Ever since Russia launched its brutal war in Ukraine the Kremlin has banked on American conservative political and media allies to weaken US support for Ukraine and deployed disinformation operations to falsify the horrors of the war for both US and Russian audiences, say disinformation experts.
Some of the Kremlin’s most blatant falsehoods about the war aimed at undercutting US aid for Ukraine have been promoted by major figures on the American right, from Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes to ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Fox News star Tucker Carlson, whose audience of millions is deemed especially helpful to Russian objectives.
On a more political track, House Republican Freedom Caucus members such as Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Perry – who in May voted with 54 other Republican members against a $40bn aid package for Ukraine, and have raised other concerns about the war – have proved useful, though perhaps unwitting, Kremlin allies at times.
Pro-Moscow video materials from the network RT (formerly Russia Today), which early this year shuttered its US operations, have been featured on Rumble, a video sharing platform popular with conservatives that last year received major financing from a venture capital firm co-founded by recently elected Republican Ohio senator JD Vance and backed by billionaire Peter Thiel.
As Republicans will control the House in 2023, the influence of these Ukraine aid critics in Congress and Moscow-friendly media on the right led by Carlson is expected to increase. But analysts say they’re unlikely to block a Biden administration request to Congress in mid-November for over $37bn in emergency aid for Ukraine, although they may try to pare it back.
Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who looks poised to become speaker in January, threatened pre-election that if the GOP won the majority, it wouldn’t back a “blank check” for Ukraine.
There are signs that the conservative wing of the Republican party and its media allies are already ratcheting up their criticism of US backing for Ukraine. For instance, Perry, the chair of the rightwing Freedom Caucus, in October floated the idea of Republicans using their anticipated control of the House to investigate the Biden administration’s efforts and policies involving Ukraine-Russia peace talks.
Moscow’s political friends on the far right have also become more vocal in pushing falsehoods and have hosted some Freedom Caucus members to showcase their influence.
Fuentes infamously dined with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last month despite his long record of cozying up to Russian president Vladimir Putin and his antisemitic and white supremacist remarks. Back in March, Fuentes said on his podcast: “We continue to support czar Putin in the war effort.” Fuentes also falsely claimed the Russian war in Ukraine was “not aggression” and its goals were “not unreasonable”, repeating the Kremlin line that Moscow is trying to denazify Ukraine.
In a similar, albeit somewhat less inflammatory vein, Carlson’s pro-Moscow spin and distortions about the war have been palpable since the start and seem to have increased in recent months. Russian media often rebroadcasts the Fox News host’s comments and praises Carlson. “We’ve entered a new phase, one in which the United States is directly at war with the largest nuclear power in the world,” Carlson with considerable hyperbolic license warned his audience in late September.
Disinformation experts note that in the run-up to the US midterm elections, conservative media stars such as Carlson, as well as Greene and other far-right members of Congress, became more vocal about blocking Ukraine assistance, and calling for audits of American assistance.
“Marjorie Taylor Green’s introduction of a resolution to audit aid to Ukraine is entirely unsurprising given the pervasively negative messaging about Ukraine coming from the right flank of the GOP over the past three months,” Bret Schafer, a senior fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said.
Prior to the 8 November elections, he noted that “of the 100 most retweeted tweets about Ukraine posted by GOP candidates for the House since August, roughly 90% opposed continued support for Ukraine. Though much of that messaging plays to simple pocketbook concerns – essentially saying, ‘Why are we supporting Ukraine when Americans are struggling to pay their bills?’ – there is also a strain of anti-Ukrainian disinformation that colors some of their commentary.”
Schafer added that “although most members of Congress support Ukraine, the loudest members do not, and their voices are dominating online spaces”.
John Sipher, who served in the CIA’s national clandestine services for 28 years with a stint leading its Russia operations, said that Putin is using a playbook that he honed during his long career with the KGB to influence policy and Russian opinion.
“I think Putin’s weakness is that he is not a strategic thinker but reverts to what he knows – using covert means to influence and undermine others,” Sipher said. “He cannot win on the battlefield so he uses threats and intimidations to influence and scare western leaders into backing down or pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table.”
Sipher noted that historically Putin “has weaponized energy, information, refugees, food and nuclear threats to get his way. I think his nuclear threats are just a means to sow unease and dissension among supporters of Ukraine, and suspect that the discussion of a ‘dirty bomb’ is meant to signal to his domestic audience that Ukraine is a real threat, and the population should support Putin’s tough measures.”
In the US the audiences receiving pro-Putin messages have been boosted by Rumble, the video sharing platform, which has featured RT content including an interview with two Americans captured in Ukraine who were badly beaten by Russians and later released, as the New York Times last month reported.
One of the two American men in the video clip told his interviewer while he was in custody that he had been deceived to fight in Ukraine by “propaganda from the west” that reported that Russians soldiers were “indiscriminately killing civilians”.
Megan Squire, a deputy director for data analytics with the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that Rumble has also been busy recycling pro-Putin and anti-Ukraine material from multiple figures on the right.
“Alt-tech platforms such as Rumble are actively peddling the anti-Ukraine talking points of their heavy users, many of whom have been deplatformed elsewhere,” Squire said. “A simple search for ‘Ukraine’ in Rumble today shows that the top search results are for a Steve Bannon video where he promotes Marjorie Taylor Greene’s demands for an audit of Ukrainian relief funds, and junk news site Post Millennial, which is using Rumble to promote clips from a similar story from Tucker Carlson.”
But for overall influence with American audiences, veteran Russia experts say Carlson’s big Fox megaphone still dwarfs other propaganda tools favorable to Moscow.
“The audience for Fox News commentators like Tucker Carlson, who frequently spreads pro-Russian narratives, is obviously orders of magnitude bigger than that of new niche players like Rumble that often carry Russian disinformation,” said Andrew Weiss, a vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Such platforms are far more impactful than the more sneaky techniques that the Russian propaganda apparatus employs these days.”