Russian Disinfo Campaign Blames Ukraine for Shooting of Slovakia’s Prime Minister

Russian Disinfo Campaign Blames Ukraine for Shooting of Slovakia’s Prime Minister

Within minutes of the news breaking on Wednesday afternoon that Slovak prime minister Robert Fico had been shot, a widespread Russian disinformation campaign to blame Ukraine for the assassination attempt was launched by state-run media, hugely popular pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, and bot accounts on X.

Fico was shot five times in the town of Handlová as he greeted supporters following a government meeting. Videos circulating online show a man raising a gun before the prime minister crumples into a patch of grass. He was then rushed into a car by his security team. “At this point his condition is stabilized but is truly very serious. He will be in the intensive care unit,” Miriam Lapunikova, the director of the hospital in Banská Bystrica where Fico is being treated, told journalists this morning.

The perpetrator has been named as a 71-year-old pensioner and amateur poet. In a video posted on Facebook and verified by Reuters, the alleged shooter said he opposed attacks on Slovakia’s public broadcaster and judges. “I do not agree with government policy,” he said. On Thursday morning, police charged the pensioner with attempted murder. The shooting is the first assassination attempt of a European leader in more than 20 years, after Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic was shot and killed in Belgrade in 2003.

What appeared to be a coordinated disinformation campaign rolled out by the Russian government immediately after the shooting took place—even before the shooter was officially identified—highlights just how ready the Kremlin appears to be to take advantage of Europe’s deep political divides. Other right-wing figures around the world have followed Russia’s lead, boosting allegations about Ukraine’s involvement as well as positing even more outrageous conspiracies about who was behind the attack. This comes as divisive back-to-back election campaigns have stoked anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Slovakia, despite its NATO membership.

A key part of the Russian campaign included bot accounts linked to the inauthentic Doppelganger network, which explicitly blamed Ukraine for the attack despite there being no evidence to back up this claim. “A man recruited by Ukrainian terrorists carried out an attack,” one Doppelganger account wrote on X, alongside a video of the attack.

The accounts spreading the claims were linked to the Doppelganger network by Antibot4Navalny, a group of anonymous Russian researchers who have been tracking the campaign for years. The Kremlin-aligned Doppelganger campaign has, in recent months, been deployed to target Europe as well as US audiences, most recently helping to sow division around the Gaza protests on US campuses. In June, a French government agency dedicated to combating disinformation described the network as part of the strategy “Russia is implementing to undermine the conditions for a peaceful democratic debate.”

The Doppelganger network was just one part of a wider push by Russia’s disinformation apparatus, which also included state-run media outlets. Headlines about Fico’s attack in Russian publications emphasized his opposition to supporting Ukraine. One article highlighted on the site’s homepage listed dozens of Fico’s quotes criticizing aid to Ukraine and defending Russia’s right to invade the country.

Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today’s editor in chief, went further in a comment on her Telegram channel, blaming Ukraine for the attack: “The Slovak Prime Minister is injured. The one who said that the war began as a result of rampant Ukrainian neo-Nazis and Putin had no other choice. That’s how they work.”

The company Logically, which tracks disinformation campaigns, assessed more than 100 Russian-language pro-Kremlin Telegram channels and found they were uniformly claiming the attack was motivated by Fico’s “pro-Russian stance” while also claiming that Western media outlets were justifying the attack because of Fico’s lack of support for Ukraine.

The Telegram channel of military blogger Mikhail Zvinchuk, which has 1.2 million subscribers, claimed it was highly likely that a “Ukrainian trace” will emerge in the attack on Fico. The post has been viewed more than 300,000 times. The official Telegram channel of Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that Fico is “known as a friend of Russia.”

“It is likely that Russian language channels and Russian disinformation operations will use the attempted assassination of Fico as a new theme to claim that the West supports violence against pro-Russian politicians, and more broadly to expand on the already present narrative that the world engages in widespread ‘Russophobia,’” Kyle Walter, director of research at Logically, tells WIRED.

Most of the posts on X linking the assassination to Ukraine were in English, not Slovak, says Dominika Hajdu, policy director at the think tank Globsec, speaking from Slovakia’s capital Bratislava. “With the assassination attempts, I haven’t seen any accusations [on social media] in Slovak linking the assassination to Ukraine or Russia.” These English-language posts, she says, imply a target audience of international users, not Slovaks.

Fico is a divisive figure in Slovakia, a small EU country situated between Austria and Ukraine. Considered Russia-friendly, the 59-year-old Fico was reelected for the third time in October, following a campaign in which he called for the withdrawal of military support for Ukraine while saying he could never support the idea of LGBTQ marriage. Since his Smer–SD party won the election, he has proposed shutting the country’s anti-corruption office and has been accused of cracking down on civil rights groups and limiting press freedom.

“The typical current government supporter is mostly rural, usually an older voter, who is not super thrilled with how things turned out with their economic success,” says Sona Muzikarova, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council focused on Central and Eastern Europe. “On the other side is the more liberal, a bit more woke, pro-EU, pro-Western, urban voter.”

More liberal voters were unhappy with the return of Fico, whose last period in power ended with his resignation in 2018, following huge demonstrations over the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak had been uncovering government corruption.

“He got voted in through a democratic process, but still there is a huge chunk of the population that’s very unhappy with this kind of person being in the lead again,” adds Muzikarova.

The politically charged atmosphere has been exacerbated by back-to-back election campaigns in Slovakia, Hajdu adds. The parliamentary vote in October was followed by the vote for a new president last month. In both elections, disinformation was a prominent feature. In the parliamentary election, Fico’s opponent was attacked with audio deepfakes. In the presidential election, false claims circulated on social media and pro-Russia websites. “Within this constant political campaign, there were a lot of heated discussions and the spread of hate,” she says. Now the country is in the midst of yet another political campaign, ahead of EU elections early next month.

Slovak allies of Fico called the assassination attempt “politically motivated” while others blamed the “liberal media” for the attack. Interior minister Matúš Šutaj-Eštok described the perpetrator as a “lone wolf” who was “radicalized recently, after the presidential election.” Šutaj-Eštok also said the suspect had told police he was motivated by Fico’s policies related to abolishing the special prosecutor’s office and reforming the public service broadcaster, as well as the decision to stop supplying military assistance to Ukraine.

The suspect’s motivations were jumped on by conspiracists of all stripes on Wednesday, and quickly spread outside of the Russian campaign.

Many popular verified accounts on X that subscribe to the platform’s Premium service—and are therefore allowed to monetize their content—instantly spread unconfirmed and wildly inaccurate information about the shooting. Many of them repeated the claim that the attack was linked to Fico’s stance on Ukraine.

“Twitter became a useless morass of disinformation around the Robert Fico shooting,” John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab, wrote on X. “Try searching for his name, almost the entirety of the top results I get are contradictory conspiracy theories. Good luck even surfacing fact-checked, substantiated information.”

Because Fico was an outspoken critic of the World Health Organization and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, anti-vaccine groups and channels also quickly pushed the narrative that Fico was shot because of this anti-vaccine stance. Other X accounts variously blamed Jews, the CIA, and Muslims for the attack.

As Fico remains in the hospital, researchers note that attacks against politicians have become increasingly common in Europe. “This is not only Slovakia,” says Milan Nič, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe expert at the German Council of Foreign Relations. Two members of Germany’s ruling center-left Social Democrats were attacked separately this month. Both were treated in hospital. Two far-right AFD politicians were also attacked last week and suffered “light injuries,” according to police. Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said he received a death threat through X, following the attack on Fico.

“In this era, when a lot of frustration and resentment is accumulated then amplified by social media, there is more and more confusion,” says Nič.

David Gilbert, Morgan Meaker

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