Shifting Stories on the “Spanish Donbas”

How Russian media shifted narrative as the prospect of Catalan independence declined

As the Catalan crisis deepens, pro-Kremlin and Russian-led separatist media in eastern Ukraine were busy comparing and contrasting Catalonia’s struggle for independence with the Donbas Russia-led separatists’ fight for their so-called “republics.” Some Russia analysts suggested that Russian media were drawing similarities between Catalonia and Donbas (as well as illegally-annexed Crimea) to justify Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. However, as the likelihood for Catalan independence dwindled, Russian and Russian-led separatist media changed their tune.

At the beginning of the Catalan crisis, Russian media drew parallels between the Catalan struggle for independence and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) in the Donbas. On October 2, Politikus.ru, published an article that compared Catalonia and eastern Ukraine and argued both have unique histories independent of Spain and Ukraine respectively, different languages and cultures, and a higher level of economic development. Whereas these statements are accurate for Catalonia, they are not for eastern Ukraine.

Territory occupied by Russian-led separatists, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) in the Donbas, has been a part of Ukraine since at least 1922. The preponderance of Russian speakers in the east was a product of a Russification policy under the Soviet Union, not a long-standing cultural development, and the region, which is home to one third of Ukraine’s population contributed a mere 15 percent to the country’s GDP in 2012, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Despite the distortion of these facts, similar articles, drawing parallels between eastern Ukraine and Catalonia were also published by the pro-Kremlin News Front (which is reportedly funded and controlled by the Russian secret services) and Gosnovosti.

Articles in Russian media drawing parallels between eastern Ukraine and Catalonia were published in News Front, Politikus.ru, and Gosnovosti. (Sources: linked)

This narrative, however, was quickly replaced when the prospects for Catalan independence dwindled in late October. Russian and Russian-led separatist media quickly adapted and focused instead on the differences between the Catalan and eastern Ukraine struggles. The main shift included the narrative that Catalonia’s struggle was focused on tax cuts and somewhat less legitimate than that of Russian-led separatists, who were “forced” to resort to “separatism” for their own survival.

Russian state-funded Military of Defense broadcaster TV Zvezda published an article, which introduced a talk show on the subject of “special territories,” including, Donbas and Catalonia. The article read:

Why do some Catalans want to split from Madrid? They are not being oppressed, no one is forbidding them to speak in their dialect.

This is a direct reference to the situation in Ukraine back in February 2014, when the Ukrainian parliament decided to abolish the 2012 law on “State Language Policy” allowing Ukrainian regions to use more official languages than Ukrainian if the other language was spoken by more than 10 percent of the local population — a move seen as targeting Russian language. Then acting-President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the law, and it was never codified. Thus, contrary to the Russian media narrative, in 2014, residents of eastern Ukraine were neither being oppressed, nor prohibited from speaking Russian.

Topwar.ru, a Russian language news outlet, often cited by the EU vs Disinfo as the source of disinformation for many of their disinformation cases, published an opinion piece by Mikhail Onufrienko, a pro-separatist activist, raising similar points:

I was in Crimea before and during the referendum and saw the desire of an overwhelming majority to be in Russia — away from the bastards who seized power in Kiev. People did not say they wanted to live better, they were driven by a sense of self-preservation.

Onufrienko continued:

…there are even fewer similarities with Donbas. Alexander Khodakovsky, the creator of the [separatist] Vostok battalion writes today: ‘Only an extreme necessity forced us to declare war on Ukraine, because Ukraine in its new guise became a threat to the world that makes up for us a significant part our consciousness.

Again, this is factually incorrect. Ukraine was not threatening the country’s eastern regions and launched military action only after Russia invaded the Donbas.

Translation: “Donbas is not Catalonia”. (Source: topwar.ru)

A pro-Kremlin news outlet reportedly funded by the Russian secret services, NewsFront, recounted a similar narrative. It recently published an article accompanied by a podcast in which the host, Sergey Veselovskij, speaks to a frequent commentator on the show, journalist Elena Kondrataeva.

Veselovskij and Kondrataeva reached the same conclusion that Catalonia and Donbas cannot be compared (any more):

What is happening in Catalonia and what is perceived with a childlike delight in some circles of the Russian public is mistakenly confused with the situation in Donbas, which has nothing to do with separatism. What happened in Donbas was forced separatism, people did not separate to make their lives better.

Kondrataeva added that what happened in Donbas was and continues to be a tragedy, whereas the Catalans are just “throwing an irresponsible tantrum.” Again, the narrative misstated facts on ground in Ukraine in 2014.

The Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine supported the same narrative. On October 30, at a briefing at the “Luhansk Information Center”, the “head” of the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic suggested that Ukrainian authorities were not willing to negotiate and resorted to violence in 2014. He said:

The situation in Catalonia and Donbas is different. Madrid does not dare to use force, it uses political methods. If the Donbas had managed to agree with Kiev on a substantial realization of citizens’ rights, it is possible the situation would have been resolved [without violence].

Similar points were raised at a talk-show, which aired on the Donetsk TV channel “Union”.

The co-chairman of Russia’s nationalist Great Fatherland political party, Nikolay Starikov, said:

Donbas and Crimea had no choice but to fight. The government collapsed, people came to kill and destroy Donbas. In Catalonia, the government is not being overthrown, no one is preventing them from speaking their language, we therefore must ask, what has really happened there? I see the interest of the US here to weaken Europe.

Again, this narrative is inaccurate. Russian President Vladimir has confirmed that he gave the order for Russia to annex Crimea in February 2014. An intercepted phone call between a Kremlin aide Sergey Glazyev and Russian-led Ukrainian proxies released by Ukrainian prosecutors revealed that, also in February 2014, the Kremlin was giving detailed instructions to “separatists” about instigating unrest in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odessa to provoke an armed conflict. The Ukrainian military action did not start until April 15, 2014 when then acting-President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the beginning of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) against the Russian-led separatists. Even then, negotiations continued and on September 5, Donetsk and Luhansk areas were given a special status and compromised on the regional elections.

It appears pro-Kremlin and Russian-led separatist media in eastern Ukraine tried to use the Catalan crisis as a way to legitimize the illegal annexation of Crimea and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics when the prospect of Catalan independence seemed likely. This is not the first time this has happened; Russian officials referred to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 in the same way.

However, as the prospect of Catalan independence receded, the Russian and separatist propaganda establishment stopped claiming there were similarities between Catalonia and the Donbas and started talking up the differences. This has helped the pro-Kremlin and “separatist” media to also resurrect some of the arguments Russian officials and “separatist” leaders have used since the height of the 2014 crisis.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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