On May 24 2021, in the hours and days after Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was taken from a Ryanair flight that had been rediverted to Minsk and arrested along with his girlfriend, graduate student Sofia Sapega, in a dramatic state-sponsored kidnapping, a curious phenomenon began to appear: English-language social media accounts suddenly began offering opinions and commentary on his activities and scraping together a very particular narrative.
The incident itself, which involved the Belarusian government calling in a fake bomb threat to force the plane to divert in Minsk, is part of an alarming new trend of transnational surveillance and repression that is being used to silence dissent among critics all over the world:
Recent well-publicized incidents include Russia’s use of nerve agents in an attack against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, in England in 2018. That same year, Saudi Arabia kidnapped and murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and critic of the government, inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Smear campaigns, which aim to destroy carefully built reputations and credibility, are integral to these attacks in order to chill international sympathy. Soon, Protasevich — who Belarus’s government has labeled an extremist — was associated via social media whisper campaign with the far-right, ultranationalist extremists of eastern Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, a white supremacist group that has made no secret of its international aims, as this November 2018 story makes clear:
Robert Rundo, the muscly leader of a California-based white-supremacist group that refers to itself as the “premier MMA (mixed martial arts) club of the Alt-Right,” unleashed a barrage of punches against his opponent.
But Rundo, a 28-year-old Huntington Beach resident who would be charged and arrested in October over a series of violent attacks in his hometown, Berkeley, and San Bernardino in 2017, wasn’t fighting on American streets.
It was April 27 and Rundo, whose Rise Above Movement (RAM) has been described by ProPublica as “explicitly violent,” was swinging gloved fists at a Ukrainian contender in the caged ring of a fight club associated with the far-right ultranationalist Azov group in Kyiv.
A video of Rundo’s fight, which was streamed live on Facebook (below), shows that the American lost the bout. But for Rundo, who thanked his hosts with a shout of “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine), it was a victory of another sort: RAM’s outreach tour, which included stops in Italy and Germany to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and spread its alt-right agenda, brought the two radical groups closer together.
For the Ukrainians, too, the benefits extended outside the ring. It marked a step toward legitimizing Azov among its counterparts in the West and set in motion what appears to be its next project: the expansion of its movement abroad.
“We think globally,” Olena Semenyaka, the international secretary for Azov’s political wing, the National Corps, told RFE/RL in an interview at one of the group’s Kyiv offices last week.
It took almost no time at all for commenters across platforms to start sowing doubt about Protasevich’s activies and alliances:
#Ukrainian media reports that #Protasevich served in the press-service of the neo-Nazi-led Azov battalion in #Ukraine during the war in #Donbas: "… украинскую страницу в биографии Протасевича: белорус одно время работал в пресс-службе «Азова»." https://t.co/azFjYFkCtk
— Ivan Katchanovski (@I_Katchanovski) May 24, 2021
The rumors about Protasevich appeared to hinge on several inconclusive photographs and extensive narrative shaping. Soon, the whisper campaign reached reporters doing open-source investigations, with additional wrenches thrown into the mix by “admissions” by batallion leaders that he had been part of their effort:
Thread. Re Protasevich and Azov. Here's what's out there to be analyzed against other evidence, commentary: 1st photo is Protasevich, 2nd photo is the cover of Azov's "Black Sun" publication July 2015 issue #15. 3rd photo is what @azure says: "0.70 confidence" (that's high-ish). pic.twitter.com/ucrjma8GEd
— Oleksiy Kuzmenko (@kooleksiy) May 25, 2021
Finally, it appears that enough evidence emerged to form a more complete picture of what the rumor was, although it still remains murky:
1/3 I wrote yesterday (or earlier today, for those in US/CA) that "there's no firm evidence [Roman] Protasevich had any Azov ties"
— Michael Colborne (@ColborneMichael) May 25, 2021
The way the discussion unfolded, from hinting to outright rumors to investigation to a tentative conclusion, may look familiar to those who have watched weaponized disinformation campaigns latch on to people in the past. As mentioned, claims and smears are often attached by repressive regimes and other anti-democratic entities to those who end up in the spotlight, whether they are political dissidents speaking out about repression or victims of state-sponsored violence murdered by law enforcement officers on camera.
Whatever truth remains to be uncovered, the ensuing discussions and bad faith claims worked well as a distraction device and to obscure the facts of the situation, which are that two people — a graduate student and a journalist — were abducted from an international flight from Greece to Lithuania, where Sofia Sapega was reportedly preparing to defend her master’s thesis. Additionally, this was done at the behest of a repressive government, in a move that came amid a whole slew of anti-democratic and explicitly authoritarian trends sweeping countries that until recent years had been considered relatively stable democracies.