This is Russia: Satire and Attribution in the Russia Ukraine War

On Thursday, July 28th, a video supposedly touting the benefits of moving to Russia began to gain traction on Telegram. Titled “This is Russia”, the video identifies the many benefits of moving to Russia at this moment in time. For instance, unlike Europe or America, Russia currently boasts cheap gas, fertile soil, low-priced electricity, delicious food and even affordable taxis and deliveries. In other words, this video highlights why Russia is an attractive destination even though it is embroiled in a costly and violent War with Ukraine. In Russia there are no food shortages, no rising prices at petrol stations and no increases to the cost of millennial living including Uber and Wolt. This video, which was soon shared on Twitter by journalists and academics, is representative of two digital facets that characterize the Russia-Ukraine War: the problem of attribution and the growing use of sarcasm and humor online.  

When the video was shared across Twitter, both journalists and academics did not know who to attribute this video to. Was it disseminated by Russia? Was it created by Russian influencers or social media users? Or was it perhaps authored by opponents of Russia? The question of attribution is central to analyzing the video’s message.

On the one hand the video bares all the hallmarks of a nation branding campaign, or a nation’s attempt to manage its global image. Such videos, often co-produced with ad agencies and shared through official state channels, try to create an attractive national image by highlighting a nation’s rich culture, long history, beautiful landscape and economic benefits. The video in question does all of these. For instance, it calls attention to Russia’s unique architecture, beautiful monuments, its rich history and even culture which is Christian, traditional and anti-woke. As the video states, there is “no cancel culture” in Russia. Russia is even depicted as the bedrock of European literature. Viewers are encouraged to move to Russia now, before winter brings with it snow blizzards and higher energy prices.  

Thus, it is very possible that this video was produced by Russia.

However, the movie includes some puzzling elements. First, it suggests that Russia is home to beautiful women. This message elicits uneasiness as it is accompanied by images of young girls running across an open field or a young woman sadly opening her eyes. It thus evokes connotations of sex trade. Next, Russia is said to be home to a robust economy which withstands thousands of sanctions. A remarkable claim given the current state of the Russian economy. Finally, Russia is branded through Vodka, a popular stereotype about Russians, and the ominous caption “Don’t Delay (moving to Russia)…Winter is Coming”.  

It is thus very possible that this video was prepared by opponents of Russia as a satirical video.

Whether or not this video is satirical can only be resolved through the question of attribution. If created by the Russian state, then the video is quite sophisticated as it makes light of Russian stereotypes and invokes a self-deprecating tone. Through humor, the video seeks to demonstrate that Western sanctions have been ineffective and that Russia’s economy remains unhampered. It thus negates the messages shared online by the US and its allies in Europe. Additionally, the video invokes connotations from popular culture, such as “Winter is Coming”, thus appealing to diverse online audiences. There is even a stark contrast between allegations that Russia is causing a world food crisis and the rich bounty of Russian soil. Here, Russia adopts a blunt tone that ridiculous Western allegations of food shortages. Russia is also framed as the home of Christian conservatism and an ideological opponent of “political correctness” and “cancel culture”. In this way the video rearticulates Russian messages that depict political correctness as part of US hegemony and America’s attempt at thought control.

Russia is thus depicted as a country that dares to think differently, and a home for all conservative Christians who oppose fluidity, be it sexual or gender based. Russia is the home of traditional dichotomies where men are men, women are women and LGBTQs are nowhere to be seen.  As such, this video may appeal to many Christian conservatives in Europe.  

If created by opponents of Russia, the movie is equally brilliant as it satirizes nation branding campaigns and makes a mockery of Russia, a nation so devoid of reason and compassion that it flaunts its food in the face of a starving world. The question of attribution has accompanied the current War from its very beginning as videos of Russian missiles destroying Ukrainian cities, or Ukrainian forces besting Russian soldiers, were shared widely shaping people’s perceptions and beliefs about the war. But who shot these videos? Who uploaded them? Who was the source and can the source be trusted?

The question of attribution has been magnified as some states share content created by another. Chinese state-run social media accounts have been disseminating Russian narratives and conspiracy theories, complicating the task of identifying the communicator, the message and the intended audience. Without these three elements, diplomats may find it increasingly difficult to comment on, and frame, videos and images shared online. The online arena of diplomacy will become a minefield of attribution, misattribution, truth and lies.

Notably, soon after the video in question started circulating online, a parody version was created. In this video, the term “cheap gas” is accompanied by images of war; the term “rich history” relates to Soviet tanks rolling into foreign cities; Russia’s contribution to world literature is reduced to Nabokov’s “Lolita”; the words “fertile soil” take on a horrid meaning thanks to the image of a military cemetery; Russia’s “traditional values” are manifest by police officers arresting LGBTQ protestors while Russia’s hospitality is juxtaposed by images of police brutality. Once again humor was used to shape Russia’s image, but especially to negate all assertions made in the first video.

What is perhaps most surprising is the speed with which the first video was parodied. Since its beginning the War in Ukraine has been marked by the use of memes and short videos by both sides, each using humor and satire to deliver a blow to the other’s image and to undermine the other’s credibility. This raises two important questions for the future of digital diplomacy. First, will states find it increasingly difficult to manage their national images during wars as each digital product, shared by diplomats online, will be satirized and ridiculed? Similarly, will diplomats find it harder to maintain credibility in a humor-soaked online environment? Second, does the growing use of humor  and memes make it more difficult to discuss the horrors of war? Are social media users dedicating more time to creating trending visuals than to sharing the real costs of this horrid war? If so, is war itself becoming a joke? The answer to this question may impact the ease with which nations go to war, complicating diplomacy’s offline arena.  

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