Kremlin Narratives Ahead of Helsinki

Russian media takes a dramatically different editorial tone ahead of meeting between Trump and Putin

(Source: RT and Sputnik)

On Monday, July 15, United States President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. While details of discussion ahead of the meeting were scant, evidence of Russian misdeeds were highlighted across the international community and inside the United States.

By contrast, Kremlin media has been measurably more positive ahead of the summit, amplifying any American comments which praise President Putin and promoting hostile narratives against western nations and NATO. In lieu of stated goals from Russian officials ahead of the summit, editorial coverage from state-owned outlets remains a solid indicator of Russia’s core interests.

Ahead of the meeting, @DFRLab broke down the basic narratives in Kremlin media.

Last Week in the West

On July 11, at the NATO Summit, the leaders of all 29 Allied nations issued a joint declaration significant for two reasons. First, it mentioned disinformation as a significant hybrid threat. Second, it explicitly called out election interference in Allied nations carried out by Russia. Both topics have been discusssed and addressed by various leaders of NATO member states; however, the joint declaration was the first time they’ve spoken on the topic with one voice. They said:

Russia is also challenging Euro-Atlantic security and stability through hybrid actions, including attempted interference in the election processes, and the sovereignty of our nations.

On July 13, the United States Department of Justice issued an indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for 11 counts of alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election. The indictment explicitly stated:

The object of the conspiracy was to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Set against ongoing legal action based on an overwhelming body of evidence and a unified declaration from leaders of NATO members states, Russian state-owned media had a drastically different take, attempting to lump western media and political leaders into various conspiratorial categories.

The “Establishment” Is Worried

Many articles on Kremlin-owned media pointed out that the western establishment is worried about the summit. On June 28, as the place and time of the summit were confirmed, RT published an opinion piece by Stephen Cohen entitled, “Who is afraid of a Trump-Putin summit?” The article posited that “the bipartisan political-media establishment” was the most worried about the summit.

The article went on to read:

As already adumbrated in commentary on a possible summit, any Trump-Putin agreements that enhance American and international security, of the kind for which previous US presidents were applauded, are likely to be denounced by most representatives of the bipartisan political-media establishment at best as ‘a grand illusion’ and at worst as the treacherous acts of Russia’s ‘useful idiot,’ as a ‘reward’ to Putin for his misdeeds, as ‘Putin…essentially being given a free hand,’ as ‘upsetting our closest allies in Europe.’ If Trump’s laudable summit breakthrough with North Korean leader Kim was widely traduced as incompetent, security cooperation with Putin will be construed as sinister.

It should be noted that RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has referred to the outlet as a Russian “information weapon”.

Later both RT and its sister agency, Sputnik, whose official task is to “secure the national interests of the Russian Federation in the information sphere,” published articles pointing at actors of the so-called “establishment” who are particularly worried about the summit.

Top left (Source: RT.com); top middle (Source: RT.com); top right (Source: RT.com); bottom left (Source: Sputnik); bottom middle (Source: Sputnik); bottom right (Source: Sputnik).

Most of the articles used the word “establishment” in their wording. For example on July 6, RT published an opinion article that used the word in its title:

“US establishment in hysterics that Trump-Putin summit might succeed.”

The article was picked up by American fringe media outlet Zerohedge and a list of other media outlets that are not classified as mainstream.

(Source: Buzzsumo.com)

Similarly, the article that alleged the United Kingdom feared the summit, read:

The UK establishment is alarmed by a ‘peace deal’ that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump may reach at their upcoming meeting. London has used Moscow as a ‘boogeyman’ to preserve its fading influence in Europe, experts told RT.

The United Kingdom has been a consistent target of Kremlin disinformation since March, when Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in England, was found poisoned in the city of Salisbury with his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia. The Skripals were found to be poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union.

British Prime Minister Theresa May concluded based on investigations across UK security services that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the attack on British soil.

On July 7, RT built upon the “US establishment” and “UK establishment” themes by publishing an article titled:

German officials join UK and US establishment worried how Trump-Putin summit will affect NATO.

Sputnik mentioned NATO as a worried actor a couple of times too. On July 7 Sputnik published an article titled:

NATO Reportedly Alarmed Over Future ‘Uncoordinated’ Trump-Putin Agreements

The following day, Sputnik repeated the message by publishing an article titled:

NATO Fears Potential Trump-Putin Deal Will Leave Europe ‘Vulnerable’ — Reports

Some media outlets in Russia went farther. IA REX and Regnum, media outlets previously under fire for their biased reporting and disinformation, published articles calling the “establishment” a “dark world-wide project”.

Pink text denotes translation from Russian of headlines. Left: (Source: IA REX); Right: (Source: Regnum).

The article on IA REX read:

And here we come to the main thing — thirdly. Putin’s Russia, like Trump’s America has one common enemy, whose most famous names are the ‘deep state’, as well as the ‘dark world-wide project’, the frontman of which is Hillary Clinton in the US, and Angela Merkel in Europe, whose ideological and financial basis is the mutated fascism of the Third Reich (therefore in the connection — Putin-Trump and Israel appeared — Netanyahu on May 9 in Moscow).

The mission of this dark world-wide project’ is to seize the world under the slogans of Satan’s worship and turn people into slaves deprived of any identity. Accordingly, the Trump project — ‘Let’s make America great again’ is directly opposite to this, as the great people make it a great country. Accordingly, a great country needs not digitized slaves, but free great people.

But does Vladimir Putin solve any other problem in Russia? — No, exactly the same — the formation of Great Russia. Xi Jinping is solving a similar problem in China. Therefore, despite all the differences on tactical issues, they are allies in strategic issues.

The article published on Regnum cited the article on IA REX. It read:

The real agreement between the presidents envisages long cooperation in several stages, when Trump first helps Putin to eliminate in Russia a liberal clan around the Clintons and global forces of the ‘dark aristocracy’ promoting the ‘dark world-wide project,’ and then Russia, the United States and China form a Triple Alliance on the management of the world, where new spheres of influence will be defined. And Putin will have the opportunity to support Trump’s efforts along the way. Of course, this is a long-term strategy, the true meaning of which will not be advertised and will be covered by the usual rhetoric of confrontation and rivalry to calm the forces that Trump and Putin have not yet been defeated. Among the experts, Yuri Baranchik and Mikhail Khazin have most deeply ‘dug’ this issue.

The articles did not get much traction on social media, but were shared on several content aggregators and blogging platforms that are popular on Russian web.

Issue Narratives

The issues to be discussed during the summit have been a matter for speculation, as the statement by the White House did not share any details. It read:

President Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will meet on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, Finland. The two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues.

A day later, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov shared the Kremlin’s position with Sputnik, without naming any details to be discussed. His quote on Sputnik read:

There is no special plan. The meeting in Helsinki is currently being prepared. This is a serious preparation, you know. Many people are waiting for this meeting.

Later, on June 30, Trump told reporters:

We’re going to talk about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria. We’ll be talking about elections … we don’t want anybody tampering with elections.

While the details of what will be discussed were limited, RT and Sputnik were clear over what would not be discussed or negotiated. For example, concerning Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, RT channelled a very clear Kremlin position. The quote by Peskov read:

The Russian president has repeatedly stated and explained to his interlocutors that there cannot be and never will be an issue on the agenda of Crimea, as Crimea is an integral part of Russia.

Concerning the alleged Russian meddling in the United States elections, Kremlin-backed media were similarly firm. Both RT and Sputnik reported on July 1 that Putin reassured United States National Security Adviser John Bolton that Russia did not meddle in U.S. presidential elections.

Left (Source: RT.com); right (Source: Sputnik)

One more tantalizing glimpse was given, as Sputnik published at least three stories suggesting that a United States pullout from Syria may be on the agenda. This would be a geopolitical victory for Putin, but would allow Trump to present himself to his domestic supporters as withdrawing the United States from costly foreign entanglements.

Left (Source: Sputnik); middle (Source: Sputnik); right (Source: Sputnik)

Further details have not been forthcoming; however, editorial coverage from state-owned outlets remains a solid indicator of Russia’s core interests.

Conclusion

Kremlin-backed media were positive about having the Helsinki Summit, while dismissing actors who were worried about it. The actors named were the “U.S. establishment”, “UK establishment”, Germany, and NATO. Some reports targeted at Russian domestic audiences suggested that Trump and Putin are allies against a “dark world-wide project”. 
 
Despite the lack of public agenda of the meeting, the Kremlin media channeled the Russian government’s positions about Crimea in Ukraine, Syria, and meddling in U.S. presidential elections. The hint of a discussion on a possible United States. withdrawal on Syria remains elusive, but would signal a major policy shift from America.


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

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