Nine months ago, Russia claimed its invasion of Ukraine was necessary to drive out the Ukrainian neo-Nazis allegedly in control of Kyiv. Now the Kremlin has switched tactics. Russian officials in late October reframed the goal of the war as a mission to bring about a “complete de-Satanization” of Ukraine. Alexei Pavlov, assistant to Nikolai Patrushev — a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and secretary of the Russian Security Council — also accused U.S. leaders of backing the spread of satanic churches in Ukraine.
The shift in Kremlin rhetoric comes amid Russian military setbacks in key Ukrainian territories. However, the reframed goal also coincided with the closing weeks of the U.S. midterm elections, as members of the Republican Party doubled down on antiwar rhetoric. With the MAGA wing of the party threatening to reverse President Biden’s military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, those who supported these candidates were also ramping up the memes and messaging that equate Biden with the devil himself.
Victories by pro-Trump Republicans in the midterms could have obstructed the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine. In this light, the call by Kremlin propagandists to rid Ukraine of the devil also appeared to target U.S. voters on the far right, with the goal of boosting their distrust in the U.S. political establishment — as well as boost U.S. sympathy for Russia’s war.
Russians are not the only audience
As Russian troops invaded, Russia’s state media was instrumental in spreading claims that Ukraine needed to be “de-Nazified.” The recent shift toward de-Satanization might help galvanize religious extremists within the Russian military, who have voiced their disappointment in Russia’s progress to date. But state-sponsored propaganda isn’t targeted exclusively toward domestic supporters. Research finds that autocrats also deploy propaganda to present a positive image of themselves abroad and to cultivate specific groups or individuals that are key to helping them promote their narratives.
The research suggests, for instance, that Russian propaganda targets foreign audiences that are already supportive of the Kremlin’s views. While state-owned media outlets like RT seek to appeal to a broad audience, research shows that their messages resonate primarily with people who distrust the U.S. government. In Europe, the Kremlin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda has also found a home among far-right Italians.
Americans on the far right are easy targets
Investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections indicate that the Kremlin supported Donald Trump’s campaign and sought to exploit far-right grievances. History and political science professor George Michael argues that American far-right circles see Russia as a potential ally because of its large White population, tradition of cultural conservatism and nationalist government under Putin. While just 5 percent of Republicans support Russia over Ukraine, a number of MAGA politicians, political activists and media personalities have consistently sided with Putin.
Far-right Americans are also part of a media ecosystem that amplifies conspiracy-tainted narratives. This makes them easy targets for the Kremlin. Researchers from Harvard University found that RT and another Russian state media outlet, Sputnik, exploited “deep state” narratives because they appealed to far-right Americans. When Russian propaganda efforts reflected right-wing framings and beliefs, they gained credence within America’s right-wing media ecosystem.
Since the invasion, there’s evidence that the Kremlin has tried to align aspects of its war propaganda with far-right conspiratorial beliefs touted by movements like QAnon. During the initial phase of the war, U.S. right-wing media networks reported on conspiracy theories about U.S.-installed bioweapons labs. When Fox News picked up the claim, the Kremlin attempted to amplify it. A leaked Kremlin memo, for example, instructed the Russian media to “use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson,” citing his sharp criticism of U.S. actions toward Russia.
The Kremlin is trying to align with the U.S. ‘satanic panic’
In recent years, the return of the “satanic panic” has helped radicalize MAGA supporters. The fear was widespread in the 1980s, with preschool teachers falsely accused of abusing children in satanic rituals. Decades later, QAnon, an umbrella conspiracy theory that coalesced into an extremist ideology, implicates the Democratic Party in everything from deep-state activities to child sacrifice to lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and it has revived fears of a Satan-worshipping cabal.
When Biden called MAGA a threat to U.S. democracy during his Sept. 1 “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” speech, social media added fuel to the panic. Message boards run by America’s far right were filled with memes that featured altered images of Biden dressed up as Adolf Hitler or wearing demon masks.
A month later, the Kremlin’s embrace of de-Satanization suggests an attempt to latch on to MAGA supporters’ divisive language ahead of the midterms. Although satanic claims emerged within the Russian media landscape in the spring, high-level Russian officials began to amplify these claims in the fall. Putin’s speech at the end of September, for example, accused the United States and the West of “outright Satanism.” On Russia’s Day of National Unity, just a few days before the midterms, former president and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev cast the war as a “sacred conflict with Satan.”
Does the Kremlin’s satanic narrative have any impact?
It’s difficult to accurately assess whether the Kremlin’s rhetorical shift helped harden the views of U.S. far-right voters on the issue of U.S. support for Ukraine. Research in political psychology suggests that there’s cause for concern, however. Researchers from New York University found that partisans are more likely to believe in information congruent with their political beliefs. If MAGA supporters distrust their own government because they selectively expose themselves to false claims, they could be susceptible to certain elements of the Kremlin’s war propaganda and misinformation.
The timing of the Kremlin’s new satanic rhetoric isn’t likely to be coincidental. Because Russian propaganda also targets foreign audiences, far-right Americans who admire Putin are attractive targets. Their distrust of the U.S. political establishment, molded by partisan misinformation and conspiracy theories, could now jeopardize U.S. foreign policy objectives in Ukraine — to the Kremlin’s benefit.
Chonlawit Sirikupt (@c_sirikupt) is a PhD candidate in political science at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in Germany and a research member of the Oppression/Resistance Research Lab at Emory University.