While the whole world copes with the crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic responsible for COVID-19, Moscow has been attempting to take advantage of the situation. Under the pretext of helping them tackle a “common misfortune,” the Kremlin hopes, at a minimum, to pressure Western countries into easing sanctions and accepting the Russian annexation of Crimea. As a maximalist goal, Moscow wants to use the crisis to set in motion a redivision of the world.
One of the first steps in implementing this strategy was the attempt, made earlier this month by Moscow and its allies, to draft a United Nations resolution on lifting international sanctions under the pretext of combating coronavirus. The document was called the “Declaration of Solidarity in the Fight Against Coronavirus” and, in addition to general platitudes about the need for states to cooperate with each other and with the World Health Organization (WHO), it urged countries to “abandon trade wars and unilateral sanctions bypassing the UN Security Council.” The UN General Assembly rejected the version proposed by Moscow, however, instead approving a resolution entitled “Global Solidarity to Fight the Coronavirus Disease 2019” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, April 3).
Earlier, at a meeting of G20 leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed abandoning international sanctions related to medicines, food, equipment, and technology during the coronavirus pandemic (Kremlin.ru, March 26). To reinforce this message, the Kremlin sent medical equipment to the United States under the guise of humanitarian aid. As it turned out later, this assistance was, in fact, bought and paid for by the United States (Twitter.com, April 1; Un.org, April 2).
Moreover, part of the equipment delivered to the US included Aventa-M mechanical ventilators manufactured by the Radioelectronic Technologies Concern (RETC), a firm that notably falls under Russia’s high-technology state corporation Rostec, sanctioned by the Barack Obama administration since July 2014. Indeed, RETC has itself been under the same US sanctions since that time (RBC, April 3). Moscow’s “aid package” sale, without a doubt, was provocative because, having accepted this shipment, Washington unwittingly fell into a Russian propaganda trap. Soon thereafter, Russian propaganda sources began stating that the US government’s acceptance of the aid effectively proved the ‘harmfulness’ and futility of sanctions, especially in the face of a global threat.
Russian assistance provided to Italy (see EDM, April 8) was also accompanied by a large-scale information campaign, which included disinformation regarding European Union aid to Italy, and called for the lifting of sanctions. Against this backdrop, the head of Kremlin-controlled Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, recalled that some provincial Italian legislatures had already recognized the Russian status of the annexed peninsula (Krymr.com, April 1). In this regard, the director of the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine, former (2008–2016) Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey Sergey Korsunsky, noted that the Kremlin is trying to use the pandemic not only to encourage the lifting of international sanctions on Russia but also to advance global recognition of the annexation of Crimea (Krymr.com, April 1).
Such attempts have already provoked a negative reaction from some members of the European Parliament, who addressed the EU leadership with a letter noting that Russian political maneuvers around the possibility of lifting sanctions have nothing to do with the fight against infection. The parliamentarians pointed out that the restrictions imposed for the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas in no way prevent Moscow from caring for the health of its citizens or contributing to the global fight against the coronavirus (Radio Svoboda, April 3).
At the same time, some recent commentary by individuals close to the Kremlin has been quite revealing: the goal of Russian activities during the pandemic is to “dismantle the rotten system” of existing international institutions and create a new world order. “When this ‘third world war’ against the coronavirus ends, it will be necessary to hold a ‘new Yalta’ conference, possibly in Crimea, and discuss a new world order,” said Alexander Malkevich, the chairperson of the Public Chamber’s Media Commission and the president of the Moscow-based Foundation for National Values Protection (Vechernyia Moskva, April 3).
Russian authorities are also using the global pandemic as an opportunity to introduce a mass surveillance system to keep tabs on the country’s citizens. The government has already implemented a facial recognition system on street video cameras that automatically mines online social media networks, allowing a targeted person to be fully identified and electronically monitored. According to an IT specialist from San Francisco and a member of the Free Russia Forum, Michael Talanov, these systems were originally tested in Moscow and occupied Crimea. According to the expert, the Kremlin fears that the new restrictions caused by the pandemic may fuel popular discontent against the government; therefore, officials are trying to introduce total control over everything happening on the peninsula—including groups traditionally opposed to Russian rule, such as the Crimean Tatars (Krymr.com, April 8).
At the same time, Moscow is increasing its confrontation with global digital giants. Pro-Kremlin media routinely claims that US IT companies seek to “kill” Russian businesses and that the state’s task is to prevent them from succeeding (Life.ru, April 2). According to Talanov, the Kremlin is attempting to create the illusion of a ‘besieged fortress’ in order to justify the introduction of a ‘sovereign Internet.’ Such a system would allow the Russian authorities not only to intercept but even replace all Internet traffic inside Russian borders with government-approved messaging.
Paradoxically, against the backdrop of these attempts to strengthen centralization, the COVID-19 pandemic in Russia has actually led to the increased independence of the regional governments. After Vladimir Putin dodged responsibility for setting appropriate self-isolation measures by passing the burden on to the regional governors, the subjects of the federation introduced their own laws regarding quarantine and its implementation (see EDM, April 6).
As a result, each region of the Russian Federation is presently forced to cope with the pandemic on its own, dealing not only with quarantine issues, but also with the search for coronavirus tests, remedies, access to medical care and so on (Region.expert, April 3). At the same time, as Russian commentators note, residents of the Russian periphery are not receiving the same support and benefits as Muscovites, resulting in greater regional dissatisfaction (Ura.ru, April 5). Therefore, when the pandemic is finally over, Moscow may encounter difficulties trying to drive the regions back into the “strict vertical” of power.