Spring 2024

Antisemitic Propaganda and Disinformation in Putin’s War Against Democracies

– Izabella Tabarovsky

Russia’s long history of exploiting antisemitism for political purposes is benefiting its larger strategy to destabilize democratic societies—and the West.

Shortly after the terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow in March, Aleksandr Dugin, the influential Russian ultranationalist ideologue, wrote on his Telegram channel that the real culprit was not ISIS, which had taken responsibility, but “the Zionists.” The attack could have been “Zionists’ revenge” for Russia’s position on Gaza, he wrote, urging his 61,000 followers to look for the fingerprints of the Mossad, whose “close relations with ISIS” are supposedly well-known.

To most people, the idea that Israel is in cahoots with ISIS sounds like a kooky conspiracy theory, and it is. Eliminationist hatred of Israel and Jews is the central pillar of the group’s extremist ideology. But those who follow the ebbs, flows, and transformations of global antisemitism know that this variation on classic antisemitic conspiracy theory fits seamlessly with other paranoid fantasies about Jewish power and perfidy. During the Cold War, Soviet anti-Israel propaganda accused Zionists—a term it redefined to match the Judeophobic delusions of that notorious Russian contribution to humanity, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—of colluding with Hitler in the genocide of their fellow Jews. The more Jews killed, the sooner Zionists would get their own state, Soviet propagandists explained. This itself was a variation on the Nazi apologists’ conspiracy theory about Jews having perpetrated the Holocaust on themselves. As a variation on the fantasy theme of the Holocaust as a Jew-on-Jew event, some claimed that Hitler had Jewish blood. This too proved to be conspiratorial ideation.

Antisemitism is not just prejudice, it is also a highly effective political tool, particularly in times of crisis. 

The myth of the Mossad joining hands with ISIS has been around for as long as ISIS—and the notion that Jews were to blame for the Crocus City attack popped up on conspiracy theorist sites worldwide almost immediately. In this sense, Dugin’s remark did not reveal anything original. What it did do was confirm that antisemitic conspiracy theory is an inextricable part of Russian public discourse. What’s more, antisemitic speech is now an integral part of Russia’s domestic and global messaging.

Russia Today mobile TV studio on Manezhnaya Square in Moscow. July 7, 2018. Shutterstock/fifg.

One way this expresses itself is in incessant defamatory references to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish identity, which are not only acceptable, but practically de rigueur among Russian political and media elites. Following the Crocus City Hall attack, Margarita Simonyan, editor of Russian propaganda channel Russia Today and broadly viewed as Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, shared a post on Telegram that blamed Zelensky for the attack and referred to him with a revolting antisemitic slur.

Simonyan follows signals from the very top. Last June, Putin told the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that Zelensky wasn’t a “good Jew” and quoted unidentified Jewish friends who supposedly said that “Zelensky is a disgrace to the Jewish people.” (The subtext was that he is presiding over what Russian propaganda refers to as Kyiv’s Nazi regime.) In May 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told an Italian broadcaster that there wasn’t a contradiction between Zelensky’s Jewishness and his imaginary Nazi views. To bring the point home, he invoked the conspiracy myth about Hitler’s Jewish blood.

A Long History of Manipulation

There is a long history of Russian and Soviet political leaders manipulating the “Jewish issue” for political gain. The KGB, Putin’s alma mater, viewed Jewish identity through the lens of state security, weaponizing it for political purposes with the help of propaganda and active measures. The state persecuted dissident Jews who condemned Soviet antisemitism and demanded the right to emigrate, while turning others into props in its propaganda efforts meant to convince the world that antisemitism in the USSR did not exist. In the last 25 years of the Cold War, antisemitism—framed as vicious anti-Israel and anti-Zionist demonization—became the USSR’s primary ideological export, ultimately pushing the vast majority of Soviet Jews out of the country.

By injecting conspiracy theory into public discourse, politically weaponized antisemitism undermines citizens’ trust in democracy and democratic institutions, stokes rage, and invites extremist illiberal ideologies into the political mainstream.

As part of that global propaganda campaign, the KGB worked to sow discord between American Jews and Blacks (Operation Pandora), while the long-serving Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, was tasked with convincing American political elites that pro-Israel Jews were undermining American interests, Jewish disloyalty a common antisemitic trope. In 1973, the Soviet embassy in Paris became the target of a successful lawsuit, proving it published and disseminated antisemitic propaganda. In 1975, the USSR succeeded at inducing the UN General Assembly to pass the infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former US Ambassador to the UN, viewed the UN’s attack on the Jewish national liberation movement as antisemitic and an “ideological assault on Western values, American power, and liberal democracy everywhere,” wrote historian Gil Troy in his book Moynihan’s Moment.

Putin’s own views on Jews have long been a subject of speculation, with conventional wisdom coalescing around the idea that he isn’t antisemitic. True or not, Putin’s personal feelings are ultimately irrelevant: Antisemitism is not just prejudice, it is also a highly effective political tool, particularly in times of crisis. No one knows that better than people like Putin and Lavrov, who came out of a system that perfected its use as such. It would have been almost astonishing if the Kremlin failed to reach for it at a time when Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine is taking a massive toll on the country, antisemitic incitement related to the Israel-Hamas war is flooding global social media, American university campuses are overcome with protests, and polarization seems to be pulling Western democracies apart at the seams.

Threat to Democracy and National Stability

In recent months, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism (and a renowned Holocaust scholar), has been speaking with growing urgency of antisemitism as a “threat to democracy and national stability.”

“Once you believe that the Jews control the banks… you’ve given up on democracy,” she said in a discussion with Hillary Clinton at the 2024 Munich Security Conference. Authoritarian governments love antisemitism because it serves as a “spoon with which to stir up the pot,” Lipstadt continued. By injecting conspiracy theory into public discourse, politically weaponized antisemitism undermines citizens’ trust in democracy and democratic institutions, stokes rage, and invites extremist illiberal ideologies into the political mainstream. By demonizing one group, it facilitates the demonization of others, pitting racial and religious minorities against each other. To be sure, Lipstadt underscored, authoritarians can’t create problems where none exist, “but they can add fuel to the fire.”

Russia’s example illuminates these dynamics. The endless disparaging references to Zelensky’s Jewishness serve as a dog whistle to audiences whose support the Kremlin values—from the Russian neo-Nazis fighting on behalf of Russia to “denazify” Ukraine, to American and European neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have long admired Russia as the last bastion of white power. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who attended two neo-Nazi conferences in Russia in the early 2000s, referred to Russia as “the key to white survival.” Richard Spencer, an American neo-Nazi and key promoter of the alt-right ideology, views Russia as the “sole white power in the world.”

While China is new to instrumentalizing antisemitism, state actors such as Iran and Qatar have been at it for a while.

The Kremlin has exploited this interest and has worked proactively to “cultivate neo-Nazism in the West” as part of its “broader project to sow discord in Western democracies,” wrote scholars Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Joseph Stabile in 2020. Its support for “right-wing violence in the West,” they observed, should be viewed as an element of Putin’s “broader destabilization campaign” against Western societies. And by vilifying and discrediting Zelensky, Russia helps cultivate support among the isolationist portions of the American right and thus diminish the US’s backing of Ukraine.

A parallel trend is also evident on the opposite side of the political spectrum, where the hard left admires Russia for its anti-Western stance. This connection was strengthened further in the wake of the vicious Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, when the Kremlin assumed a de facto pro-Hamas posture reminiscent of its Cold War-era stance, matching that of the anti-Israel left in the West. Russia’s posture also helps Russia cement its strategic relationship with Iran, which positions the elimination of Israel at the heart of its foreign policy and has emerged as a key source of weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Iran also appears to be helping Russia to avoid western sanctions. Russia, in turn, has proved its loyalty not only by failing to condemn Iran’s unprecedented attack against Israel, but, reportedly, by committing to supply it with new fighter jets and advanced anti-aircraft systems in the wake of Israel’s retaliation. Meanwhile, Russia’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzya continues to demonize Israel and lambast the US at the UN, as he has since October 7.

There is no sight dearer to the Kremlin than Western democracies tearing themselves apart over the Israel-Hamas war while antisemitism skyrockets. The more they remain focused on these issues, the less bandwidth they will have for Putin’s war in Ukraine. Having taken advantage of the October 7 catastrophe to shed its international pariah status, Russia is now positioning itself at the helm of the expanding and increasingly anti-Western BRICS intergovernmental pact, where anti-Israel sentiments seem to be as much of a litmus test for belonging as anti-American ones. Stirring the antisemitism pot, coupled with assuming an overt anti-Israel stance, is paying off for Russia in multiple ways.

China, Iran, and Qatar

Russia is not the only country taking advantage of the authoritarian regimes’ favorite scheme today. In the wake of October 7, China has also deployed antisemitism “as a tool of its anti-US and anti-Western diplomacy,” wrote Josh Rogin in the Washington Post. Lipstadt’s deputy Aaron Keyak told Rogin there’s been a dramatic rise of pro-Hamas and anti-Israel content on Chinese social media, reflecting China’s view of Israel as a Western ally. Sowing distrust in Western democracy around the globe is “a core pillar” of China’s international diplomacy and “a tool of promoting their national interests.” At the same time, portraying Western democracies as being run by a “small cabal of Jews” helps convince China’s citizens that its system is superior to that of the West.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in an official welcoming ceremony in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File.

While China is new to instrumentalizing antisemitism for these purposes, state actors such as Iran and Qatar have been at it for a while.

“In the 45 years since the Islamic revolution, Iran has been saying the same thing about both the United States and Israel,” said Yehudit Barsky, research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) and an expert on Middle East counterterrorism. “All the tropes dovetail into one consistent, coherent, anti-Western message,” which alternatively casts Israel as a lackey of American imperialism and the orchestrator of American foreign policy. Like Russia, Iran seeks to sow chaos and undermine belief in democratic societies. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute Steven Stalinsky suggests that Iran’s terrorist proxies, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, are “grooming” activists in the US and fomenting anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments at American universities.

For its part, Qatar has drawn recent attention for its massive investments into American higher education. A troubling ISGAP-NCRI study titled The Corruption of the American Mind: How Concealed Foreign Funding of Higher Education in the United States Predicts the Erosion of Democratic Values and Antisemitic Sentiments on Campus reports that at least 100 American institutions of higher learning have received $13 billion in “undocumented contributions from foreign governments” over the last decade. Many of these regimes, it notes, are authoritarian, with Qatar being the largest donor.

The researchers have concluded that institutions receiving “undocumented money” from such foreign regimes report higher incidents of antisemitism and that this relationship was stronger when the undocumented donors were Middle Eastern regimes. Such campuses also experienced higher incidents of the suppression of free speech and an exacerbation of “intergroup conflict.” The report also found that “campus-level antisemitic incidents forward predict country-level antisemitic incidents.”

What Can Be Done

For liberal democracies, fighting antisemitic propaganda and disinformation by authoritarian state actors is notoriously difficult. State actors take advantage of what they perceive as open societies’ weaknesses—in particular, freedom of speech—while taking full advantage of recent technological advances. It is now easier than ever to produce and disseminate antisemitic content to billions of people.

Rethinking funding and structure of educational curricula might be a good place for Western societies to start gaining ground in this fight.

“I can generate 10 short antisemitic articles with artificial intelligence within 10 minutes,” said Lev Topor, a scholar of antisemitism and cybersecurity, and author of three books, including Phishing for Nazis: Conspiracies, Anonymous Communications and White Supremacy Networks on the Dark Web. Slick new websites peddling antisemitic content in multiple languages pop up after high-profile events involving Israel and Hamas, boasting top-notch graphics, making it easy for users to engage with, download, and share content. Some promote a specific foreign policy issue, such as disrupting the Arab-Israel normalization—a telltale sign of a state actor’s involvement.

Rethinking funding and structure of educational curricula might be a good place for Western societies to start gaining ground in this fight.

“We haven’t thought about our educational system as a strategic asset, but it is,” said Barsky about the US. “When we fail to think of it that way, other people take advantage of our failure and exploit it.” Barsky, whose family fled the USSR prior to the Cold War, also believes that America’s educational system needs to present a more balanced picture of the US, including its role in the confrontation with the USSR.

“Our educational institutions don’t explain to students how the US won the cause for freedom and why it’s worth defending it,” Barsky said.

One immediate step to take is to encourage more institutions and government agencies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. This legally non-binding and widely adopted definition has proven to be a crucial educational tool in helping identify and combat antisemitism.

The first step, however, is recognizing the problem. Acknowledging that we are facing hostile state actors—cynically weaponizing a toxic mix of antisemitic and anti-Western propaganda and disinformation to undermine the stability and security of our society—will ultimately point us to solutions to thwart that effort, without abandoning the principles and values that uphold our democracy.


Izabella Tabarovsky is senior advisor at the Kennan Institute where she oversees its regional partnerships and programming, independent journalism initiatives, and the Historical Memory Initiative. She manages the Kennan Institute’s Russia FileFocus Ukraine, and In Other Words blogs, and co-hosts the  Russia File podcast. Tabarovsky has coordinated Kennan’s US-Israel working group on Russia in the Middle East, Kennan Institute alumni conferences, and other initiatives and events. Her research expertise includes the politics of historical memory, Russia's independent media, the Holocaust, Stalin’s repressions, and Soviet and contemporary left antisemitism. 

Cover photo: In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, walk at the presidency palace in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)