Russian disinformation during the pandemic

Agnieszka Legucka,
Senior Research Fellow,
Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM),

Vistula University,

According to the European Commission, Russia is different from other countries that promote disinformation (such as China, Iran, and North Korea) because its actions are systematic over the long term and it has an extensive range of instruments to spread disinformation. Russia uses traditional media and the internet, social media in particular, to spread misleading information. The Russian disinformation ecosystem is a collection of official, proxy, and unattributed communication channels and platforms that it uses to create and amplify false narratives. Russian pro-government media such as RT and Sputnik operate in a hundred countries and broadcast programmes in 30 languages. With an annual budget of about €270-400 million, RT can compete with BBC World (€300 million euros) and France Media Monde (the owner of France24, around €260 million euros). The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a so-called “troll factory” is also an important tool of Russian disinformation policy.

The goal of disinformation is to sow doubt over democratic rule and promote an ideological message about the supremacy of authoritarian systems. Therefore, its intention is to create chaos, social uncertainty, and disorientation. Contrary to propaganda, the aim of disinformation is not to convince anyone, instead the goal is to undermine trust in information as such, to introduce doubt into the perception of reality. The latest well-coordinated Russian disinformation campaign was about the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, Russia adopted China’s arguments, thus further disseminating Chinese propaganda related to the pandemic.

Both countries seek to strengthen their international position, primarily in their relations with the EU and U.S. The specific goals of Russia’s pandemic-related disinformation campaign have included undermining trust in objective facts and credible information sources concerning the pandemic. Russia, like China, promoted multilateral “corona diplomacy”, which aims to curry favour with Western states in particular to ease the international sanctions against it. In the early stages of the pandemic, Russia responded quickly to requests for help from other countries. The Russian Ministry of Defence sent medical support and a decontamination vehicle to China. Videos were distributed on Russian media showing Italians removing the EU flag from city buildings while the Russian national anthem plays in the background. Russian medical support was gaining more interest in world public opinion than aid efforts from other countries, mostly thanks to the Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns. However, the disclosure of details about Russia’s “corona diplomacy”, including technical problems with the equipment it delivered, rather weakened the Kremlin’s international influence. The U.S. authorities returned ventilators to the Russians after incidents of the equipment catching fire in Russia. The Italian newspaper La Stampa revealed that 80% of the Russian supplies were of poor quality.

Despite the offer of cooperation during the pandemic, Russia has not managed to persuade Western countries to ease the international sanctions. On 26 March 2020 in the UN General Assembly, together with Ukraine and Georgia, these countries rejected Russia’s declaration of solidarity in the fight against COVID-19, which would have led to the suspension of the sanctions. The European Commission indicated that health matters are not covered by the sanctions regime, so there is no justification for them to be lifted, especially since the reasons for introducing them, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, have not changed.

The next stage of the Russian disinformation campaign has included attempts to discredit Western-produced COVID-19 vaccines, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca preparation, which Russian propaganda labelled a “monkey vaccine”, followed by attempts to spread this information in Western media. English-language online portals also disseminated false information about non-Russian vaccines. Russia still hopes to create a more favourable position for its own vaccine on the world market and fulfil its strategic ambition to be seen as one of the first major powers to provide a solution to the COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, the Russian authorities have adapted to the global network of information systems and the dispersion of media and worldwide communication management. Contrary to the centralisation of command in the Soviet era, today’s coordination by the Kremlin is more challenging and not without problems that lead to failure. Although the Russian authorities still try to organise, control, and correct network structures from above, the Russian intelligence services are internally divided and scattered by bureaucratic wars over influence. However, it is precisely thanks to this loose network structure of coordination that it is much easier to hide the origin of disinformation activities and connect it to top Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin.


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