Author: Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation 

The world is going through an unprecedented ordeal. It looks like Hollywood’s obsession with the end-of-the-world stories has partly materialized. For years, it has been offering us a rich choice of films about a natural disaster Armageddon and quite a few specifically depicting the spread of a deadly virus. But despite the rich imagination of filmmakers with which they approach the human reaction and the response of the world’s governments, I fail to recall a single film in which a pandemic makes propaganda trump the needs of the emergency response to save lives. Usually, the world-wide crisis brings governments together to fight the common threat through international effort and people after some moment of panic and shameful behavior prompted by the self-preservation instinct, at the end showing their best human qualities:  rival governments cooperate in the name of mankind and estranged family members tearfully reunite. The planet is saved. A happy ending.

In this context, the Kremlin’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been, to say the least, odd. To start with, its immediate instinct was to launch a new disinformation front in the hybrid war against the West. The goal, apparently, was to seed panic. The Kremlin has been using the already tested weapon of its own state-controlled media outlets and fake social media platforms (run from its troll factories). According to the official statement by the European External Action Service which uses unusually blunt language:  “A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing.” It further says:  “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“.

However, at home, the Kremlin’s approach to the threat of the virus is in sharp contrast to its actions in Europe. In a typically Soviet-style behavior, for quite a while its officials have been claiming that Russia hardly had any cases of the coronavirus and still maintain that the number of confirmed cases is one of the lowest in the world.  But such claims are taken with skepticism, first of all by Russian citizens who are used to be lied to by their successive governments. The older generation remembers well how the Soviet authorities tried to hide the fact of the Chernobyl disaster until the foreign media started ringing the alarm bells. By then, the people in the fallout zone in Ukraine and Belarus were exposed to deadly radiation, including at the massive state-organized May Day parade in Kyiv (five days after the explosion).

But while its secrecy and domestic bravado, claiming that Russia has set an example of handling the pandemic for the entire world as well as its disinformation campaign, as distasteful as it might be under the current circumstances, is not unusual behavior for the Kremlin, Putin’s propaganda stunt on the foreign policy front is quite curious. By this I mean the Russian “humanitarian operation” in Italy which has grabbed the headlines in Europe and Russia alike. Someone may accuse the author of being paranoid about Russia or of being too cynical about the Kremlin’s noble motives when not taking the news about a major effort of Russian humanitarian aid to Italy at its face value. I confess that my initial reaction was that of suspicion based on Georgia’s first-hand experience and that of our neighbors, not least after the Russian “humanitarian” convoys deployed to Eastern Ukraine in recent years. Not long ago, Moscow and its trollosphere attacked the Lugar Laboratory, a gift of the US Government to the Georgia Disease Control Center, with a series of hoaxes which included the blood chilling stories about the production of biological weapons and many dozens of human victims on whom these agents were allegedly tested. Now, ironically, even Russia’s local useful idiots recognize that this lab is playing a central role in saving lives.

Reuters reported that since Sunday, March 22:  “Russia has flown at least 15 flights to Italy using military transport planes with truck-based disinfection units. Eight medical brigades and another 100 personnel include some of its most advanced nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops.” The Italian and the international media were swarmed with the images of Russian military vehicles flying Russian tricolors and banners “From Russia with Love” in the streets of Italian cities. To put aside the irony of the allusion to the 1963 “Bond” movie, it has emerged that everything is not as it seems. The Italian La Stampa, citing high-level government sources, reported that:  “Eighty percent of Russian supplies are totally useless or of little use to Italy. In short, this is little more than a pretext.” Moreover, it turns out that those 100 “medics” were biological weapons specialists which evokes the memory about Russia’s two most famous “tourists” who were so keen to see the spire of the Salisbury Cathedral. To complete the picture, it was also reported that nearly half of the Russian personnel who arrived in Italy were media representatives (“propaganda workers” would be the right term).

Here is my take on why Russia is doing this. If we look beyond disinformation offensive and propaganda stunts, we might detect a coherent geopolitical strategy that has quite rational short- and long-term objectives. Ever since the European Union introduced sanctions on Russia as a reaction to its annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has been working methodically to undermine individual European governments and the Western unity in general. In this regard, it was hardly a coincidence that in parallel with the bombing campaign in Syria, which deliberately targeted civilian areas, hospitals and schools, producing huge waves of migration toward Europe, all sorts of anti-immigration and anti-EU political groups have been getting the Kremlin’s support (including financial).

If Putin’s “Italian job” produces the desired outcome, more Italians will support politicians who have already been calling on removing the EU’s sanctions on Russia. If or when Italy insists on ending the sanctions against Russia, this will produce a win-win situation for the Kremlin:  either the sanctions will be lifted or the refusal by Italy’s EU partners will further drive a wedge between them. Many Italians already feel a lack of sufficient solidarity from the EU. The spread of such attitudes within the European Union will make its ultimate demise more feasible.

And that is exactly what the Kremlin considers as one of its top foreign policy goals:  the institutional cohesion of the West has been its main problem since the creation of NATO and the European Union. NATO provided a security umbrella for Europe during the Cold War and regained increasing relevance since Russia’s renewed assertiveness. The EU has delivered, despite its current crisis (I mean Brexit and other forms of increased Euroscepticism), an unprecedented era of cohesion and prosperity.

So, those who believed that with the collapse of Communism all reasons for the rivalry between the West and Russia automatically disappeared – should think again. Russian expansionism did not start with Communist rule – it simply made it reformulate its slogans:  from “Moscow – the Third Rome” to “Proletarians of All Countries, Unite!” (under Moscow’s control, of course). Tsarist foreign policy priorities and traditions were, under different pretexts, continued by the Communists and did not disappear after the Soviet system collapsed. And expecting otherwise has always been the expression of ultimate wishful thinking. Modern Russia’s geopolitical interests are quite similar to those it had during the Communist and Tsarist empires as is the general nature of its political system with its “power vertical” run entirely from the Kremlin.

In short, because of its domestic political structure, expansionism has been a constant feature of Russian foreign policy and the cohesion of the West has been and still is viewed as an obstacle to what Russian leaders consider as Russia’s “legitimate security interests.” Rightly or wrongly, they believe that it is in the process of expansion that Russia is secure and stable while concentration on internal development and reform always ends in disaster, like the one produced by Perestroika.

This explains Russia’s motives behind its continued efforts to simultaneously create the atmosphere of distrust toward European governments and provoke panic and chaos while also trying to appear as the best friend of those Europeans who are willing to accept their “generous help.” Still, prioritizing such a line of action during possibly the most trying period in modern times is quite telling.

I also must humbly offer some words of caution to those who have been, and not always without good reasons, critical of the EU to the extent that instead of pushing for its reform they would be happy to see it dissolved. Most of these people, and I do not mean ultra-nationalists, would cite many legitimate economic and political reasons why they feel that the current EU is not sustainable. I would remind them that despite of all its shortcomings, the European integration project has produced the longest period of peace and unprecedented prosperity in its history. Moreover, without the European Union, Europe would face the risk of reawakening its old self-destructive rivalries. Until the European integration project was launched, which switched historic Franco-German and other rivalries into cooperation, peace in Europe was maintained through the system balance of power. It usually worked after a general agreement (such as the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 or the Congress of Vienna of 1815) until the next general war. But ever since the unification of Germany in 1871, which created a European superpower that outweighed all others and right in the center of Europe, such a balancing act became practically impossible. Moreover, the relations between Germany and Russia, whether their rivalries or temporary alliances, have always had dramatic and even catastrophic effects before Germany found its new historic role of being one of the leaders of the European community (and subsequently – the EU). Not only rivalries between Germany and Russia produced some of the most devastating wars which were largely fought on the territories of smaller European countries located between them, but their alliances usually resulted in carving up these countries (just ask Poland).

To sum it up, Russia does nothing new and those who thought that under these dramatic circumstances Russia could have at least announced a truce were sadly proven wrong. This kind of behavior requires a greater interest by those who thought that Russia’s assertiveness was a reaction to some grievances caused by the West’s insensitiveness. This simply shows that a combination of Russia’s geopolitical interests and its domestic political structure makes it belligerent by default. The moment the Kremlin stops its narrative about a hostile outside (particularly Western) world, against whose worst efforts Putin keeps making Russia great again, Russians will start to show a greater attention to what all people normally want:  better wages and pensions, better infrastructure, healthcare, less corruption, etc. And those are much harder to deliver than “small victorious wars” in the neighborhood. But to have a greater freedom of action in the neighborhood, Putin needs to neutralize the Western opposition to what they see (and frankly is) as a naked aggression.

But it is not all about Russia. Europe needs to show more solidarity and be less shy to showcase it – German aid to Italy and its pledge of massive financial assistance went largely unnoticed. unlike the Russian special operation. Unless Italians, Spaniards and all Europeans see more joint effort, the task of those who are trying to achieve a fragmented and weakened Europe will become much easier.