“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four”
Albert Camus, The Plague
Alphen, Netherlands. 27 March. How are China and Russia using ‘desinformatsiya’ to exploit the COVID-19 crisis in Europe? Today (0930 hrs EST/1530 hrs CET), the impressive Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington will hold a virtual panel discussion entitled Infektion Points: Russian and Chinese Disinformation on the Pandemic (https://www.cepa.org/infektion-points-russian-and-chines) The panel will include an old friend, Ed Lucas, Senior Vice-President at CEPA, as well as Jakub Janda, Executive Director at European Values, who has just written a fascinating paper entitled Chinese and Russian Disinfo Ops Compared and Contrasted (https://www.cepa.org/going-viral). The panel blurb refers to a little known Soviet disinformation campaign, Operation Infektion, and for good reason.
Operation Infektion, Operation Vorwaerts II or Operation Denver, as it was variously known, was a joint ‘information operation’ between the KGB and the East German Stasi. It began in 1983 with the aim of fostering anti-Americanism in those European states hosting US forces at the height of the Euromissiles crisis, during which Moscow came close to decoupling the defence of Europe from the US strategic nuclear umbrella. The narrative (all offensive KGB operations were built around some form of narrative) was that the Americans had ‘invented’ HIV/AIDS at Fort Derrick in Maryland and had intentionally-spread the disease across Europe.
Operation Infektion 2020
A variant of Operation Infektion seems to have been launched by Moscow, with much of it focussed on social media, to undermine the ability of European states to effectively manage the crisis. As such, Operation Infektion 2020 is simply the latest variant of applied disinformation in Russian statecraft. The so-called ‘Bronze soldier’ campaign in Estonia in 2007, the run-up to the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as a sustained campaign to deflect responsibility for the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian Army BUK missile, all conform to a pattern of Russian information operations.
The March 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, was another such case when two members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 bungled an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. Of late, Moscow has also tried to blame Warsaw for the outbreak of World War Two and mask Russia’s role in the ‘secret protocol’ to the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which carved Poland up between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps most cynically of all, Moscow has tried to shift responsibility for the 1940 Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, even though former President Mikhail Gorbachev formally apologised for the war crime.
This month the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) identified some eighty Russian COVID-19 disinformation injects over two months. The Guardian newspaper in London stated that “Coronavirus was claimed [by Russian disinformation] to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax”. According to the EEAS, the specific aim of Russian disinformation is to undermine popular trust in European health-care systems, whilst European Commission has also confirmed a marked increase in Russian disinformation efforts to that end since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Some of the claims are absurd. For example, in February Sputnik radio claimed that Britain and certain international organisations were seeking to force China to open its markets through force, in much the same way the British Empire did at the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and thereafter in what the Chinese call the ‘unequal treaties’. Russian disinformation is also amplifying claims made elsewhere to avoid Moscow’s ‘fingerprints’ being found on any one specific campaign.
China? On Wednesday, the G7 meeting failed to issue an official communique because Beijing took exception to US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo’s repeated assertion that China is the source of COVID-19 and that Beijing’s initial bungled efforts to suppress news of the outbreak helped facilitate its global spread. Worse, like Operation Infektion in the 1980s, the Chinese have also stated on the record that it was the American military that imported the virus into China. Why?
The effectiveness of disinformation does not depend on whether or not the information being peddled is believable by all, but believable where it matters in constituencies critical to the realisation of the broader national interest. Russian disinformation is as much a strategic reflex as a cohesive strategy, itself reflective of the strategic spoiler role Moscow has adopted, particularly in and around Europe. For Beijing two huge audiences are critical: the domestic audience, and the audience across much of the developing world. At home, the Communist Party of China is like the Pope, infallible, and must not be seen to fail. China is also in strategic competition with the US across much of the world. Absurd though Chinese disinformation may seem to most Western ears, it will have traction in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.
Why is disinformation dangerous?
Disinformation is also how future war would start. Operation Infektion was part of so-called Russian ‘active measures’ (aktivinyye meroproatia). Active measures were part of a broad strategy of offensive influence operations conducted by both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence (GRU) as part of what today I call 5D warfare: the considered and co-ordinated application of disinformation, destabilisation, deception, disruption and coercion through implied destruction. The strategic aim was, and is, to keep European states permanently politically and socially off-balance, and to exploit all and any divisions between the US and its European allies to thus undermine the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance.
As I write nine Russian warships are testing Britain’s defences. The Royal Navy has responded with at least seven surface ships. The Russian objective is to test the ability of the British state to respond militarily when some 10,000 British military personnel are engaged in supporting the civil authorities at a time when all other instruments of state are under intense pressure.
In fact, the Russians are doing the British a favour by reminding London of the strategic implications of the current crisis. Given all the money the British Government is pumping into crisis response the first instinct of HM Treasury will be to further limit investment elsewhere, most notably defence. With the Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign, security, defence and development policies underway, and the search for a new balance between defence effectiveness and efficiency, the current Russian incursions are a timely reminder of how Russia would seek to exploit disinformation for military ends in a future crisis.
Jekyll and Hyde China?
China? Beijing is a Jekyll and Hyde power. China’s Dr Jekyll offers support to Europe’s crisis response, whilst China’s Mr Hyde seeks to exploit it. As for collusion between Russia’s Mr Hydes and their Chinese counterparts, they are clearly sharing ‘best practice’ about the utility and application of disinformation, and both are clearly engaged in advanced information operations. Indeed, the very Jekyll and Hyde nature of China’s operation is fostering uncertainty, which is a strategic end in itself. However, the extent to which Beijing and Moscow have adopted a joint approach is as yet unclear.
However, Europeans should be under no illusion; there is a broad strategic information operation to exert Chinese and Russian influence to divide European states and/or undermine their ability to govern effectively during the crisis. Russia cannot help itself, but I had hoped (still do) that China, in particular, would adopt a more Mr Jekyll approach to dealing with the pandemic. Sadly, over the past week it is Beijing’s Mr Hydes who have the whip hand over policy preferring concealment and confrontation to collaboration and co-operation.
In time, disinformation campaigns do reveal an inelegant truth, à la Camus, about those who commission them. The problem is that by the time two and two has been added up to four the damage done can be grievous. As for Europe’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it should finally remind its leaders about a fundamental truism of geopolitics – s**t happens!