Kremlin Watch Briefing: How is the Chinese Communist Party manipulating the global pandemic?

Topics of the Week

Putin’s Chef threatens to the U.S. with a lawsuit while the U.S. senators urge the EU to put him on a sanctions list.

Tech companies attempt to coordinate the fight against misinformation amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Russia’s aid to Italy as foreign policy in the guise of humanitarian assistance

Good Old Soviet Joke

An old man is dying in a deserted hut. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door. 

“Who’s there?” the dying man asks. 

“Death” the visitor answers.

“Thank God, I thought it was KGB.”

Policy & Research News

US Senate urges the EU to sanction Putin’s Chef

On March 12th, US senators sent a letter to the EU Delegation to Washington urging the EU to sanction and isolate Yevgeny Prigozhin. Known as Putin’s chef, Prigozhin is behind IRA (International Research Agency, otherwise known as the troll factory), PMC Wagner Group and several companies variously operating as Russia’s deniable asset abroad. Wagner’s soldiers of fortune are known for their operations in Syria, Ukraine, and a number of African States, and their linkage to GRU.

Both Prigozhin and IRA engaged in African political landscape, have been indicted by the US over meddling in 2016 elections, and already started to influence 2020 US Presidential elections. It is alarming that Prigozhin is not on the EU sanctions list since he is one of the main faces of the Kremlin’s malign influence in Europe.

While similar Kremlin-linked groups already operate in the European Union, and Russia malign disinformation and kleptocracy push to foster polarization and anti-Atlantic sentiments, “joint U.S.-EU diplomatic and economic isolation efforts could be very effective”, the Senators remark.

Tech companies coordinate against misinformation

The US Chief Technology Officer calls tech companies to act coordinately amidst COVID-19 crises.  Adding on various steps already taken individually in the field, MicrosoftGoogle and YouTubeTwitterRedditLinkedinFacebook respond releasing a joint statement on fighting misinformation.

During the MSC last month, WHO defined the virus an “infodemic” before declaring it a pandemic.

Washington persists in its efforts to coordinate tech companies and AI experts in their attempt to cooperate confronting the virus, after FB recent blocking non-COVID-related contents.

FB updated its anti-spam policy to prevent harmful content sharing around COVID-19. The automated system may have failed due to changes to its content-moderator workforce, not fully able to work remotely due to privacy commitments. In this stage of ML, and with the massive use of social media, human supervision and coordination among tech companies, is crucial, experts say. 

US Developments

Prigozhin threatens the U.S. with a lawsuit

The United States Justice Department announced on March 16 that charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin’s company Concord Management and Consulting would be dropped. As many may remember, Prigozhin was largely responsible for Russian efforts to intervene in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Concord Management was accused of funding Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), otherwise known as “the troll factory,” which contributed to the 2016 interference campaign. The Justice Department dropped the charges due to the lacking mechanism for enforcing and sort of meaningful penalty on the Russian company. Subsequently, according to a report by the Moscow Times, Prigozhin claimed that he was wrongfully persecuted and said that he intended to bring a 50 billion dollar lawsuit against Washington.

An American is tried in Russia for espionage

In Russia, a trial against an American citizen from Michigan for espionage commenced on March 23. Paul Whelan, who was allegedly visiting Russia for a friend’s wedding, has been in a Russian prison since December of 2018. FSB agents allegedly found classified information on a USB drive in his possession, however, Whelan’s family and lawyers insist that this was planted. Whelan’s brother has expressed concerns about Paul’s treatment, highlighting that his health appears to be declining.  Attempts to secure the release of the former marine have been futile and Paul’s requests to contact family and relevant authorities have been denied, as has been medical treatment. The trial will not be open to the public due to Russian claims of security concerns due to the high-profile and espionage-related nature of the proceedings.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Russia’s aid to Italy: Foreign policy in the guise of humanitarian assistanceFew hours after the phone call between Putin and the Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, last Sunday the Russian army began flying medical aid to Italy to help it face the emergency caused by the dramatic spread of the coronavirus. This event presented Russian state media with a precious chance to insist on some of the Kremlin’s favourite narratives.Moscow’s swift mobilisation of resources in support of Italy has prompted Russian media to draw an easy parallel with the EU’s first response – or rather the lack of one – to the crisis. In this sense, through the words of European commentators and officials, the Kremlin has underscored the “[i]nconsistencies, the confused communication and … lack of solidarity” that has characterised the reaction of the European partners to the growing emergency in Italy.Recalling other instances where the assistance to Rome fell below the expectations, as during the refugee crisis, Russian media outlets have once more emphasised the EU’s inability to coordinate action between its Member States, suggesting the inadequacy of Brussels to face alone the challenges of the modern era and the need for the EU to reform itself.In fact, in these hours the Commission’s efforts in the direction of a Europe-wide coordinated solution have multiplied. Brussels has vowed that full flexibility will be provided for in the fiscal framework in order to accommodate exceptional spending needed to contain the coronavirus and mitigate its negative socio-economic effects. Equally, the Commission has announced that it will ensure that the free movement of essential healthcare goods will be upheld and that it will make available 37 billion euro from the EU budget in order to support the European healthcare sector, the labour market and the small and medium-sized enterprises.Russian state media have also framed Moscow’s act of solidarity from a foreign policy perspective, comparing the transnational threat posed by the coronavirus to terrorism, and remarking how Moscow’s assistance to Italy is consistent with Russia’s active participation in the fight against global threats. In this context, Russian media have amplified those appeals to the West to adopt an equally cooperative approach and to reciprocate the Kremlin’s display of solidarity – for example through the removal of the regime of sanctions or the dismissal of the rhetoric of demonization against those countries, including also China, that are standing out for their efforts to assist Western democracies.Finally, the Kremlin-sponsored media have not missed the chance to underline the military capabilities showcased by the Russian army in the speedy deployment of aid to Italy: “It took the air group from all over the European part of Russia just one night to assemble in the Moscow region. That shows the unique capabilities of the Russian military transport aviation” – a message intended both for domestic and foreign audience.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Friends or Frenemies? How Russia and Iran Compete and Cooperate

Nicole Grajewski, Foreign Policy Research Institute

In her report for the FPRI, Nicole Grajewski analyses the various axes of Russia-Iran cooperation and competition. Cooperation and conflict in areas including military-technical exchanges, opposition to U.S. unilateralism, security interests across the Middle East, South Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan and the Syrian Civil War illustrate the tenuous partnership between the two states. Their complex bilateral relations are irreducible to a single factor, as Russia attempts to balance its close relations with Iran while simultaneously continuing to expand relations with Iran’s adversaries, including Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

The oscillation in relations is demonstrated through the varying status of military-technical contracts between Tehran and Moscow. Growth of contracts between the Soviet Union and Iran in the late 1980s stagnated in the 1990s due to the Boris Yeltsin administration’s relationship with the United States. Putin’s rise in the 2000s resulted in new agreements on military-technical cooperation and arms contracts, but in 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev halted arms deliveries, resulting in the lowest point in the Russia-Iran relationship in recent history. The replacement of Medvedev in 2012 created conditions for the improvement of technical relations once more.

Although Moscow has used its relationship with Tehran as a bargaining chip in its relations with the United States, more often, opposition to U.S. actions has provided Russia and Iran with a sense of commonality even where their interests diverge. Both states strongly oppose U.S. unilateral sanctions policy. However, a flashpoint in tensions could arise due to Iranian discontent over Russia’s predatory business behaviour in Syria – Tehran sees the economic and political gains from Syrian reconstruction as existential to regime survival. These contradictions in the relationship between Iran and Russia across various policy areas suggest that the two states will continue to both cooperate and experience continued conflict going forward.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.