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06. 05. 2021

Report: Pro-Kremlin Disinformation about GRU Terrorist Attack in the Czech Republic

On April 19, Semantic Visions published an early warning diagnostic analysis of how Czech disinformation media reacted to the government announcement that Russian military intelligence (GRU) was responsible for a deadly munitions depot explosion in the Czech town of Vrbětice in 2014. Preliminary data showed a dramatic surge in disinformation about the news within the first 24 hours of Prime Minister Babiš’s announcement, notably displacing COVID-19 as the leading topic of disinformation for the first time in several months.

This updated analysis shows that this trend has continued as the diplomatic clash between Prague and Moscow has escalated. This report summarizes the evolution of the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign throughout this period, focusing on the response of Czech disinformation sources as well as domestic Russian media.

Key takeaways include:

  • Czech disinformation sources are pushing staunchly pro-Kremlin coverage of the GRU scandal, in line with their established history of Kremlin-aligned and anti-Western agitation. These sources frequently amplify Russian disinformation narratives and official Kremlin talking points, and support domestic political actors that advocate populist, pro-Kremlin positions, like the far-right SPD party, the Communist Party (KSČM), and the notoriously Putin-friendly Czech president, Miloš Zeman. However, despite their proKremlin orientation, the majority of these sites have no evident links to the Russian state, and do not produce content in coordination with Russian media. Their primary drivers are profit (i.e., ad revenues) and social influence.
  • Specifically, Czech disinformation media have sought to ridicule and discredit the official government account of what happened in Vrbětice, in particular the evidence of Russia’s involvement. To this end, they have offered several alternative explanations as well as conspiracy theories about the government’s motivations for pointing the finger at the GRU, suggesting that it is a ploy to escalate the conflict between Russia and the West, instigated by the United States. Other key narratives have centered on questioning the timing of the news and attacking the competence and credibility of the Czech security services.
  • The Russian disinformation response to the disclosure of the GRU’s role in Vrbětice was immediate and has followed the same blueprint as in other cases where Russia’s criminal activity has been exposed, like the annexation of Crimea and the Skripal poisoning. Russian officials and pro-government media deny any Russian involvement in the explosion and dismiss the Czech government’s response as an attempt to score points in Washington’s “war of sanctions”. Indeed, the dominant narratives in Russian media alternatively attribute the scandal to US puppeteering in the Czech Republic and the alleged “Russophobia” of Czech authorities. In this context, there is a noteworthy difference in the negative coverage of Prime Minister Babiš’s government, which has mandated the diplomatic expulsions and considers the GRU attack an act of state terrorism, and positive coverage of President Zeman, who has falsely claimed that there is no evidence of Russian intelligence involvement in the explosion.
  • Pro-Kremlin disinformation efforts in both Russia and the Czech Republic received a significant boost from a speech by President Zeman, made on April 25, in which he contradicted the official Czech government position about the GRU’s involvement and suggested instead that the explosion may have been caused by the mishandling of ammunition. The speech was heavily promoted by Russian-language media, which praised Zeman for not “caving in” to pressure from the United States. Czech disinformation websites likewise endorsed it as a “voice of reason” amid all the “Russophobic hysteria”.
  • The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign is unlikely to subside quickly, considering the strategic interests are at stake. Beyond dealing a major blow to Russia’s intelligence infrastructure in Europe and unifying Western allies in stronger opposition to Russian subversive activity, this latest scandal jeopardizes two of the Kremlin’s key strategic objectives: 1) to win soft power points through the provision of the Sputnik V vaccine to more European countries, and 2) to secure the contract for the Czech Dukovany nuclear plant, worth more than 10 billion USD, on behalf of Rosatom. Such control of critical energy infrastructure is a key vector of Russian political and economic influence in Europe.

Download the full report here.

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