Russia, China To Democracies: No One Will Save You
The lessons of the fall of Kabul top the news in both Russia and China
Welcome to the Omelas newsletter. At Omelas, we expose the way authoritarians manipulate the internet. Each Friday, we provide you with the top stories in authoritarian states, based on our analysis of tens of thousands of articles in local media. In each country, the state dominates the media environment, but to see these articles as merely tools of maintaining power would be a mistake. The writing reflects the assumptions and frameworks through which our adversaries see the world. By understanding the rationale they give their own people, and that they tell themselves, we avoid the error of applying our own worldview to vastly different circumstances. Better understanding leads to better responses and better results. For each story we provide not only pro-government sources but opposition and Western-backed local sources as well. Our first edition looks at Russia and China, while future editions will expand to Iran and Venezuela.
Talk show host Vladimir Solovyev warned Ukraine to reconsider provoking Russia after the US abandoned Afghanistan
#1: America Will Not Save Georgia or Ukraine
Pro-government media published nearly 5,000 articles about Afghanistan over the past week, and promoted, above all, the warning to democracies resisting Russian domination. Pro-government media widely discussed an article by Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the American Naval War College, on American commitments to formal treaty allies such as the United Kingdom or Japan versus to informal allies such as Afghanistan, placing Ukraine and Georgia among the latter. Summaries of the article appeared in the state newswire, TASS, the City of Moscow-controlled Moscow-24, and Central Bank of Russia-owned Rambler Media. Many framed Gvosdev’s article as an official statement of the United States government and warning to Ukraine and Georgia “not to anger Russia.”
Vladimir Solovyev, a hardline nationalist and one of Russia’s most popular late night hosts, warned Georgia and Ukraine that Afghanistan should serve as a lesson on American credibility. The nationalist Pravda.ru (unrelated to the Communist newspaper) reported on a Ukrainian editorial warning against provoking Russia since the United States would not defend Ukraine. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s powerful National Security Council, gave an interview to Izvestiya, part of Putin ally Yuri Kovalchuk’s National Media Group, where he warned Ukraine to heed the lesson of Afghanistan.
The symbolism of the United States stranding Ukrainian and Georgian troops and advisors in Afghanistan was particularly resonant, with coverage in state radio Vesti, Presidential Administration-controlled Vzglyad, Central Bank-owned Gazeta, National Media Group’s REN TV, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s leading newspaper.
Liberal press largely avoided reporting on the implications for Ukraine and Georgia of American withdrawal, but covered the stranding of Georgian and Ukranians in Afghanistan. The independent Novaya Gazeta reported on the condition of the now disarmed Ukrainians and the U.S.-funded Ekho Kavkaz reported on the unknown fate of stranded Georgians.
#2: 22 Injured, 2 Killed in Bus Explosion in Voronezh
A passenger bus exploded in Voronezh, an industrial city of a million in Southwest Russia, killing 2 and injuring 22 more on August 12th. The explosion came a month after intelligence officials claimed to have foiled a three-pronged Daesh attack across the country. The initial investigation concluded that gas cylinders on the roof exploded due to faulty equipment, as reported in Rambler. Channel 5, owned by state gas monopoly Gazprom’s media arm, hosted an explosives expert who explained that automobiles “periodically explode”. As reported in Moskovsky Komsomolets, Russia’s second paper, the governor of Voronezh warned that dissemination of fake news about the explosion was illegal and would be referred to authorities.
Golos Ameriki, the Russian brand of the US-funded Voice of America, cast doubt on the official narrative, reporting that the bus was diesel-powered and not gasoline-powered and that no cylinders are visible on the roof before the explosion. BBC Russian reported on the same inconsistencies.
#3: Lithuania and Poland Aim to Stem Refugee Flow from Belarus
The EU formally censured Belarus for forcing refugees, largely from Iraq, to the Lithuanian and Polish borders. The two EU members have apprehended 4,000 refugees along the Belarusian border in 2021, 20 times the number as in 2020 according to TASS. Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that Lithuanian border guards were brawling with refugees. RIA Novosti reported that Latvia was sending special forces to its border with Belarus. Angela Merkel denounced Belarusian actions as reported by TASS.
Ekho Moskvy, owned by state gas monopoly Gazprom’s media arm but editorially independent, stated that “Belarusian border guards violated the Lithuanian border.” Golos Ameriki reported that Belarusian officials entered Lithuania, forcing Iraqi refugees into the territory with them.
CCTV Military promoted joint military exercises with Russian troops
#1: America Will Not Save Taiwan
CCP media published 650 Chinese-language articles about Afghanistan over the past week, with the lesson to be imparted upon Taiwan a major theme. Chinese media widely discussed a talk show featuring Jaw Shaw-kong, a prominent Taiwanese advocate of reunification with the Mainland, in which he declared that Afghanistan was a lesson for Taiwan about trusting the United States. The Inner Mongolia Morning Post, part of the Propaganda Department of the Regional Committee of Inner Mongolia, featured the interview in a video headlined “[Taiwanese President] Tsai authorities panic! The United States abandons Afghanistan today, and tomorrow it will be Taiwan.” Huanqui, owned by the CCP’s Central Committee, shared the video in full, quoting another guest who called the comparison to Afghanistan flattering as the US would never defend Taiwan for twenty years. The Taiwan Affairs Office, an agency of the State Council, shared the same video with the quote, “The United States will not come to save [Taiwan].” Global Times, owned by the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee, ran op-eds with titles including, “Failure of America in Afghanistan serves as warning to Taiwan secessionists,” “Using Afghanistan as a guide, will US treatment of Taiwan island be any different?”, and “Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow? US treachery scares [pro-independence] DPP.”
Radio Free Asia Mandarin, part of the American-funded USAGM, and the US Embassy in Beijing all published stories on National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s assurances that the United States continued to stand with Taiwan. VOA Cantonese, part of the American-funded USAGM, called Chinese reporting on Jaw’s interview part of an information war against Taiwan and provided Sullivan’s statement on Taiwan.
#2: PLA Conducts Military Exercises near Taiwan
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Command dispatched combat ships, anti-submarine aircraft, and fighter jets to the Taiwan Strait, as reported by the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Central Committee of the CCP. According to Dongfeng Express, part of the CCP’s Central Military Commission, the move was in response to Taiwanese and American “provocations” and violations of Chinese sovereignty. According to state newswire Xinhua, the proximate cause was an interview in which Taiwense president Tsai Ing-Wen promoted Taiwanese independence, while Hubei News, part of the Propaganda Department of the Hubei Provincial Committee, pointed to a tweet from American senator John Cornyn incorrectly claiming that 30,000 US troops were stationed on Taiwan. Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, tweeted in response that the existence of that many troops on Taiwan would be an act of war.
VOA Cantonese pointed to the collapse of the Afghan government as the proximate cause of the exercise, viewing it as a test of American resolve to defend Taiwan. The piece said the United States is “clearly committed to Taiwan’s security and helping Taiwan to defend itself.”
#3: World’s Most Advanced Weaponry on Display at Zapad Military Exercise
China and Russia concluded their joint Zapad/Interaction-2021 exercise in Northwest China, described by People’s Daily as showcasing “the most advanced weapons in the world.” The Ministry of Defense noted this was the first joint exercise with Russian troops in China. China Radio International, CCTV Military, both part of China Media Group which reports directly to the State Council, China Daily, part of the State Council Information Office, the Liberation Army Daily, and Hangqui Daily all shared the same promotional video, while Yangchen Evening News, part of the Guangdong Provincial Committee, shared a different video with the same score.
BBC Chinese cast doubt on the claim that the operation was intended to prepare for counterterrorism operations, pointing to the use of China’s new stealth fighter, the J-20, and an advanced shared communication network between China and Russia as evidence the exercise was geared towards Great Power Competition. The BBC explored the possibility the exercise was a potential prelude to a formal Russian-Chinese military alliance. VOA Chinese highlighted Russian use of Chinese weapons systems, a first for joint exercises.