In times of humanitarian disaster, even implacable geopolitical opponents help each other in their efforts to save human lives. However, for Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to become more disastrous than even the economic consequences of World War II. It has also given rise to unprecedented disinformation campaigns. Some of their goals are obvious now, others will become clear in the future.
● Brussels – diplomatic masquerade
● China aims at EU national markets
● What does the Kremlin want? Lift sanctions
● Italy has become a testbed
● Well, what do we do now?
Brussels – diplomatic masquerade
Most of the accusations on misinformation from Brussels and Washington point to Moscow and Beijing. So, what are the reasons for sending medical care to Italy? Are the goals of Russia and China different in Italy, Serbia, and in the Eastern Partnership countries? And what position should Ukraine take, given that it has been the main target for fake information “made in Russia” for a long time? One could assume that Moscow’s and Beijing’s motives have not changed – fragmenting the EU and undermining European integrity together with the idea of a common Europe. Yet, their methods are now markedly different.
The pandemic is already shaping the geopolitical future of Europe. Brussels was too slow to demonstrate the EU’s internal cohesion in the face of a new threat. Eventually, Member states did show pan-European solidarity, but Russia quickly took advantage of the lost momentum. In addition, populist and nationalist movements have intensified in some countries as a result of unprecedented quarantine measures. Hungary, where the situation developed into what was called the “coronavirus coup”, became the first alarming signal for Brussels.
Simultaneously, the Russian information attack on the main EU institutions became a sort of wake-up call for Brussels which had been stymied by internal contradictions. A divided, weakened Europe is a strategic priority for the Kremlin because negotiations with a weak rival are always easier. The ultimate goal of Moscow is to end economic sanctions, followed by access to European markets for Russian businesses.
However, if sanctions are lifted, this means that only the economic issues will be resolved. The political and military situation in Ukraine would freeze, leading to a Transnistrian scenario. Fortunately, the probability of lifting sanctions is minimal now.
Beijing is synchronized with Russian actions in promoting its economic interests in individual EU member states. It is attempting to gain access to new segments of the EU national markets in order to expand trade and return to its past market positions. Beijing’s actions have already been named “mask diplomacy”, in particular when propaganda is conducted under the guise of delivering aid. This way China is trying to restore the image of the country that is increasingly seen in a negative light not simply as the source of the global pandemic, but for systematically hiding its true dimensions.
Russia adopted the mechanisms of “mask diplomacy” a little later, but started applying them energetically in combination with its time-tested information campaigns. Earlier, Moscow had employed humanitarian aid to feed separatism in the post-Soviet space and in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
Additionally, Russia and China are aiming to improve their image among Europeans, using so-called “soft power”: China is sending mountains of face masks, test kits and other kinds of aid to the European countries, framing itself as a hero in the battle against coronavirus. Russia, in turn, puts on a show with deliveries to Italy, hanging tricolors and stickers “From Russia with Love” on military KamAZ trucks. However, European experts warn that completely opposite images are hidden behind these “masks of heroes”.
China aims at EU national markets
Before the pandemic, China’s largest trading partner was the EU. Therefore, it is now vital for Beijing to regain its former presence in the European market in order to revive its own economy, paralyzed by the pandemic.
The first result of China’s medical diplomacy is already visible – Italy has joined the Belt and Road Initiative, which has been a priority for Beijing since 2017. Other EU states, such as Greece as well as candidate and associated countries from the Western Balkans, are drawn by China into the 17+1 initiative focusing on southeast European countries.
China is increasing its presence in the EU markets in various forms. One well-known example is the 5G market where China is actively promoting the interests of its IT companies, particularly Huawei.
Furthermore, Beijing is actively creating trade opportunities for the Chinese medical industry. President Xi Jinping says China’s goal is not only to restore but also to expand its production facilities. Although the quality of Chinese products has been criticized in Spain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, and part of it was sent back as unusable, the share of Chinese supplies in Europe is constantly increasing.
What does the Kremlin want? Lift sanctions
For the Kremlin, having sanctions lifted is a matter of survival. The Russian economy is in crisis because of falling oil prices, and COVID-19 slows down the Russian industry and consumption in international markets. If sanctions were lifted, it would allow Russian companies to freely receive loans and operate in the West without government subsidies. Now, both the Russian economy and the preservation of Vladimir Putin’s regime are under threat.
Russia even attempted to enlist the UN in supporting its claim for having the sanctions lifted However, Ukrainian diplomacy was able to have the initiative on “global solidarity” by the UN General Assembly adopted. It conducted a successful communication campaign, demonstrating Russia’s attempt to use the crisis caused by COVID-19 in order to escape the sanctions regime.
The Ambassador of Ukraine to the UN, Serhii Kislitsa, explained that the lifting of sanctions can only happen if Russia refuses to violate international law, including aggression, occupation, and violation of human rights.
Italy has become a testbed
Russia’s actions in Italy have shown a number of controversial results, triggering a series of scandals. According to La Stampa, the equipment delivered by Russia turned out to be practically useless which subsequently led to accusations of espionage under the guise of Russian foreign aid. The need to supply such equipment is additionally questioned by the fact that Italy, as a NATO member country, has such resources at its disposal, and often of better quality. The personnel and equipment sent by the Kremlin as well as the intelligence activities associated with the presence of the Russian contingent in Italy do not match the stated purpose of helping to fight the coronavirus.
Moscow’s operation in Italy pursues two main objectives. The first is to deflect the attention of the Russian public from the domestic crisis, including the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Russia (on April 11 more than 1667 new cases were registered with a total of 13584 cases). The second goal is to lobby the government in Italy for the removal of economic sanctions, extended until July 31, 2020.
Moscow is trying to achieve both goals amidst an increasingly intense misinformation campaign. However, the workings of this “disinformation machine” have been challenged by the EU. Last week, Peter Stano, Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European External Action Service, stated that the sanctions against Russian companies and individuals are connected with the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. Therefore, these sanctions were applied because of specific actions that undermine sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Ukraine.
Well, what do we do now?
Both Russia and China are exploiting the situation to advance their interests. They are trying to improve their medical diplomacy and complement it with information manipulations and outright fakes. However, China’s goal of obtaining trade preferences is fundamentally different from the Kremlin’s desire to lift Western sanctions.
Notably, China has great(er) prospects for extracting economic benefits from the crisis caused by COVID-19 compared to Russia. However, both countries share a common desire: to take advantage of the existing internal disputes in the EU. And if this strategy works out, they will simultaneously create new sources of tension which will help them consolidate the gains further.
We are currently at the epicenter of a crisis that is changing the geopolitical map. Old and familiar images, enclaves and alliances are collapsing in the traditional, though not legal, sense of the term. And now we are witnessing the biggest crisis since the founding of the EU.
What should Europe do? The European countries, in particular EU Member states, are called upon to unite their efforts. To prove that the propaganda which portrays the EU’s weaknesses in the least favorable light, is wrong and to call things by their proper name. Also, to maintain unity and democratic institutions. After all, each subsequent mistake will be given exaggerated publicity, and any victory, except the biggest ones, will be ignored. Therefore, any further defeat is like to bring serious negative consequences for the EU, with only the most ambitious achievements being notable. Hence, there is no time for little things.
Ukraine is a bystander in most of these geopolitical games. But our bleeding country needs to continue to defend its interests using all available means and communication channels. Russia must not be able to hide its threat under the guise of fighting COVID-19. No one will demand more for the time being.