Russia’s COVID-19 propaganda has not been subtle heralding the decline and fall of Europe and presenting Russia as the true champion of Western health and safety. But even the best-laid plans for turning a global pandemic into an opportunity for “active measures” haven’t always succeeded, mainly because of the Kremlin's operatic overreaction to exposure and criticism of its influence operations, turning even its well-wishers against it.
Russian falsehoods on COVID-19 have taken a number of forms on the continent. In several cases, Moscow has simply outsourced its disinformation to German neo-Nazis, ever happy on both ideological and electoral grounds to whip up racist or xenophobic sentiment in a country host to over a million refugees. The Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, formerly the official organ of the youth division of the Soviet Communist Party, has repeatedly commissioned and published Eugen Schmidt, an activist with the far-right AfD party, to portray stateless migrants as major quarantine violators even though there is no evidence that this is so.
The Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab analyzed several cases of Russian disinformation, all tied to the portrayal of a Europe divided and lost and Russia as its maligned but willing savior.
In late April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged that “the Big Brothers,” an unnamed collection of NATO countries, were preventing European states from seeking Russian assistance and aid to contain the virus within their borders. Lavrov provided no evidence for this assertion but it was nonetheless picked up uncritically by various state media outlets including TASS, RIA Novosti and RT. The same or similar outlets also ran with a fake news story that Spain had asked NATO for help but was rebuffed. (In fact, Madrid withdrew its request.)
As DFR Lab noted, Moscow has wanted to demonstrate to Serbia, an aspiring EU member, that its fortunes lie eastward, not westward. And it has had plenty of help in this respect from the Serbian leadership.
The Kremlin’s biggest and most well-conceived propaganda coup, however, was aimed at Italy when that country was at the height of its suffering.
Between March 23 and 25, 15 Russian planes arrived at the Pratica di Mare military airbase, just southwest of Rome, and offloaded equipment, vehicles, doctors and 122 officers of Russia’s Radiological Chemical and Biological Weapons Defense (RChBD) unit. All had come at the invitation of the Italian government, offering their expert assistance containing coronavirus in the European country—an EU and NATO member—that was hardest hit.
As my colleague Anton Shekhovtsov observed in a lengthy examination of this much-touted “humanitarian” mission, landing at Pratica di Mare was a curious logistical choice since it lies 372 miles south of Bergamo, the epicenter of the outbreak in devastated Lombardy. Indeed, Bergamo’s fully functional Orio al Serio (or Milan-Bergamo) airport was to become the HQ of this joint Russian-Italian virus containment effort and it would have saved time to fly there directly. But a traveling roadshow was precisely the point.
Twenty-two Russian vehicles plus buses transporting military specialists made the six-and-a-half-hour journey across the country following an intense public relations campaign. The convoy was adorned with banners bearing the slogan “From Russia with Love,” alluding to the famous James Bond film from 1963, which were written in Russian, Italian and English.
Reporters with Zvevda, the Russian Defense Ministry’s television station, were embedded along the way, and the ministry itself later produced a photograph of Russian General Sergey Kikot, the deputy commander of RChBD and the head of the operation, in conference with Italian counterparts, studying a map of Italy.
Prior to this, Kikot had been an outspoken proponent of the conspiracy theory that Bashar al-Assad’s regime did not use chemical weapons in the Syrian city of Douma in 2018—for which the U.S. and UK launched retaliatory airstrikes on the regime—and that the entire attack was staged by the White Helmets, a team of Western-funded rescue workers. Kikot’s arrival on NATO territory therefore wasn’t lost on Brussels or Washington.
Other photos circulated showing RChBD officers in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant on Bergamo streets and vehicles and storefronts and ordinary Italians thanking Russia and Vladimir Putin personally. In one video posted to social media, Frederico Canet, an Italian man, tore down an EU flag and replaced it with the Russian tricolor, commenting, “We think this way: we learn who our friends are in [times of] trouble. Thanks to President Putin, thanks to Russia.” The video was shared by 20,000 people and made news in Russia and Italy.
The goodwill might have grown more fulsome still and lasted even longer but for Russia’s self-destructive response to a critical piece of reporting on the operation.
The Italian journalist Jacopo Iacoboni at La Stampa published an investigation, citing unnamed Italian officials, that 80 percent of Russian aid was either useless or superfluous and that Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was indulging a Kremlin geopolitical power play out of sheer desperation. Rather than simply ignore the article, both Russia’s defense and foreign ministries responded to it in characteristic fashion.
Igor Konashenkov, the Defense Ministry spokesman, trotted out the usual shopworn accusations and buzzwords—“Russophobia,” “Cold War” psy-ops, “anti-Soviet” propaganda—before seeming to threaten La Stampa and Iacoboni personally with the Latin expression, “He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it.”
Moscow’s fulminations prompted immediate backlash from Rome and Italian civil society, with even Bergamo’s mayor declaring his solidarity with Iacoboni and reaffirming Italy’s freedom of the press. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, intimated that the original investigation was some kind of British commercial plot. Her reasoning? A fringe Russian website had falsely claimed that La Stampa was owned by the Chrysler corporation, whose CEO is British.
In the face of such hysterical defensiveness, more Western sources came forward to substantiate the thrust of Iacoboni’s reporting, including former and current Italian officials who suggested “From Russia with Love” was little more than an active measure with an espionage component built right into it—not exactly a guarded secret given the heavy-handed 007 reference bestowed upon the endeavor.
The convoy’s long drive to Bergamo, after all, offered ample opportunity for Russian surveillance and reconnaissance, using both human and signals intelligence. Furthermore, Italy hardly needed external assistance with chemical and biological defense, its own capability being second to none in NATO and far superior to Russia’s. Disinfecting Bergamo’s public spaces would have been easy enough to handle domestically, and many Italian epidemiologists and virologists questioned the efficacy of such measures.
Coda Story, a Tbilisi-based news organization devoted to tracking disinformation globally, partnered with Iacoboni and La Stampa for a follow-up investigation. Together the outlets cited “two sources inside the Italian military” who substantiated the original allegation that Russia’s aid was largely “superfluous.” They also quoted Andrea Armaro, the former Italian defense minister, who said: “If NBC [nuclear, biological and chemical] assets were needed in Bergamo, why were they not used already a month ago? And then, why not use the Italian ones? Our army has perhaps the best NBC troops in NATO.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, told Coda Story and La Stampa that Russia’s RChBD unit is also connected to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, which won’t have passed up the opportunity to spy on a NATO member’s home turf, particularly when it was invited in to do so.
“Undoubtedly, there are GRU operatives on the ground in Italy right now,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “Any intelligence service would take advantage of this situation, and especially the Russians. They will want to be finding out as much as possible about the Italian forces. They will be setting up intelligence networks, there will be an enormous amount of activity going on right now.”
“Russia has a long history of sending help—men and equipment—to countries suffering from natural disasters,” Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based journalist and author specializing in the Russian security services, told me. “These operations used to be carried out by the Ministry of Emergency Situations.”
As Soldatov pointed out, that ministry offered to send a plane filled with relief workers to New York City after the 9/11 attacks, although the Americans declined, citing their own capacity for performing triage for downtown Manhattan. The ministry did, however, manage to send two planes filled with 50,000 blankets to New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“Guess who headed Emergency Situations on both occasions?” Soldatov said. “Sergei Shoigu, the current defense minister who of course now oversees the RChBD unit.”
In April of this year, Shoigu pulled off his best trick to date—and against his main adversary. Russia’s Defense Ministry sent a large An-124 military transport plane filled with boxes of masks and ventilators to New York’s Kennedy International Airport and all for American use. While it is unclear who paid for what (Russia says it paid for half and donated the rest, while the U.S. claims it purchased everything), the consignment prompted heartfelt thanks from the Trump administration and anger from ordinary Russians and dissidents.
Aleksei Navalny, the leader of the anti-Putin opposition, tweeted that doctors in his own country were working without such badly needed personal protection equipment and contracting the virus as a result. The best part, however, was that these particular ventilators were manufactured by a company controlled by Rostec, a U.S.-sanctioned Russian conglomerate. So Washington not only licensed another propaganda victory for the Kremlin but also formally violated its own sanctions on Russia to do so.
This column is adapted from an address Michael Weiss gave earlier this month to the Macdonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada.