Russian Propaganda in the Southern Hemisphere: A Simplistic Scapegoat
by Gavin Wilde
As Russia’s war on Ukraine drags into its second year, a certain narrative has taken hold among the Western foreign policy commentariat: “Russia is winning the information war in the Global South.” The case is relatively simple: states throughout Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia are relatively permissive environments for Russian state-backed media—both traditional and online. Many of these states have meanwhile largely refrained from full-throated condemnation of Moscow’s brutal and illegal invasion of neighboring Ukraine and have largely sidestepped adoption of (or adherence to) Western sanctions regimes. Surely, as the thinking goes, there must be a causal link between the former and the latter. Surely Western governments, in league with civil society organizations, can bring these states and their publics around to the truth through improved counter-propaganda efforts. Right?
However alluring this narrative may be to decision-makers in Western capitals, its simplicity should lend them pause – particularly because it demands so little of them, ascribes too much credit to Moscow, and dismisses so much about the rest of the world. Blaming Russian propaganda for the southern hemisphere’s relative ambivalence toward the war is colonialism by any other name. Ironically, such misplaced focus risks reinforcing the very ambivalence it aims to counter.
Beyond the empirically faulty view that humans are mere byproducts of the media they consume, overemphasis on Russian propaganda assumes that its prevalence within a given population equates to persuasion among that population. When it comes to Russia’s war on Ukraine, there are reasons to be skeptical of such logic. Last April, a Gallup poll of 137 countries indicated Russia’s image has indeed suffered globally. In fact, the largest majority in Gallup’s history of rating world leaders now disapprove of the Kremlin. These figures include Latin America, where median disapproval climbed from 31% in 2021 to 61% in 2022. Meanwhile, approval of Russia’s leadership in sub-Saharan Africa fell from a median of 45% in 2021 to 35% in 2022. Disapproval among those polled in the Asia Pacific region jumped by 11%. While far from diagnostic, such indicators are at least sufficient to counter sweeping statements about public sentiment toward Russia in the so-called Global South.
The degree to which Russian propaganda is formative—or merely reflective—of public opinion in these regions is a much broader question. But it hardly explains attitudes toward the war, say researchers. Most media coverage in the southern hemisphere focuses on the war’s domestic implications – on food prices, exchange rates, and other everyday impacts. To the extent that translates into “pro-Russian” sentiment, “not all of that is a result of Russian information campaigns,” says Rachel Rizzo of the Atlantic Council. Particularly in states where healthcare, climate, infrastructure, terrorism, famine, and fiscal instability are ever-present concerns, the mosaic of lived experience is far more complex than media messaging. In this regard, Russia (and China) often “show up” in ways the West fails to – diplomatically, economically, and otherwise.
In this regard, Russia tries to capitalize upon historical memory of the Cold War-era in the southern hemisphere, drawing on legacy ties between these capitals and Moscow, and on painful reminders of Western colonialism. But even this dynamic may be fraying, says Centre for Liberal Strategies chair Ivan Krastev. In terms of soft-power, contemporary Russia is a shadow of post-war Soviet empire—which “paradoxically…leaves the non-western world relatively unmoved by what Moscow is doing in Ukraine,” less a signal of active support than of passive indifference. “The customary privilege of regional powers is to not be hated outside their region,” Krastev notes, drawing an implicit contrast with the great power status of a bygone era. “Moscow now enjoys this privilege.”
This is likely cold comfort for Western leaders seeking to galvanize support for Ukraine, encountering the same unfamiliarity and emotional distance toward a European conflict as many Westerners have long held toward regional conflicts in the southern hemisphere. But this signals less a need for better messaging and media, more for better statecraft—the type of which Kyiv appears to now be undertaking. For polities around the globe, norms, ideology, and regime-type are only animating to a point; the practicalities and lived experience of policy and engagement are far more compelling. As International Crisis Group CEO Comfort Eros notes, “Western leaders often now view policy elsewhere through the lens of Ukraine. That could be good if it helps with things the rest of the world cares about; less so if countries feel forced into camps.”
This is not to dismiss the brazen perfidy of Russian propaganda on the global stage, but a reminder that it is never as omnipotent as advertised. Too often, it serves as a convenient scapegoat for deeper policy problems in the community of developing nations, and a distraction from a greater Western role in addressing them.
Gavin Wilde is a Senior Fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before joining the Carnegie Endowment he worked in the National Security Council at the White House. You can learn more about Gavin Wilde here.