Current events provide key opportunities for right-wing extremist (RWE) groups to attract new members and radicalise those already within their ranks. By using the publicity of ‘hot topics’, and then manipulating mainstream narratives to further their own ideological agendas, RWE groups both attract more attention and propel extremist ideas to an audience they may not have otherwise reached. Over the past year alone, this dynamic has been found during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and increased fighting between Israel and Palestine. Our research applies a similar lens to the ongoing war in Ukraine through a detailed analysis of 729 posts from 15 RWE Telegram channels across France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) in the first 17 days of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Here we outline four key findings.
First, the predominant sentiment expressed in posts which referenced the war was criticism of the West, specifically blaming the conflict on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or the administration of US President Joe Biden. Second, apart from two channels, there was far more support for Russia than there was for Ukraine. The pro-Russia support largely came from the New Right, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has courted political parties and groups aligned with this branch of the far right for many years. Pro-Ukraine support mostly came from groups endorsing National Socialist (Nazi) ideas, themselves more ideologically aligned with the Ukrainian far-right Azov movement. Third, and undoubtedly a welcome finding given the centrality of anti-Semitism within the far right historically, there were few anti-Semitic posts. This is made more surprising considering that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. We hypothesise that this is because RWE groups have prioritised an anti-West message, portraying Zelenskyy as a ‘Western puppet’, a position in tension with, and in fact a reversal of, historic anti-Semitic tropes. Finally, despite very limited evidence of group transnationalisation, which we measured using a social network analysis of the ‘forwarded from’ content, many of the same conspiracies and narratives were shared by channels in all three countries.
Based on news media, academic articles, and reports conducted by government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), we collated a sample of Telegram channels which represented the most important RWE actors and groups active in the UK, Germany, and France (five from each country). We extracted all posts made by these channels between 24 February and 13 March 2022, representing the first 17 days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which gave us a dataset of 2,744 posts.
We then cleaned the content and sifted all posts, using a keyword search to identify those that might reference the conflict. Each post was then analysed, and any false positives were excluded from the dataset, alongside those that referenced the war, but did not express any discernible view or sentiment. Of the 729 posts that remained, each one was given a tag to describe the primary sentiment behind the post. Where possible, we limited the number of tags for each post to one, the clearest sentiment it expressed. In a few cases, in which no single sentiment was predominant over another, we included several tags for a single post.
By far the most common tag in the dataset was anti-West, comprising 30% of all posts gathered and found in all 15 of the channels examined. This is the clearest evidence that RWE groups are using the publicity of the war to further pre-existing narratives about Western governments. The most prominent of these were claims that the war was primarily a result of the so-called aggression of NATO and Western governments, especially the US, over the past several years. For example, one UK channel claimed that “NATO is to Blame for the Conflict in the Ukraine. Whilst the mainstream media is demonising Russia and laying the blame for the current conflict at the feet of the Putin, the truth of the matter is very different.”
A second strand of criticism targeted the response of Western governments and societies since the invasion, criticising what the channels considered to be overly strong anti-Russian reactions. For example, one French channel criticised reports that “Russian restaurant owners have been… receiving death threats since the beginning of the special operation in Ukraine.”
RWE groups used, often simplified or revised, historical references to attempt to legitimise their criticism, typically of the West. For example, one UK channel justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by blaming NATO’s ‘expansionist policy’ and ‘refusal to de-escalate’, which the channel alleged also caused the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Historical comparison and revisionism is a well-worn narrative tactic of the far right, with channels attempting to intellectualise their discussion in order to appear more authoritative. The far right is also likely using this tactic to appear more patriotic by displaying, nevertheless pseudo-, knowledge of their country’s history.
Far-right groups have a variety of reasons to sow dissatisfaction with incumbent governments and the status quo, ranging from attracting potential voters to inspiring acts of violence to catalyse change. This desire to portray current politics as unacceptable and in need of an extreme shift is not only fundamental to RWE groups but helps explain why these groups are using the Russia-Ukraine war to criticise Western governments and societies.
Although some channels wrote that they “are neutral and pray for a swift resolution of the conflict,” our sentiment analysis showed that the vast majority actively promoted pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian messaging. Almost 22% of all posts were tagged as Russian Propaganda, anti-Ukraine, pro-Russia or pro-Putin whilst just over 7% expressed pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin or anti-Russia sentiment.
Interestingly, groups seemed aware of the potentially problematic nature of expressing support for a regime notorious for limiting freedom of speech, something so inherent to the RWE movement. Groups therefore attempted to frame their content as providing an alternative view to justify or excuse pro-Putin content. For instance, one UK channel wrote “Does the truth make me pro Putin???” Further evidence of this tension can be found in the type of pro-Russian content posted. Most of the posts criticising Ukraine or promoting Russia were tagged as Russian propaganda (43%) or anti-Ukraine (31%), whilst posts that expressed overt support for Russia or Putin himself were less prominent, at 20% and 5% respectively.
Many of the overtly pro-Putin or pro-Russia posts we identified expressed their support for Russia through contrasting Putin’s regime with those of the West. One German channel suggested that Putin presented a counter-model to the West, as a “patriot… [who] rejects multiculturalism and gender [liberalism], he does not torment the economy with politically correct regulations and climate levies.”
Again, we see that rather than expressing support for Putin’s invasion or his domestic policies since 24 February, RWE channels framed their discussion of Russia by critiquing Western domestic politics, clearly highlighting how these groups have used the conflict to spread pre-existing narratives (about multiculturalism and climate change).
In line with previous findings in the US, there was a difference between whether RWE groups supported Russia or Ukraine based on their ideology. Whilst those who fit within, what has been termed, the New Right expressed pro-Russian sympathies, two channels more aligned with neo-Nazism were far more pro-Ukraine. Interestingly, these two channels rationalised their support in different ways. One emphasised the “rights to self-determination of the people,” whilst the other made frequent references to, and backed, the Azov movement. Furthermore, whilst these groups sided with Ukraine, they also heavily criticised the West, stating that they were both against “Russian imperialism” as well as “US globalism… with its eastward expansion of NATO and its worldwide wars under the guise of human rights.” As a result, whilst there was divergence between neo-Nazis and the New Right over whether they predominantly supported Ukraine or Russia, these movements nevertheless both criticised perceived US and NATO influence.
We expected to find widespread anti-Semitism across the dataset because, not only is anti-Semitism a historically central feature of the far right, but a key figure of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. Furthermore, the balance of support across channels leant more in favour of Russia, making him an obvious target. In reality, just 1.5% of posts in our dataset were tagged as anti-Semitism. Of those that displayed anti-Semitism, however, posts typically did so through relativising Jewish suffering during WWII (known as secondary anti-Semitism) by comparing it to the “cancellation” of Russia. For example, one German channel equated an attack on a Russian supermarket in Essen to ‘pogroms’, blamed mainstream media for the attack, and appropriated the phrase of ‘never again’ (nie wieder), associated with the Holocaust and other genocides, to claim that ‘it’s happening again – defend yourselves!’
We have two suggestions for why there was less anti-Semitism than expected. Firstly, and most likely, RWE groups portrayed Zelenskyy primarily as a puppet of the aggressive and warmongering West, whilst depicting Ukraine itself as Russian territory. This was clear through explicit claims that “this conflict is the fault of NATO, America and their puppet regime in the Ukraine,” as well as more nuanced discourse, such as referring to Ukraine as The Ukraine. Other writers have demonstrated how such Soviet-era terminology eliminates Ukraine’s claim to sovereignty, as it casts Ukraine as a region of Russia rather than its own nation state. Prominent anti-Semitic tropes often portray Jewish leaders as wielding too much power. This trope then does not fit with the claims by RWE groups that the West are responsible for the war by manipulating Zelenskyy and provoking Russia, a belief that relinquishes agency from Zelenskyy.
A second possibility is that RWE groups are trying to portray the conflict as one in which there are bad people on both sides and they have co-opted, whether knowingly or not, Russian propaganda that the bad people in Ukraine are Nazis — one German post sees “Ukrainian Neo-Nazis as Fighting Troops for the Great Reset.” The presence of Nazis amongst the Ukrainian military has been addressed elsewhere, but it is clear that Nazis do not represent Ukrainian society. However, RWE groups in Europe have portrayed it as such to criticise Western support for Ukraine. Thus, portraying Ukrainians as Nazis would come into tension with emphasising the Jewish heritage of Zelenskyy, so the former discourse is favoured over the latter.
We were also interested in whether there were similarities in narratives across countries, and whether these similarities could be explained by content shared between channels. By conducting social media network analysis, using the Forwarded From feature in Telegram to identify links between channels, we found no evidence of transnationalisation of war-related content, and limited transnationalisation of other content in the selected period. Graph 1 represents the 625 links between channels in the 17-day period. Through it, we can see that there was some overlap in the channels’ content that was forwarded from within the UK and Germany, although there was only one overlap between the two countries. There was no overlap amongst French channels. For the 217 forwarded posts related to the war, there was even less overlap of content shared. Despite this, we found minimal disparity in the distribution of tags between countries and many of the same narratives were used by groups in all three countries, including emphasising the purported presence of US-funded biolabs in Ukraine and perceived NATO aggression as the cause of conflict. This suggests that narratives are either being shared through other channels or on other platforms, including social media, blogs, and alternative news outlets.
Overall, RWE groups in France, Germany, and the UK have clearly used the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as with other headline news stories, to blame Western governments and spread extremist and conspiratorial narratives. We found a clear attempt by RWE groups to portray the conflict as the result of perceived Western aggression, and we identified widespread criticism of the response of both Western governments and societies. There was also far more support for Russia than for Ukraine, likely a result of Russia’s courting of the New Right over the past several years, as well as the desire by RWE groups to frame Russia as a desirable alternative to, what they perceive as, the ills of Western society. This focus on using the conflict to reiterate anti-West narratives was also clear through the minimal amount of anti-Semitism on display. Jewish politicians and businessmen are often subjected to historic anti-Semitic tropes of power and control but as RWE groups have portrayed Zelenskyy as a puppet of the West, they have instead reversed this relationship and opted to portray him as lacking agency, rather than wielding power.
As the conflict continues, we’ll likely see a shift away from blaming the origins of the war on the West towards one that portrays the conflict as continuing because of the West. The specific frames will change, but the overriding principle, to use the conflict to spread dissatisfaction with Western governments, will remain the same.