Both Russia and China have mounted combined charm offensives and disinformation campaigns on the back of the pandemic. Shipments of ‘aid’ – reportedly of questionable utility and quality - have gone hand in hand with a concerted effort to deflect any blame from China for the early spread, and an ongoing drive by Russia to undermine states’ confidence and have sanctions lifted.
These concurrent operations have very different objectives, as Russia seeks to subvert international order while China is continuing its bid to demonstrate global leadership - but in both cases, they are seeking long-term gains by exploiting the inattention and distraction of their targets.
Both seek to present themselves as globally responsible stakeholders, but for divergent reasons – especially China which needs the rest of the world to recover and return to stability to ensure its own economic recovery. But despite this, the two campaigns appear superficially similar.
Fertile ground for disinformation
One reason lies in the unique nature of the current crisis. Unlike political issues that are local or regional in nature, COVID-19 affects everybody worldwide. The perceived lack of reliable information about the virus provides fertile ground for information and disinformation campaigns, especially feeding on fear, uncertainty and doubt. But Russia in particular would not be succeeding in its objectives without mis-steps and inattention by Western governments.
Confused reporting on Russia sending medical supplies to the United States showed Moscow taking advantage of a US administration in apparent disarray. Claims Russia was sending ’humanitarian aid’ were only belatedly countered by the US State Department pointing out it had been paid for. Meanwhile the earlier arrival of Russian military equipment in Italy also scored a propaganda victory for Russia, facilitated by curious passivity by the Italian government.
In both cases Russia also achieved secondary objectives. With the United States, Russia scored bonus points by shipping equipment produced by a subsidiary of a company under US sanctions. In the case of Italy, Russian state media made good use of misleading or heavily edited video clips to give the impression of widespread Italian acclaim for Russian aid, combined with disdain for the efforts of the EU.
Beijing’s external information campaigns have sought to deflect or defuse criticism of its early mishandling and misinformation on coronavirus and counter accusations of secrecy and falsifying data while also pursuing an opportunity to exercise soft power. For Moscow, current efforts boost a long-standing and intensive campaign to induce the lifting of sanctions, demonstrating if nothing else that sanctions are indeed an effective measure. Official and unofficial lobbying has intensified in numerous capital cities, and will inevitably find supporters.
But both the aid and the information campaigns are seriously flawed. While appropriate and useful aid for countries that are struggling should of course be welcomed, both Russian and Chinese equipment delivered to Europe has repeatedly been found to be inappropriate or defective.
Russian photographs of cardboard boxes stacked loose and unsecured in a transport aircraft bound for the United States sparked alarm and disbelief among military and aviation experts - and there has still been no US statement on what exactly was purchased, and whether it was found to be fit for purpose when it arrived.
Reporting from Italy that the Russian equipment delivered there was ‘80% useless’ has not been contradicted by the Italian authorities. In fact, although the Italian sources criticizing Russia remain anonymous it is striking that - President Trump aside - no government has publicly endorsed materials and assistance received from Russia as actually being useful and helpful.
Even in Serbia, with its traditionally close ties with Russia, the only information forthcoming on the activities of the Russian Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troops and their equipment that arrived on April 3 was from Russian press releases.
Both countries’ strategic communications efforts are similarly fallible. China’s notoriously heavy-handed approach to its critics is of only limited use in the face of such a severe and immediate threat. One suggestion that the virus originated in the US – an early response to US criticism – has already been walked back by the Chinese diplomat who made it.
And Russia continues to be capable of spectacularly misjudging its targets. When investigative journalists looked more closely at the nature of the assistance to Italy, Russia’s official response was rage and personal threats, laying bare the real nature of the campaign and immediately alienating many of those whom Moscow had sought to win over.
Errors and deficiencies such as these provide opportunities to mitigate the worst side-effects of the campaigns. And actions by individuals can also mitigate much of the impact. The most effective disinformation plays on deeply emotional issues and triggers visceral rather than rational reactions.
Advocates of ’informational distancing’ as well as social distancing suggest a tactical pause to assess information calmly, instead of reacting or spreading it further unthinkingly. This approach would bolster not only calm dispassionate assessment of the real impact of Russian and Chinese actions, but also counter spreading of misinformation on the pandemic as a whole - especially when key sources of disinformation are national leaders seeking to politicize or profit from the crisis.
Limitations of Russian and Chinese altruism must be stated clearly and frankly to fill gaps in public understanding. Where help is genuine, it should of course be welcomed: but if it is the case that assistance received from Moscow or Beijing is not appropriate, not useful, or not fit for purpose, this should be acknowledged publicly.
Even without central direction or coordination with other Russian strategic communications efforts, the self-perpetuating Russian disinformation ecosystem continues to push narratives designed to undermine confidence in institutions and their ability to deal with the crisis. This too must continue to be monitored closely and countered where it matters.
In all cases, miscalculations by Russia or China that expose the true intent of their campaigns – no matter how different their objectives might be - should be watched for closely and highlighted where they occur.
Despite the enormity of the present emergency it is not a time for any government to relax its vigilance over longer-term threats. States must not lose sight of manoeuvres seeking to exploit weakness and distraction. If Russia and China emerge from the current crisis with enhanced authority and unjustifiably restored reputations, this will make it still harder to resist their respective challenges to the current rules-based international order in the future.
Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.