Two-Face Antisemitism in Pro-Russian Narratives

Vladimir Putin has employed different facets of antisemitism to ramp up support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Getty Images


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has entered its third year with no end in sight. As hope for a just and swift resolution to the conflict slowly fades, Russia instead intensifies its disinformation efforts to garner sympathy from both domestic and international audiences.

One of the most disturbing elements of the Kremlin’s propaganda is deeply intertwined with anti-Semitism, that is, the justification of the military attack as the “denazification” of Ukraine. This narrative stems from Russia’s efforts to falsely align the invasion with Soviet Union’s past war against Germany, a powerful memory that President Vladimir Putin has manipulated to create domestic pro-war sentiment and popular legitimacy.

To amplify these narratives, Russian officials, including Putin himself, have made several notoriously anti-Semitic remarks, such as denigrating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish background and labelling his government as neo-Nazis. In doing so, the Russian government is attempting to undermine the reputation of the Ukrainian government and leaders in the eyes of the people in Russia and abroad.

Yet, interestingly, such anti-Semitic elements of pro-Russian narratives are packaged quite differently in other parts of the world. Indonesia, where anti-Semitic sentiment is rampant despite the lack of local Jewish communities, serves as an example to highlight the role of anti-Semitism in reinforcing the reach of pro-Russian propaganda.

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism

While Russia’s image in Indonesia was extremely negative during the early days of its military involvement in Syria, this time it appears to be entirely different. Public perception of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has been strangely positive in Indonesia.

Russia’s public diplomacy effort to rehabilitate its image post-Syrian war might partly explain this shift. Indeed, evidence points to the fact that this positive sentiment emerges due to the attempts to mislead the Indonesian public. A major theme of pro-Russian narratives is religion-related disinformation, such as deceptively presenting Russia’s public image as a defender of Islamic values, while undermining Ukraine and the “West” as the enemy of Muslims.

Interestingly, some of these narratives are not coming directly from official channels representing Russian government, but organically from local news outlets (e.g., Tribun Timur) and content creators. However, a thorough open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigation reveals that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), a company once operated by the Wagner group to perform influence operation, amplifies emotionally charged pro-Russian content to maximize reach and engagement. The investigation also found individuals recruiting Russian expats residing in Bali as “social media strategists”, which are likely tasked to amplify pro-Russian narratives.

Damaging Zelenskyy’s reputation has always been at the heart of Russia’s disinformation tactics. Pro-Russian actors highlight his Jewish background and past as a former entertainer to discredit his competence and character as a leader.

Some of these narratives are popular on TikTok (7.3 million views) and YouTube (>300,000 views), deliberately highlighting Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage. Not surprisingly, the comment sections of these videos are flooded with anti-Semitic tropes. Additionally, some anti-Semitic comments appear to be driven by perceptions of Western countries’ alignment with Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Because Russian propaganda is notorious for tailoring sensitive topics to vulnerable audiences, it is crucial to identify who the main audiences of these false narratives are.

To this end, I conducted two surveys (Survey 1: June 2022; Survey 2: March 2024) to take a closer look at those most likely to subscribe to pro-Russian narratives. My first survey invited 1,044 people to participate, while the second survey collected data from 373 participants.

Both surveys lead to similar conclusions: the propensity to believe anti-Semitic conspiracy theories is strongly associated with the endorsement of pro-Russian narratives, over and above participants’ personality and cognitive profiles.

While experts suggest that anti-Western attitudes and the desire for strong leadership may explain the popularity of pro-Russian narratives in Indonesia, my surveys show that both aspects contribute much less than anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs. Since religion-related disinformation is popular, one might expect that Muslims with a stronger emphasis on Islamic values in their identity might be susceptible to these narratives, but the centrality of Islamic values to one’s identity does not seem to correlate with the propensity to support pro-Russian narratives.

This leads to the conclusion that there are no clear personality or cognitive features that characterize the main audiences, yet pro-Russian propaganda seems to resonate well with those who are predisposed to hold extreme, conspiratorial anti-Semitic attitudes.

In the absence of visible Jewish communities, how is it possible that some Indonesians harbor such derogatory, if not conspiratorial, anti-Semitic views? Besides, how does it play an important role in shaping Indonesians’ perceptions of global conflicts, such as the Ukraine invasion?

Some experts suggest that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were first introduced in the 1950s by clerics who had received their religious training in the Middle East, where such beliefs are known to be politically potent, hence the popularity among the far-right Islamists.

In the 1980s and 2000s, several Islamic magazines (e.g., Hidayatullah, Media Dakwah and Sabili) gave mass appeal to these conspiracy theories. Much of the content of these conspiracy theories was shaped in the context of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan during the “War on Terror”, as well as the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These conspiracy theories are perhaps a readily accessible source of information for those who are predisposed to interpret major world events through the lens of religious ideology.

The content of conspiracy theories disseminated in such media is almost similar, with strong but unsubstantiated accusations that the Jews are the primary cause of all moral ills that threaten Islamic values, as well as the main actor orchestrating many important world events.  

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged document once disseminated by KGB agents in the Middle East as a part of their anti-West disinformation campaign during the Cold War era, is repeatedly cited as the primary source of these unsubstantiated beliefs. Interestingly, however, the anti-Semitic rhetoric may actually have been around for a while in Southeast Asia, with the oldest historical record dating back to a manuscript written in the 17th century.

Two-Face Anti-Semitism in Pro-Russian Narratives

Russian actors are notorious for spreading conflicting messages to appeal to the sympathies of different audiences. Unsurprisingly, the anti-Semitic elements of pro-Russian narratives in Indonesia, with a predominantly Muslim audience, assume a largely distinct face from the use of anti-Semitic rhetoric to promote pro-Russian narratives targeting audiences in the West.

Putin has made conflicting statements about Zelensky’s background, depending on the situation and the audience he is trying to reach. In front of Western audiences, for example, Putin questions and undermines Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity.

By contrast, pro-Russian narratives formulated by pro-Russian outlets and content creators targeting Muslim communities are much simpler: the messages embrace and emphasize Zelenskyy’s Jewish identity and the Western world’s alignment with Israel.

While these two narratives may be contradictory, this disturbing strategy maximizes the weaponization of anti-Semitism to spread disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine to various audiences.

As tensions rise over the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, pro-Russian narratives are dangerously finding fertile ground. Drawing a parallel with another Muslim community in the North Caucasus, organic anti-Semitic sentiments stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis provoked a riot in Makhachkala. The Russian government then deceptively blamed Ukraine for inciting the incident.

Historical examples such as Soeharto who allegedly blamed the global Jewish conspiracy for the crisis that ended his dictatorship, or George Soros, a Jewish businessman accused of orchestrating the Asian financial crisis of 1998-1999, demonstrate how anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs can be repurposed as a tool of political manipulation.

In the digital era, these old conspiracies are finding new life, skewing public perceptions of distant conflicts, such as the Ukraine invasion. The collision of disinformation campaigns and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in Muslim communities is, apparently, an old wine in a new bottle.

Reflecting on this issue, the task ahead is clear but challenging. Before the invasion, I doubt that many Indonesians knew or were aware of the existence of Ukraine. Therefore, more Indonesians need to be exposed to counternarratives that emphasize solidarity, shared values and identity that can help build trust and solidarity between the people of the two nations. The Ukrainian government has made tremendous diplomatic efforts to achieve this, but more work is needed.

Note: The author does not include the links to the TikTok and YouTube videos to avoid amplifying harmful content. Interested readers are welcome to contact the author for data sharing.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Rizqy Amelia Zein is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at Universitas Airlangga. Her research revolves around public perception of science, anti-Semitic conspiracy beliefs and psychological research methods.