November 13, 2020

Assessing the Russian Disinformation Campaign During COVID-19

Russian military trucks outside the San Giuseppe care home during its disinfection in Gorlago, Lombardy, northern Italy.
Russian military trucks outside the San Giuseppe care home during its disinfection in Gorlago, Lombardy, northern Italy.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Russia’s disinformation ecosystem has waged a comprehensive operation against various Western targets.

Both the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the EU’s External Action Service have identified a myriad of stories in pro-Kremlin media and social accounts that have sought to discredit the policies and performance of the Western democracies while painting Russian actions in a most positive light.[i] According to the State Department, during the pandemic, “the full Russian ecosystem of official state media, proxy news sites, and social media personas have been pushing multiple disinformation narratives”.[ii] These narratives have aimed to validate the Kremlin’s standard talking points about the alleged fragility of the US-led liberal rules-based international order, the benefits of national autonomy, and the ineffectiveness of democratic regimes and institutions.[iii]

However, Russia’s disinformation campaign during the pandemic has diverged in important respects from that of earlier Kremlin-backed influence operations. Major novelties have included sizeable foreign medical assistance operations; more targeted manipulation of existing social media debates; greater coordination with China’s foreign-influence operation; and an overtly focused effort to secure relief of sanctions on Moscow and its partners. The current information warfare domain is “offence-dominant”—it is easier to create malign content and apps than it is for governments and social media platforms to identify and counter these threats. Nonetheless, the campaign has failed to obscure Russia’s own COVID-related setbacks, induce even Russian aid recipients to relax their economic restrictions, or gain visible high-level official support in Moscow.

Moscow’s Disinformation Toolkit

Contemporary foreign-sponsored information operations exploit modern political advertising techniques as well as advances in communications technology, especially the world wide web, which allows actors to reach audiences almost anywhere on the globe nearly instantaneously. Though the techniques of Russian information operations have roots in former Soviet practices, like the Soviet strategy of maskirovka or military deception, the current Russian approach has taken the traditional emphasis on psychological warfare found in Soviet conceptualisations of propaganda and adapted it to use novel information technologies and social media, which take advantage of faster communication and the highly globalised nature of the 21st-century world. The internet, 24-hour news agencies, and the advent of digital media platforms have enhanced the Russian information warfare arsenal. Whereas during the Cold War it took Soviet intelligence years to plant disinformation in foreign publications that might be picked up in mainstream international media, the Kremlin can now rapidly disseminate its talking points and favourite falsehoods throughout the world by using coordinated official and covert (whose inauthentic accounts pretend to represent other actors) media postings. While the Soviets used to orchestrate their propaganda to promote a single coherent party line, the preferred Russian technique has become to push multiple storylines to make nothing certain or true. The latter messaging can muddy the objective reality of what has occurred through a barrage of falsehoods, conspiracy theories and deceptive information. Contemporary Russian media techniques also include taking a small truth and stretching it, crafting messages to elicit an emotional response, and pushing inflammatory content to exploit fissures among and within societies.

Thus far, the specific goals of Russia’s pandemic-related disinformation campaign have included undermining trust in objective facts and credible information sources concerning COVID-19; portraying democratic institutions as poor managers of the pandemic; increasing the anxiety, anger and mistrust of Western publics regarding their governments and other members of their societies; exacerbating tensions between Western countries, such as between EU members or between Europeans and Americans; and exploiting the pandemic to curtail sanctions on Russia.

In terms of tactics, during the current pandemic, the Russian foreign ministry took the lead in challenging Western news reports, which had claimed that the Kremlin was undercounting the number of COVID cases in the country. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused The New York Times and The Financial Times of propagating “fake news” and contributing to a Western campaign “to use the global crisis to discredit and destabilise the situation and some governments”. She further professed to be “shocked by the double standards of our Western partners and the media outlets they patronise, who call for combating fake news, including about the pandemic, while waging a real misinformation campaign against other countries”.[iv]

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin print, broadcast and social media accounts have offered contradictory messages regarding medical facts and sources while propagating various conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins. For example, some Russian-linked sources dismissed the threat from the SARS-CoV-2 virus; others exaggerated it.[v] Certain stories variously claimed the virus was invented by “very smart biologists and pharmacists” in Latvia, British military research facilities at Porton Down, or US-funded biological warfare laboratories. Some messaging pushed the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 disease was a hoax or a plot designed to enrich Big Pharma or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who could make a fortune in developing treatments and vaccines for the new illness.[vi] A related fake narrative was that Western elites were exploiting the virus to control local populations, for example through 5G networks that were actually spreading the pandemic (contributing to isolated attacks on these 5G towers).[vii] Perhaps the most popular media line was that the EU, NATO, and various European governments failed to protect their populations or selfishly refused to render needed aid to their less fortunate European partners or various disadvantaged groups.[viii]

In terms of operational impact, Russia’s combined information tools apparently succeeded in persuading some Ukrainians to engage in violent street protests against a non-existent biological threat. In mid-February, false rumours circulated that Ukrainian citizens and other non-Chinese nationals, arriving from China and undergoing temporary quarantine in the remote city of Novi Sanzhary, had tested positive for the virus. Subsequent investigation found that pro-Russian groups spoofed emails made to appear as if they came from the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, social media postings, and Russian-language TV broadcasts in which they falsely warned the inhabitants that the incoming travellers were Chinese nationals infected with COVID-19 and called on people to organise road blockades and other violent measures to prevent their arrival to protect their families.[ix]

Some Things Change

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 disinformation campaign has differed in important respects from previous Russian-backed influence operations. Perhaps the most visible novelty has been Russia’s rendering of medical assistance to foreign countries, which has provided many photo and video opportunities. Russia’s most prominent humanitarian ground game has been its delivery of medical equipment and deployments of active-duty biological warfare experts to northern Italy in March, under the slogan “From Russia with Love.”[x] According to the Russian defence ministry’s website, Russian and Italian nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protection troops disinfected almost 100 elderly boarding houses, 100 other structures and more than 220,000 square metres of paved roads in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. The website profiled Italian general Giuseppenicola Tota telling a Russian general that “We will never forget this … thank you Russia, thank you Russian brothers”.[xi] The military’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda cited Sergei Razov, the Russian ambassador, as claiming that he received hundreds of letters and phone calls from Italians thanking Russia and its president and appealing for more help. The Ambassador told the paper that “such requests would not be coming in” unless the Russian units were making a valuable contribution.[xii] Other Russian media outlets emphasised Russia’s generosity and quick action compared with EU paralysis and its abandonment of Italians in their time of need.[xiii] Since renewing the EU sanctions requires unanimous consent, the Russian aid deliveries to Italy probably had this end in mind. In recent years, Italian governments have enjoyed better relations with the Kremlin than many other EU or NATO countries, so Moscow might plausibly hope that, in gratitude for the aid, Italy could block the continuation of these sanctions by withholding approval. Another benefit of the Russian ground operations in Italy was that they provided Russia with opportunities to test its biological defence units on foreign operations as well as to collect intelligence on both the virus (improving threat assessments) and the crisis response capabilities of a major NATO ally (aiding vulnerability assessments) hosting important US defence facilities.[xiv] Russian media showed footage of Russian military vehicles travelling on Italian roads.[xv]

Moscow’s aid to Serbia was also covered extensively in the Russian media. Reporters further noted how the ventilators Russia delivered to New York were made by a subsidiary of the Rostec conglomerate and partly paid for by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, both sanctioned entities.[xvi] The official Twitter accounts of Russian diplomats highlighted these donations using the hashtag #RussiaHelps, while pro-Kremlin media underscored how the US was struggling in its response to the virus and had to appeal to Russia and China for medical equipment to compensate for its national shortages.[xvii] One Western observer argued that, in offering this aid, the Russian government had laid a propaganda trap to discredit the US sanctions policy.[xviii] Ironically, the Russian ventilators were never used due to their being removed from service by the Russian government itself following several cases of their spontaneously bursting into flames in hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The US later donated 200 ventilators to Russia without cost.

Russian-linked commentary about the pandemic has also denounced the inhumanity of maintaining sanctions on countries suffering from the COVID onslaught. In addition, president Putin and other Russian government leaders appealed directly to their foreign counterparts to remove these sanctions. For example, during a G20 video summit in March, Putin proposed, as a purely humanitarian issue during the pandemic, establishing “green corridors” that would exempt the purchase and delivery of food, medicine, equipment and technology from sanctions and trade restrictions.[xix] The Russian delegation to the UN proposed a so-called “Declaration on Solidarity in Countering COVID-19,” which called on member states to “abandon trade wars and unilateral sanctions bypassing the UN Security Council,” such as those adopted by the US against Russia, Syria and Iran.[xx] This appeal resembled that used by Russian leaders in previous years regarding the need to set aside disputes over Ukraine and other issues to unite against the common threat of international terrorism. Although foreign minister Sergey Lavrov lamented how Western sanctions were preventing Iran, Syria and North Korea from obtaining “badly need equipment, medications and special protection gear to counter the pandemic,” rolling back sanctions on these countries would make it harder to maintain them against Russia.[xxi]

Furthermore, the COVID-related Russian disinformation campaign differed from some previous ones in being more opportunistic and indigenous. In the 2016 US presidential elections, the Internet Research Agency and other Russian entities created or hijacked American identities to spread Moscow-manufactured divisive messages on social media. This year, in addition to generating their own content, Russian-linked outlets have frequently referenced falsehoods that originated with other sources, for instance by recirculating conspiracies blaming the US for the virus.[xxii] Russian trolls have intervened in existing debates to amplify already present confirmed narratives rather than inventing entirely new ones made in Moscow, which can be more easily identified as inauthentic.[xxiii] Publicising existing conspiracies and debates in foreign countries makes it harder to identify Russian disinformation operations since the narratives are locally produced and supported; their native content and forms of words would be hard for an external operator to quickly master.[xxiv] According to the US government, Russian sources also frequently referenced Chinese and Iranian media stories, which had themselves cited earlier Russian-originated narratives.[xxv] Through this circularity, Moscow has been able to legitimise and amplify falsehoods initially planted in Russian-controlled media sites.

The COVID-19 narrative battle has also seen enhanced Sino-Russian solidarity in the information domain. Russian officials repeatedly defended China against Western allegations that the PRC had, by concealing information about the virus, contributed to the global pandemic. Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov denounced Western criticism of Chinese and Russian humanitarian assistance and their alleged disinformation campaigns as “a new manifestation of Russophobic and Sinophobic sentiment” and as an attempt to settle the West’s “internal problems through external enemies”.[xxvi] China reciprocated by backing Moscow’s priority of exploiting the crisis to secure removal of the US and EU sanctions placed on Russia—without returning Crimea to Ukraine, adhering to the Minsk Agreement, or meeting the other legal requirements for their lifting. On 26 March, the two countries joined Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela in appealing to UN Secretary-General António Guterres to remove sanctions impeding international cooperation against the pandemic.[xxvii]

Assessing Successes and Failures

Russia has failed to secure major sanctions relief. One reason has been that Russian authorities have refused to make the policy changes required by legislation for suspending or removing the sanctions. Another was that the Russian appeal to humanitarian considerations could not escape being undercut by “friendly fire” from the concurrent Russian-linked disinformation campaigns attacking those very Western governments to which Moscow was appealing for sanctions relief.[xxviii]

An additional factor degrading Russia’s COVID-related information operations has been that the Western targets, having experienced Russian disinformation tactics for years, have been better prepared to counter them. For instance, prominent Italian media outlets discredited the “Russia with Love” campaign by disparaging the propaganda motivations behind the aid and citing the poor quality and inapplicability of the Russian assistance.[xxix] In addition, members of the European Parliament warned that Moscow was exploiting the pandemic to wage “public relation[s] campaigns” to roll back the EU’s sanctions, which they insisted did not hinder Russians’ access to medicines or medical equipment.[xxx] What’s more, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and the EEAS exposed Russian-linked fake messaging networks while social media platforms like Facebook, following guidance from their independent fact checkers, removed outlets that appeared to coordinate dissemination of the same messages, behaviour suggesting that they were software-controlled bots or paid human trolls rather than authentic independent bloggers.[xxxi]

Furthermore, Russia’s COVID-related information campaign was uniquely constrained by concerns that false information about the virus and how to respond to it would spill over into Russia’s internal situation. Downplaying the virus to foreign audiences could lead Russians to fail to make adequate preparations once the pandemic hit them with full force. Russian officials have notably eschewed repeating the outlandish comments sometimes found in the Russian-linked media. For example, in an interview on 6 April on Channel One Russia (Pervy Kanal), Russian health minister Mikhail Murashko acknowledged that “the majority are saying now that this is a natural virus, which has adapted to coexistence with humans. I see no reason to doubt that.”[xxxii]

The Kremlin’s propaganda at times tried to imply that authoritarian regimes like Russia’s have managed the pandemic better than the Western democracies.[xxxiii] Russian external messaging also strived to depict Russia as one of the world’s leaders in the global response to the pandemic. The Russian-linked media extensively covered Russian planes delivering medical assistance to other countries and Russian scientists’ leading role in developing medical countermeasures to COVID-19, and beginning human trials of a potential vaccine.[xxxiv] Internal sources reassuringly claimed that Russia was in a better place to manage COVID-19 than almost any other country.[xxxv] The Kremlin’s strategy of “coronavirus federalism” at home sought to shift blame for Russia’s pandemic setbacks from Putin to local authorities. Putin assumed a low profile and let the regional governors, large city mayors and federal government ministers have the major visible role in handling the crisis, giving them authority to impose restrictions and other response measures. The apparent aim of this “coronavirus federalism” was to shield Putin from any pandemic-related public discontent. The strategy has worked in the past, with Putin, like earlier tsars, presenting himself as a leader who operates above the incompetent subordinates.[xxxvi]

But such arguments faded as Russia succumbed to the virus like other countries. For several months, Russia became the third-most-infected country in the world after the US and Brazil, only overtaken by India in July. Domestic social media was replete with complaints about the lack of ventilators, tests and protective equipment in hospitals, especially beyond Moscow. A majority of Russian doctors suspected that the infection and death rates were higher than official statistics indicated.[xxxvii] One reason the Russian government curtailed its foreign COVID assistance may have been to address concerns that the outflow was contributing to the scarcity of medical equipment at home. Observers of the Russian disinformation ecosphere noted that, as the pandemic peaked in Russia, Kremlin-linked stories about COVID-19 decreased while coverage of other issues grew.[xxxviii] For example, Russian officials and broadcast media have found the racial protests in the US an irresistible opportunity to denounce Washington’s civil rights policies, highlight the risk of popular demonstrations evolving into violence, and insist that US officials should stop criticising Russia’s domestic policies and get their own house in order.[xxxix] Even so, the adverse domestic situation sapped the credulity of narratives asserting the Russian government’s superior performance over the West.

Finally, compared with some previous campaigns, the Russian disinformation system related to COVID was less coherent, spewing out contradictory falsehoods and bizarre conspiracies almost on autopilot, without deep thought or conviction. This situation contrasted with the more coordinated Chinese media offensive, which pushed the line that the PRC government was not responsible for the pandemic, had successfully managed its own domestic challenges related to COVID-19, and had led the international campaign against the pandemic. In some high-profile operations, such as the ones to discredit claims that Moscow was behind the chemical attack in Salisbury or the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, Russian media resorted to flooding the information space with high volumes of deceptive messages delivered through multiple digital media platforms. The goal was not to persuade but to distract, confuse, and cast doubt that there is any single truth. This lack of such a coordinated full-court disinformation campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic—with even senior government officials distancing themselves from the bizarre conspiracy theories sometimes found in Russian-linked social media—may have reflected the Kremlin’s desire to distance itself from some of the more outrageous messages; the initiative by semi-autonomous propagandists eager to push their preferred narratives; or disinformation automaticity, like the Soviet Union’s dead-hand nuclear retaliatory systems, in which previous Kremlin policies have created a self-perpetuating “disinformation ecosystem” designed to operate even in the absence of direct central guidance.[xl]


[i] Lea Gabrielle, “Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda Related to COVID-19 Special Briefing,” US Department of State, 27 March 2020,; and “EEAS Special Report: Disinformation on the Coronavirus: Short Assessment of the Information Environment,” EU vs Disinfo, 19 March 2020,

[ii] Gabrielle, “Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda”.

[iii] Dmitri Trenin, “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 20 March 2020,

[iv] “Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, May 14, 2020,”

[v] Barbara Wesel, “Is Russia running a coronavirus disinformation campaign?” Deutsche Welle, 20 March 2020,

[vi] “Capitalising on the Coronavirus Conspiracist Frenzy,” EU vs Disinfo, 14 May 2020,

[vii] “EEAS Special Report Update: Short Assessment of Narratives and Disinformation Around The Covid-19 Pandemic (UPDATE 23 APRIL – 18 MAY),” EU vs Disinfo, 20 May 2020,

[viii] Chris Strohm, “Justice Department Tracks Virus Disinformation by Russia, China,” Bloomberg, 9 April 2020,

[ix] Bohdan Ben, “The pro-Russian network behind coronavirus riots in a small Ukrainian town,” Euromaidanpress, 17 March 2020,

[x] Dario Cristiani, “Russian Motives Behind Helping Italy’s Coronavirus Response: A Multifaceted Approach”, The Jamestown Foundation, 8 April 2020,

[xi] “The Deputy chief of the NBC protection troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Major-General Sergey Kikot held a working meeting with corps General of Italian Armed Forces Giuseppenicola Tota,” Ministry of Defence, 30 April 2020,

[xii] “Three more Italian regions asking Russian military to help to fight pandemic,” TASS, 26 April 2020,

[xiii] “Disinfo: The EU left Italy face to face with an invisible and terrible enemy,” EU vs Disinfo, 13 April 2020,

[xiv] Mathieu Boulegue, “In a COVID-19 World, Russia Sticks to International Distancing,” Chatham House, 29 March 2020,; Natalia Antelava and Jacopo Iacoboni, “The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy,” 2 April 2020,; and Dario Cristiani, “Russian Motives Behind Helping Italy’s Coronavirus Response: A Multifaceted Approach,” Eurasia Daily Monitor Vol. 17 Issue 47, 8 April 2020, The Jamestown Foundation,

[xv] Cristiani, “Russian Motives Behind Helping Italy’s Coronavirus Response”.

[xvi] Matthew Lee, “Russia to the rescue?: US, Moscow spar over aid deliveries,” Associated Press, 4 April 2020,

[xvii] “Russia’s COVID-19 ‘humanitarian aid’ to the U.S. comes at a price,” DFRLab, 24 April 2020,

[xviii] Kseniya Kirillova, “Russia Tries to Capitalize on the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 13 April 2020,

[xix] “Президент России принял участие в экстренном саммите «Группы двадцати», который проходит в формате видеоконференции,” The Kremlin, 26 March 2020,; “The President is taking part in the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit,” The Kremlin, 26 March 2020,

[xx] Kirillova, “Russia Tries to Capitalize on the Coronavirus Pandemic”.

[xxi] “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to questions at a roundtable discussion with the participants of the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund in the videoconference format, Moscow, April 21, 2020,”

[xxii] Robin Emmott, “Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, an EU document says,” Reuters, 18 March 2020,; Jennifer Rankin, “Russian media ‘spreading Covid-19 disinformation’,” The Guardian, 18 March 2020,

[xxiii] Nicole Perlroth, “A Conspiracy Made in America May Have Been Spread by Russia,” 15 June 2020,

[xxiv] Mark Pomerleau, “Memes, the pandemic and the new tactics of information warfare,” 23 July 2020, C4ISRNet,

[xxv] Gabrielle, “Briefing on Disinformation and Propaganda”.

[xxvi] “Diplomat slams West’s biased ‘coronavirus disinfo’ claims against Russia, China,” TASS, 14 May 2020,

[xxvii] Maxim A. Suchkov, “Intel: Why Russia is getting involved in Mideast COVID-19 fight,” Al-Monitor, 9 April 2020,

[xxviii] “Coronavirus Disinformation: Moscow Overplays Its Hand,” EU vs Disinfo, 8 April 2020,

[xxix] Dmitry Zaks, “Italy and Russia Spar Over Alleged Coronavirus Spies,” The Moscow Times, 3 April 2020,

[xxx] Rikard Jozwiak, “EU Lawmakers Say Russia Using Coronavirus Crisis For Political Benefit,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3 April 2020,; Rikard Jozwiak, “NATO’s Stoltenberg Blasts Chinese, Russian Disinformation About Coronavirus,” RFE/RL, 27 April 2020,; Rikard Jozwiak, “Top EU Officials Rule Out Sanctions Relief For Russia,” RFE/RL, 10 June 2020,

[xxxi] “Removing More Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior From Iran and Russia,” Facebook, 21 October 2019,

[xxxii] “Мурашко не сомневается в естественном происхождении коронавируса,” Kommersant, 6 April 2020,

[xxxiii] Joerg Forbrig, “Transatlantic Take 360: How Are China and Russia Responding to and Capitalizing on the Coronavirus Crisis?,” The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 9 April 2020,; and Mark MacKinnon, “For China and Russia, coronavirus hoaxes are another strain of disinformation warfare,” The Globe and Mail, 27 March 2020,

[xxxiv] “Russia registers its first coronavirus express test,” TASS, 6 April 2020,; and AFP, “Russia Ready to Start Testing Coronavirus Vaccines on Humans in June ,” Moscow Times, 7 April 2020,

[xxxv] Nika Aleksejeva, “Amid the COVID 19 pandemic the Kremlin insists it has everything under control,” Digital Forensic Research Lab, 26 March 2020,; and “Disinfo: Russia is world’s best-prepared country to deal with second coronavirus wave,” EU vs Disinfo, 5 July 2020,

[xxxvi] Fabrice Deprez, “Russia’s Confusing COVID-19 Response,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 7 April 2020,

[xxxvii] Елена Мухаметшина, “Большинство российских врачей не доверяют официальной статистике по коронавирусу,” Vedomosti, 7 June 2020,

[xxxviii] “Are Pro-Kremlin Disinformation Outlets Disenchanted with the Coronavirus?,” EU vs Disinfo, 20 April 2020,

[xxxix] Andrew Higgins, “Russia Jumps on Floyd Killing as Proof of U.S. Hypocrisy,” The New York Times, 6 June 2020,

[xl] Mark Galeotti, “Coronavirus Propaganda a Problem for the Kremlin, Not a Ploy,” The Moscow Times, 6 April 2020,


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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