Persistent internet rumours claiming the coronavirus outbreak originated from a secret American pharmaceutical company with the aim of destroying China from within were quickly discredited. Pop culture fans recognised the supposed activities of the Umbrella Corporation as being from the famous Japanese video games series Resident Evil.
However, although fake news, it can likely be attributed to Russian trolls conducting this and other similar activities online, especially when considered within the wider context of how the Russian regime is using this worldwide crisis to further destabilize the West and test its resolve.
Russian trolls never sleep
Russia’s COVID-19 related actions first and foremost take the form of a vast information warfare campaign, with media outlets simultaneously downplaying the threat of the pandemic - ‘it is less dangerous than seasonal flu’ - while stoking fear about what is happening elsewhere in Europe.
For the domestic audience in Russia, some media are reporting the pandemic marks the collapse of the Western world and liberalism altogether, calling it a form of collective punishment. Other point out how fast liberal democracies have curbed individual and entrepreneurial freedoms in order to slow down the viral outbreak, and seek to diminish the credibility of the Western response to the crisis.
Exploiting the coronavirus crisis in this way is a new low in Russia’s wider political warfare campaign to undermine global governance overall, as these activities are detrimental to people’s very safety. For example, in Ukraine, it is thought a Russian-engineered disinformation operation may have caused the outburst of violence in the city of Novi Sanzhary following the arrival of evacuees from China.
In the military realm, fake news has been targeting the US-led multinational exercise DEFENDER-Europe 2020. The Russian leadership criticized the exercise as an offensive ‘anti-Russian scenario’ but then used accompanying propaganda that it could actively facilitate the spread of COVID-19 across Europe because of the arrival and movement of large numbers of troops.
The large-scale drills were planned to involve 18 participating nations and should have taken place across ten European countries from April to May 2020. But the exercise has now been scaled down – as has the Russian disinformation targeting it.
And while the world is pre-occupied with managing COVID-19, Moscow is able to grow bolder in its provocations. Recent air incursions were reported into Irish controlled airspace as well as over the North Sea. Although this practice is - unfortunately - routine as part of Russian constant military sabre-rattling, it does increase the risk of tactical errors and miscalculation.
Self-isolation, Kremlin style
Meanwhile, just when a global response is needed to fight the pandemic, Moscow’s response has been, at best, self-serving. On March 22, Russian military reportedly started sending medical equipment and supplies to Italy. While the nature and the scope of this assistance can be doubted, it still represents a charm offensive for Russia to be brought back in from the cold in Europe - since successive Italian leaderships have been accommodating to the Kremlin. And sending virologists to Italy might also be a useful learning curve for Russia’s regime.
But within Russia itself, Vladimir Putin does have to face the problem that, on top of all the projected social and healthcare costs, the coronavirus is also having negative political consequences. On March 25, the ‘popular vote’ - a mock referendum designed to rubber-stamp Putin’s recent constitutional changes - was pushed back. And the Ministry of Communications has been forced to postpone a major exercise aimed at ensuring the ‘stable and safe operation of Runet’ - namely eliminating vulnerabilities in the Russian ‘sovereign’ internet to potential external threats.
Certainly it would be naive to believe Moscow will put self-interest to one side during this pandemic. ‘International distancing’ is not new for the Kremlin, and Russia has been practising self-isolation since at least 2008 through its own actions, most notably in Georgia and Ukraine.
Its self-perception as a ‘besieged fortress’ is being reinforced by this crisis and Russia will, at the very least, likely come out of the crisis feeling vindicated in its view that internationalism is dying or already dead.
With the health systems of many countries under massive strain, and societal resilience being tested by social distancing, the Kremlin continues to probe for weaknesses, and is also carefully watching other countries’ responses to the crisis in terms of adaptation and mobilization of resources.
COVID-19 provides a major intelligence-gathering opportunity for Moscow to learn how well others can implement wartime-like planning in peacetime. In a rapidly changing world, Russia is still Russia.