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Assertive Russia seeks to exploit pandemic, stealing page from Soviet playbook

Despite grappling with its own public health crisis, Russia is using humanitarian aid as tool of soft power while flexing military muscle.

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Russian military plane unloads medical equipment in NY
Amid pandemic, a Russian military plane unloads medical equipment at New York's JFK Airport.
(TASS via Getty Images)
Updated: April 1, 2020 - 10:32pm

Forced increasingly to confront its own coronavirus emergency, Russia nonetheless has capitalized internationally on the COVID-19 pandemic, Kremlin-watchers tell Just the News. 

“The Russians are constantly looking for vulnerabilities within NATO and the European Union,” said Elisabeth Braw, who directs the Modern Deterrence project for the London-based Royal United Services Institute, a think tank. “They see one now in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

“Russia tries to exploit the crisis for her advantage,” said Wojciech Lorenz, a senior analyst with the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs. 

The means are both layered and alarming, observers indicated, including unprecedented international military activity, along with propaganda, disinformation, and manipulation.

“To understand what Russia is doing, the most important place to look at right now is Italy,” said Braw. That is where Russian President Vladimir Putin sent 15 aircraft laden with medical teams and equipment to bolster overwhelmed hospitals in Lombardy. The humanitarian aid came not from Russia’s health ministry, but from its defense ministry — inside a military package.

“Italy was desperate and asked for help,” Braw said, noting that European and NATO countries initially did not respond to pleas from Rome. “And then Russia came along with not just supplies, but these 100 military doctors and military equipment. Then you see Russian convoys in Italy, traveling NATO roads. That’s something Russia hasn’t done in any other NATO country. It’s unprecedented. You have NATO’s primary adversary going into one of NATO’s founding members’ territory. That is unheard of. For Russia, that was quite a coup.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation played up its actions in Italy, chronicling accomplishments, and showcasing its military vehicles emblazoned with heart-shaped Russian and Italian flags. But, while the United States and other armed forces increasingly focus on responding to the pandemic, the Russia defense branches have ramped up their martial bombast overall. 

“The pandemic has had a negative influence on the operational tempo of NATO,” Lorenz said. “The Allies cancelled or scaled down a number of exercises, for example, U.S. Defender Europe 20. At the same time, it seems that Russia increased its military activity close to NATO's borders.”

As reported last week in Just the News, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy recently dispatched nine ships to shadow seven Russian craft that displayed “unusually high levels of activity” in the English Channel and the North Sea. 

In early March, Russian strategic bombers flew sorties along NATO’s northern perimeter, prompting several member-countries to intercept and monitor the bombers. On March 26, NATO charged that a Russian An-26 military transport plane violated international safety standards while flying over the Baltic Sea.

Russia has denied wrongdoing. Elsewhere, Russia’s military has engaged in a robust burst of activity:

  • In March, explosives experts completed a mission to Laos, to hunt for American munitions left over from the Vietnam War. 
  • Air defense units staged a war exercise in Armenia. 
  • Elements from the Northern Fleet rehearsed polar ground combat in Murmansk. 
  • On Wednesday, a Black Sea Fleet group hunted for a mock enemy submarine in the Mediteranean Sea. 
  • A Pacific Fleet detachment departed Vladivostok “to solve the tasks of a long voyage in the far sea zone,” according to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.

The timing for such activities is not lost on those who theoretically could be on the receiving end of Russian aggression.

“You would think Russia would be like a responsible country and fight only the virus,” said Mikhail Melnyk, a Ukrainian former soldier who lives west of Donbass, the locus of armed conflict since 2014. “Instead, they train for war. And during the ceasefire in Donbass, they send more fighters.”

In its latest update on the region, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation Headquarters on April 1 reported that one Ukrainian soldier was killed and two wounded from enemy action on March 31.

Russia meanwhile increased its humanitarian virus-fighting missions, sending a planeload of medical supplies to the United States. While some have praised Russia for the actions, others have tagged the help to America in particular as a publicity stunt.

“This is nuts,” tweeted Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Hopefully, someone will tell Trump that he's playing right into a propaganda ploy.”

“They want everyone to think they are kind, but do not want anyone to forget they are powerful,” Melnyk said. 

Moscow is motivated by the quest to replace shabby reality with lost glory, one U.S. government official said.

“The Kremlin wants the world to think of Russia as the other global superpower, but those days are long gone,” said the State Department’s Lea Gabrielle in her March 5 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Gabrielle leads the department’s Global Engagement Center, tasked with countering foreign disinformation. 

“Lurking behind the Kremlin’s bravado and rhetoric is a fundamental weakness across almost all measures of national power in Russia — a stagnant economy, a continuous brain drain, and a demographic shift that leaves the country vulnerable to its eastern neighbors,” Gabrielle testified.

Hence, a manipulative turn west, toward NATO in a time of coronavirus, observers said.

The overt action is coupled with moves that may seem plucked from the old Soviet playbook of dezinformatsiya, otherwise known as “black propaganda.”

Among those endeavors is a charge (since retracted) by Moscow that Poland refused permission for Russian aid flights to transit Polish air space while on the way to help Italy. 

Elsewhere, Lorenz said, Russian media has spread conspiracy theories, including a false rumor that NATO will infect European countries that cooperate with Russia.

“This Russian disinformation campaign is a known Russian tactic of perpetuating disinformation by capitalizing on the chaos and the uncertainty that health scares and pandemics engender,” Gabrielle said in a March 27 briefing with reporters in Washington, D.C. 

There is purpose to Russia’s combined efforts, the experts said.

“The Kremlin launched a disinformation campaign to fuel instability in NATO members, sow divisions in the alliance and the European Union, and exacerbate anti-U.S. sentiments in some segments of European societies,” Lorenz said. 

More specifically, he said, Moscow aims to reverse the international condemnation that sprang from its 2014 capture of Crimea from Ukraine, an action that brought sanctions that persist to this day.

“Moscow hopes that in the longer term it will be easier for Russia to achieve political goals,” Lorenz said. Among the aims: “Enforce a political detente with the West, get sanctions removed, weaken Western support for Ukraine and weaken NATO's determination to strengthen mechanisms of defense and deterrence.”

The pandemic provides opportunity to achieve those goals, the observers said, particularly through virus-ravaged Italy. 

“The Russians aren’t stupid,” said Braw. “Not surprisingly, they have publicized their assistance quite energetically.” 

The news of Russia helping a putative enemy has spread across Europe and all the way to the edge of a conflict zone.

“Even when we are worried about war and the pandemic, we have to hear about saintly Russia coming to save Italy,” Melnyk said. “Maybe someone who hears this will believe Russia really is the saint.”

Because the aid involves Russian boots on the ground deep inside NATO, the long-term result likely will be to place Italy in an awkward position among the allies who didn’t offer help first, Braw said.

“Russia played their cards very well,” Braw said. “Now NATO will have to play theirs even better.”

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