Disinformation of Russian origin has been confusing people in Poland and elsewhere. But some Polish MEPs begin to use messages that appear to be given to them by ‘friendly’ people.

Soon, because of the coronavirus, extreme poverty will take place on a large scale in Europe and in the US, where people will steal and fight for food.

Such a vision is presented by the Russian agency RIA Novosti in the text “Europe and the US are preparing for hunger riots.”

Is there anything to fear?

Hunger in Europe and all is well in Russia

Qu Dongyu

The state news agency has prepared for readers a bundle of statements that are out of context but which authenticate its thesis. The author, Maxim Rubchenko, quotes among others Qu Dongyu, Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Agency:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of people. Ineffective political decisions trigger a food crisis, leading to a universal humanitarian disaster.”

He also refers to Giuseppe Provenzano, the Italian minister of the southern regions who said to La Repubblica: “I am afraid that the concern of a large part of the population for health, income and the future will soon turn into anger and hatred.”

The article makes it clear that the case is a foregone conclusion. Especially since Belarus does not sell buckwheat, onion and garlic to the West. Moreover, Russia may soon stop exporting wheat.

The latter is particularly feared by the United States, as evidenced by the fact that grain on the Chicago commodity exchange grew by 11 per cent in two weeks.

Quotes do not reflect facts; they are opinions and warnings. But such statements are woven into the context of cases of shoplifting, including in Palermo (presented as a not infrequent phenomenon in Europe) they indicate that the West is already bad, and it will be even worse.

The authorities in the Kremlin use such texts to create their own propaganda of success. In contrast to what is supposedly happening in the West, they implicitly prove how good it is in Russia – under the rule of Vladimir Putin.

This is not the only act of disinformation in recent times.

Russia is still acting as a power

Since 2014, Russia has been isolated internationally because of its offensive policy towards Ukraine. excluded from the exclusive G8 group, a number of sanctions were imposed on it.

Despite this, Russia is still acting as a power: it fights for hegemony with the US and China. We are reminded of this in Syria, where Russia is engaging in military force.

Russia is also trying to destabilise the situation closer to home, destroying the unity of the European Union. For example, the agreement with Germany on Nord Stream 2 or the “Zapad” 2019 military exercises jointly with Belarus – a bogey for Poland and the Baltic States.

Such actions show great ambition and persistence. The iron curtain has fallen and there are no clear-cut influence zones, so Russia’s antagonism may seem strange.

Especially that the US dollar is an important accounting currency for wealthy Russians, and the Moscow International Business Centre draws architectural patterns from New York.

Contradictions may arise from the fact that Russian ambitions are not recognised internationally, in particular in Europe and the US. This breeds resentment: since the West does not understand us, we can do without it. Russia seems to create the image of a self-sufficient country.

The problem is that he transfers his grievances to others – through the annexation of Crimea or the destabilisation of Georgia. It gains such publicity and confirms its momentous significance.

Propaganda the most important art

Vladimir Putin

An integral element of all these activities is efficient propaganda, giving them the appropriate meaning and pronunciation. The media message also conditions this resentment among ordinary citizens and then provides significant public support for the government and its policy.

Even the best propaganda will not feed itself – facts and opinions from various sources are needed. The state-owned media machine diligently searches for content from abroad – from journalists, MEPs or other politicians who would be in line with the Russian thesis.

Skilful media strategists do not wait for the boom, they create it themselves. One example was Putin’s revisionist claims in December 2019 about the causes of the outbreak of the Second World War. Such disinformation tricks are widely commented on by the world media and that is what Russia is all about.

The more comments, the greater the chance that one will be consistent with its rhetoric.

Putin’s viral chance

Following the motto that there is an opportunity in every crisis, after the outbreak of the epidemic, Russia sent humanitarian convoys to Italy, a propagandistic copy of the white trucks for Donbas.

The lure was caught in the international press, and headlines of main media outlets across the Atlantic were alarming.

Russia and China are winning their propaganda war on the West by the timely and successful delivery of much needed medical equipment, while the EU and NATO responses are nowhere to be seen or these institutions seemed incapacitated.

The Russians managed to get the expected effect. About this calculated public relations effect, the Italian La Stampa thundered: “80 per cent of Russian supplies are completely useless or of little use. In sum, it is not much more than an excuse.”

The newspaper added that Putin “uses geopolitical and diplomatic opportunities,” because he saw “a chance to gain a position on the Italian political scene.”

La Stampa also noted that “all specialists sent from Russia have high military rank: general, colonel or major. They move freely around the country, a few steps from NATO bases.”

The propaganda dimension of assistance was demonstrated by a logo with the inscription “From Russia with Love” on the supply containers.

However, more facts help to counter the alarmists’ narrative.

As indicated by the European Commission, assistance from EU countries flowing to Italy includes a million masks and 20,000 protective suits from France, seven tons of protective measures and 300 respirators from Germany, 1.5 million masks from Austria, and 10,000 overalls from Czechia.

It is also not true that the US did not help – on 20 March, the Americans opened a field hospital in northern Italy, and NATO transport donated mobile medical equipment.

Von der Leyen apologises and Moscow is happy

The icing on the cake for Russian propaganda could be the apology of the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who stated in the European Parliament that Europe’s support for Italy was late.

These words may prove that “the EU cannot cope with the coronavirus, and we do.” Such a message sustains pro-government sentiment in the Russians.

Not only the European Commission gives fuel to build an alternative image of the world. Polish MEPs contribute the brick, criticising EU efforts. It is not surprising, since – at least in PiS – the example comes from above.

President Jarosław Kaczyński, after all, believes that “the crisis related to the epidemic has made many people aware of the weakness of the Union and highlighted the key importance of nation-states.”

The EU commissioner recommended by the PiS government, Janusz Wojciechowski, says the opposite – that the EU institutions acted first, but national governments did not listen: “On 9 January, the Commission launched the first alarm siren – notifying Member States of the threat in the early warning and response system (EWRS). For truth and justice in criticism – it is worth knowing.”

Another example. On 3 April, TVP Info Jacek Saryusz-Wolski said: “The Union during the coronavirus? Poor decision-making and lack of solidarity. (…) Poland responded very quickly to the epidemic; the EU is lagging behind the member countries. “

Meanwhile, the European Parliament approved the redirection of funds to combat coronavirus on 26 March, and the Polish Sejm voted the so-called anti-crisis shield on the night of 27-28 March.

Former Foreign Minister and PiS MEP Witold Waszczykowski pointed out in Rzeczpospolita that the current situation is “a good time for a sober look at the fantasy of the European army and green order. Rationalising these ideological ideas would give the Union funds to support the European economy in overcoming the effects of a pandemic.”

Similar demands were found in the ECR faction list, which PiS belongs to, to the EU authorities.

The global context changes the perspective of these otherwise humorous statements. They repeat comfortable narratives that make the Union a whipping boy and undermine Europe’s democratic information sovereignty.

In this way, they unwittingly certainly implement the Kremlin’s plan.

Focus on the European Parliament

European politicians have recently undergone intensive disinformation. MEPs in Brussels regularly receive materials that pretend to be independent newspapers and are in fact crafted manipulations. Even after detecting such cases, the Kremlin continues its activities.

This is the case with the EP Today news website, which turned out to be another instalment of the Kremlin Sputnik website and Russia Today television. The title is still followed on Twitter by many ECR politicians.

As indicated by the EU structure to combat disinformation East StratCom Taskforce, as much as 47 per cent of the contents published on EP Today were faithful reprints from RT.

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, from April 2017 to August 2019 only 25 articles of EP Today came from European politicians. This is important because any similar message can strengthen anti-EU sentiment that strikes Poland’s raison d’état.

Right-wing and nationalist movements, which even PiS is afraid of, are growing in popularity on the continent.

Russia wants Europe to believe it is torn by inescapable conflict of nation-states interests. Its intimidating comments and fallacies spread by alarmist reporting are in fact no less deadly than the current pandemic.

Democracies cannot contain this virus by covering mouths but perhaps an information quarantine could help.


About the project

Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners – including the Res Publica Foundation from Poland – are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy among the Members of the European Parliament (MEP).

As part of the #DemocraCE series it is also available in Polish on Polityka.

Michał Szkaradek & Wojciech Przybylski

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF