End of March – mid-April overview
Our monitoring of Russian media ecosystem targeting international, Russian speaking, and Russian domestic audiences at the end of March – mid-April was aimed at assessing evolution in Covid-related Russia propaganda narratives compared to the previous period.
We analyzed publications of the following Russian media: state-controlled Sputnik international agencies (International, Mundo, Italy, Latvia, Belarus) and RIA agency (both of them are part of MIA Segodnya), TASS agency, Media Holding Patriot (Yevgeny Prigozhin), media associated with the Administration of the President (directly or through proxies), media associated with oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, media associated with the Russian State Duma actors, and Russia-backed media and Telegram-channels targeting audiences in the states in the former Soviet region.
The monitoring has revealed changes in the Russian media propaganda narratives since the time of our latest report in mid-March and the development of certain new narratives in response to international and domestic developments. While examining changes in the Russian propaganda, one should take into account that since the mid-March situation in Russia regarding Covid-19 epidemic has changed drastically: sky-rocketing numbers of cases of Covid-19, development of local infection hotbeds, health care system barely managing the crisis, brewing social unrests. This, of course, is not reported in the official media.
1. Fighting fake news
We have observed the rise of this narrative in late March – beginning of April. This is obviously a reaction to reports by the US and the EU state agencies and media regarding Russian COVID-19 disinformation, but not only that. It is aimed both at international and domestic audiences. At first, it was a mix of articles on tips on how to discern real fake news and misinformation on COVID, and of publications directly attacking US and EU Russian Disinformation reports as ungrounded and “shifting the blame onto Russia.” In just two weeks, it evolved into reversing the blame and pointing at the West as the alleged source of fake news and conspiracy theories. These are collections of the most outrageous conspiracy theories of the “Western origin” of the virus, targeting both domestic and international readers and taken from the marginal websites in the US and EU. These collections are used to “educate” and also are often linked in manipulative articles, whitewashing China, or confusing readers about the real purposes of the US investigation into the origins and the spread of coronavirus.
Russian media would also eagerly quote fake news or misinformation published by the Western media to support their own statements about the West being a source of fake news. In some cases, like with the NYT article on Putin’s war against the US science, the content of the article is re-written in a manipulative way or interpreted in a way that ridicules the whole article.
The following narratives were used in the Russian media writing about NYT’s “Putin’s war against the US science”, the US investigation in the coronavirus origins and spread, and protests by Covid-dissidents in the US against the lockdown:
- the US have poorly educated people who are eagerly falling for conspiracy theories;
- the US are blaming Russia for poor education of Americans and failure of the American healthcare;
- conspiracy theories and fake news are originating in the US (West) and spread uncensored;
- low education level in the US and flourishing conspiracy theories are dangerous for Russia as US politicians use some of the conspiracy theories either because of poor education, stereotypes or cynically exploit those for their own benefit;
- A recent US investigation in the coronavirus spread is following the conspiracy theory of a man-made virus and its deliberate leak.
Fund for the Defense of National Values (linked to Prigozhin and headed by former head of one of his projects USA Really Vladimir Malkevich) has developed a manual on countering Covid-related fake news and disinformation for the domestic audience. This manual, identified as the West (hostile to Russia) and the Russian opposition, working for the West, as the two leading sources of fake news.
The Fund also advocates, through the government-controlled Prigozhin and Malofeev-related media, for large fines and public shaming for those who “spread fake news” and for the absolute prohibition of anonymity in the Internet. Head of the Fund has also repeatedly attacked Facebook, YouTube, and other Western social media platforms as sources of fake news on Covid-19.
The narrative of fighting Covid-related fake news is used inside Russia for the following purposes:
- to attack the West;
- to shift the disinformation blame to the Western or the Russian opposition media and reduce trust in them;
- to attack domestic Russian opposition or Russians living in exile;
- to attack social media platforms which refuse to cooperate with the Russian security services to silence the dissent and censor information in conventional and social media;
- to promote the notion of censorship.
2. Spinning the US investigation into Covid-19 spread and confusing the readers
We have already touched upon the issue of the Russian propaganda attacking the recent US investigation in the COVID-19 spread by ridiculing it to the level of conspiracy theories, but dealing with it in Russian media is not limited to that.
In general, the whole coverage was aimed at confusing the reader on the real subject of the investigation, limiting it to Trump’s quotes and ridiculing them, or mixing it with the issue of various nations’ (the US, the EU, the UK) default on their debts to China and further mixing it with the lawsuits against China for the Covid-19 spread.
The main narratives here are the following:
- The US wants to get rid of the main competitor;
- The US follows a conspiracy theory and looks for man-made origins of the virus, although it has been proved to be natural (links to the most ridiculous collections of the conspiracy theories of the “Western origin”, including 5G networks; links to China-sourced articles on the origins of the virus);
- The US wants to cancel its debt;
- The US (especially the Republicans) hates communism, therefore they labeled Covid China Communist Party Virus and attacks China (this narrative works well for the leftist audience all over the world);
- The investigation is an election trick and a part of the fight between the Republicans and the Democrats;
- The investigation seeks to shift the blame for the Covid-19 spread from the US to China, while the US Center for Disease Contol ( CDC) had “confirmed” that in the US, people were sick with Covid-19 already during the 2019 autumn flu season;
- The investigation diverts attention from the possible virus origin in the US lab in the US or Georgia;
- China was too open and transparent about the Covid and now it pays the price; the US takes advantage of China’s transparency and eagerness to cooperate on Covid;
- The investigation is a part of the US–China information war;
- The investigation will be as fake as the investigation into the Skripal poisoning;
- Attempting to sue China or otherwise make it pay is similar to the contributions imposed on Germany after WWI which lead to WWII.
3. Freezing the WHO funding
This move was also reported in a manipulative manner, making unclear that this was a temporary funding freeze. It was also emotionally labeled as selfish, inhumane, going against the world solidarity in Covid times and a punitive measure.
- WHO fell victim of the US–China stand-off;
- freeze of the funding is a pre-election move;
- WHO works too much with the countries that are under the US sanctions – Venezuela, Cuba, Iran etc., and this is a reprisal by the US;
- WHO does not want to follow the US in the “blame China” campaign and is punished for that;
- funding freeze will cost lives, especially in the countries already hit by the US sanctions.
4. Covid in the US Army and NATO. The Russian army is the best
This narrative had already started in March but has some new twists in it. The main idea is that the US is unable to contain the spread of Covid in the Army, especially in the Navy, and has betrayed the armed forces. The US is unable to fight the virus in the army, and the Army will be unable to fight a war. The US and NATO military bases are spreading Covid in the host countries, as well as during NATO exercises.
Unlike the US Army, the Russian Army and specifically its troops of Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense are well prepared to counter any contagion and should be used to assist the neighbors in need, like Belarus and Ukraine. Assistance to Italy by the Russian military medics is a good example of success.
Nations like Italy and Spain are unable to fight coronavirus properly because they have spent too much money on they contributions to NATO upon the request of the US. These expenses had costed the lives of their citizens; in other words, NATO killed citizens of NATO member states.
The main narratives are as follows:
- Covid is the new Pearl Harbor for the US Army;
- NATO and the US troops spread coronavirus;
- NATO bases and exercises are dangerous for locals in terms of the corona spread;
- NATO costs too much to its member states;
- Poland has disrupted NATO functioning because of the border closure;
- NATO members fund NATO at the expense of their healthcare systems, therefore they cannot manage Covid properly;
- The US is to be blames for excessive expenses on NATO and therefore are to be blamed for poor healthcare capacities and excessive deaths rates;
- Russian Army is superior in the elimination of threats and management and should be used more to assist its neighbors (Belarus, Ukraine) and inside Russia;
- Russian Army successfully helps Italy.
5. Regaining control over the former Soviet Union territory through assistance in fighting Covid and blaming the European neighbors and the US
This part of the Covid-related Russian propaganda has also been developing since March. It has evolved from simply calling neighboring Ukraine and Belarus “Covid hotbeds” and calling the EU a “plague barrack” into the new message of calling Russia the only hope and the savior for the former parts of the Empire. Even the EU assistance to the Eastern Partnership countries was presented as a subject to contest and as causing wrath in these countries. “Successful management” of Covid by Russia is used to justify the annexation or the de-facto Russian control of separatist territories like Crimea or Transnistria. The Covid crisis management is also used to promote the Eurasian Economic Union as a coordination, cooperation, food security and medical aid distribution platform.
The main narratives include:
- Belarus is unable to manage the crisis in healthcare; Russia should do a humanitarian intervention to Belarus;
- Ukraine is unable to manage the crisis in healthcare and economy, it has to turn to Russia for help;
- Every former Soviet Union state (except the Baltics, Ukraine and Turkmenistan) has asked Russia for assistance in countering the Covid crisis;
- Russia has everything under control and helps its neighbors to put things in order;
- Those who do not cooperate with Russia on the Covid crisis are playing populist political games;
- The Baltic states are plagued with the Covid epidemic and economic crisis;
- Lithuania wants to take away the EU assistance from Belarus;
- The Covid crisis will help to re-establish a USSR-type union under Russian domination;
- Belarus will have to join Russia unconditionally;
- Ukraine and Georgia will be hit hard by the closure of the EU borders as visa-free regime would be revoked and this will diminish related political gains of their pro-Western governments;
- Russia’s strong economy and banking system will help to weather the storm those who are willing to plea loyalty;
- The US is to blame for the COVID spread (see sections above).
- The US and the EU are abandoning the former Soviet Union states (especially Belarus because Lukashenko is a “covidiot”).
6. Lifting of Western sanctions
In our March report, we have already detected the trend to promote lifting of Western sanctions in different combinations, masked as humanitarian concern and a care for poorer states fighting Covid-19 or a care for the plummeting EU economy. In the last week of March, the whole grand plan unfolded. First, it was the active use of the letter by the UN Secretary-General on measures to curb the Covid spread. It had only a single line on sanctions but that was enough for the Russian propaganda to pitch it as the main message from the UN. Then, it was Putin’s proposal to G20 at its virtual summit, which included lifting of sanctions. And, finally, there was an attempt to get through the UN General Assembly a resolution on lifting of sanctions, which failed. Interestingly enough, in mid-March Senator Kosachev, the Chair of the International Committee of the upper chamber of the Russian parliaments, spilled the beans even before the letter of the UN Secretary-General, the lobbying of G20, and a draft of the UNGA resolution. This makes us think that the Russians knew in advance about the Secretary General’s letter or even lobbied for the inclusion of the line on the lifting of sanctions in it and not referring to specific states under sanctions.
Russia and China were the principle driving forces behind the UN GA draft resolution. As the attempt to pull through the resolution failed, it gave the Russian propaganda a reason to accuse the US, the EU, Georgia, and Ukraine of selfishness, while presenting itself and China as humanitarian leaders of the world. Interestingly enough, Fedor Lukyanov, a key expert of the Russian Council on Foreign Relations (a leading governmental think-tank still listened to in the West) called this initiative a “reputational move” taken to secure Russia’s position in the post-Covid new world order.
Russian media blamed the EU and the US of being ungrateful for the Russian aid in countering Covid, while stating at the same time, that in the case of the Russian aid to Italy, it was never expected to pay back in a form of support for the lifting of sanctions.
Russian media is making a point that the UNGA resolution attempt was only one step in Russia’s continued and principled fight against “unlawful” one-sided sanctions which are, in the end, against the good of all humanity because it undermines fighting Covid. Russian media specifically mentions Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran (quoting the latter’s slogan, “we are fighting two viruses, Covid and the US sanctions”). Continuously, Russian propaganda promoted stories about the US blocking international aid to Cuba and Iran. Media repeatedly circulates Lavrov’s statement that post-Covid world will hold accountable those who refused to lift sanctions.
However, comments by “experts” and “international politicians” in the Russian media say that the EU will have to at least ease its sanctions on Russia and restore relations with it for its own sake.
An interesting spin was applied in respect of two cases of Russian aid. A campaign to waive sanctions on humanitarian loads coming from Crimea to Italy. Then came the sale of lung ventilators to the US (that famous big airplane) which were produced by an enterprise under the US sanctions.
Current lawsuits against China for the coronavirus spread and the US investigation into this subject are also presented in the framework of unlawful actions against the nations who are leading in the provision of humanitarian aid to the rest of the world. The Chinese concept of the “united humankind” is also promoted by the Russian media.
Somewhere here belongs also to the initiative by notorious Marina Butina backed by the Russian MFA, who called for release of Russian citizens (But and Yaroshenko) from “Covid-plagued” US prisons. This was effectively a response by the Russian propaganda to Human Rights Watch president who expressed concern in his tweet for the health situation of those held in Russian prisons and penal colonies. Butina’s initiative was greatly advertised in the beginning and is still running now but more in a low-key mode, probably because of the Covid-related riots in Russian colonies.
The main narratives are as follows:
- Sanctions are unlawful;
- Sanctions should be lifted to fight coronavirus and prevent new outbreaks in the future;
- Those who are against the lifting of sanctions are selfish and unwilling to work in solidarity with the rest of the world;
- The UN GA resolution would have been adopted if not for the opposition of the US, the EU, Georgia, and Ukraine, to whom fighting Russia is more important than fighting coronavirus;
- The US is using sanctions to impose its own will and control over the nations already hit hard by the sanctions and Covid;
- The EU will have to ease its sanctions for its own good, despite continued US sanctions;
- WHO has suffered financial cuts because of its work with nations targeted by sanctions;
- Russia and China are helping the whole world despite the actions of some nations who are selfish and ungrateful;
- Russia and China are proposing a new humanitarian model of relations in the world;
- Syria, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela are suffering because the US blocks humanitarian aid;
- The US investigation into the coronavirus spread is a justification to impose sanctions on China.
7. The new world order
The narrative of the new, multipolar, non-US centered world order remains in place for national and international consumption. It is heavily promoted for the Spanish- (with a leftist anti-capitalist twist) and Russian-speaking audiences, with a clear anti-US bias. It also promotes the idea that the West attacks China because it is Communist. This narrative also advances the idea of the superiority of the state-controlled management of the epidemic, limiting “excessive” “liberalism”, liberal (human) rights, and freedoms.
A number of “experts” in the Russian media promote the idea of the “Big Three” ruling the world – Russia, the US, and China. In this combination, Russia is seen as a referee, a rule, and an agenda-setter between economically superior US and China. The EU may also have its own role as a fourth player, in the case, it stops being US-dependent.
An article on the “fierce battle of coronavirus narratives on the international arena” written by Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a leading pro-government think-tank, describes the situation of the West as waging heavy defensive combat against China and losing. It is a serious signal of Russia taking sides in this “trio of great nations” and openly aligning itself with China.
The main narratives include:
- The Covid pandemic is good for Russia since it will redefine the world order;
- Russia, China and the US will have to come to terms and rule the world;
- Capitalism is to be blamed for the failure to handle Covid and has to be revisited;
- Russia and China are allies in building a new world based on principles of solidarity and humanity.
8. The situation in the EU and the US: the crisis of health care, economy, and solidarity
The situation in the EU and the US is still described as dire. However, as the peaks of the pandemic are passing in many countries, while Russia is only approaching the peak, the narratives shift more and more to political, social, and economic parts of the crisis.
However, the scope of casualties is still presented in a manipulative way. For example, one of the headlines read that parking garages in Barcelona were turned into temporary morgues. In reality, it was an underground parking facility of a funeral house that had freezer capacity for obvious reasons. Russian TV reported that Covid victims in New York were buried in mass graves on an island, while in reality, these were unclaimed bodies whose storage terms in the city morgues were reduced because of the Covid epidemic.
The narratives about negligence, light-mindedness, and slow reaction in crisis management are still in place.
The narrative about a lack of solidarity is also still in place, though less so since the EU media have started reporting more on how different EU states are helping each other, like Germany taking patients from Italy. But even there, there is an attempt to show that the EU is helping unequally and Spain is more neglected compared to Italy.
There are increasing narratives of brewing social unrest in the EU and particularly in the US and of the possibility of hunger riots. The US has a poor federal governing system and faces separatism of some states, claims Russian propaganda.
For the EU, the main story is centered around a failure to reach an agreement on the aid from the EU to the countries affected by the Covid the most, Italy and Spain, and is presented as “the EU is falling apart.” It is also presented as a conflict between the leaders of Italy and Spain on the one side, and Germany and France on the other; and also as a stand-off between Macron and Merkel, specifically referring to Macron as a new leader of the EU.
There are repeated statements on the US’ withdrawal from the EU which gives the EU a chance to improve its relations with Russia, and this would save the Baltics in particular as their economy would suffer the most and they would experience food shortages.
The main narratives are as follows:
- The US political and economic system is to be blamed for the Covid crisis in the US;
- Specifically, there is no federal policy to handle the crisis; states are on their own and are managing poorly;
- The US faces social unrest and hunger riots;
- The US faces separatism of some states (the US is falling apart);
- The US is burying its dead in mass graves;
- The US wants to steal a COVID vaccine from the EU;
- The EU is falling apart;
- The EU is helping its member states unequally;
- The EU is unable to reach an agreement on the aid to member states;
- There is a stand-off between Macron, Merkel, on the one side, and Sanchez and Conte, on the other;
- Covid is good for Merkel; she will stay as her party leader and will be re-elected as a chancellor;
- The EU economy will never recover without improving relations with Russia;
- The EU, the US and other governments are racing to buy up lung ventilators; Israel’s Mossad was specifically tasked to do this;
- Baltic states will experience food shortages;
- There will be hunger riots and social unrest in the EU.
Notes on Russian domestic crisis management
As stated in the introduction, Russia now faces a full-fledged Covid crisis at home. Russian media is diverting attention from the domestic situation and is not reporting on prison riots, epidemic outbreaks in cities like Syktuvkar; and on villages or even towns like Petushki in the Moscow region is fully locked out because of the outbreaks.
At the same time situation is used to silence the dissent: the Duma discusses yet another tightening of the foreign agent’s law, disinformation on Covid is blamed on the opposition and the West, while everything that is not in line with the government version of the situation disinformation is called “disinformation” and punished. Those who criticize or do not praise the government efforts, are labeled “ungrateful”, while Western citizens “grateful” to Russia are put as an example.
As crazy as it sounds, the dire situation is also used to promote “traditional values,” claiming that Covid is God’s punishment for homosexual relations and lush spiritless life.
Official media sends murky messages about Russian cure for the virus, which turns out to be generics for foreign medicine used as part of a standard treatment protocol.
Poor management of the crisis is compensated by draconian fines and excessive regulation of people’s movement. Covid is also used as a reason for total control of the public through electronic passes and numerous face recognition cameras, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
All this is crowned by claims that Putin has everything under control, Russia was long ready for the crisis, has enough healthcare capacity to handle the crisis, and that its economy is in a shape to endure the storm much better than that of the EU and the US.