Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Sep. 30 grand ceremony annexing four Ukrainian territories has failed to do, well, much of anything at all.

It has been simultaneously ignored by the international community as illegitimate and condemned alongside an ever-expanding list of war crimes. It was denounced 143-5 at the United Nations (UN), with the usual suspects standing in as Putin’s only bedfellows: Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Nicaragua, and the Russian Federation itself.

The sham annexation has, of course, been roundly ignored at the war front as well, with a historically curious case of Russian soldiers surrendering and fleeing en masse a territory that had been dramatically declared “forever” part of Russia just 24 hours before.

With failure setting in on both the diplomatic and military fronts – from pariah state status to collapse in Kherson and beyond – Putin’s newly installed command operations general Sergei Surovikin tried out a new tactic this month: bombing and murdering innocent civilians in Kyiv two Monday morning rush hours in a row using Iranian drones.

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The renewed round of war crimes has brought international protesters back onto the streets in greater force than has been seen in some months. Massive numbers have turned out once more at the gates of Russian embassies across Europe and North America.

But, in the face of so much seriousness and horror, a new and parallel trend has emerged in response to Russia’s sham referenda: activists using the power of satire to cement the illegitimacy of the phony annexations.

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October has seen this trend go viral, demonstrating the power of humor in a rapidly changing digital landscape. Two particular epicenters have emerged: i) Russian embassies around the world; and ii) the digital anti-misinformation army known as the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO), which aims to push back on Russian misinformation through its use of memes and mockery.

“There is no Kaliningrad”

The very week of Russia’s sham referenda, activists in two disparate parts of the world came up with the same idea to mock Putin’s dictatorial attempts: the annexing back of Russian territory in other countries.

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It began the same night of the Moscow “annexation”, when online calls began for the return of Kaliningrad to its rightful home in Czechia – Kralovec.

The isolated Russian territory city sits on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland. The troll continued throughout the week, with comments and tweets such as “There is no Kaliningrad. #KralovecisCzechia.”

In Prague, masses of people poured onto the streets to enact the “referendum” with signs and in costume. In the end, 98 percent had “voted” for the city to leave Russia and “officially” revert to its Czech name. And as an event, it wasn’t all just fun and mockery – the initiative managed to raise 100,000 Czech Koruna (around $4,000) for Ukraine.

“Annexing” the Russian embassy in Ottawa

While tensions are high at Russian embassies and consulates across multiple North American cities, the mood among Ottawa’s familiar daily embassy protesters has remained defiant and spirited.

On Oct. 1, the local protest group began a sham referendum, voting to annex the Russian embassy into Canada. Voters were offered ballots in six European and indigenous languages, but with a catch: the only vote was “yes.” The action’s FAQs made a point to urge voting early and often: non-Canadians, dead relatives, babies, and pets were all welcome to cast a vote.

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The action’s manifesto, written by local protester Trevor Connelly, mixed the satirical and the very real. “But seriously: Why are we annexing the Russian Embassy in Canada? The Russian Federation no longer deserves to have a place on our land. Their actions in Ukraine demonstrate their incivility. We are using the finest of Russian ‘referendum’ procedures to showcase how meaningless their results are. This is a playful interpretation on very dark practices.”

As in Prague, the Ottawa protest was loud and filled with music and costumes. In the end, results came in at 112 percent in favor. The mood switched to somber as the group held a moment of silence; in true Canadian-Ukrainian solidarity fashion, it ended with the playing of the Ukrainian national anthem on bagpipes.

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These trolling efforts quickly began to go viral, garnering the attention of global supporters of Ukraine across various media platforms. From multiple countries and in multiple languages, the Kaliningrad and Ottawa annexations were pronounced brilliant comic activist actions.

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Votes rolled in from all corners of the globe, with people wondering if the same might be enacted at the Russian embassies in their own cities. Canada’s response truly exploded, with a voting video in front of the gates of the Russian embassy building up over a million views and shares across international news sites. Celebrities and political figures such as Bill Browder and Mikhail Khodorkovsky joined in, asking if they could vote.

The trolling campaign referenda have also been big boosts from NAFO. Indeed, the role of satire has rapidly altered the information and misinformation landscapes over the last few months. Gone are the days when Russian troll farms dominated and bullied, running truthtellers offline and fomenting social and political crises in other countries unchallenged. Now it is Russian officials doing the digital running away, publicly winging that they are being bullied by squadrons of cartoon dogs. The terrain has indeed shifted.

After the “successes” of Kaliningrad and Ottawa, the rest of the month has seen satirical referenda take off in other countries, including Finland, Poland, and even Russia itself.

In Turku, Finland, a very solemn and formal referendum was undertaken, debating the annexation of the Russian consulate’s parking spaces. After a successful campaign and official government approval, photos spread globally that showed city workers repainting the area of the street in question with a large Ukrainian flag.

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Meanwhile, activists in Poland enacted their own mock referendum on the returning of the Russian embassy’s land in Warsaw to its rightful Polish owners. Thousands voted in the lively event, another in which ballots only carried the option of “yes.” Ultimately, the vote came in at 127 percent, with a declaration that the embassy would be turned into a center for Polish-Ukrainian cooperation. One local blog noted that, with the action, “Polish internet users have joined the recent social media craze for announcing mock annexations of Russian territory.”

Even within Russia itself, some brave activists have gotten in on the act. In Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, Polish Siberian exiles noted that they have endured 300 years of oppression under Russian rule. In their own Oct. 12 joke referendum, an online post noted that they had voted to be reunited with Poland, with 98 percent of the vote in favor.

One thing is clear: these actions may be satirical, but they are far from powerless. To the contrary, they seem to be resonating with a global public grasping the exact points they aim to make – and, in increasing numbers, joining in.

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Even Putin’s chief propagandist and hate speech purveyor on Russian nightly news, Vladmir Solovyov, began to despair this month, lamenting that “the whole West is starting to mock us.” One prominent NAFO slogan echoes just this, and indeed seems to be carrying the day this fall: “Don’t argue, mock.”

Keep calm and carry on, fellas.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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