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The Week In Russia: The Anatomy Of Deceit

Russian police officers wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus patrol an almost empty Arbat Street in Moscow amid a citywide lockdown on April 2.
Russian police officers wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus patrol an almost empty Arbat Street in Moscow amid a citywide lockdown on April 2.

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In seventh-grade Latin class, the incomparable Irving Kizner taught us about one of Roman orator Cicero's rhetorical devices. As I recall, it's basically this: When you want to make sure your audience hears something, tell them that you won't mention it -- and then mention it.

The Russian state and particularly the Foreign Ministry have been using variations on this trick with some frequency since long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged -- certainly since President Vladimir Putin made Sergei Lavrov the minister in 2004.

With the coronavirus roaming the Earth, governments including Russia's are saying that the need to steer clear of lies and disinformation is more important than ever. In Russia, in fact, rights activists say the state is using a controversial law against "fake news" to clamp down on citizens who criticize its response to the pandemic or question the official numbers.

Meanwhile, though, Cicero's device remains in use, dovetailing with another long-standing go-to tactic to explain problems plaguing Russia: Blame the West, usually the United States. A March 29 report from state news agency TASS provided a particularly striking example -- once one whacks one's way through the verbiage.

The headline: "The Russian Foreign Ministry Does Not Have Information About An 'American Trace' In The Occurrence Of The Coronavirus."

You see what they're doing there, right? It gets better -- or worse, depending on your point of view.

'No Information'

Several lines in, the TASS story cites its single source, whom it identifies as an unnamed person in the Foreign Ministry, as repeating the headline with a slight twist: the ministry does not have such information "as of today"-- the unspoken suggestion being that it's just a matter of time.

Immediately after that comes the "however" moment.

The source is quoted as saying, "However, we have long observed with concern the military-biological activity of the United States, conducted in direct proximity to our borders," and then claiming that there are Pentagon-funded biological labs "in the countries of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia," adding that those latter countries "border China."

This is presumably a reference to bioresearch labs in Kazakhstan and Georgia that are associated with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, a U.S. initiative that was put in place after the 1991 Soviet collapse and aims to ensure the security of nuclear, chemical, and biological materials worldwide and curb the chances of their use.

The Nunn- Lugar laboratory in Georgia has long been the subject of dubious Russian claims. (file photo)
The Nunn- Lugar laboratory in Georgia has long been the subject of dubious Russian claims. (file photo)

The lab in Georgia, the Lugar Research Center, has for years been targeted without evidence by Russian officials and state-linked media outlets with claims, suggestions, and intimations that it is producing banned biological weapons. The United States says these claims are baseless, and independent experts who have examined the facility have backed up the U.S. position.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lab in Georgia has become part of the response, Georgian and U.S. officials say.

But it has also become a focus of what authorities in the United States and Europe say is a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at undermining trust in the ability of Western governments to protect their own citizens and lead an effective global response to the pandemic.

"A key piece of disinformation spread by both China and Russia -- and then repeated by friendly governments such as Iran's -- is a baseless accusation that the coronavirus, which originated in December in a seafood and live animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was instead a U.S. military bioweapon gone awry," an article in the Canadian newspaper The Globe And Mail said.

"The subplot to the stories Moscow and Beijing are selling is one of Western societies in decline, with authoritarian systems proving themselves superior to democratic ones in managing the crisis," the article published on March 27 said.

The idea that Western societies are in decline was being spread by the Kremlin in the months and years before the coronavirus pandemic; President Vladimir Putin said in June 2019 that liberalism had "outlived its purpose."

Now, COVID-19 has simply been slotted in, without evidence, as evidence of that decline.

Putin's comment about liberalism came ahead of a summit of the Group of 20 countries and in the context of migration. Arguing without specific examples that Western governments were protecting the rights of migrants at the expense of the security of the "core population," he said: "The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done…. The liberal idea has become obsolete."

Official Count Questioned

It seems ironic, or something, that "nothing" -- or not enough -- is what Kremlin critics accuse the Russian government of doing, for weeks, in response to the coronavirus. Russia moved quickly to restrict traffic across its frontiers, first with China and then nationwide, but was slower than many European countries and U.S. cities or states to impose or advise stay-at-home measures and other restrictions on movement within its borders.

And when it did, the West was again blamed -- or at least, developments held out as a horror story of what could happen and as reason that more restrictive measures were suddenly needed in Russia.

A placard designed in the style of Soviet propaganda posters at a construction site where a new hospital is being built for treating COVID-19 patients shows Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin saying "Builders! Every Minute Counts!"
A placard designed in the style of Soviet propaganda posters at a construction site where a new hospital is being built for treating COVID-19 patients shows Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin saying "Builders! Every Minute Counts!"

Late on the evening of March 29, when Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin abruptly announced that self-isolation measures stricter than those long in place in many European countries would be imposed at midnight, he was careful to say that the decisions taken by Putin and his government so far had been "very good" and had a "huge effect," limiting interpersonal contact and reducing movement around the Russian capital "by two-thirds."

"Nevertheless, the extremely negative development of events that we are seeing in the biggest cities of Europe and the United States raises huge alarm about the life and health of our citizens," Sobyanin added.

Amid concerns that the official count of COVID-19 cases and deaths from the disease may be substantially lower than the real figures, the numbers have risen sharply since Sobyanin spoke -- and similar measures were introduced in cities and regions across Russia.

On April 3, a day after Putin announced that stay-at-home measures would remain in place through the end of the month, Russia reported 4,149 positive tests so far and 34 deaths. But doubts about those numbers remained.

New Crisis, Old Tactics

The TASS report, meanwhile, also contains examples of a few other tried-and-not-so-true tricks of the disinformation -- or misinformation -- trade. One of them is the way it portrays two explanations of the origin of the coronavirus pandemic as equally plausible when in fact they are far from it.

Putin's government has used this tactic repeatedly in recent years in what critics say have been efforts to muddy the waters and raise questions about the strongly evidence-based conclusions pointing to Russian involvement in incidents such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 and the nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

In this case, it juxtaposes the widely accepted account of the outbreak's likely origin at a live-animal market in Wuhan, China, with what observers say is a main element of China's disinformation campaign: the notion that the coronavirus was brought to Wuhan by U.S. military personnel during the Military World Games in October 2019.

"That version was given prominence by Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who retweeted an article published by a Montreal-based website known for propagating conspiracy theories and pro-Russian disinformation," according to The Globe And Mail.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Without providing evidence, the TASS article suggests that story and the version that most researchers and studies agree on have equal weight.

"Major scientific work is needed" in order to definitively determine the source of the outbreak, it quotes the source as saying in a comment on what it called "the declarations by Washington and Beijing about the origins of the disease."

The TASS report's unnamed source urges the United States not to point the finger at China or play "propagandistic games around the coronavirus" -- but employs an elaborate argument to point the finger at the United States. Washington is to blame the report suggests -- because globalization.

In the "globalized world, when the majority of states are closely connected by transport links, the transmission of infections from one point on the planet to another is a matter of a few hours," the state news agency quotes the state employee as saying.

"It's enough to remember that it is precisely the United States that for many decades was the main driving force of globalization and tried to use it to further its own geopolitical and economic interests," the Foreign Ministry employee is quoted as saying. "Now [the United States] can probably only kick itself for not thinking about the negative side effects.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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