouring Belarus of Alexander Lukashenka in August 2020. Widespread protests erupted within hours, and the regime’s reaction was to suppress them violently. Lukashenka’s days in power seemed to be numbered. However, after some initial hesitation, Vladimir Putin sided with Lukashenka, who returned the favour by adopting a more pro-Kremlin foreign policy stance and making Belarus dependent on Russia. The Russian propaganda machinery immediately responded by launching a massive disinformation campaign.

In most of Ukraine, Lukashenka’s popularity, which had previously been very high, collapsed. In Mariupol, however, things looked different. Not only did respondents’ approval of the ‘Belarusian type of government’ increase, but belief in the Kremlin’s overarching conspiratorial narrative increased. Moreover, it especially increased following the Russian disinformation campaign, which took off between 17–20 August. As a result, the share of those who explicitly disagreed with the claim that Soros’s and Gates’s organizations are the true rulers of Ukraine dropped from 30–33% before 30 July to about 6–7% after 20 August. We therefore conclude that the principal cause of the change lies in the Russian full-scale disinformation campaign. This means that, at least in the short term, the strategic use of conspiracy theories can have an immediate effect on belief among ‘primed’ audiences such as the one in Mariupol in 2020.

Conclusion

Many notable international events over the past few years have been powered by disinformation and conspiracy theories. Examples of such events include the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, Hungary’s pivot to illiberalism and, not least, Russia’s recent full-scale attack on Ukraine. Our research demonstrates the Russian government’s use of conspiracy theories to undermine accurate explanations of events without supporting a coherent alternative and its ability to flexibly capitalize on events as they unfold.

Fighting disinformation is therefore not just a short-term policy challenge but has direct ramifications for how future political scenarios are interpreted and understood. However, debunking conspiracy theories does not address the root problem and may be even counterproductive. Instead, a strategy built on identifying shared views, problems and grievances, as suggested by the Resilient Ukraine team, is more likely to produce the kind of political depolarization that limits the social fissures on which conspiracy theories thrive. To address differences, it is best to start with commonalities and shared experiences.

Michael Gentile is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Associate Editor of Eurasian Geography and Economics, and co-founder of the Cities After Transition research network.

Martin Kragh is Deputy Director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and Associate Professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.

Their article ‘The 2020 Belarusian presidential election and conspiracy theories in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict’ was published in the May 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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