The psychological operation and disinformation campaign in Italy during the crisis28.04.2020
What did the Russian servicemen, who came to help fight the coronavirus epidemics, do in Italy for real? Ukrinform provides its own translation of the article published by the Institute of Global Threats and Democracies, which reveals Russia’s information campaigns in Italy and questions the motive of the Russian aid.
A group of the Russian servicemen arrived in Italy at the exact time, when social media was ripe with campaign actively lobbying for the country’s leaving the EU. Similar messages were disseminated with the same hashtag by a group of Twitter accounts in February and March. There are reasons to believe that they were created outside Italy.
A good example of the latest Russian disinformation campaign is when Poland first and then together with Ukraine, were accused of closing their aviation routes for the Russian military cargo aircraft carrying specialists and aid destined for Italy. However, a quick analysis of the aviation routes show that the shortest path from the aviation base near Moscow to the Practica di Mare Airport is via Belarus and not Ukraine. Therefore, the latter was mentioned to ruin the country’s reputation because of the long-lasting conflict with Russia.
A twit with hashtag #ITALEXIT
It was established that disinformation was disseminated by the Italian accounts, which had previously been used in the propaganda materials, created by the Ministry of Defense of Russia. As of 26 March, that is 3 days after the publication of the Russian video, the Twit with a reference to the material, was deleted.
The Twit of propaganda nature (now deleted) was shown on the Russian TV Channel “ZVEZDA”
A large number of accounts that disseminate Russian views are also involved in spreading anti-migration messages and speeches in support of Mateo Salvini. It is likely that the campaign for Italy’s leaving the EU was organized and supported by the Lega Nord Party and is not associated with the Kremlin. However, the fact that some accounts contributed to disinformation against Poland and in favor of Russia could mean the following:
The same account shared this disinformation and contributed to the Russian propaganda on ZVEZDA TV channel. The route doesn’t lie via 9 EU states
- The support and promotion of the leader of Lega Nord by Russia
- Agreement with Italian far-right nationalists about a mutual support and promotion of interests
Due to the financial gap between the rich and the poor, as well as regional differences in households’ incomes, left-wing views traditionally sit well with the Italian people. This makes anti-Brussels sentiments compatible with ideological preferences of the Italians. However, Russian narratives easily reinforce these sentiments. As an example, unlike heated debates about EU policies, Italy was always loyal to NATO, where anti-NATO messages in the social media were of Russian origin. This anti-NATO narrative was born out of the military drill “The Defender of Europe 2020” and training provided by US military units. It shows there is a military information campaign orchestrated from abroad in Italy.
The Russian information sources, which are linked to the Russian Foreign Service and Military Intelligence, are trying hard to stop the dissemination of the article published in the Italian La Stampa, where journalists confirm that about 80% of the aid that was supplied by Russia cannot be used for overcoming the coronavirus.
The key message of the Russian information campaign is to convince the general public that the EU are incapable of providing the support to Italy (news about German assistance is shut down or ignored) and Russia is the only country that can help out.
At the same time, China will not turn a blind as a mere observer of the campaign. Beijing is also interested in boosting its presence in Italy after the pandemics ends.
The Russian campaign has two stages. The second one envisages lifting of the EU sanctions and a quick rapprochement with the Kremlin.
The message about lifting sanctions of Russia in the propaganda-induced Twit (Russian TV Channel “ZVEZDA”, 04:29)
Moscow does not have an immediate objective of Italy’s exit from the EU. The efforts are made to destabilize European institutions and influence the public opinion. This makes a long-term strategic goal, but at this stage, the more likely scenario is to join efforts with political allies of the Kremlin in Italy.
The list of the crew who arrived in Italy consisted of journalists, make up artists, sound equipment specialists and other staff with no relevance for the medical sphere, which clearly points at the Russian military mission. There were also military servicemen, not the medical personnel or chemical protection units, who most likely were part of the Russian special forces.
Some members of the team, who likely represented the Special Task Force of Russia.
After arriving at Pratica di Mare, the Russian military technical convoy moved 600 km to Bergamo. Landing of the Russian airplane at the airport of Lombardia would have saved time and money for the petrol needed for the convoy and aviation fuel for 9 cargo aircraft. This visit of the Russian groups across the country reminds of the propaganda campaign or even a military drill in practicing landing for the front team with its further advancement to a destination.
Oleksandr Sladkov, a Russian military journalist, who is linked to military intelligence, said that the mission was the “humanitarian axe into the chest of the NATO”. He added that the scale of this operation was akin to the break-through of the Russian paratroopers in the support of Kosovan Serbs in Kosovo (Slatina Airport) in 1999. The press correspondent of ZVEZDA, which is owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense, called the crew that landed ‘a Russian group in Italy”.
In the Russian military mission, among others, was General Serhii Kikot, who awarded Assad in the Hague in 2019, claiming he had never used chemical weapon in the Syrian town of Duma.
General Serhii Kikot
The group also listed lieutenant-colonel Aleksandr Yumanov, colonel, Aleksey Smirnov, lieutenant colonel Hennadiy Yeremin and liteutenant-colonel Viacheslav Kulish.
These officers took part if the project related to Ebola, which was developed by the 48th Central Scientific and Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and state-run enterprise VEKTOR, which had been used to develop chemical weapon during the Soviet times. It is important to note that despite a lot of work put into the Ebola project, the Russian could not create an effective vaccine, which would be approved in the USA and EU. In 2018, VEKTOR and 48th scientific institute under the auspices of the Russian defense ministry, were accused of trying to create a new highly virulent military virus of hemorrhagic fever. Notably, these officers were introduced to the Italian partners as the servicemen from the Military and Medical Academy in Kirov, although they work for the4 8th Central Scientific and Research Institute, which specializes in biological weapon.
The screenshot of the news report of the TV Channel ZVEZDA.
The key Russian objective is to collect a biological material of Italians, who contracted COVID-19, as well as to learn about the disease’s progression and methods used by Italy to then replicate in Russia.
Experts believe that there is a high likelihood that Russia will have a spike of the coronovirus epidemics, similarly to the Italian scenario. Available information suggests that the Russian authorities consider imposing a curfew in Moscow. At the same time, they also agree that it will be impossible to enforce this type of quarantine due to a bad infrastructure. Therefore, the Russians could be also collecting information in Italy to develop a strategy of fighting the virus, when it spirals inside their own country.
The screenshot taken from a Russian Telegram channel, which shows the forecast of progression of COVID-19 in Russia, similarly to the Italian scenario. This information is not corroborated.