With a vast increase in new cases, Russia now has the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus infections. Although until recently, Russian media outlets argued that everything was under control, patients are queuing outside hospitals, an image that somewhat disturbs the whole narrative. Meanwhile, the situation globally is not losing momentum, with a sharp drop in oil prices, a jump in the unemployment rate, and the heightened disinformation activity.
In an interview, Maciej Jastrzębski, a Moscow-based foreign news correspondent of the Polish Radio, discusses the current affairs in Russia and the whole context of the country’s activities worldwide.
Berenika Grabowska: Is the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation capable of tackling the economic recession that is likely to loom resulting from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic?
Maciej Jastrzębski: Official reports say that Russia is able to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And it can perform efficient tasks –– so that neither the Ministry of Emergency Situations nor the military must conduct special operations. These two do not serve a pivotal role in combatting the pandemic, either. There is no evidence to disbelieve the country’s official tally of the infected and the deceased. The state authorities may, albeit to a small extent, understate or exaggerate the actual toll –– depending on political needs and circumstances –– or manipulate public moods through a mix of optimistic and pessimistic reports. Yet with a remarkably critical approach to the Kremlin from the country’s intellectuals, including health care workers, and the opposition’s immediate response to every single mistake from the government, state officials would have a puzzling challenge to distort statistic en masse.
As far as I believe, Vladimir Putin is much more busy caring about some image-related issues linked to how some of the state institutions perform their tasks under the so-called “worst-case scenario.” In short, the Kremlin is interested in whether Russian civil and military services can stand up to the challenges arising from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and whether these services are better prepared than the Western ones. I do not think that the coronavirus crisis has shifted Vladimir Putin’s approach to his internal and foreign policy. Citizens must know who is good and who is bad. This simple mechanism has not changed over the years. Pro-Kremlin officials keep talking about billions of roubles the Russian government has promised to allocate to help those most in need. Yet once we notice how many people are waiting to get these benefits, it rapidly turns out there is little money to go around. In addition to opposition politicians, there are more and more analysts and think tank researchers saying the Russian authorities are feeding the nation with illusory promises while painting a picture of Russia as a welfare state –– it is not.
And how has the country’s fight against the pandemic affected Moscow’s propaganda activities outside?
Some Russian political scientists say the threat of coronavirus has by no means impeded the Kremlin’s involvement in what is known as propaganda wars. Kremlin-friendly media outlets follow the instructions from Vladimir Putin’s aides and keep reminding who Russia’s friends and foes are. Reports on “hostile” activities by the West, chiefly the United States, take nearly as much space in the Russian media as fresh coronavirus updates. An authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin must keep his fellow countrymen convinced that everything is under control, and thus he –– as the president –– does not feel bothered by such “minutia” as nationwide lockdown, work-free holidays or business recovery programs –– though all of them are of utmost importance for the people, giving rise to widespread dissatisfaction. According to the Kremlin image specialists, the president is responsible for nothing more than setting directions while the decision-making burden falls to the prime minister, cabinet officials, and local leaders.
Seeking to devolve the responsibility, Vladimir Putin established a working group to address the novel coronavirus spread and coordinate tasks of services, ministries, and local offices, a move that gives him a huge amount of room for manoeuvre –– he got the right to speak of successes as if they were his own or shift responsibility to others as only when the situation gets dangerous. In a last-ditch effort, Vladimir Putin may declare a state of exception and deploy troops in the streets. But once the economic slowdown turns people’s lives upside down, this incurs a serious risk of big demonstrations on Red Square. In late April, after a month-long self-isolation regime, the crowd of 1,500 people, among whom were owners of bars and service companies, as well as traders, took to the main square of the city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia’s North Ossetia, to manifest a widespread sense that the government is doing too little to support those who have lost jobs. National Guard troops responded to the rally as the country’s officials were fearful of similar protests breaking out elsewhere in Russia.
So Putin was wrong and the coronavirus turned out to be a far “tougher player.” Despite all this, Russia is running an active disinformation campaign. The latest document produced by the EU’s foreign policy arm, the European External Action Service, said Russian had deployed a significant disinformation campaign. What is behind Russia’s activities?
Nothing has changed in the Kremlin’s information strategy for years. Like any other regime, Russia requires an enemy because it is the sole way its authorities could empower its dubious decisions. Vladimir Putin is no exception here. If the president has no intention of shouldering the responsibility for the poor condition of the economy, education, health care, and violation of human rights and civil liberties, he has a vested interest in furthering a narrative of an external threat. Surveys, published last year by the Levada Center, an independent research organization, found that fewer and fewer Russians are keen to trust Vladimir Putin and pro-Kremlin propaganda outlets. Thus, the Kremlin had to shift its anti-Western message strategy, focusing on multiple aspects of social life, global security, and economic stability.
An array of polls found that the United States has taken the top spot among Russia’s biggest foes, followed by some EU states, as well as Georgia and Ukraine, or countries with which Russia is at war. Internal disinformation is just one facet of the country’s propaganda efforts, with its foreign policy being another one. Russian strategists say any failure can be converted into success. For instance, they can make their fellow countrymen truly believe that with Western economic sanctions, domestic companies flourish, the cheaper the rouble, the more it is in the federal budget, or that Russia is the world’s only country where human rights, civil liberties, family and religious values are recognized. Likewise, Kremlin aides endeavor to “conquer the hearts” of the general public, including EU member states.
The ultimate goal is to return Russia to the status of a global superpower that wields an own sphere of influence and is able to shape the fate of the world. Thus, Kremlin strategists must try to compel the international community to lift sanctions on Russia and open its door to Moscow again. In its coronavirus offensive, Moscow dispatched what it named as “humanitarian relief” to the hardest-hit countries, like Italy to improve Russia’s image and cripple trust in the European Union.
Indeed, after the pandemic outbreak, Russian humanitarian aid received wide coverage in social media channels that got flooded with videos of Italy’s coronavirus epicenters and its residents who thanked Russia for its medical assistance. What does Russian help involve?
What is worth saying is that scenes of the convoy of military trucks, rolling across Italy like an occupying power, sought to solidify Russia’s propaganda coup and hammer home the idea that NATO and the European Union have abandoned Italy in its toughest hour. Still then, Kremlin-endorsed Russian-language media outlets, including TV broadcasters and news agencies, played videos and published reports of Italians showing their gratitude for Moscow whilst balking at the European Union. Here, the Russian tactic resembles the Soviet one. Nothing has changed over the decades –– there was no need. Showing “gratitude” publicly always brims tears in the eyes and win hearts of many.
But apart from improving Moscow’s image worldwide, by sending aid to another country, Russia is seeking to redraw global hierarchies. In general human perception, the one who offers help is always superior to the needy one. The country that accepts aid shows that it is weaker and cannot cope. Actions like Russia’s humanitarian mission in Italy undermine general trust in the European Union and NATO. Moscow gives deceptive hints that neither the EU institutions nor the military bloc can shield their members against insidious threats. Military convoys are just a tiny piece of the whole action meant to weaken the European unity and push Europeans into Moscow’s grip. Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Kremlin has used it to disseminate disinformation around the globe. State-controlled media Russia Today and Sputnik have broadcast false reports that impugned guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) and some government officials worldwide in an effort to undermine trust and sow chaos.
So are we likely to witness a massive shift in relations between the EU and Russia or ties within the bloc itself?
In a world full of intertwined interests –– whether these be political, economic, or social –– reshuffles and new alliances that could undermine the existing order are possible. Nonetheless, I would venture to say there would be no tilts in Moscow’s ties with the European Union. As for some EU states, they could hammer out new deals, mainly energy ones, yet “strategic alliances” or “friendly hugs” are absolutely out of question. Putin’s Russia is a country that must be under scrutiny. Over the past twenty years, the incumbent president set himself at loggerheads with all neighbors and violated many international rules. Russia is not a reliable partner for whom it would be worth quitting worldwide alliances.
If we take into account Kremlin’s propaganda coup or history, economy or ideology wars Russia has waged with basically all countries, we could presume that Vladimir Putin is not interested in nurturing long-term friendly ties. The Kremlin needs to build nothing but ad hoc alliances. In the long run, Russia has not abandoned its imperial pursuits and –– as we all know –– the empire does not any allies, it swallows up new states, making them its vassals. I think the coronavirus pandemic will exert a huge impact on how we perceive the world. I do not doubt that there will emerge more and more proponents of conspiracy theories, yet our daily life experience will teach us how to think autonomously and fact-check any information we encounter. Even today, while walking down the street, we tend to bypass every passer-by, fearing they might be a potential virus carrier. Why don’t we do the same while reading news in Russian-language media outlets?
North Macedonia has just become the 30th member of NATO, while Ukraine and Georgia are waiting in line to join the club. Vladimir Putin is rather unlikely to let Russia’s traditional zones of influence just go away. What plan could he have then?
Both the Russian president and his top aides are keen to renew Moscow’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics, with the latter’s Euro-Atlantic cravings being an obvious hindrance there. In Georgia and Ukraine, in addition to Moscow’s thwarted ambitions, at stake are any security-related issues. Russia is losing a buffer that used to separate its borders from what is referred to as the “hostile West” and that it served as a comfortable vantage point if the Kremlin ever had to go ahead with a military campaign in the Caucasus, Black Sea basin or on NATO’s eastern wing. Russia has no clear-cut plan for Tbilisi or Kyiv. In Georgia, Moscow has staged a number of provocations, chiefly along the demarcation line and in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The same is true for Ukraine, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. This is where the Kremlin incited conflicts where it does no longer have to take any extra steps as the situation is escalating anyway. All Moscow needs to do is foment it from time to time. Moscow strategists believe the North Atlantic Alliance will not be enthusiastic to align with countries being at war –– nor will it get into a direct confrontation with Russia. The Kremlin sees the bloc’s declaration on adding Ukraine and Georgia to the club, joint drills, or military hardware supplies as nothing but an element of an endless game. And Vladimir Putin has many times stretched NATO’s patience in this game. And what if NATO tried Putin’s patience?
Do you think that public opinion will ever come back to the Crimean issue? All signs are that it has lost its momentum while countries are slowly getting used to the existing status quo.
First, Russian propaganda sought to convince Russians and Crimeans, and then also the international community, that the peninsula “was, is, and will be” the historical cradle of the Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s statehood, and thus a vital part of Russia. Later on, Russian propaganda masters repeated like a mantra some slogans of “the will of the nation”, “a democratic referendum”, and “defending the nation against Banderovites.” At the very end of Russia’s attempt to “delete the annexation from collective memory,” the Kremlin pretended nothing had happened and that everyone had given its nod to the existent status quo. I do not think so. The whole democratic world, including global organizations, still remember what Moscow did in the Crimea and keep in force sanctions against the peninsula while excluding it from any joint projects, whether they be linked to economy, politics, society, sport, or culture.
As for Moscow’s seizing of Crimea, Russia has successfully manipulated public opinion. By inviting Western politicians and journalists there, the Kremlin wanted them to answer the question of whether the area is safe or not. And after just a few days in Sevastopol, Yalta, or Bakhchisarai and following some chit chats with residents, guests from the West believed that it is safe to visit the place. They first report it to Russian state-run media outlets, while then they share what they saw with their fellow countrymen. Where are manipulative practices? The mere annexation of Crimea is not at all about the peninsula’s alleged danger –– that lessened once Russia took a firm grip on its territory. There is another question that Russian propagandists cunningly wiped out from public awareness. Is this allowed to violate international deals, send one’s army to another country, and then stage a referendum? Let put it this way –– is it allowed to lie, cheat, and steal? So if we answer positively this question, then the worldwide community must not let the world skip about what Russia did in Crimea, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
So what is the current condition of the Russian economy? Is Russia economically strong enough to remain a robust actor worldwide?
Since 2014, Russia has been troubled by grave economic problems. Amid Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, Western states, including the United States and EU countries, inflicted economic sanctions targeting the country. These were followed by new punitive measures after Russian intelligence services had meddled into the domestic affairs of other countries. As a retaliatory step, Moscow ratcheted up a ban on the import of agricultural products from the countries that applied economic sanctions against Russia. This delivered a hard blow to the Russian economy. For the past five years, Russia’s federal budget has seen massive fluctuations on and off –– amid a dramatic drop in oil prices and hence the freefalling rouble. Russia is making continuous efforts to maintain the position of a stable player through dozens of money injections to relieve local companies, lifelines for state-run businesses and banks, as well as the foreign ministry’s aid for Russian citizens abroad and that from the defense ministry to upgrade the army. It is hard to say whether this is the reality or just an appearance. Is Russia in a delicate economic situation? Yes, it is. Is this a dramatic situation? No. Russia has amassed some savings and so it has energy resources or precious stones and metals –– it will survive the crisis somehow. Once the pandemic is gone and the Russians grasp how big losses they suffered, how many people lost their jobs, and how many of their neighbors became rich, Vladimir Putin will be either tasked with getting money to solve the economic conundrum or otherwise crowds will take to the streets.
Interview by Berenika Grabowska and Małgorzata Cichal, The Warsaw Institute Review
Maciej Jastrzębski is a Moscow-based foreign news correspondent of the Polish Radio. During his journalistic career in dozen of countries around the globe, he described an array of armed conflicts and major social and political events. An author of five Polish-language journalistic novels: Matrioszka Rosja i Jastrząb, Rubinowe oczy Kremla, Krym: miłość i nienawiść, Klątwa gruzińskiego tortu, and Przekleństwo cara Iwana.