Russia’s Digital Kiev Offensive

World War 2 (WW2) features prominently on social media. Dates of important battles are commemorated by many European nations. Foreign ministries (MFAs) also memorialize brutal occupations and celebrate eventual liberations. For some, WW2 is an integral part of national narratives, as is the case with Israel and Poland. While the former claims to have been born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the latter redefines its historical role during the war. For others, WW2 is a means for interpreting the future. Following the Brexit referendum, the British FCO shared images that evoked Britain’s last stand in 1942. If Britain could face the Nazi’s alone, it could surly face the world without the EU. There are also nations who employ memories of WW2 to highlight the historic values and norms they adhere to. Such is the case with Russia.

November 3rd marked the historic day of the Kiev offensive, a Red Army attack that repelled the German army from Kiev. Much like the ‘Kiev offensive’, the Russian MFA launched a Twitter offensive commemorating the historic battle, which was but a brick in Russia’s staunch opposition to fascism. Indeed, Russian diplomats often speak of neo-Nazis and neo-Fascists to legitimize contemporary Russian foreign policies. Such was the case when the Russian MFA suggested that neo-Nazis had staged a coup in Kiev, leading to Russia’s ‘willingness’ to annex Crimea.

One notable tweet, shown below, was published by the Russian MFA itself. What is noticeable about this tweet is the comparison between German occupiers and Russian liberators. As the tweet deals with Ukraine there is a possible nod here to Russia’s narrative that it liberated Crimea from neo-Nazi opressors. Second, there is an emphasis on the fact that Kiev was liberated by soldiers of ‘diverse ethnic origin’. Here, the past may be used to make sense of the present- Russia celebrates diversity, not conformity. Suggesting that Russia is oppressive or non-democratic is thus ludicrous.

The images accompanying this tweet are unique. The top left corner and bottom right corner as similar- in both cases soldiers look to the sky. Yet while the left image is that of a regular soldier, the man on the bottom right seems more like a general. Here again there may be a testament to Russia’s character- it faces struggles, great struggles, together. It is peculiar that both men look to the skies. The answer to this pose may be found in the remaining images. The general may be hoping of air cover, but ultimately, it is the regular foot soldiers, those soldiers of diverse backgrounds that move from house to battered house, freeing Kiev of Nazis.

The Russian Embassy to South Africa published an altogether different tweet celebrating the withdrawal of the German army from all of Soviet Ukraine. The term soviet appears twice (#USSR) yet as a nostalgic device, a time when millions of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Kazakhs fought shoulder to shoulder to secure freedom. Nostalgia is a powerful weapon in contemporary digital diplomacy. As the world becomes increasingly uncertain and complex, old dichotomies such as bi-polar worlds become alluring. Soviet nostalgia is very simple- there were good guys and bad guys. And everyone knew where they stood.

The images in this tweet are not of ragged soldiers but of prowess, of Soviet tanks surging ahead teaching the Germans what Blitz Krieg really means. These may allude to the fact that Russia still views itself as a superpower. Its past is reflected in its present day policies in Crimea, Syria and Belarus.

Perhaps the most violent tweet was published by the Russian MFA in Crimea account. This tweet includes a gruesome video that, over several minutes, depicts mournful Ukrainian women grieving over the bodies of their loved ones. Images include death pits, mass graves and even dead children. Yet the scenes of death are soon replaced by cannons. Like Sherman’s cannon in Gone with the Wind, the mighty Red Army drove the invaders clear out of Ukraine. One could wonder why this account was the one to share the most gruesome post? One answer might be that a local staffer decided to use a video instead of a still image. This may have also been the choice of a more senior diplomat. Another possibility is that this video was also meant for domestic consumption. A reminder to Crimeans of where they would be without mother Russia.

Finally, the MFA also tweeted the adversarial message below. The reason being that Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, argued that a local statue honoring the Red Army was actually a monument to the end of the Soviet occupation. Russia responded with force knowing that the past is relived constantly in the digital present.

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