Kremlin’s concern is reflected in publications by those Russian media outlets which are an integral part of the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation machine. This means that the decision to increase pressure on the “brotherly state” was made not in the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation, but higher – in the circle of Putin.
This is what iSANS has found while monitoring the Kremlin-connected Russian media and Telegram channels targeting Belarus specifically in connection with the COVID 19. Our previous monitoring Propaganda in the Time of Plague: In Between Reptilians and the Lifting of Sanctions looked at the ways the Kremlin has weaponised COVID for propaganda purposes in its information war against the West.
Another coercive operation
There should be a disclaimer here. We believe that the situation with COVID-19 in Belarus requires serious and immediate measures in accordance with WHO recommendations.
However, in this article we describe yet another Russian influence information operation using the issue of coronavirus. As in any hybrid operation of influence, political technologists use real problems to aggravate the situation, manipulate the audience’s perception and potentially destabilize the situation.
Our monitoring reveals a classic example of such an operation. Any mistake on the part of the Belarusian authorities in the field of crisis information management, not to mention their actions to resolve the crisis itself, would be used by the adversaries from the East to deepen the crisis and create chaos.
In a situation where the trust of the audience in official sources is low, such operations are especially effective. Recall that Belarusian media still lose to Russian for a number of reasons. In the situation of mistrust and censorship in Belarus, Russian media are often perceived as a source of alternative (and truthful) information, thereby attracting an audience.
We don’t know if it was just a coincidence that the aggravation of the situation with COVID-19 in Belarus and the related attack of the Kremlin’s information troops occurred around the time of the Belarus-Russia Unity Day, or some kind of information operation was already in the pipe, and the COVID crisis was a sheer luck. In any case, the COVID-19 crisis turned up ‘timely’, and the first salvo of the coronavirus war was given by Kommersant on 1 April, just on the eve of the Unity Day.
Request for help
“Alexander Lukashenko is disputing with the virus, but he asks Russia for help, just in case. The ostentatious bravado of the Belarusian authorities in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic does not prevent Minsk from asking Moscow for assistance in fighting the infection,” the newspaper wrote. It hinted that people from the government circles had leaked the newspaper a secret information that Belarus had asked Russia for help in the fight against COVID-19, including test systems and medical equipment.
For those who are not aware of Russian realities, this wording means that these very government circles themselves “leaked” the information and actually issued a direct instruction to present the news the “request for help” under a particular angle.
Kommersant is a serious heavyweight in the Russian media field, and it is used as a large-calibre gun, if necessary, to convey a serious message both inside and outside of Russia. According to our sources, the current head of Kommersant, Vladimir Zhelonkin, has long-standing and strong ties with various Kremlin “towers” and fulfils their “collective” wishes if necessary. At the same time, Kommersant still maintains a high level of quality in non-ordered materials.
Kremlin pool of the media
On the first day, this “leak” was circulated by the entire pool of the media involved in Kremlin propaganda schemes, including information pressure operations in Belarus. These include Prigozhin’s media holding, the “patriotic” media related to Malofeev, MIA Segodnya media projects (headed by Dmitry Kiselev the “radioactive ashes”),), the National Media Group (owned by the Kovalchuks, oligarchs from Putin’s pool), the media of Alexander Mamut, an oligarch close to the Kremlin (Rambler and Co.), projects related directly or through proxies to the Presidential Administration, and projects related to the State Duma Speaker Volodin.
The headings and texts varied in their degree of sarcasm, for instance:
“Vodka did not help. Belarus asks for help from Russia in connection with the coronavirus ” (Ukraina.ru, a MIA Segodnya project)
“Without Bravado. Belarusian authorities asked for help from Russia” (Southern News Service)
“Refusing quarantine Belarus asks for help from Russia” (FederalPress)
“Belarus after the first death from coronavirus asked for help from the Russian Federation” (SM News).
All these texts, even with neutral headlines, referred to a critical situation, inappropriate bravado, “insufficient and inadequate measures”.
On the same day, representatives of Russian media reached out to Belarusian experts and media activists in search of testimonies on the situation in Belarus; they were especially interested in Minsk and Vitebsk. Among those interested in such comments was a representative of Lenta.ru (Mamut, Rambler and Co.). This publication has repeatedly “fomented” and “exacerbated” (in their own terms) the situation in Belarus regarding the “nationalism” and the “threat” to the Russian language.
The rest of the week, publications about Belarus went on to refer to Belarus as a blazing hotbed of COVID-19, describe the distress in hospitals, the concealment of the real number of cases, the forcing of doctors to diagnose ARVI (Acute Respiratory Viral Infection) instead of COVID-19, and the inadequate reaction of the Belarusian leadership.
All this was peppered with references to hidden or overt threats of a social explosion and/or problems during the presidential election, due to take place no later than 30 August of this year.
For example, the author of a publication in SV-Press, connected with the left-nationalist wing (Prilepin, Shargunov), stated bluntly: “Old Man Lukashenko knows: Russians are not abandoning their own kin in trouble. Belarus asked Russia to help in the fight against coronavirus, which supposedly does not exist in the country. ”
Gazeta.ru (Mamut, Rambler and Co.), commenting on the interview with Lukashenko, puts the actions of the Belarusian and Russian presidents in relation to COVID in direct contrast, casting doubt on the reliability of the figures on COVID-19 in Belarus, and also directly links the epidemic problem with integration of the two states:
«Ordinary ‘bungling’ (this is a direct quote from Lukashenka blaming Russia for closing borders with Belarus and labelling this as ‘bungling’ and mismanagement): how the coronavirus has divided allies. How the pandemic has affected the integration of Russia and Belarus.”
Against this background, there are reports that there is an apocalypse in Belarus, empty streets and clogged hospitals, but that the leadership does not take the situation seriously. For example, a number of Russian media outlets circulated the message that “President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko despises the ‘hype’ about four deaths of coronavirus patients.” (Izvestia (the Kovalchuks) and Dailystorm.ru (associated with the State Duma Speaker Volodin).
Other Russian media take to their headlines the eccentric advice of the Belarusian leader on the ways to prevent COVID contraction: moderate intake of vodka, going to a sauna, working in the field (specifically operating Belarus-made tractors), eating more butter and looking at the new-born goats. This part of the Russian media hints at the alleged mental condition of the Belarusian leader. This alleged mental condition somehow pops up in the Russian media each and every time there are tensions between Belarus and Russia.
In general, the picture for the reader is this: in Belarus, the authorities are completely inadequate in handling the situation, the victims of COVID-19 are not considered worthy to be taken in account, in Belarus, there is an epidemic catastrophe that may develop into a social explosion, but Russia will definitely come to the rescue, and the help is already on its way.
Actually, the final chord from Kommersant sounded exactly like that: “Only Russia is capable of rescuing Belarus, first of all, because the collapse of our neighbour cannot but affect us. … In the current situation, Lukashenko may not have any other way out then ask the ally for deep integration. … Sovereignty may have to be sacrificed, after all.”
No rosy picture
The fact is that the situation in Russia itself, to put it mildly, is not rosy. According to forecasts cited by Kommersant, if the situation in Russia develops poorly (without quarantine), more than 28,000 people will die in Moscow alone, “an increase in daily mortality of 3-10 times will be noticeable and un-concealable”.
Now imagine what will happen in the regions of Russia, where the situation with medical care is dire. And here is neighbouring Belarus, which threatens to become an uncontrolled source of infection. This constitutes a threat not only to the foreign policy interests of Russia but also to the existence of its ruling regime.
According to our sources, the refusal of the Belarusian authorities to coordinate actions to combat the coronavirus and, in particular, to close borders and impose a quarantine, and Lukashenko’s ‘ostentatious bravado’ infuriated Moscow.
That is why all the so-called “towers” of the Kremlin launched a coordinated offensive onto the leadership of Belarus. Looks like in the case of a bad scenario, the Kremlin may not limit itself to measures of information and political influence.
For example, a well-known figure in the field of “deep integration” Bogdan Bezpalko wrote that “If Lukashenko will indeed ask Russia for help, it is necessary to send exclusively military doctors, as Russia sent to Italy. There should be cars with tricolours (colours of the Russian flag — author) so that it could be clearly seen that the Russians have come to the rescue … The humanitarian mission to help fight the coronavirus should be an occasion to remind Belarus of the role Russia plays in its fate.” He is quoted by the «patriotic» Politnavigator, associated through proxy with the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation.
It looks like the contours of the future plausible «humanitarian mission» are already outlined. It is interesting that Sputnik.by also works along the same lines, albeit much more carefully. Unfortunately, in Belarus, many perceive Sputnik as an alternative to the state sources of information.
Thus, on “Sputnik” there are systematic reports on the successful work of the Russian mission of military doctors in Italy. The Russian Ministry of Defence showed how the Russian military experts are fighting the coronavirus in Italy and how the local population gratefully greets them: “The Italians thank the Russians for helping by cooking borsch for them.”
In other columns and videos broadcast in Belarus by Russian media, there were unrelated to Italy praises to the way the Russian army corpses of Radio, Chemical and Biological Defence successfully handle different kinds of threats, including disease outbreaks.
So, in Crimea there was a cat (as a symbol of trust and greetings by the locals to the Russian “polite green men”), in Italy it is borsch, and Belarusians, apparently, should already be cooking draniks (local specialty, potato pancakes).
What’s in the deep waters
To see what is happening below the surface of registered media, we delved into the muddy waters of Telegram-channels. Telegram has been successfully weaponized by the Kremlin political technologists for the influence operations. Belarus, in this case, is no exception: Telegram channels have been used in Russian coercive operations against this country since 2018.
Until today, there is no comprehensive map of affiliations of the main Telegram channels, used in the Kremlin operations, but we tend to stick to the version of the “Project” investigation.
We started with the ‘Boilernaya’ (the Boiler room) which, according to the Project investigation, is linked to the Kovalchuks (oligarchs of the Kremlin circle). Their official media are also a part of the current information operation against Belarus.
Several postings were of our special interest. One of them hints at a possibility of the ‘humanitarian intervention’. Another directly comments on the first Kommersant article and compares Lukashenko to the eccentric Turkmenistan dictator Berdymukhammedov, who allegedly had forbidden the word ‘coronavirus’. The posting also accuses Lukashenko of negligence, while the “popular unrest is brewing” and Europe has turned its back on him. The Kremlin is the only hope for Lukashenko, despite all his games around oil and gas and his friendship with the “bloody Maidan organizers” and the EU. Lukashenko turned out to be unable to successfully combine personal ambitions and care for the people, channel draws the bottom line.
‘Mediatechnologist’, also allegedly linked to the Administration of the President of Russia, wrote that Minsk had asked Moscow to assist Belarusians stuck in other countries to get home. “Old man, if you are unable to handle these simple tasks, maybe it is time to stop the sovereignty game and become a full-fledged part of Russia”, appeals the channel.
Former liberal journalist, currently an RT employee Anton Krasovsky, writes in his channel that “if Belarus would have been a part of Russia, it might have saved 6 millions of lives”.
Anti-Belarusian operations veteran channel ‘Nezygar’ (linked to another part of the Administration of the President of Russia, according to the ‘Project’) stated that Lukashenko’s negligence and lies are turning Belarus into a COVID hotbed. As the Belarus healthcare system is unable to handle the outbreak, Russia will likely have to interfere with a ‘humanitarian mission to save Belarus’.
Channels allegedly linked to the group close to Igor Sechin (Putin’s friend and operator, head of Rosneft oil company), called ‘Karaulniy’ (the Guard) and ‘Mouse in the Vegetable Store’ have been also actively pushing the idea of “coercion to the COVID treatment”, combining it with the idea of the unity of Russian and Belarusian people. “We would like to live up to the moment when the formula ‘Russian and Belarusian’ peoples would be gone – as there is and has always been one nation in both countries”.
Another channel, alleging its proximity to the military block of the Russian governing group, openly writes on the possible restoration of the USSR: “it would be rather amusing if USSR will get restored not through ‘iron and blood’ but as a result of the global pandemics”.
These messages have been multiplied by the channels serving the “proper” coverage of developments in the post-Soviet region as a whole and the Eastern Partnership countries in particular. ‘Vostochnoe Pritvorstvo’ (The Eastern Hypocricy) gives its own interpretation of Peskov’s (Putin’s spokesperson) comments: “What Peskov really wanted to say was that Putin comes from the position that we will be all living in one country soon and that fighting COVID would be impossible without Lukashenko resigning.”
‘Dezhurny po SNG’ (“Person on Duty over the CIS”) stated that it had first-hand testimonies of the epidemic catastrophe in Vitebsk.
Several other channels of the Kremlin propaganda and disinformation channelling system have promoted the idea of Lukashenko having a mental condition which would allegedly be the cause of his inadequate COVID crisis management approaches.
One of them, ‘Catharsis’, linked COVID to the Chernobyl disaster by association, quoting Lukashenko: “I do not see any viruses floating around, are you able to see them?”. ‘This sounds like 1986 after the Chernobyl: “There is no radiation here, see it for yourself”.
Bogdan Bespalko, the well-known player in the coercion to integration, drew a bottom line. He stated in his Telegram channel that if the Russian way of COVID management would prove efficient, Belarusian sovereignty might be endangered, as Belarusians would prefer to live in the country which has taken better care of its people.
All the above-mentioned narratives are circulated by the Telegram-channels targeting specifically Belarus, be they managed from Russia or from inside Belarus.
Preventing the threat to the ‘vertical of power’ and coercing the neighbour
In short, the Kremlin sees Belarus as a real threat of spreading coronavirus infection into Russia, which is clearly signalled through various channels.
Since the COVID-19 epidemic is a danger not only for the population of Russia but also for the Russian authoritarian vertical of power, this very vertical will protect itself by all available means. In the case of a “bad scenario”, this would include a “humanitarian intervention” into Belarus.
In addition, even against the backdrop of a general epidemiological threat, the group of people managing Russia will by no means abandon its intention to de facto incorporate Belarus into Russia. Any Russian help or benefits for Belarus during the epidemic will be used as a tool to deepen “integration”.
Our monitoring data clearly show that a Russian influence operation is already underway in Belarus, in which the COVID-19 epidemic is used to apply pressure as well as to destabilize the situation.
The monitoring demonstrates that all the mistakes of the Belarusian authorities in the information management and handling the crisis are used and will be used further on to enhance the pressure from Moscow.
This is why the best way to protect Belarus from the Russian information attack would be to correct own mistakes of Belarusian authorities in managing the epidemic crisis. Clearly and fully informing citizens about the situation and the measures taken by the government is crucial. This is the only way to restore the trust of the people.
We want to stress that repressive measures against Belarusians who disseminate information about the real situation with COVID-19 will have the opposite effect: trust in the information and actions of the authorities will fall even lower.
In this case, the Russian media and the Telegram channels will be perceived by the Belarusian public as an alternative source of information, where a very high degree of information manipulation is aimed at creating a situation of chaos and despair. As a result, external interference in the situation would be perceived as a blessing and salvation.
Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by.
Материал доступен на русском языке: Принуждение к самоизоляции — вся кремлевская рать вышла на борьбу с КОВИД-19 в Беларуси