Russia skillfully exploits the pandemic topic for propaganda purposes, getting strategic preferences from the tragedy.
Russian propaganda adapts to the ever-changing developments with incredible speed, swiftly altering own narratives and the field of efforts. Many examples testify to this, including the MH17 case where one absurd version put forward by Russia replaced another, sometimes even contradicting the previous one. In turn, the coronavirus allowed the Kremlin to launch an information war on yet another bridgehead and deploy military intelligence operatives in the very heart of Europe.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world and took more and more lives, Russia's propaganda machine worked in two directions at once. The first one was spinning a variety of fake news about coronavirus and cyberattacks on EU clinics. The second on is persistent and rather pushy "humanitarian" assistance to the countries affected by the pandemic.
At the same time, I should note that Russians need their government's support just as much as people in Italy's Bergamo, but Moscow seems to have turned a deaf ear to own citizens' pleas for help. After all, in this major chess game played by the Kremlin, there's no place for ordinary Russians, even as pawns.
While the novel coronavirus was raging across Russia – from Moscow to the country's distant regions, Russia sent to Italy a show-off "rescue" mission carrying equipment that turned out to be 80% unsuitable for fighting the virus. The Kremlin's large-scale propaganda campaign surrounding the mission has actually gained some success, especially considering that a NATO Ally has allowed on its soil a team of no ordinary doctors, but rather military intelligence operatives.
While ordinary Russians record video appeals to the government pleading for help and think tanks deliver negative forecasts regarding further impoverishment of the population, the country's government moves to exempt religious organizations (the Russian Orthodox Church) from utility payments for six months due to a sharp drop in donations from parishioners and businesses. In turn, the "mendicant" church, working in in tandem with Russian security agencies, suddenly sends 8 tonnes of medical supplies to the Italian region of Puglia! How about that?
Really, those supplies probably aren't in great demand in Dagestan's Derbent, where nurses infected with COVID-19 were put in tiny rooms for drying clothes amid acute shortage of hospital beds…
At the same time, Russia doesn't abandon attempts to destabilize Ukraine amid the pandemic through the quarantine-defying Russian Orthodox Church's branch, whose HQ in Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Moscow now seeks to send humanitarian aid.
Also, it was Russian hackers operating under the auspices of the GRU that attacked Czech hospitals, sowing chaos in their well-coordinated work in the midst of a pandemic.
Manipulation, provocation, disinformation, and destabilization… Regardless of what Russia is doing, it either creates a defamatory pretext or sends out "humanitarian" aid – both being part of its revanchist and totally immoral projects.
Meanwhile, Russian "saviors" seem to also be drowning in the rising tide of own hypocrisy and lies.
Recently, the Russian president's spokesman and the leader himself, who are supposed to be working in close tandem, delivered contradicting statements on Russian aid to Italy.
Dmitry Peskov claimed the assistance was free of charge: "This is not the moment to think about benefits or build expectations after providing assistance of this kind. He [Putin] is against politicizing assistance."
In turn, Vladimir Putin said that Russia's aid to other countries isn't free at all, or as he put it, "This is not a one-way road."
The latter statement was a sort of an excuse to the Russian audience, widely annoyed by the Kremlin's merciful gestures toward other countries amid complete disregard for their citizen's own problems. After all, the "good king" should remain such to his people no matter what.
But even Peskov's lying comment and Putin's awkward excuse it was known that it was Italian taxpayers who covered the cost of Russia's help, while in the U.S., the "humanitarian" cargo from Russia was fully paid by the U.S. government. Besides, in his statement, Putin added that Russia received other equipment in return, which already rules out the "free-of-charge" suggestion.
And most importantly, when it comes to certain political preferences from this show-off "aid", Russians often recall the lifting of sanctions. Yes, sanctions lift is that very cherry on the cake the Kremlin would like to receive as a result of the big coronavirus game. To this end, the Kremlin has also activated throughout Europe its political puppets, who are now using their marginal platforms to urge their governments to lift economic restrictions off of the merciful Russia. However, the Kremlin perceives the situation more realistically as it might seem at first glance, seeing another political aspect as one of its main profits.
It's about showing the international community that Russia isn't in fact isolated from the civilized world and that the leadership of their rogue country is accepted by world leaders. For Russian propaganda, it's always been important to demonstrate that the country never lost its position in the world arena after the invasion of Ukraine and military campaigns in Syria, Libya, and many other countries where Russian troops committed war crimes against the civilian population.
While until recently the Kremlin harbored hope to hold a large-scale Victory Day parade, having invited world leaders to attend, today the ultimate goal for Moscow is to at least set up a video conference. And it seems that this plan will see success because Putin has already secured an agreement to participate in a joint video conference in connection with the 75th anniversary of the historic meeting of American and Soviet troops on the Elbe River in Germany at the end of World War 2 from Donald Trump, a president of the country, which not only is in the midst of the widest coronavirus spread, it has also been a constant target of Russian propaganda and disinformation. And therefore, it won't be surprising if Donald Trump will go online on May 9 to congratulate Putin on his victory... in both literal and figurative senses.
And then, indeed, those cheap and worthless propaganda stunts as pictures of Russian doctors being met with flowers in Italy will fade into the background as a large-scale propaganda project, built on a global catastrophe and human suffering might as well yield the desired profit for Russia. In principle, as it traditionally happens, the Russian Empire, the USSR, and now the Russian Federation, benefit from destruction they themselves often create, rather than from creation.