During the Cold War, westerners dealing with the Soviet Union grew frustrated at the automatic Soviet response to comments that were even slightly critical towards the USSR. The Soviets would say “what about …” before bringing up some supposed example of western hypocrisy. The Soviets sometimes seemed less interested in defending communism than in just pointing out that the West was, also, imperfect. Western diplomats, journalists, and scholars started calling this practice: “whataboutism.” Whataboutism is a constant diversion away from actual relevant news items, facts, and arguments into constant accusations of hypocrisy. This amounts to almost a pseudo-ideology of “we are not perfect, but neither are you” rather than arguments like: “our system is better” or “you don’t understand.”
Whataboutism is alive and strong today in Russian propaganda. The basic mechanism is an attempt to use either the emotions of shame or anger to derail an argument. By accusing their opponents or even just their interlocutors of hypocrisy, propagandists hope to trigger the emotion of shame to blunt accusations or divert the conversation into a discussion about hypocrisy. If the counter-accusation the propagandist uses is absolutely ridiculous, as is often the case, then the propagandist is probably not trying to use shame, but rather use one’s anger to divert the conversation away from an important matter at hand and into a constant back-and-forth about some irrelevant piece of history.