Anton Shekhovtsov:
Operation COVID?

Amid the unabated tensions between democratic and authoritarian global and regional powers, the Covid-19 pandemic provides a fertile soil for disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories.

In June 1981, the first cases of AIDS were reported in the US. At that time, the US public health authorities referred to the disease as “the 4H disease”, implying that it affected exclusively Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals. It was only in 1982, after the realisation that the disease was not isolated to these four groups, that the health authorities introduced the term AIDS. The disease became “the first postmodern pandemic”, as one scientist put it.

The international background of the AIDS pandemic was characterised by the renewed political warfare between the Soviet Union and the West. The Soviets faced several deep crises at once: they were stuck in Afghanistan, the Solidarity movement in Poland increasingly challenged the Soviet-backed socialist regime, and the Soviet authorities gradually recognised that they were failing to match Western technological advances. US President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire”, and the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was convinced that the US was preparing to launch a nuclear strike against his country. However, as the Soviets were economically too weak to challenge the US in technological and military spheres, they became especially active in the field of political warfare by trying to discredit the US internationally.

The AIDS pandemic, with the growing panic and scapegoating surrounding it, presented a window of opportunity for the Soviets’ political war against the US. In the summer of 1983, KGB agents planted an article about AIDS in an obscure Indian English-language newspaper. The article was allegedly written by an American scientist who argued that AIDS was a result of the Pentagon’s experiments aimed at creating new biological weapons. However, the KGB operation did not gain any traction at that time: AIDS was not a serious issue in India then and the Soviet press failed to follow up with amplifying the disinformation campaign. In 1985, the KGB re-started the campaign – that time with the help of East German intelligence services that called it “Operation Infektion” – and the operation started producing the desired effect. As the campaign began showing signs of success, the Soviet propaganda machine went into overdrive and promoted the AIDS story using all the technological means available. By late 1987, the story had appeared in the media in 80 countries, even in the established media providers, such as the Daily Telegraph. The KGB’s AIDS operation officially ended in 1988 – because of the improvement in Soviet-American relations – but it left a lasting effect on the entire world as the false story about AIDS continued a viral life of its own.

Today, amid the unabated tensions between democratic and authoritarian global and regional powers, the Covid-19 pandemic provides a fertile soil for disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories. It is hardly surprising that Russia is one of the powers that are trying to use the pandemic to advance its political objectives, in particular, by subverting Transatlantic relations, undermining trust in the EU and between European governments, and retaining former Soviet states under the Russian sphere of influence.

One of the major stories spread by the Russian media predictably follows the KGB disinformation line with regard to AIDS and concerns the origin of Covid-19: the virus was created by either the US, NATO or some unnamed global elites. Russian state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media, as well as other structures, also attack particular European countries. For example, a Latvian edition of the Russian state-funded website suggested that Covid-19 could have been created in Latvia in order to limit people’s freedom and to justify an economic recession, while the Ukrainian security services dismantled a Russian-controlled network involved in promoting the idea of an overthrow of the Ukrainian government because of its allegedly inadequate response to the pandemic.

However, it is possible to identify two major problems with Western reporting on Russian disinformation and propaganda related to the Covid pandemic.

First, many Western reports fail to distinguish between Russian stories aimed at Western audiences and those produced for domestic consumption. The difference may seem insignificant, but the failure to distinguish between different audiences leads us to a number of erroneous conclusions. For example, since many disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories pushed by the Russian media actually contradict each other, we may misguidedly assume that the Kremlin simply wants to undermine the West by creating an information chaos where no particular narrative on the pandemic can be trusted. In fact, even the media with a clearly pro-Kremlin editorial agenda may have different views regarding the reporting on the pandemic and neither receive any guidelines from the Kremlin nor consult with each other for consistency between their approaches. Furthermore, even if a Russian Covid-related false report focuses on a Western country, it is not necessarily a disinformation attack against that particular Western country, as it may be a story created exclusively for the domestic audience in Russia with the aim of undermining the democratic aspirations of Russian society by showing Western democratic nations in a bad light.

Second, Western reporting on Russian Covid-related disinformation and propaganda often neglects to mention the origins of the false stories. This problem has two aspects. On the one hand, Covid-related disinformation stories identified as originating in the Russian media are sometimes simply Russian translations of stories published somewhere else. On the other hand, some narratives – especially those based on religious fundamentalism and linking the pandemic to homosexuality – have multiple sources, but some Western reports attribute those narratives only to Russia. This creates an erroneous impression of Russia being an omnipotent overlord of propaganda and disinformation and indirectly relieves other authoritarian regimes (for example, China, Iran, Azerbaijan, etc.) and illiberal actors (right-wing and left-wing radicals) inside the West itself of responsibility in spreading dangerous falsehoods about the pandemic.

Unlike the KGB’s AIDS campaign, Russian Covid-related operations have not always been a success. Against the backdrop of internal European criticism of the lack of solidarity among EU member states, Russia sent medical supplies and experts to help Italy in its dramatic struggle against the pandemic. This development was widely covered in Russian and several European media sources and seemed to be a publicity coup for the Kremlin at home and abroad. However, after an Italian newspaper reported that 80% of Russia’s aid to Italy was useless, Russian diplomats and its Defence Ministry attacked the Italian media, causing a public backlash and effectively turning the publicity coup into a soft-power failure.

At the same time, the delivery of a batch of ventilators from Russia to the US, which was presented as a gesture of Russia’s goodwill, was more successful as an act of political warfare. Shortly after the delivery, the Russian media reported that the Russian ventilators purchased by the US had been manufactured by a Russian company that was under the US sanctions. As Moscow believes that the sanctions imposed on Putin’s Russia by Western capitals for the aggression against Ukraine are illegitimate, the Kremlin’s operation in the US has derided and ridiculed Washington for not following its own rules.

April 23, 2020.

Anton Shekhovtsov is  External Lecturer at the University of Vienna and Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. From January 2016 to July 2018 he was Visiting Fellow of IWM’s Ukraine in European Dialogue program.

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