By Sergey Sukhankin, Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, Advisor at the Gulf State Analytics (both – Washington DC) and Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv)
Sukhankin S. COVID-19 As a Tool of Information Confrontation: Russia’s Approach. The School of Public Policy Publications. 2020 Apr 3:13
As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-19, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. Propaganda is, of course, nothing new for Russia; such practices have a long history dating back to the Soviet era.
What’s different now, though, is that with the internet and social media, Russia has many more ways to propagate fake news and conspiracy theories, and to reach susceptible audiences both inside and outside the country. Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to disseminate its lies and distortions.
The European Union’s External Action Service reports almost 80 incidents of disinformation since the end of January. However, Russia has a more insidious goal than merely disseminating propaganda for the sake of it. President Vladimir Putin, who has labelled the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, is determined to show the international community that Russia is no longer the weak creature it was post-Soviet collapse.
Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West. Russia seeks to seriously damage the solidarity among EU members and capitalize on any internal European weaknesses to promote broader conflicts. COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.
The purposes behind all these machinations are plain. Moscow wants revenge on the West for the economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its incursions into Crimea and Ukraine. Moscow also views the virus as a fortuitous harbinger of the end of the post- Cold War liberal world order. The new leaders to emerge from this liberal collapse, according to this view, will be Russia and China. Indeed, Russia is seeking to strengthen its ties with China, as well as with Iran, and the danger is that other rogue states could join this new configuration.
The U.S. State Department has already taken some action against the onslaught of disinformation originating with the Russians, and Canada needs to follow its example. However, the average citizen has a role to play too, by refusing to buy into information that comes from such spurious sources as Russia Today or Sputnik. Canadians’ key source of information about COVID-19 should be federal and provincial governments and Canadian authorities. People should cast a very jaundiced eye at tweets, Facebook postings and other information they find on dubious social media sites.