Chris York reports from Ukraine on the impact of Boris Johnson’s resignation on the Kremlin’s information wars, and their plans for his successor

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There’s an uncomfortable truth to acknowledge when looking at how the Russian propaganda machine has reacted to the Tory leadership crisis – the people whose job it is to portray the West as fractured, shambolic and incompetent haven’t exactly had their work cut out lately.

The resignation of Boris Johnson and the catalogue of scandals that precipitated it have been a boon for the Kremlin, as it tries to convince a domestic audience that it’s a victory for Russia, and a Ukrainian audience that it’s a sign western support is fracturing.

“It was a really big deal for them, the hottest topic that week,” says Yuriy Malakhov, data analyst at Texty, a Ukrainian group that monitors and analyses pro-Russian media.

“We download news from the previous week and classify it into clusters using keywords. For the week July 4th–10th, the cluster of news about Boris Johnson was the number one story – there were 321 news pieces.”

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These news pieces cover a wide range of platforms, from articles on Russian websites such as Tass and RT to the Telegram channels of influential bloggers and commentators.

While nominally independent of each other, the Kremlin’s ongoing draconian crackdown on genuinely independent media ensures the remaining reporting and commentary all point in a direction favourable to Putin’s Russia and its aims in the war against Ukraine.

“Johnson has been seen as a very big threat by Russian propagandists because he was very visible in the media and they had to fight his very large media presence,” says Alex Zamkovoi, a fact-checker and journalist at Stopfake.

“Russian propaganda was very happy about the resignation and they not only tried to convince Ukrainians that this is a very bad sign for them but also their own population as well. All the time they try to show there is a huge mess in western countries. 

“They want to scare Ukrainians, and give hope to Russians.”

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While it’s easy to dismiss Russian propaganda as outrageous and fanciful – think of the two Russian health supplement salesmen who just happened to be on a short holiday in Salisbury in 2018 – it’s important to recognise that much of what they do usually begins with a nugget of truth, and the Tory leadership shambles has provided all the ammo they need to work with.

“It’s mainly about the interpretation of events,” says Ksenia Iliuk, a data analyst at counter-disinformation group Detector Media. “Overall they are very skillful in picking up what’s actually happening and then exaggerating it.”

“For example, before and after the resignation, they were saying Boris Johnson was using the war in Ukraine to cover his failures.”

This accusation was far from confined to only Russian propaganda – Jane Merrick of the i Paper conducted a detailed analysis showing a very strong correlation between Downing Street scandals erupting and Johnson phoning or visiting Ukrainian Volodymyr President. 

Where Russian propaganda diverges from reality is in the embellishments it then proceeds to add about the reasons events happened and the motivations behind the people involved in them.

These embellishments took on many forms, including overstating Johnson’s role in western support for Ukraine:

With the resignation of Boris Johnson, the Western machine in the European theatre was left without control.” political observer Dmitry Drobnitsky

Overstating his political ability:

“All Western politicians are Russophobes. However, Boris Johnson was a single russophobic politician with the plan, desire, tools and non-standard thinking. Compared to other European and American politicians, Boris Johnson was our most skilled enemy.” Russian blogger Malek Dudakov

And claiming that Johnson’s resignation is the beginning of a domino effect that will take out more world leaders:

“With the resignation of Boris Johnson, the decline of political freaks and clowns begins in the world. Biden’s impeachment is next in line, and of course we are looking forward to a military coup and the death of the main actor, Zelensky.”  – fugitive Ukrainian MP and Russian collaborationist Illia Kiva.

“We had statements citing all the failures he made and saying it was hugely damaging to western support for Ukraine because the UK is now going to leave Ukraine,” says Zamkovoi.

“They’re trying to say that all that was happening was only Boris Johnson’s politics, and in the end, Ukraine will be left alone with no support so now’s the time to give up and come back to Russia, which is of course nonsense because the UK support is institutional.”

But what of Johnson’s would-be successors? In short, a Liz Truss victory will be great news for the Russian propaganda machine.

“If Liz Truss wins they’ve already prepared the ground,” says Zamkovoi. “They’ve already worked a lot on discrediting her as foreign minister. They’ve tried to make her out as a ridiculous person who doesn’t know geography.”

Again, this isn’t too far from the truth. In February as Russia was building up forces on Ukraine’s border, Truss is reported to have mistakenly identified two areas of Russia as being in Ukraine. And her gaffe-prone antics are frequently covered in the UK media and have enjoyed a viral renaissance since she made it down to the final two in the leadership contest.

In contrast, Rishi Sunak and the other candidates have been largely absent from coverage, possibly a sign the propagandists are waiting to see who wins before launching a full-throttle campaign against them, says Illiuk.

While the Kremlin undoubtedly has succeeded in convincing its domestic audience that Johnson’s resignation was a victory for Russia, here in Ukraine the reach and influence of its propaganda have been severely curtailed – the savagery inflicted during the invasion has led to near eradication of any pro-Russian attitudes in the country.

Yet the propaganda continues. “They still have hope they can break the solidarity of the west, says Zamkovoi. “They really think if they can scare Ukrainians both with propaganda and missiles, they’ll put pressure on Zelensky to sign a peace treaty.

“In Ukraine, we’re not panicking. Of course, we loved Boris Johnson because he was such a pro-Ukrainian figure and gave us a lot of hope and motivation. But we understand that his time came to an end and there will be another PM but the Ukraine policies will stay on our side.


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