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The Coronavirus Crisis: ‘Liberal Swine’ – How the Kremlin Exploits the Pandemic for Propaganda

Kseniya Kirillova exposes the attempts to discredit the West, undermine Ukraine, and persecute dissidents in the current Russian disinformation campaign.

Police officers seen in Red Square, Moscow, on 31 March 2020
The Coronavirus Crisis
‘Liberal Swine’
How the Kremlin Exploits the Pandemic for Propaganda

Kseniya Kirillova exposes the attempts to discredit the West, undermine Ukraine, and persecute dissidents in the current Russian disinformation campaign.

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Coronavirus is gripping the world and cannot, of course, be ignored by Russian propagandists. Recently, several Russian experts explored the basic trends in reporting on the crisis by the Kremlin-controlled mass media in Russia. Based on that commentary and analysis, here are the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s basic goals in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Propaganda Goal 1: Discredit the West in Comparison with Russia

As predicted not long ago by Aleskander Morozov, a Russian journalist and researcher at the Boris Nemtsov Academic Centre in Prague, the main narrative of the Russian mass media is that “the Russian authorities are calmly and effectively combating the virus, while in Europe and the US, governments are fomenting hysteria and instituting incorrect measures that are heavily criticised by the people”.

He notes that “to the domestic audience, this will be presented as a holistic picture of Moscow’s superiority and the helplessness of the West”.

Declarations that Russia deployed effective preventive measures in time, and that this is why the number of people infected with the Coronavirus is allegedly so low in the country in comparison with the US, have been repeated by leading American broadcasters

“In the face of crisis and panic caused by the Coronavirus, the so-called Western democratic powers displayed total powerlessness and no desire to provide mutual assistance,” declared the Russian ‘political commentator’ Yevgeniy Satanovskiy. “At the same time, they are ready to spend energy criticising countries that cope with difficulties an order of magnitude better than themselves, for example, Russia.” 

Even assuming that Russian officials are not intentionally concealing the number of Coronavirus cases, it is simply impossible to identify all patients in the context of Russian medicine – which raises questions not only about the quality of testing, but also the inaccessibility of any quality medical services in the Russian hinterland.

In April 2017, the official Kremlin Vesti site admitted that a substantial closure of hospitals and clinics had occurred in Russia. Those who wish to be treated at home are no better. At the beginning of 2016, the Urals complained of an increase in mortality due to the flu, caused by the lack of imported drugs. Even the pro-Government newspaper Izvestia was forced to admit that pharmacies and hospitals possessed only 65% of the items on the list of essential drugs, with all the medicines listed as vital and most important not to be found anywhere in the Russian Federation. 

It is impossible to imagine that, under such conditions, every provincial clinic – of those still open – could be supplied with quality testing kits for the new Coronavirus.

The Russian inclination to build ‘potemkin villages’ is also important here. According to Anastasiya Vasilyeva, a representative of the Alliance of Physicians professional union, the authorities are hiding instances of COVID-19 by describing them as ‘pneumonia’ or ‘serious respiratory infections’. According to the Federal State Statistics Service, cases of pneumonia in January 2020 in Moscow increased by 37% compared with the previous year.

It is therefore impossible to prove the number of undetected cases, precisely because they are not detected, which permits Moscow to continue to flaunt low figures.

Propaganda Goal 2: Discredit Democracy and the Western World 

As part of this propaganda goal, the West is not positioned as weak, helpless and unable to cope with difficulties, but as cold-blooded and calculatingly evil.

Thus, a ‘patriotic blogger’, well known for bullying dissidents and spreading Kremlin propaganda far beyond the confines of the Urals, has been very successful in formulating the narrative constantly repeated by the central channels: “Poland, like the Czech Republic and USA, appropriated the supply of medical aid to Italy. The European Union is more a nest of snakes enclosed in a glass jar, ‘you die today, I’ll die tomorrow’.”

In this way, the EU and the US are blamed, not only for apparently not helping Italy, but for killing her.

The website Military View, close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, went even further in disseminating a conspiracy theory according to which the pandemic was purposely initiated by the “global elites” in order to blame it for the collapse of Western Civilisation.

As one author postulates: “The Coronovirus has become the ‘Hitler’ of our time which may be blamed for all the sins and mistakes of the global elite (de facto mafia)… Everything crumbles. And these processes obviously are coordinated. The Western elites were prepared in advance, the collapse was agreed. Thus, Coronavirus is an integral part of a big game, the cover operation, the veil behind which the global elites concealed the ‘reboot of the matrix’.”

Propaganda Goal 3: Reinvigorate an Agenda that Suits Moscow on Other Issues

At the very beginning of the pandemic, the Russian opposition rightly feared that alarm over the Coronavirus could be used as a means to continue Putin’s attack on civil rights, specifically, forbidding protest activities.

When it became obvious that this was a crisis, and European governments closed their borders and imposed quarantines one after another, the Kremlin did not fail to exploit the situation and accuse its critics of applying a double standard to similar actions undertaken by different countries.

Moreover, Russian propaganda used its spinning of the Coronavirus crisis to, at the same time, highlight how the downing of Flight MH17, the Skripal poisoning in the UK, and accusations of interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election were all examples of “information warfare against Russia”. 

Beyond this, under the pretense of combating “fake news about Coronavirus”, Russia mounted a campaign against all forms of information it decided to call “fake”,  including a Reporters Without Borders report examining the infringement of free speech in Russia. The campaign’s founder, Aleksandr Malkevich, demanded the most severe and public punishment for the dissemination of “fakes”.

Propaganda Goal 4: A New Round of Persecution of Liberals

This goal involves accusing the opposition of spreading the Coronavirus.

For instance, Oleg Matveechev, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics, publicly called for a “return to 1937″ – a reference to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge – and demanded a massive repression of “liberals”.

“It is this swine who will infect others,” he said. “It is because of this liberal swine that our loved ones are dying. They are not only dangerous as a Fifth Column in the information war. They are killing us. And therefore, they must be surgically destroyed… All participants in rallies and others who subscribe to the opposition.”  

We should remember that the pretext for the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 was the myth that Jews were carriers of infectious diseases.  

Propaganda Goal 5: A Separate Campaign to Discredit Ukraine

Unlike the Russians, Ukraine has not concealed the fact that it does not have tests to detect all instances of the Coronavirus and Kiev has therefore instituted a strict quarantine.

Russia is attempting to characterise Ukraine as “a danger for all the civilised world” and is betting that the EU will not renew its no-visa regime with the country after the quarantine. 

Attempts to present the situation in Ukraine as much worse than in Russia are most likely aimed at Crimeans who, according to many observers, have been significantly disappointed in Russia over the past six years.

Nevertheless, Russian propaganda is unlikely to achieve the desired effect, especially given the fact that the epidemiological situation in the country itself is deteriorating every day. People focused on their own health and safety are much less interested in what is happening in other countries, and Russia has never been a country whose priorities included the health of its citizens.

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