Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

Coronavirus at the service of Russian propaganda and disinformation

Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte and Russian President, Vladimir Putin agreed to help Italy overcome the epidemic during a telephone conversation on March 21, 2020. And on March 25, a column of 22 Russian military trucks «Kamaz» went across Italy to Bergamo, the most affected by the coronavirus city located 600 km from the capital of Italy. Footage of the Russian military column, which is moving in triumph through the territory of a NATO member state, was shown by Italian, Russian and world media. In Italy, they were often accompanied by comments about Russia, which, unlike the West, «did not leave the Italians in difficult times». However, very soon the Italian newspaper "La Stampa", citing its own sources in the highest political circles and the General Staff of Italy, reported that most of the Russian aid that arrived to Italy is useless: «80% of Russian supplies are totally useless or of little use to Italy. In short, this is little more than a pretext». Notably, the operation to "help" Italy is led by the Russian Ministry of Defense, not the Ministry of Health. According to "La Stampa", the personnel who arrived in Italy have military ranks of «generals, colonels, majors, and colonel generals who were previously involved in military operations in Africa, where bacteriological warfare was combined with Russian intelligence operations».

What is the true goal of Russia? It all looks like a large-scale Russian propaganda operation, which has several goals at once. Firstly, strengthening Russia's geopolitical influence in Italy and in the region. Secondly, Russia sows discord within the European Union and NATO and strengthens the rhetoric already existing in Italy that the real friends of this state are not Western partners, but Russia and China. Italy hosts the world's fifth-largest contingent of U.S. troops, and the triumphant march of Russian military vehicles in a NATO member state is a significant challenge to the already fragile transatlantic unity. Thirdly, thanks to the PR operation to «save Italy», Russia is trying to return on the agenda the issue of lifting sanctions. The Italian authorities, led by Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte officially share the position of the European Union and have consistently supported the continuation of sanctions against Russia. However, Italy often talk about sanctions lifting, especially the far-right "League" party and its leader Matteo Salvini. Trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, Russian diplomats are now actively promoting the idea that sanctions should be lifted — as a sign of solidarity in the fight against the global threat.  Fourthly, this is Russia's attempt to influence the internal policy of Italy, in particular, to help pro-Russian political forces. Fifthly, the mission of the Russian military experts on dangerous diseases, probably, has intelligence purpose as well, Italian media writes.[1] 

Already on March 26, 2020, Russian President, Vladimir Putin during a video summit with the participation of the leaders of two dozen of the world's most economically powerful states proposed a moratorium on economic sanctions so that affected by the coronavirus states can better fight the pandemic. Although Putin did not mention Russia. Some believe tha he could have been talking about Iran, which is under U.S. sanctions for its nuclear ambitions. He noted that restrictive measures should be lifted for humanitarian reasons to facilitate «mutual supplies of medicines, products, equipment and technologies».[2] On its part, Ukraine sent an official letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, expressing its principled position on the inadmissibility of lifting sanctions against states and individuals who have committed crimes and continue to violate the UN Charter and international law.[3]

Meanwhile, Russian publications successfully took advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to spread their own lies. Thus, Newspaper "Vzglyad" warned that «an epidemic threat to Russia is growning in Ukraine». "Komsomolskaya Pravda" whether pleases or scares with the topic of "news": «There are collapse and fear in Kyiv and remittances from Russia have grown». It almost with tears told «how residents of the capital of Ukraine learn to live without the subway, markets and «visa-free regime». Meanwhile brother of "Komsomolskaya Pravda" - "Moskovskij Komsomolets", who is also always angry at Ukraine, told a fairy tale about how «potential coronavirus carrier scared off all medical staff in a hospital in Ukraine». "Moskovskij Komsomolets" also told that «DPR and LPR decided to isolate themselves from Ukraine because of the coronavirus». «The rebel republics of the Donbas close borders and customs points on the border with Ukraine due to the COVID-19 pandemic ... At the same time the republics themselves do not yet establish a quarantine regime in cities and larger settlements», the "Moskovskij Komsomolets" writes. «The authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, in turn, deny any difficulties in supplying the border areas with food and medicine», the "Moskovskij Komsomolets" concluded, making it clear to the clueless: everything is fine in Russia and «rebel republics».[4]

Meanwhile, Europe has realized the extent of the information threat from Russia and is already openly saying that Russia has launched a real coronavirus information war against the European community. In particular, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that: "I believe that the fight against fake news should be strengthened in the field of cybersecurity within the structures of the European Commission." European Commission Press Secretary Peter Stano supported the head of the European Commission and noted: "We have noticed that there is an increase in such actions outside the EU, among other states, especially from Russia or from centers working with Russian support, or otherwise associated with pro-Kremlin sources." According to the conclusion of the European Commission Russian media conducted a broad disinformation campaign against the West, with the aim to spread panic and distrust, both towards the governments of EU member-states and the EU itself, as unable to ensure the safety of citizens. The good thing is that the sabotage activities of Russian information and psychological operations in Europe were noted, although with a delay. But the EU has begun to respond to this threat without putting it off. At least, this shows that Brussels is well aware of the real danger that Russia poses to the West and to common European values.[5] 

Consequently, thanks to the coordinated actions with the pro-Russian government of Italy, Russia not only had a good opportunity to show everyone the strength of the "great power", but also to brazenly demand the lifting of sanctions against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, this is why it is so diligent in spreading its propaganda. However, we should not expect that the international community will simply agree to «forgive» another whim of Russia. After all, the aggressor state should be punished for its aggression against Ukraine.