Covid-19 & the Russian Propaganda Pandemic


December 31, 2019: the first confirmed case of the new, malignant thread that would be later known as Covid-19. Fast-forward to today, with the whole world embroiled in a battle against the infection that on March 11 the World Health Organization officially recognized as a pandemic disease.

January 31, 2020: The Russian Federation officially confirmed the first case of coronavirus on its territory. Considering the close ties between Russia and China, there were fears that Russia might become an epicenter of the pandemic, although official statistics in Russia suggest nothing of the sort. As of March 29, Russia has only 1543 confirmed cases, which is an incredibly low number for a country of 145 million.

Is the Russian data realistic? This question is being asked more and more often. There are many who suspect the Kremlin decided to conceal the real picture and in reality, the situation is far graver. Yet another theory claims that the Russian Health and Welfare system just doesn’t have the necessary resources to manage the epidemic, including the necessary testing to realistically gauge the real numbers.

And while the Kremlin seemingly disregards the problem, a new type of viral video appeared on Russian social networks: in their thousands, Russian citizens are calling hospitals, clinics and the like, telling the staff they are exhibiting symptoms characteristic to coronavirus, yet are left without qualified advice, including the very basic, already folklore-level “stay at home”. Other videos showing rows of buses with “Russian guard” insignia entering Moscow, adding to the feeling that something far more sinister is going on than the official statistics suggest.

The new virus doesn’t discriminate: it up and knocked on the Kremlin’s door too. Putin’s Press Speaker Peskov recently confirmed that a staff member of the President’s administration was diagnosed with COVID-19. He added, seemingly to comfort the millions of well-wishers worldwide, that said staff member had not had any contact with the President. Whether he himself had contact with said patient, Peskov did not specify.

What we know for sure is that Russian singer Lev Leshenko was diagnosed with COVID-19, and that Peskov recently attended his birthday party. Putin seems to have lucked out again: Leshenko’s birthday was on February 1. So either the Russian President is very lucky, or he is invulnerable to earthly diseases.

And yet, in the midst of such a situation, the Kremlin decided it should spare a thought for an officially confirmed epicenter of the epidemic outside of its borders. Apparently, pandemics is a great time to spread Russian propaganda, and they lost precious little time finding a suitable target for it: Italy, the country that has so far suffered the most in Europe. There was a prevalent notion on Italian social media that in these trying times, Europe and the proverbial West had forsaken them to their troubles, and that it was maybe time for Italy to follow the British example and start engineering their own exit out of the European Union. Obviously, the situation was ripe for Russian propaganda to play their tunes on Italian emotions.

Like in Italy, Russian propaganda has become more active in other countries of Europe too. Similar of messages started appearing on French, Spanish and Greek social media. This is not a new approach: the same tactic was successfully employed during Brexit and the Catalan referendum, not to mention during the wide array of elections in various European countries. It is also known that due to the apparent shortage of Spanish-speaking bots at its disposal, the Kremlin employed Venesuelan “resources” for its shenanigans during the Catalan referendum. It looks like there is no time like bad time for the Russian propaganda machine.

One needs to stress here that the EU, albeit belatedly, still realized the need to show more solidarity during the times of pandemic and the necessary actions were carried out. The narratives of various European leaders invariably mention the need to assist each other, with French President Macron at the forefront. Talks aside, Germany has already accepted Italian patients in its clinics and sent much-needed medical equipment across the border. France followed suit, and is itself being assisted by Germany too. It is expected that this collaboration will grow in scale as the pandemic expands further.

Russia, a country that cannot handle the virus inside its own borders, decided to play messiah outside of them. To give more emphasis to the troll and bot narrative against the united Europe in social media, Russian planes, “filled to the brim” with medical staff and equipment landed on Italian soil to help out the beleaguered country.

Obviously, the Russian propaganda had a field day with it: “Mother Russia holds out a helping hand to sister Italy who was forsaken by Europe”. Propaganda articles were disseminated in various languages across Europe and beyond. Greek outlet published an article claiming that the overjoyed Italians lowered the EU flags and hoisted the two-headed Eagle of Russia instead. Obviously, this did not happen, but there was probably no shortage of people who bought the lie.

However, as happens to almost every tale of Kremlin propaganda, this legend was busted quickly enough. On March 26, a popular Italian outlet La Stampa wrote that the equipment sent over by Russia was worthless and unsuited to combating the virus. As for the “medical staff”, most of those turned out to be not doctors, but high-ranking military personnel.

So what does this Kremlin act of charity and its predictable outcome tell us? How was Russia to help Italy when it cannot help its own citizens in the country? Especially considering that it neglected every responsibility to help the populations of its “vassal states”, the occupied territories of Georgia, where it ultimately fell on the Georgian government to open a new hospital in Rukhi village to provide whatever help they could to those the other side of the occupation line.

Despite the fact that Russia cannot and does not help its own population, it is not above creating a false illusion of assisting European countries. Unlike its population, malign propaganda is something the Kremlin can always spare time for. It was around before the pandemic, it will be around during the pandemic and without a shadow of doubt, it will stay around after the pandemic too. One could say the Kremlin itself has become a pandemic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fall under WHO’s purview to declare it as such.

By David Bragvadze, Georgian Institute for Security Policy

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and the hospital’s chief Denis Protsenko, right, walk in to the hospital for coronavirus patients in Kommunarka, outside Moscow, Russia. (File/AP/Kremlin Pool Photo/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik)

02 April 2020 19:33