20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 15, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), in collaboration with the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR), hosted a panel discussion on the findings and lessons learned from the recently released reports “Jabbed in the Back” and “The Rise and Fall of Sputnik V.” Dalia Bankauskaitė, Ben Dubow, Olga Khvostunova, and Vera Michlin-Shapir shared their views on how Russia and China engaged in information warfare during the COVID-19 pandemic. James Lamond moderated the discussion.


 Left to right: Olga Khvostunova, Dalia Bankauskaitė, James Lamond, Vera Michlin-Shapir, and Ben Dubow.


As part of the conversation, James Lamond, Director of CEPA’s Democratic Resilience program, Dalia Bankauskaitė, Senior Fellow at CEPA, Ben Dubow, Fellow at CEPA, Olga Khvostunova, Director of IMR, and Vera Michlin-Shapir, Visiting Research Fellow at King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, King’s College London, discussed the following issues:  COVID-19’s role in shaping the use of information warfare between states, the extent to which disinformation is fueled by foreign actors, and if the West is focusing on and acting upon the right things within the information space. This event is available to watch here or on CEPA’s YouTube channel.


COVID-19’s role in the use of information warfare

Vera Michlin-Shapir, who co-authored, with Olga Khvostunova, the IMR report on Sputnik V disinformation, introduced a Russian interpretation of the term “информационная война/противоборство” (information war/fare), describing it as a state-backed effort aimed at psychological and emotional influence of the target audiences, bothinternational and domestic. Information warfare is complex, and information is not a straightforward weapon: unlike the push of a button that launches a missile, the impact of information employed as a weapon is hard to measure.  

Olga Khvostunova picked up where Vera left off, noting that IMR’s research on the Kremlin’s efforts to employ the Russian coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, as a tool of disinformation showed both the latter’s reach and limits. In the globalized world, the information sphere has become a shared space, and what happens in Russia echoes throughout the world, especially when the shared space is in turbulence. Due to the pandemic, previously hidden problems, such as vulnerabilities of democratic systems, have surfaced, and autocracies like Russia were quick to identify and exploit them. At the same time, she added, the Kremlin’s disinformation aimed at undermining the West backfired as Russia’s domestic vaccination campaign failed. The deeply rooted mistrust for the Russian vaccine turned out to be hard to overcome, despite the Lancet’s favorable review or Sputnik V’s genuine scientific merits.

According to Dalia Bankauskaitė, in Lithuania, on the eastern flank of the EU and NATO, the flow of information, disinformation, and misinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines generated by foreign states like Russia and China is quite active. The Baltic countries analyze societal resilience to misinformation on an annual basis, and this year’s score is lower than last year’s, showing a weakening response. This is why, she said, it is vital to “identify, prevent, and build societal resilience.” 


How disinformation is fueled by foreign actors and how they cooperate

Ben Dubow, one of the co-authors of CEPA’s report “Jabbed in the Back: Mapping Russian and Chinese Information Operations During COVID-19,” pointed out that the recent radical change in misinformation during the pandemic is shaped by two key factors: 1) the world became more filtered through social media; and 2) people communicate much less in person. Countries that seek influence, like China and Russia, approached this situation differently. Beijing tried to control its narratives but achieved limited results. In the early months of the pandemic, China managed to hide information about the origins of COVID-19, but as reporting on the Wuhan laboratory leak became widely known, opinion polls now show a significant reduction of public trust in China. Moscow’s information activity in the pandemic appeared to be more focused on sowing chaos, rather than pursuing specific goals or achieving anything constructive. Much of its propaganda in the West aimed at tearing down Western institutions and vaccines.

The report findings also showed the limited nature of cooperation between Russia and China, as they have different propaganda goals. Russia allows for more narratives to exist in the information space, as long as they don’t conflict with the Putin regime, while China’s Communist Party is focused on controlling the narrative from the top down. At the same time, while Beijing has a total monopoly on news in mainland China, it struggles to get its voice heard on the international arena.

Dalia Bankauskaitė agreed that Moscow didn’t care much about its international image, even though Sputnik V could have proved Russia’s scientific power—instead it used the vaccine to disrupt the West. She also highlighted the fact that foreign actors’ disinformation contributes to vaccine hesitancy, which essentially prolongs the pandemic. Describing the effects of disinformation, she used the analogy of throwing a stone into the water and watching the ripples radiate out. 


Pushing Sputnik V internationally

According to Olga Khvostunova, one of the interesting findings of the IMR report was that Russia tried immensely hard to push Sputnik V into international markets. She named two reasons for this effort: geopolitical influence and money. In terms of geopolitics, the Kremlin likely takes cues from the Soviet regime’s playbook, in which “humanitarian aid” to developing countries was often used as a “peaceful” Trojan horse. In terms of money, the Putin regime’s kleptocratic nature binds it to exploit the lucrative opportunities of the growing vaccine market, but, despite the proclamations of Sputnik V’s sponsors that its portfolio covers half of the world’s population, success has been limited at best. Khvostunova contrasted the regime’s powerful drive into the international markets with its disastrous domestic vaccination campaign, poorly coordinated response, and confused messaging, all of which clearly highlights the Kremlin’s real goals of pursuing self-interest at the cost of public healthcare.

Speaking of the Kremlin’s broader strategies, Vera Michlin-Shapir termed them a “discursive Cold War,” which today is being played out in the information space, where the emphasis is on disinformation and propaganda, but other activities, such as public diplomacy, can also blend in. She argued that what happened with Sputnik V was tragic: the Kremlin had a working vaccine that could have saved lives, but instead it pursued self-aggrandizing narratives, such as Russia has to be first and best everywhere and that everyone is trying to undermine its success. This tendency, she said, informed the name of IMR’s project: “The Kremlin complex: strengths and weaknesses of the Putin regime.”


What can the West do?  

According to Ben Dubow, the West’s approach tends to be too narrow, focusing on stamping out bad ideas, but it is impossible to stamp them all out, especially in an information environment that always promotes outrage. Another problem is that social media companies only address bad narratives, rather than the reason why they spread in the first place. These issues need to be tackled properly.

Olga Khvostunova agreed that the West tends to focus on the information wars instead of zooming out and seeing the big picture of international relationships. One of the problems is the large asymmetry in the ways that autocracies and Western democracies perceive disinformation. The information sphere is a shared space, but, as opposed to the West’s rule of law, procedures, and norms that limit it in some ways, authoritarian actors allow themselves to act more brazenly, as they follow a different set of rules and values. Another problem is social media companies, which have become a major issue in the public information space. Since these are, by and large, U.S. companies, it is up to the United States to own this problem and deal with it. According to Khvostunova , a simple place to start dealing with these and other issues is to retire the Cold War language that the Kremlin tried to force on the West, which would allow us to see the relationship with Russia for what it is.

Dalia Bankauskaitė concluded that the pandemic gave countries a chance to cooperate, but they wasted it: due to their different motives, today’s regimes have become deeply confrontational. But now is the time to switch from describing the issue to focusing on what to do about it. Bankauskaitė argued that the West should focus on societal resilience, gaining awareness of where we are, holding the media accountable while ensuring press freedom, pursuing societal education and media literacy, and creating demand for critical thinking.


* Liya Wizevich is a leadership team member at the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. She holds B.A. in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and M.Phil. in History from the University of Cambridge.