By Zlatica Hoke
Russia is very likely behind a disinformation campaign on coronavirus in the Western media, intended to fuel panic and discord among allies, experts tell VOA.
The European Union has accused Moscow of pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, using “contradictory, confusing and malicious reports” to make it harder for the bloc leaders to communicate its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that the European External Action Service issued a nine-page internal document March 16 saying that “the overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”
The document, seen by Reuters, says an EU database has recorded almost 80 cases of disinformation about coronavirus since January 22, some of them claiming that coronavirus was a U.S. biological weapon.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov promptly denied the accusation citing a lack of specific examples.
“We’re talking again about some unfounded allegations, which in the current situation are probably the result of an anti-Russian obsession,” he said.
But Russia analysts tell VOA that the Russian government is using every means possible to use the coronavirus crisis to its advantage as part of its information warfare against the West.
Russia has reported less than 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases and no deaths, compared with about 80,000 cases and about 3,500 deaths in Europe.
“The Russian media is using these numbers to praise the Russian government and personally President Vladimir Putin for allegedly preventing the coronavirus from spreading fast in Russia,” said political analyst and historian Peter Eltsov, author of the new book The Long Telegram 2.0: A Neo-Kennanite Approach to Russia.
Eltsov said the Russian media also claim that even China is handling the crisis better than the European Union and the United States.
“Some talk shows even spread conspiracy theories, claiming that the U.S. government has invented and is testing coronavirus as means of biological warfare.“
Eltsov says the goal of this propaganda is to sow chaos and dissension in the EU, NATO and the United States.
“On many occasions, Putin emphasized that Russia needs a new security architecture in Europe. As European countries are cordoning themselves, he may see it as an opportunity to put his plans in action.”
U.S. Congress has found indisputable evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and many officials say there is no doubt that Moscow plans to do so again in this year’s election.
During a joint 2017 press conference in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Putin publicly to stop the fake news against him generated by the Sputnik news agency and RT television network.
Klaus Larres, professor of international affairs at the University of North Carolina, noted that Russia has used every opportunity it has had to weaken Europe, notably during the 1973 oil crisis and 2008 global financial crisis.
“It is hardly surprising that some Russian state actors are attempting to exploit the coronavirus crisis through conspiracy theories disseminated on the internet,” he told VOA.
Larres said EU members must not allow being drawn into competition over masks and ventilators as part of an effort to have the spirit of Europe crushed. Instead they must share information and join forces to end the coronavirus crisis, he said.