Moscow is ramping up its campaign of disruption and disinformation after President Macron’s abrupt transformation into western Europe’s leading Ukraine hawk

Charles Bremner

March 21, 2024

The Times


Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson warned on Thursday that any Frenchman fighting in Ukraine can expect a swift flight home in a coffin.

In an outlandish statement made in impeccable French, Pyotr Tolstoy, 53, deputy head of the state duma — the lower house of the Russian parliament — and a former journalist, boasted that Russian forces had already killed 147 French mercenaries in Ukraine out of 367 he claimed were fighting there. He added that Russia “doesn’t give a damn” about President Macron’s warning that sending western troops to Ukraine could not be ruled out.

He added: “The Russian armed forces will destroy all French soldiers who appear on Ukrainian territory; the French should understand the consequences.”

Tolstoy’s threat and false figures made in an interview with BFMTV, a French news channel, were then repeated by Russian news outlets and French media as part of a propaganda assault on France that has heightened since Macron recast himself as western Europe’s premier hawk.

On Tuesday, Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, falsely claimed that Macron was on the verge of sending a military contingent of 2,000 soldiers and “the sword awaits all Frenchmen who ever enter the territory of the Russian world.”

Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, later reposted an AI-generated fake French television news report of a supposed Ukraine-based assassination plot against the French leader with a comment that Macron was “scared”. The Élysée and the news outlet France 24 quickly exposed the video as fake, but they could not stop its spread.

So far, six French nationals, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces of their own accord, are known to have died in the war, yet Russia claims to have killed hundreds of serving French military personnel.

The Kremlin has long targeted France as Europe’s ‘Achilles heel’ in its efforts to foment division, but when on March 14 Macron suggested that Nato troops could be sent to Ukraine, disinformation intensified.

The Kremlin is on the cyberoffensive across Europe, but nowhere like France. “The Kremlin regime has intensified and hardened its assault on our country with disinformation and cyberattacks,” Macron said.

With Marine Le Pen’s Moscow-friendly National Rally poised for a hard right landslide in June’s European elections, anti-US sentiment soaring, and a traditional distrust of mainstream news, Russia favours France as fertile ground for untruths, one senior French diplomat said.

In Kremlin documents shown by western intelligence to The Washington Post in December, Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff to Putin, picked France as the chief tool for subverting Europe. “He has tasked Kremlin political strategists with promoting political discord in France through social media and French political figures, opinion leaders and activists,” the report said.

Some 30 per cent of the French remain positive towards Russia while 40 percent are inclined not to believe media reporting on Ukraine, the Kremlin’s experts noted.

Macron, whose 2017 election campaign was targeted by Russia, is on guard. The French security services were the first, last June, to report the Russian operation “doppelganger” that deployed fake websites impersonating mainstream media and state organisations to garner influence in the EU.

An inquiry by the French parliament concluded that Moscow was running a long-term operation “to defend and promote Russian interests and to polarise our democratic society.”

Last month, Viginum, the French foreign disinformation watchdog, said that it had detected preparation for a large-scale disinformation attack — which it codenamed “Portal Kombat” — ahead of the European elections and the Paris Olympics in July, using troll farms, clones of French media, influencers, and a network of nearly 200 fake news sites.

Moscow’s fingerprints have been found on incidents in France, from last summer’s youth riots to an autumn scare over a plague of bedbugs, according to the government. “The fuss over bedbugs was amplified by accounts of Russian origin,” Jean-Noel Barrot, the Europe minister, told parliament.

In an example of a hybrid operation, Moldovan agents under Moscow’s orders were responsible for stencilling hundreds of blue Stars of David on Paris walls after the start of the Israel-Hamas war to stir tension, the internal security service, DGSI, reported. Their images were then amplified by Russian-driven social media.

Russia is continuing with an old tradition, founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century and pursued by the communists in Soviet times, of using French voices to boost its cause.

Some powerful Russophiles, such as François Fillon, the former prime minister, who earlier relayed the Kremlin’s talking points, have gone silent. The most visible now is Thierry Mariani, 65, a former conservative minister who is a senior figure in Le Pen’s party.

The MEP blames the United States for the war in Ukraine while calling for peace talks, a view shared by many in France, especially on the nationalist right and on the hard left, which is led by France Unbowed, the largest opposition party after the National Rally.

Le Pen is trying to distance herself from Moscow, and is accusing Macron of falsely tarring her as a Russian puppet. “That’s all a lie,” Laurent Jacobelli, Le Pen’s spokesman, said. “There is no link between Russia and the National Rally.”

However, France’s Russian exiles delivered their verdict, turning out en masse to vote in the Russian presidential election at the embassy on the weekend. The president received 11 per cent of the Paris vote, according to exit polls by expatriates, compared with a reported 87 per cent in their homeland.


Charles Bremner is contributor to The Times. He reports and writes commentary from Paris on the politics, culture and all aspects of life in France. A foreign correspondent for more than four decades based in Russia, the US and Europe, he has written for The Times for more than two decades. As an active pilot since 1983, he also writes as The Times’s aviation specialist.