West struggles to curb spread of Russian narratives in Middle East on Ukraine war

Moscow's 'propaganda' is allowed in the region with little counter arguments, says Polish diplomat

Apache attack helicopters. The United States approved  in August a $12 billion sale of the helicopters to Poland, a frontline ally of Ukraine. AFP
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Strong dislike of the West has helped spread a Russian narrative on the war on Ukraine in Arab countries, but balancing it will be a long-term struggle, a senior European diplomat told an EU-sponsored seminar about the conflict in Amman.

It was the second western-organised public event since June to try to change perceptions of the war in Jordan. The kingdom has a defence pact with Washington and is reliant on aid from the US and Europe.

On Tuesday, Polish ambassador to Jordan Lucjan Karpinski said that Russian “propaganda” in the Middle East has focused on discrediting western support for Ukraine as prolonging the conflict.

He said Moscow has also concentrated on denying responsibility for the commodities shortages the invasion had prompted.

“Unfortunately they [Russians] don’t have to do much to push their message forward,” Mr Karpinski told Jordanian journalists in attendance, together with diplomats representing mostly allied countries to Ukraine.

The ambassador pointed out what he described as tacit approval from states in the region, without naming specific countries.

He said "negative attitudes" in some Arab countries towards Europe and America have helped promote the Russian version of events.

This is in addition to “good historical ties" between Russia and many Arab countries, as well as co-operation agreements and cultural exchanges.

“They do not feel the Russian influence so directly as we do,” Mr Karpinski said.

Rival narratives on intervention

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Arab powers have largely sat on the sidelines, affirming the need to uphold international principles but, in most cases, refraining from criticising Russia.

Western officials have been dismayed at the lack of any outrage.

"The Russian disinformation here is related to food security and to discrediting the EU and Nato," Mr Karpinski said. "So basically they are not directed against Ukraine but against those countries supporting Ukraine.”

Last month President Vladimir Putin defended withdrawing from the UN supervised Black Sea grain deal by saying Russian flows could make up any shortfalls.

The deal had allowed Ukraine, one of the world's largest commodities producers, to export 33 million tonnes of grain to world markets after Russian bombing of its ports severely restricted the flows, sharply raising prices.

Lack of journalistic standards has also been a factor behind a propensity in the Middle East to believe the Russian version, Mr Karpinski said.

"Unfortunately the level of proper journalist work is quite low," he said, pointing out that many Arab outlets lift false quotes about the war, attributed by Russian media to western officials and others, without checking them.

“They repeat the information lines. This makes Russian work easy," the ambassador said.

Guard against such bias, he said, is to teach media literacy in the region.

The ambassador gave Finland as an example of a nation he said is more discerning when it comes to believing news and understanding its context.

"Teach children to go the extra mile and look for the sources, and maybe compare the information from different sources," he said.

"The other thing we [Europe] can do is support the good journalistic work and the work of political scientists ... to look for the real answers".

Updated: August 22, 2023, 5:18 PM