December in Russia: a special breed of disinformation5 min read

 In Editorial, Russia

December editorial. When discussing Russian politics, it is usually only a matter of time before the conversation shifts to ‘propaganda’, ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’. From flat out denials of involvement in the poisoning of opposition candidates at home to accusations of asserting undue influence on elections in the US, the intricate web of deceit spun by the Kremlin to assert its agenda has become eerily familiar.

But a truly successful propaganda campaign involves much more than simply calling your staunchest opponents in Ukraine ‘fascists’, or becoming best pals with right-wing populists in the hope that they might champion your interests in the European Parliament. It’s equally important to craft a likeable, if not loveable, image of yourself that people who find all that political talk rather mundane can get on board with. And what better way of enchanting the public than fusing your disinformation with some good old-fashioned animal magnetism to help disguise your true intentions?

Whether riding a horse bare-chested across the Siberian plains or cuddling up to cute puppies he’s received as birthday gifts from fellow world leaders, there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin has a thing for animals. In a series of infamously staged publicity stunts over the years, the Russian President has posed with leopards and polar bears, defended a film crew from a man-eating tiger, and even helped introduce endangered cranes into the wild whilst flying a small aeroplane. But while these exotic beasts have helped Putin both foster a tough-guy image abroad and provide opportunities to invite movie stars like Leonardo Di Caprio to the Kremlin for a chat about wildlife conservation, when it comes to animal propagandists, it’s cats who rule the roost.

Until 2015, Mostik, who takes his name from the Russian word for ‘bridge’, was just another stray Crimean kitten, surviving off whatever scraps of leftover fish he could get his paws on. But when building work began on a flyover connecting the now-Moscow controlled peninsula and the Russian mainland, Mostik’s life changed forever. The charismatic kitten was adopted by construction workers, and, in next to no time was proclaimed as the bridge’s unofficial mascot. Mostik’s fame soon started to spread throughout Russia, thanks in no small part to his active use of Instagram, where his 55,000 followers can keep up with all his latest adventures.

Whether it’s meeting up with the Crimean baseball team, celebrating the New Year or hanging out with his old friends on the building site, Mostik is certainly a much cuter and cuddlier face of illegal annexation than the one we’re used to reading about on Western news sites. These days he’s rarely photographed without a trusty press pass around his neck, helping him to get all the latest inside scoops on the kind of feel-good stories that distract from some of the harsher realities of life on the occupied peninsula. No wonder Vladimir Putin was happy to let Mostik cross the completed bridge ahead of him on the day of the official opening ceremony back in May 2018.

Cute as he may be, Mostik is certainly not unique. In fact, he’s just one example of how cats have been employed as part of a much wider propaganda strategy to distract domestic audiences from Russian political manoeuvres abroad.

Remember March 2018, when two Russian intelligence officers travelled to the picturesque English town of Salisbury on a mission to poison Sergei Skripal, a former double agent who had worked for both the Russian military and the British intelligence service? The plot was quickly uncovered, and the Western media reacted with incredulity to the highly unlikely explanation that the two culprits were, in fact, visiting Salisbury’s ‘world famous’ 123-metre spire. But, as evidence suggesting the actions of the two officers were connected to high-ranking Russian government officials mounted, Russia’s UK consulate decided there was a different question that urgently needed to be answered: ‘What has happened to Sergei Skripal’s cat and guinea pigs?’

Horror stories emerged in the newspapers that the police had neglected to give food or water to the poor animals for almost a month, leading to their tragic deaths from thirst and hunger. As if this wasn’t bad enough, their bodies were then hastily buried without so much as an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Surely, suggested Russian news sources, the British authorities were trying to hide something.

In fact, the handling of the guinea pig and cat corpses was deemed so suspicious that both Russian ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia and Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke publicly about the issue. If there really was a lethal dose of radioactive poison at the Skripal’s house, their guinea pigs would have been found ‘dead in their cage‘ said Zakharova on Facebook. Nebenzia took the opportunity at a meeting of the UN Security Council to pose the same question in a series of angry exchanges, which attempted to cast serious doubt on the reliability of the British authorities to handle the case. The argument seemed to be that if they were lying about the guinea pigs and cats, what else were they covering up?

Of course, the fate of Sergei Skripal’s pets is rather unfortunate, as none of them appear to have survived the events of March 2018 in Salisbury. However, regardless of how people feel about their sad demise, or the adventures of Mostik on Instagram, when cats, or other loveable animals, are dragged into political affairs, there are often much bigger issues at stake. So, whether it’s showing a softer side to illegal annexation, or simply distracting people from the reality of an attempted assassination on foreign soil, is there any wonder that cats are fast becoming Vladimir Putin’s political animals of choice?

Featured image: People reading in the metro / Peter Lawrence
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