Russia and China’s Influence Campaigns During the War in Ukraine

This was not merely a spike event; Chinese diplomats have posted about US biolabs in Ukraine as recently as February 22, 2023.

China’s repeated amplification of Kremlin-backed biolab disinformation follows a years-long campaign by Chinese official sources to spread similar false claims about US bioresearch labs being responsible for the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. These two disinformation campaigns are therefore mutually reinforcing and mutually beneficial, with Chinese sources at times explicitly linking the two. It is yet more evidence that China is most forcefully engaged with topics related to Ukraine that reinforce its own pre-existing narratives and benefit its long-term strategic objectives.
One year into the war in Ukraine, there is no real prospect in both the near and long term of Russia convincing European and American publics that their war is necessary and just—a fact that Moscow’s messengers have seemed to tacitly acknowledge. But Russia’s information strategy has never been built on traditional tenets of soft power and public diplomacy—that is, an effort to influence foreign publics through attraction and persuasion rather the coercion. Russia has succeeded in the information domain precisely because it is coercive; it drives wedges between its adversaries, corrupts democratic debate, and inflames tensions among foreign publics. If the war in Ukraine becomes a war of attrition, Moscow is simply banking on its ability to degrade support for Ukraine among its staunchest allies. This is reflected in its messaging approach, which, over the course of the last year, increasingly has focused on highlighting the negative externalities of the war in Western societies. Russia has seemingly found some success with this tactic, though observers should be cautious about attributing changes in public support for Ukraine to malign Russian influence.

As the war moves into its next phase, the role of China—both in the information domain and beyond—is also likely to become increasingly important, especially in terms of influencing attitudes in the non-aligned countries of the Global South. It is also important to stress that this report did not analyze Russia and China’s domestic information environments, both of which are critical for understanding continued support for the war, in the case of Russia, or continued support for its ally, in the case of China. As is always the case, the advantage here lies with the autocrats, who can suppress critical information at home while enjoying the advantages of open information environments outside their borders. Despite this imbalance, Ukraine and the West have shown over the past year that information wars can be won, even against those who bend the rules in their favor.