EU accuses Russia of looking to destabilise west with coronavirus disinformation campaign

Leaked report alleges 80 examples of deliberately misleading coverage by Kremlin-funded media

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 18 March 2020 14:47 GMT
The Kremlin ‘has looked to stoke confusion, panic and fear’ in the wake of the pandemic
The Kremlin ‘has looked to stoke confusion, panic and fear’ in the wake of the pandemic

Analysis by the European Union’s diplomatic service claims to have uncovered a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at aggravating the coronavirus crisis in the west.

Fragments of a new EU report, leaked to the Financial Times and Reuters, allege Kremlin-funded media have looked to stoke “confusion, panic and fear” in the wake of the pandemic. Dated 16 March, the document says “confusing and malicious” coverage has made it harder for the EU to coordinate its response.

The report says it has tracked almost 80 cases of Covid-19 disinformation since 22 January. An overarching goal of the Russians, it says, is to deploy “multiple, often contradictory” narratives to “subvert European societies from within.”

The European analysis suggests Kremlin-funded media like RT have consciously pushed “apocalyptic stories” that look to “blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasise how well Putin is dealing with the outbreak.” It quotes “fake news” created by Russia in Italy, the western epicentre of the crisis, which reported health systems elsewhere would be unable to cope – and people left to die.

The Kremlin has angrily rejected any suggestion that it stands behind such a strategy. Speaking with reporters on his daily conference call, spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the allegations as “groundless” and “beyond common sense.”

“They haven’t come up with one piece of evidence, one example of what they are talking about,” he said. “Given the current circumstances, you’d expect the west’s Russophobic obsessions to be on the decrease, but clearly that isn’t happening.”

The Independent has sent a request for comment to the EU, but had not received a reply at the time of publication.

Historically, Kremlin-funded media have proposed a range of propaganda narratives on coronavirus.

Especially early on, some promoted the idea of the virus being a biological weapon sent by the west. Most of them echoed President Putin’s line that the west has looked to “spread panic among the Russian population”, with allegations that Russia may be camouflaging its figures. All have praised Mr Putin’s “steady” handling of the crisis.

Accusations of the Kremlin using arms-length media and social-media agents to destabilise the west are not new. In many respects, there is a clear evidential base for them – most especially in relation to the six year conflict in Ukraine. Predictably, growing tensions between Russia and the west have seen a whole industry develop around the idea of disinformation.

But for all the new practitioners, it’s less clear how effective the Kremlin’s alleged campaign has been. Or indeed, in the case of coronavirus, whether Moscow could or would devote significant central resource to such efforts. The Kremlin, after all, currently finds itself sandwiched in several layers of economic, political and public health crises.

Alexei Kovalev, an investigative reporter specialising in Kremlin media strategy, told The Independent he was sceptical about the claims made in the cited report. The EU analysis is obsessed with “information war”, he said, and as a result misunderstands the agency of who is doing what: “You’ve got one nutcase on RT – because where else could he go? – saying one stupid thing. And you have another saying, ‘no it’s the opposite, but thanks for having me on this show because no one else would take me’. The result is ‘oh my god, the Kremlin is sowing discord’.”

“Trust me, the Kremlin has other stuff to worry about,” Mr Kovalev added.

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