Putin Must Stop Exploiting Coronavirus for Geopolitical Gain

By: House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican McCaul

The Hill 

April 27, 2020

As the world battles the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin is following his favorite rule: “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Using the cover of coronavirus, Putin has tightened his grip at home and launched a charm offensive abroad. But his transparent attempts to rebrand Moscow as a responsible and capable global player – undeserving of international condemnation, political isolation and Western sanctions – should fool no one. Putin is not our friend and cannot be trusted.

In Russia, Putin is sharpening his tools of repression under the guise of combating coronavirus. Moscow’s mayor has expanded the city’s surveillance system and facial-recognition technology. The capital has also introduced a digital tracking system to enforce its lockdown. During a pandemic, this type of technology can be used by responsible actors to bolster public health efforts. However, in the hands of an authoritarian strongman like Putin, this technology will almost certainly be used to monitor Russian citizens long after lockdowns are lifted.

A new Russian law has made spreading false information about coronavirus punishable by fines and lengthy prison terms. While this appears to be a good faith effort to stop the spread of misinformation, there’s a catch: Russian authorities decide what is “false.” The Putin regime and its cronies are already dangerously abusing the law to silence criticism of the coronavirus response. For example, a Russian doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva was detained for voicing her concerns about inadequacies in their health care system and for questioning official figures on the virus’s spread in Russia.

Putin also has seized on the global misery and chaos caused by coronavirus to launch yet another harmful disinformation campaign. The Kremlin has done nothing to stop the development and spread of false reports that the United States created and weaponized the coronavirus. Putin’s sophisticated network of pro-Kremlin media, bots and trolls also have sought to further his longstanding goal of weakening the European Union, amplifying frustrations with the EU response to the pandemic and the idea that the EU itself is coming undone.

Meanwhile, the Russian-controlled media has extensively covered the medical supplies the Kremlin delivered to the United States as proof that Moscow is a responsible global actor. However, what on the surface appear to be gestures of good will are actually calculated moves for geopolitical gain. While the Russian media portrayed the medical supplies delivered to the United States as humanitarian aid, the State Department set the record straight that the United States purchased these supplies. The Putin regime also chose to deliver those supplies from a business linked to a Russian holding company under U.S. sanctions for developing weapons used in Russia’s war in Ukraine – an unambiguous message that undercutting Western sanctions, not assisting coronavirus-stricken New York, was the ultimate goal.

Medical supplies were also sent to Italy in Russian military vehicles adorned with “From Russia with Love,” and Russian and Italian flags flying side-by-side on them. The supplies were accompanied by Russian military personnel, raising concerns that the Kremlin also planned to gather intelligence in a key NATO ally’s territory. A whopping 80 percent of that aid reportedly was “useless” to Italian health professionals. In addition, videos spread by pro-Russian media showing the Russian anthem playing in the streets of Italy were later discredited. It’s clear the Putin regime cares more about winning the propaganda war, not the actual war the rest of the world is fighting together against the coronavirus.

Aid to Russia’s partner countries from Syria to Serbia are intended to reinforce Moscow’s strategic alliances. For example, Serbia has served as Russia’s bridgehead into the Western Balkans, which Moscow perceives to be in its sphere of influence.The large number of Russian soldiers sent to assist their Serbian counterparts in fighting the virus are not there for purely humanitarian reasons. Rather, Putin, who is unhappy with the region’s Western integration as well as China’s expanding role in Serbia, is working to solidify Russian influence in the country. 

Putin must stop exploiting this global pandemic for his own geopolitical gain and discontinue the Russian coronavirus disinformation campaign. In addition, he must end Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine and illegal occupation of Crimea, halt Russia’s ongoing slaughter of innocent people and bombings of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in Syria, cease continued efforts to meddle in the domestic affairs of the United States and our allies, and release the hundreds of political prisoners in Russia as well as U.S. citizen Paul Whelan.

If President Putin wants to be treated as a responsible global partner, he needs to start acting like one.