In a world struggling to survive the onslaught of the invisible enemy, the Kremlin is pumping up its disinformation, inspired by coronavirus. In a report this week, the European Union charged the Russian pro-Kremlin media of stoking “confusion, panic and fear”, part of a broader strategy to “subvert European societies from within”. It claims that the overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems. The sinister objective of the disinformation is to prevent an effective response to the outbreak, damaging governments in the eyes of their citizens.
Russia has always denied previous allegations by western governments and intelligence agencies of using disinformation or opinion-forming campaigns. But when the evidence is literally in black and white in news outlets funded directly by Moscow, such denials hold little water.
While much of Russian propaganda and misinformation is aimed at the West, it’s also directed at its domestic audience in order to bolster its own regime and whip up anti-Western sentiment. Finding a Western hand behind all of Russia’s misfortune and failures is a common theme used by the Russian government to evade responsibility, as well as to raise nationalist spirits.
Take a look at the 22 January edition of Sputnik, the Russian news agency. This used to be known as the “Voice of Russia” and is based in Moscow, with outlets in India, Beijing and many western capitals. As it was created by an Executive Order of the President of Russia on 9 December 2013, it’s safe to assume that its voice is authentically that of the Kremlin.
The conspiracy theory in this edition of Sputnik attempts to cast a shadow over US/NATO as the likely creators of the new virus, used to the pursuit of their political and economic aims. Sputnik claims that there are many American and NATO biological laboratories surrounding China from which the coronavirus escaped, thus blaming China for it. As proof, Sputnik refers to old posters released by China with headlines such as “Everyone to struggle with American bacteriological aggression”. Russia repeatedly sides with China in the coronavirus disinformation war, claiming that this biological weapon has been deployed by America to stop China’s rise.
On 18 March, the popular Russian online site aimed at Russian subscribers, Medialeaks, categorically asserted that Covid-19 was created by a US laboratory in 2015. As “proof:, it quotes an unpublished and dubious study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Wuhan Institute of Virology. Linking coronavirus to the US and its stock of biological weapons is a recurring pro-Kremlin disinformation narrative.
A week later, in an attempt to justify the type of society President Putin is creating in Russia, Medialeaks claimed that “only authoritarian states and closed societies will be able to protect their populations from the coronavirus and from future pandemics”. The Russian economy is currently in deep trouble with the collapse of the oil price and raw materials, amounting to 60% of its GDP. So what better than use survival against the coronavirus as an argument in favour of a post-globalist and closed society? Exactly the authoritarian society being promoted by President Putin, the saviour of the nation. Of course, Medialeaks failed to mention that it was an authoritarian state, China, which suppressed information about the virus, censored and detained those doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm and warn their fellow citizens when they understood the gravity of the coronavirus threat.
One of President Putin’s strategic aims is to weaken European solidarity, so it’s not surprising to see a number of disinformation outlets indulging in apocalyptic scenarios. For example, on 15 March, the influential Russian national TV news channel Rossiya 24 carried a long feature at prime time on the “collapse” of the EU Schengen zone, the elimination of borders between most EU nations. This theme was also taken up the same day by the Kremlin-owned TV channel Russia Today, broadcasting across the West. Both used the closing of borders as proof that this was the first step towards the abandoning of the Union in favour of rebuilding Europe’s nation states. Both concluded that the European idea had collapsed and coronavirus was the start of a transition to different political cultures. The collapse of the European Union is a constant pro-Kremlin narrative. The programme failed to mention that the Schengen border code is explicitly designed to allow a temporary relaxation of free movement where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security, as in the case of the coronavirus. The EU has made it perfectly clear that all borders will reopen once the pandemic is over, something not mentioned by either Russia Today or Rossyia 24.
On a similar theme, the pro-Kremlin website aimed at Russian citizens, Rubaltic.ru, also reflected on the imminent collapse of the EU. Remarkably, it claimed that coronavirus will be to NATO and the EU what Chernobyl was to the Soviet Union. Chernobyl was the prelude to the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the corollary is that coronavirus will cause the collapse of the EU! No evidence was provided for this extraordinary claim, and no mention was made of the 37 billion euro EU initiative to provide liquidity to small businesses and the health care sector in the Eurozone.
The Baltic states have long been considered to be the most likely flashpoint for conflict in the future. It’s, therefore, not surprising that a huge amount of disinformation is focused on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three countries moved quickly to join both the EU and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union and still have large Russian-speaking populations. The Russian website Rubaltica.ru is popular among these and the Kremlin sees it as the natural vehicle for propaganda and disinformation. On 19 March, the website argued that the Baltic States cannot survive the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. The site claims that EU experts are emphatic that the Baltic States will face an enormous economic blow, substantially worse than the 2008-09 financial crisis. The coronavirus crisis will completely erase the whole post-Soviet development model of the Baltic States, an economic shock so severe that their future is best served by returning to Russia. The website failed to note that, although times will be hard in the Baltic States, once the pandemic is over their citizens will still be substantially wealthier than their Russian neighbours.
Taken individually, many of these false claims can often seem unbelievable. But that’s not how Russian disinformation works. Russia is behind swarms of online false personas, spreading disinformation about a myriad of topics, not just coronavirus, although this is the latest subject. These outlets are not attempting to “sell” an idea, but rather confuse the audience by scattering deceit. By spreading disinformation about coronavirus, Russian aspersive actors are choosing to threaten public safety by distracting from the global health response. This is dangerous. Russian disinformation is itself a virus against which the world must be vaccinated.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat to Moscow and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998.

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