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QAnon Is Eating Up Putin’s Anti-Ukraine Propaganda

After years of swallowing Russian disinformation, the conspiracist far right is all for the invasion

The international community is roundly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has already cost hundreds if not thousands of lives. But while at least one Republican U.S. senator has already demanded his assassination, Vladimir Putin maintains support in other factions of the American far right, some of whom see him fulfilling a prophecy they’ve touted for years.

A major tenet of QAnon — the conspiracist movement that arose from Donald Trump’s MAGA base — is the zealous belief in something termed “The Storm.” In their religious mythology, Trump as president waged a secret battle against a Deep State cabal guilty of everything from child sex trafficking to Satanic ritual sacrifice. When they mention the Storm, they mean a sort of world-historical cataclysm that exposes their imagined enemies: mass arrests, followed by trials and executions. This will be their moment of vindication, ushering in the “Great Awakening” of those who ridiculed their cause. Except, just as a cult leader promising imminent apocalypse leaves his followers in the perpetual limbo of anticipation, the Storm never materializes.

Some Q adherents have soured on Trump over his endorsement of COVID-19 vaccines. Others are disappointed that theories of how he might be reinstated as president keep failing to pan out. But the community endures by “baking,” or wildly misinterpreting current events, “connecting the dots” via barely coherent memes and texts. With enough baking (or “research,” as they sometimes call it) the Q faithful arrive at an alternate reality that satisfies their needs. 

It so happens that Putin’s aggression in Europe is rich material for this process, for a number of reasons. To begin with, there was Trump’s friendliness toward the Russian president; meanwhile, Biden has criticized him, and since Biden is one of their villains, it follows that Putin is actually good. Moreover, Putin exercises the autocratic power that Q has long envisioned for Trump, muzzling the “Fake News” media and public dissent. Anti-Biden fervor in this demographic had already turned Ukraine into a symbol of corruption and secrets: a right-wing narrative during the 2020 election held that the Democratic nominee and his son, Hunter Biden, had cut shady business deals in the country, as supposedly evidenced by files on a laptop. These claims were part of a pro-Trump Russian disinformation campaign that has been assimilated into the Q worldview. A violent takeover of the region can be framed, then, as a sort of cleanup operation — maybe not the Storm, per se, but at least a prelude to it.  

Of course, Q influencers are baking their own ideas into the ongoing conflict. On Telegram, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been labeled a “puppet” of the World Economic Forum, an organization that has inspired extreme paranoia in these circles. They also link the war to their takes on the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that Russia may target biological labs run by Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical advisor. GhostEzra, a full-blown Nazi and owner of the most popoular QAnon channel on the encrypted messaging app, has gone so far as to ask his followers if what we’re seeing in Ukraine is totally staged — “a movie.”

Although these speculative side plots and embellishments are in a sense the bread and butter of QAnon culture — they make everyone an equal contributor to an expanding universe of bullshit — Russian propaganda is a reliable baseline. On the Great Awakening forum, users share links to state-owned media including Sputnik News and Russia Today. Talk of Putin “cleaning up” Ukraine, either with reference to criminal enterprise or the myth that neo-Nazis control the nation’s government, is altogether common. And in repeating these Kremlin justifications for military assault, Q groups inevitably push them to great extremes. “Russia is not only fighting Neo Nazis that crucify their victims,” read a recent post by someone with the handle AmericanHistoryQ, “they’re fighting actual SATANISTS.” Elsewhere, you can find some chatter about a (fake) headline that declares Putin has banned the Rothschild family and their “New World Order” banking cartel from Russia, a purely anti-Semitic fantasy.  

All of it is the inevitable result of Russia’s efforts to sway U.S. opinion — a project that has only ramped up in the years since Putin sought to interfere in the 2016 election. By now, the QAnon set have become totally accustomed to receiving, and adding to, the false or misleading statements from Moscow. And it probably wouldn’t occur to most that they can be manipulated this way. They pride themselves on what they consider free, independent thought, buoyed by the fact that their understanding is so at odds with what mainstream politicians and media are saying. 

In their haste to reject that conventional wisdom, they’ve come to rely on calculated lies.