by Olivier Védrine
Political scientist and TV anchor on Ukrainian television; Board member, New Europeans
6th April 2020
Russia exploits the coronavirus crisis in order to weaken the EU. Russia’s humanitarian intervention in Italy, a show of force, is combined with a sustained disinformation and destabilization campaign.
Vladimir Putin is determined to exploit the coronavirus crisis in order to weaken a little bit more a European Union that he wishes to destroy or bring to heel. The Kremlin has launched a vast disinformation campaign about Covid-19 with the aim of undermining European governments. A 9-page report (https://euvsdisinfo.eu/eeas-special-report-disinformation-on-the-coronavirus-short-assessment-of-the-information-environment/), dated the 19th of March and written by the European External Action Service (EEAS), claims that “A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing”. The aim is to “aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries”, according to the document.
“The coronavirus will result in the end of the EU”, “Covid-19 is a biological weapon created by the USA”, “The coronavirus was created in order to weaken the Chinese economy” are a few examples out of the 152 fake news headlines that were detected by the EEAS since the beginning of 2020. This diplomatic service of the European Union oversees the countering of disinformation on the internet. The report is pointing its finger at Russia.
The first fake news that was recorded by the EEAS appeared on the 22nd of January on the information website “Sputnik News”, a media network financed by the Russian state. An article on the website suggests that the virus was created by NATO with the aim of installing an American hegemony over the world.
In its report, the EEAS also pinned an article published on the Lithuanian branch of the Russian media outlet “Sputnik”. The publication affirms that the European governments use Covid-19 as a sanitary weapon in order to reduce the economic weight of pensioners in Italy, put an end to the Yellow Vest movement in France and also in order to stop Europe accepting refugees.
The chief of the European diplomatic service, Josep Borrell, recalled on Tuesday the 24th of March that in such a crisis: “Disinforming is playing with people’s lives. Disinformation can kill.”
On the Russian side, Moscow qualifies these accusations as “free”. The Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Maria Zakharova, denounced “an immoral attempt to mask one’s problems in the fight against the novel infection with the help of unfounded allegations” referring here to the EU and its fight against the pandemic in Europe.
It was in 2015 that the European Council recognized for the first time the threat that the disinformation campaigns represent on the internet. Four years later, the European Union increased its efforts by doubling the budget in order to fight fake news. This budget represents 5 million euros today.
According to the document of nine pages, this campaign spreads false information in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.
“The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies,” said the authors of the document produced by the EU’s foreign policy arm.
These false claims were listed on the website EuvsDisinfo.eu, a site that is maintained by European diplomats. More than a hundred cases to this day are listed there. Many of the ideas that are conveyed are conspiracies: The SARS-CoV-2 is supposedly a biological weapon created by the Brits or the Americans, the pandemic was exported to Lithuania by an American soldier, the pharmaceutical industry exaggerates the crisis in order to increase its drugs sales, Italy exaggerates the crisis to get subsidies from the EU, etc.
The aim of the rest of the messages, more or less contradictory, is simply and only to generate fear. It’s supposedly the end of the world, Pope Francis would be ill and on the verge of dying, the European Union would be incapable of managing the crisis, the political institutions would be on the verge of collapsing, the political leaders would be taking advantage of the virus in order to create a dictatorship, etc.
It has become a daily information. At every social movement, election or crisis, Putin’s Russia tries to surf over events in order to exacerbate tensions thanks to disinformation campaigns. It is therefore not surprising that the coronavirus pandemic was not an exception.
The European Union is not the only one to worry about Russian shenanigans. A top State Department official of the United States of America says that “swarms of online, false personas on social networks” spread false claims related to the Covid-19.
All the articles and subjects are in link with Russia’s strategy- to provoke tensions, involving her in a dangerous game as well.
The Unites States describe the phenomena as “an ecosystem of Russian disinformation”.
The two powers from both sides of the Atlantic agree on one point: these fake news suggest that the USA are responsible in one way or another for the origin of the virus – which is false.
Health being a sensitive topic, to which internet users react viscerally, the pandemic of the Covid-19 represents a golden opportunity to spread false claims. In May 2019, the American branch of the Russian State media “Russia Today” tried to link 5G antennas to a whole range of severe diseases. At the same time, Vladimir Putin was developing his own of 5G plan for Russia.