How the Kremlin uses graffiti as propaganda


Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows that, when writing a news story, the key details should be structured in a hierarchy of importance. The key part of the story should be emphasised in the headline and intro then other facts should follow in their order of significance.

When the key detail is left further down then that’s known as ‘burying the lede’. It can sometimes be done deliberately, but is usually done out of mere ignorance of the topic.

That’s the case in a story that has broken in local news in the US state of Michigan. After a spike in hate crimes targeted at the local Jewish community, a woman named Randi Lucille Nord was caught in the act while spray painting a swastika and the word ‘Azov’ onto a synagogue. Under interrogation, she admitted to a series of similar such attacks. At first, the news reports implied she seemed to be a supporter of Ukraine and its Azov battalion. In the past few days, more details have emerged about Nord, yet the stories merely focused on legal details about how she would represent herself in trial.

Buried further down, however, was the revelation that should have shocked the journalists (although certainly not any of us at Propastop) and pointed them towards a much larger story with global implications. Nord admitted to interrogators that she supported Russia and her intention was to undermine US support for Ukraine.

Nord is listed as a writer for the pro-Kremlin and pro-Assad propaganda outlet, Mintpress News. Her social media presence indicates her admiration for the Soviet Union and a follower list of pro-Kremlin influencers. She had also recently returned to the US from two years living in Serbia – a country notorious for the influence of Russian security services who would have sought out someone like Nord. It is there, investigators concluded, that she was somehow radicalised into launching her hate campaign aimed at sowing disinformation back home in the US.

Graffiti as pre-internet trolling

It would certainly not be the first time that a campaign of this nature has been directed in support of Moscow.

Starting on Christmas Eve 1959, West Germany experienced a plague of anonymous anti-semitic incidents that included swastikas being painted on synagogues and soon similar incidents across Western Europe, the US, and South America. West Germany experienced the worst of it, however, and news of the hate crimes garnered widespread revulsion internationally that seriously damaged the image of the fledgling country. It undermined support for US aid to West Germany and led to the canceling of business and employment contracts with the country.

However, it was later discovered that the original hate crime and some subsequent attacks were carried out by men who made frequent trips to West Germany and appeared to support communism. Only when larger waves of defections from East Germany arrived years later was the full extent revealed of a Soviet influence operation designed to whip up anti-semitic sentiment in West Germany and damage the country’s image in the West.

There is no doubt that genuine neo-Nazis also joined in with the spate of incidents. The goal of influence operations is to exploit and widen existing tensions in society to its own advantage.

Michael Weiss, writing for CNN six years, published an overview an overview of the disinformation campaign here, which is well worth reading.

In response to the arrest of Nord, many online commentators such as Sergej Sumlenny, the founder of the European Resilience Initiative Center, pointed to similar incidents in the modern era.

Ukraine experienced a spate of neo-Nazi graffiti conducted with proven links to Russian agents for around a decade prior to Russia’s full scale war in Ukraine. Many were painted with English messages and painted where they seemed to be directed at international audiences, such as on arrival from the airport in Kyiv.

Suspicions have also been raised about incidents in Estonia and the Baltic states.

Edward Hunter Christie, a security expert previously with NATO, wrote an excellent tweet thread in response to Nord’s arrest explaing how grafitti planted in Western countries has long been part of the Kremlin’s toolkit but that the media and general public continue to take it at face value, unaware of how they are being manipulated.

Even after the revelations about Nord, the articles reporting on her arrest and impending trial continue to link Ukraine with Nazism, Russia’s key propaganda narrative, or merely imply that she is a lone radical. The damage has been done. 

Journalists need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. This is not just a local news story, nor a story about one woman.