Moscow coronavirus offensive – POLITICO


Scenes from the convoy of 22 military trucks, rolling through Italy as an occupying power, constituted a propaganda coup for Moscow, which used the footage to hammer home the idea that NATO and the Union Europeans abandoned Italy in its hour of need. “A Russian convoy has traveled on NATO roads,” sang the state-controlled TV channel Rossiya 1.

Video of an Italian man who removed an EU flag and replaced it with a Russian tricolor and a sign saying “Thank you Putin” has been shown frequently on Russian television – regardless of whether Italian media reported later that people had received payments of € 200 to film gratitude messages.

Outside of Italy, Russia has also sent aid to hard-hit countries in its sphere of influence, such as Serbia and Belarus, and has sold much-needed medical supplies to the United States, praised by the president Donald Trump.

The tactic is familiar and part of a larger effort to undermine confidence in the Western liberal order. But public relations movements also serve another, perhaps more important, purpose: at home, the tactic diverts attention from an explosion of cases within the borders of Russia and stimulates the internal perception of the political honor of President Vladimir Putin on the international stage.

By sending aid to another country, Russia is seeking to redraw world hierarchies, said Raffaele Marchetti, professor of international relations at the Luiss University in Rome.

“In terms of soft power, sending help creates a hierarchy. The country that accepts the aid shows that it is weaker and cannot cope. “

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There are conflicting stories how the humanitarian mission in Moscow went. The 5Star movement, one of the partners in the ruling coalition in Italy, maintains a friendly position towards Russia, which it considers aligned with its own anti-establishment position and the rejection of the powerful interests represented by the EU and United States. The party tried to take credit for the influx of Russian aid, citing a long friendship.

Oddly enough, the far-right Alternative for Germany party also claimed to have played a role in negotiating the deal, saying it had been approached by pro-Kremlin right-wing MP Paolo Grimoldi.

Friendship with the Kremlin is a sensitive issue in Italy, where the far-right League party led by Matteo Salvini is currently under investigation for allegedly accepting Russian funding for the party.

The Left Radical Party warned that Italy “was in danger of being exploited by authoritarian regimes and said aid could be more of a” Trojan horse than a gift horse “. A petition on demanding to know how the deal was negotiated drew 15,000 signatures earlier this month.

Europe is also paying attention.

NATO is “very, very focused on these transactions,” General Tod Wolters, NATO commander in Europe, told reporters recently.

“I pay special attention to the malicious influence of Russia. This is a concern … We remain very, very vigilant at NATO regarding these transactions, and we continue to monitor at the highest level. “

The real value of Russian aid is questionable. The Italian army has its own highly competent decontamination capabilities. Russia has donated only 300,000 masks, compared to 2 million each from France and Germany, and the Bergamo field hospital where Russian medical teams work is 80% empty.

Russia is losing almost nothing, said a retired European diplomat serving at NATO. “The victims of the Russian crown, who will consequently be deprived of treatment, will never know why, and this plays in the understandable Italian sense that they do not see much solidarity from their European allies or the United States”

Italian media reports, citing military sources, suggested that the real purpose of the mission was intelligence gathering, but the only information that Russia has likely been able to extract is medical information on best practices, according to Marchetti, the professor at the University of Luiss.

“This is an opportunity to train doctors on the epidemic in Russia,” he said. The likelihood of Russian personnel obtaining military intelligence is low, “but they have other channels for it.”

Others have suggested that Putin targeted Italy because the country is seen as the weakest link in easing sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. But Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made it clear that this was not part of the aid deal.

“Russia is likely to gain little from its long-term goodwill gesture,” said the retired diplomat. “There may be Italians who are caught, but a small gesture like this does not weigh much against all the evidence of the nature of Russia under Putin. It is far too early to worry about an Italian swerve in the east. “

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Beyond military convoys, the Kremlin has also turned to the proven tactics of spreading confusion online. The result, with Kremlin-funded websites spreading disinformation about the virus, has served to weaken public confidence in Western governments and make their response to the virus less effective.

The EU and the US State Department, if not the White House, have both opposed online campaigns, which “recklessly endanger global health,” said Lea Gabrielle, special envoy to the Global Engagement Center at US Department of State because they entice individuals to act in a way that contradicts the good advice they receive from governments and health agencies.

Europeans have also warned of the danger of online Russian campaigns linked to the virus. “Misinformation is playing with people’s lives. Misinformation can kill, “said EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, said at a press conference last month.

According to the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy branch, there were over 100 cases of pro-Kremlin misinformation about the coronavirus between January and March. In a new report, released on Tuesday, its Stratcom division said that “official Russian sources and state-controlled media and social media have led a coordinated campaign” promoting false health information ” [a] direct impact on public health and safety. ”

State-controlled media Russia Today and Sputnik reported that handwashing was not effective against the coronavirus. Some state-funded sites have also promoted bogus treatments like saline, vitamin C, and zinc. A Russian news agency falsely reported that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on a fan. Coronavirus misinformation has already led to riots in Ukraine and arson on 5G towers in the UK.

Russia’s foreign spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Russia was “disoriented” by accusations that it was misleading the public, saying in a recent virtual press conference that Western countries ” cynically use the coronavirus to attack Russia. “

But while the State Department and the EU hold the Kremlin responsible for a concerted disinformation campaign, “the reality is more complex,” said Natalia Krapiva, of digital rights monitoring Access Now. “There are state-run channels and websites, but also trolls and ordinary citizens who may have been influenced by disinformation. The ecosystem does not speak with one voice. “

In the long run, these efforts could also backfire, since the same misinformation that generally helps build support for Kremlin policies creates confusion in the country and potentially contributes to the epidemic in Russia.

Majority of Russian disinformation targets national audience, Krapiva says, and in anticipation of a public vote on constitutional changes that would allow Putin to stay in power for two more terms, Russian websites had claimed the virus was a hoax and does not affect Russia.

“The government wanted to make sure the vote was supported by the public and that people were not distracted or scared,” said Krapiva.

Voting has since been postponed due to the increased number of cases in Russia. But the result is that people are very confused, especially at the regional level, about the severity of the health crisis. “Now we are suffering from our own misinformation. They do not trust the government. People think it’s a hoax. ”

The Kremlin belatedly corrected false information and attempted to dispel feelings of chaos and confusion. But as the virus sets in, Russia risks falling victim to its own efforts to mislead, said Krapiva. “It is the Russian people who will suffer the most.”


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