Vaccines Against European integration: how coronavirus became part of the information war

Photo credit: EAST NEWS. Arrival of Russian vaccine at the Buenos Aires airport 

Hybrid War

Article by: Liubov Tsybulska, Head of Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Yesterday, Ukraine sanctioned the top-3 Russian propaganda TV channels in Ukraine. They belong to the media empire of Russian President Putin’s top Ukrainian ally, Viktor Medvedchuk. In the last year, these channels have weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine Ukraine’s European Integration prospects. Liubov Tsybulska from the Hybrid Warfare Analysis Group explains how the Kremlin’s satellites in Ukraine manage to wreak geopolitical havoc amid a pandemic.

Russian MFA spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently stated that the “vaccine war” had begun. It is a typical Kremlin way of legitimizing extremely aggressive rhetoric – by portraying the situation as “we did not start this, it was the West. And we just have to defend ourselves.”

They do this in a peculiar way: trying to use a non-political topic to inflame public negative sentiments – up to protests, and to force the authorities to make unfavorable decisions.

This is a formula under which Kremlin is operating all over the world, but in Ukraine, they use it the most effectively due to several key factors: the presence of pro-Russian media and a wide variety of different types of politicians.

So, it is not surprising that for our country “Sputnik V” has become not just an information weapon, but also a vaccine against European integration.

Propaganda weapon of the Russian Federation

For Ukraine, the issue of vaccination is acute, as it will affect all spheres of life. Tourism, work and studying abroad – everywhere being vaccinated will mean open covid-curtains, as they are now called.

However, there is more to it. Because of vaccination, the country has been subjected to polarization along the lines “Russia or the West.”

Even before the new year began, our analytical group recorded the increased activity of both Russian and pro-Russian players in Ukraine. While people were sitting at home enjoying the festivities, two powerful narratives were rapidly advancing:

  • Europe is vaccinating its population at full speed, and they do not care about Ukraine. Ukraine will not receive Western vaccines.
  • Russia is ready to lend a helping hand and provide Ukrainians with its vaccine.

Traditionally, these messages are first stated by Kremlin actors and then disseminated by their satellites in Ukraine – media associated with Viktor Medvedchuk, as well as deputies from his political party.

At the same time, a petition appears on the president’s website demanding the purchase of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, Kharkiv company “Biolik” is trying to register it, and Dmitriy Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, claims that the production of Sputnik is possible in Ukraine if Ukrainian authorities agree to it.

The magnitude of conspiracy theories aimed at opponents of Western vaccines and vaccination in general also play an important role. They are distributed mainly through social networks and “junk websites”, where they have a lot of followers.

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All this propaganda is systematic, coordinated, and tailored to different audiences.

The shortcomings of other vaccines are scrupulously sought out, all the difficulties surrounding their introduction are reported, and each fatal case is covered as another absolute proof of their ineffectiveness. At the same time, openly manipulative points such as injecting microchips via vaccines or “the West uses Ukraine as a testing ground” are actively promoted.

On the other hand, any negotiations regarding the Russian vaccine are positioned as a great geopolitical victory.

So it is no coincidence that according to a poll by the sociological group “Rating”, 52% of Ukrainians are not ready to be vaccinated against coronavirus, even if the vaccine is free.

Before the point of no return

No matter what results Sputnik V shows, it has already become a powerful information weapon of the Russian Federation. Or even a vaccine against European integration.

The propagandists are quite literally demonstrating the wonders of verbal equilibristics: on the one hand by declaring external governance in Ukraine, and on the other – by trying to prove that the West is indifferent to us, so all our European aspirations are in vain.

Although Ukrainians are now hearing everywhere that European countries are seriously considering purchasing the Russian vaccine, the likelihood of this is very slim.

The main purpose of such news is to show that Ukrainian authorities deliberately do not want to save their citizens. However, one should not expect that the danger comes exclusively from the media owned by pro-Russian oligarchs.

There are a number of media outlets (and their owners) that will play on the Kremlin’s side situationally – when it benefits them on the political or economic level. And the topic of vaccination, of course, opens up great opportunities.

The Ukrainian government is now at a point where the chances of surviving this information operation still remain, but they decrease significantly each day. There are several possible scenarios available to propagandists. They all depend on the further steps of the Ukrainian government.

The most realistic scenario is to stir up sentiment both in Ukraine and against Ukraine in the West. And here, of course, Kremlin has great cards at hand. Almost any move of the Ukrainian government can be used against it. Especially when it comes to international communication.

  • Ukrainians do not get vaccinated at all: “Ukraine is a wild, unvaccinated country that should not be allowed into the EU.”
  • Ukrainians get vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine: “Ukraine is an unreliable partner that buys a vaccine of dubious quality from a country that has become a source of coronavirus.”
  • Ukrainians get vaccinated with the Russian vaccine: “There is no war, and thus sanctions can be lifted.”

It will be increasingly difficult for the authorities to explain to their citizens why their neighbors are being vaccinated and they are not. And if, under strong pressure, the Ukrainian government agrees to buy the Russian vaccine, it will open up Pandora’s box, which will unleash both a domestic and foreign policy crises that the authorities may lack the talent to solve.

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The only way to relieve tensions among Ukrainians and not lose the trust of international partners is to find an opportunity to vaccinate the population with a Western vaccine with proven effectiveness as soon as possible. But we need to start communicating this process now. Without even having a vaccine yet.

This should be a systemic communication across Ukraine that will have a clear explanation of when, how, and who will be vaccinated, and what it will mean for the whole country.

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