The anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was marked by public events and demonstration in cities all over Europe in an outpouring of sympathy and support. In Berlin, London, Prague, Rome and other cities some peace protesters called for negotiations with Russia and an end to military aid for Ukraine. In some cases protesters also voiced additional demands for combating poverty, for higher wages or other issues of local significance. Most of these events were organised by representatives of far left, far right, nationalist or populist movements.
Russian media and propaganda channels presented the demonstrations as massive popular events in support of Russia, against sanctions, aid for Ukraine and NATO.
That interpretation of events is also being spread among Bulgarian social media users. Widely shared Facebook posts suggest that an authentic large-scale civil movement sympathising with Russia in its aggression against Ukraine is developing in Europe.
According to research by the Robert Lansing Institute, the ‘anti-war’ campaign is part of a wider Russian strategy aimed at creating the impression that societies in Western Europe are divided in their attitude to the war in Ukraine. According to the institute, Russia is trying to achieve this by mobilising its long-standing Soviet-time connections with the European left, whose representatives have a long tradition in anti-war protests. Far right elements have also been enlisted to speak against the support for Ukraine from a nationalist perspective and call for independence from U.S. and NATO influence.
Russia’s peace narrative is a classic psychological warfare attempt, says an analysis by EUvsDisinfo, a project of the European External Action Service aimed at countering disinformation. Its goals are to manipulate and weaken Ukrainians, score quick goodwill points for Russia internationally and split European public opinion with appeals to traditional peace movements or business circles wanting to engage with Russia in a ‘back to normal’ illusion.
Europe’s ‘protest wave’
Publications on social media create the impression that Europe is “quaking” with mass protests against military aid for Ukraine. A Facebook post from 26 February, about which Factcheck.bg received a reader’s question, claims that “rallies, protests and processions” took place in Berlin, Frankfurt, Rome and on the island of Crete against “NATO, weapons deliveries to Ukraine and nazism.” The post is from a profile by the name of Yordan Halachev and has been shared about 2,800 times by individual users and on multiple groups numbering over 10,000, and in some cases over 100,000 users. Yordan Halachev’s profile itself has 12,000 followers and actively promotes topics and points of view aligned with Russian propaganda narratives. His opinions are sometimes quoted by certain media.
Factcheck.bg analysed the messages and the activists behind the protests.
In Berlin a demonstration called Uprising for Peace took place on 25 February. It was covered by multiple international media. The organisers’ manifesto, which has been signed by over 700,000 people, contains calls for peace negotiations and mutual concessions by the two sides in the war, as well as for stopping weapons deliveries to Ukraine by Germany. NATO is not mentioned in the text.
According to Berlin police between 10,000 and 13,000 people took part in the demonstration, while the organisers claim that number was 50,000. The main public figure behind the protest was Sahra Wagenknecht – an MP for the smallest party in the Bundestag, socialist Die Linke, i.e. ‘The Left’. Die Linke is the heir of the communist party of the former East Germany and it got just under 5% of the votes at the last election. Far right groups also took part in the protest. Among them were a number of publicly known right extremists, anti-Semites and politicians from the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). Members of the Left party leadership publicly criticised Sahra Wagenknecht for “switching the places of the aggressor and the vicitim” and for organising an event that “has nothing to do with left-wing politics for peace”.
The far right AfD has long been accused of ties with the Kremlin. In September last year representatives of the party visited Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine. According to analysts and media their visit was part of a Russian influence operation seeking to legitimise Russia’s claim over the occupied parts of Ukraine.
A day earlier, on 24 February, a Russian tank destroyed by a mine in the outskirts of Kyiv in March 2022 was placed in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin as a symbol of protest against the country’s military aggression. Images on Russian media and propaganda outlets showed the tank covered in roses. Articles with titles such as Berliners cover the blown up Russian tank with roses and Germans teach a lesson to all enemies of Russia using a tank and roses connected the event with the demonstration against military aid for Ukraine, presenting it as a sign that Berliners were on Russia’s side in the war.
In a Deutsche Welle report eye-witnesses say the flowers were placed on the tank by “a group of Russians, men and women, who arrived together; everything looked well-prepared”. Russian propaganda programme “60 minutes” on the Kremlin’s Channel 1 aired a video in which Alexander von Bismarck says he was behind the laying of the roses. Bismarck, whom Russian media present as the great grandson of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, but who according to German sources is actually his great grandnephew, was used by Russian propaganda as an observer of the last presidential election in Russia in 2018. He is listed on the database for politically biased observers maintained by the European Platform for Democratic Elections.
The project of placing the tank in front of the Russian embassy was actually carried out by the team of the Berlin Story Bunker museum and the exhibit itself was transported to Germany with the help of Ukraine’s defence ministry.
The protest in Rome on 25 February, which is mentioned in the Facebook posts, was so small that it was not covered by Italian media. Information about it can be found in an article by the Russian state-owned news agency RIA, according to which about 100 people were present at the event. It was organised by the populist and Eurosceptic party Sovereign and Popular Italy, founded in 2022 by representatives of several far left, populist and nationalist groups united by their protests against green certificates, mandatory Covid vaccinations for persons over 50 in Italy, and against Mario Draghi’s government as a whole. The party also opposes sanctions against Russia and calls for exiting the EU, the eurozone and NATO. At the last election it received just over 1% of the votes and did not make it into parliament.
A larger demonstration against arms deliveries to Ukraine took place on the same day in Genoa. According to Italian media around 2,000 port workers took part. In addition to their calls for peace and higher wages, protesters also demanded an easing of the prison regime for Alfredo Cospito, a representative of the anarchist movement serving a sentence for terrorism.
The protest in London was organised by the Stop the War Coalition, founded to oppose the war in Iraq but later abandoned by its traditional Labour Party supporters because of its anti-Western radicalisation. The website of the Fourth Socialist International described the demonstration on 25 February as ‘sparsely attended‘. The exact number of participants is difficult to asses because according to UK media they mixed with groups protesting in support of Ukraine, which can also be seen from the photos of protesters carrying Ukrainian flags.
The protest in Prague on 11 March was organised by the recently formed right-wing populist party PRO, founded by opponents of anti-Covid measures and vaccines. The event’s slogan was “Czechia against poverty” and along with a stop to weapons deliveries to Ukraine participants also called for curbing inflation, against high energy prices and for the resignation of the government.
“Bulgaria will not give away its sons”
A protest against providing military help to Ukraine was also held in Sofia and several other cities in Bulgaria on 12 March. Images from the demonstrations in Europe were used for promoting the event.
It was organised via a Facebook page called “I refuse”, which has 1,600 followers. Factcheck.bg found out that the same Facebook page was involved in organising other protests in the interval 2019-2021, among which there were events against wearing masks, against the Covid certificate, against vaccines and the CETA agreement.
Organisers of the Bulgarian protests on social media used the slogan “Bulgaria will not give away its sons”, which feeds into yet another disinformation narrative spun by Russian propaganda in Bulgaria: the claim that Bulgarian troops are about to be sent to the Ukraine front line. It is part of a large-scale disinformation campaign carried out by Russia in Central and Eastern Europe, which Factcheck.bg has already analysed in detail.
What Russia talks about when it talks about peace
Presenting the European protests against military aid for Ukraine as a pro-Russian peace movement is part of the cynical narrative under which Russia poses as the victim in the aggressive war it started itself. EUvsDisinfo points out that although they may look like peace proposals, Russia’s messages are really demands for Ukraine to surrender and give up parts of its territory.
By seemingly standing on the side of peace, Russia tries to undermine Europe’s’ unity in support of Ukraine or at least create the impression that that unity is weakened. EU polls show that for the time being 75% of EU citizens approve of the Union’s support for Ukraine. Eurobarometer surveys show that approval is over 50% in 24 out of the 27 member countries.
This article includes contributions by Vanessa Nikolova (Factcheck.bg)