The Covid-19 pandemic has been a game-changer in the disinformation scene. While the threat existed for decades, it was the spread of the novel coronavirus that showed how tangible and deadly an effect it can have. As the world’s governments attempt to tackle this new crisis, their efforts are hampered by vaccine hesitancy and the infodemic-driven anti-vaxxer movements.
But there is a method to madness here. Russia and China, the main actors on the disinformation scene, are said to be responsible for a staggering 92% of Covid-related fake news. Their goals are not hard to guess, be it sowing discontent inside rival countries or extending their influence by promoting Russian and Chinese vaccines.
The less apparent objective, however, goes beyond Sputnik and Sinopharm or anti-vaxxer protests.
The post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – the continent’s leaders in vaccine hesitancy – have become an important battleground of this new Cold War. By exploiting insecurities and fears intrinsic to these nations, the Russian and Chinese narratives depict the liberal West as weak, decadent and incompetent, and therefore incapable of managing the covid crisis or producing reliable vaccines.
In turn, they provide an attractive alternative – the strong, decisive and “masculine” leadership of Moscow and Beijing’s regimes. This narrative is resurrecting the competition of two ideologies and of two – now only seemingly equal – superpower blocs.
From a broader perspective, this covid strategy is only another of the Kremlin’s most recent displays of delimiting Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, spheres of Russian influence, harkening back to the pre-1989 times.
The Cold War’s legacy
Most of the former Soviet republics and satellites in Europe have been plagued by distrust towards vaccines, or, for that matter, any official news concerning the pandemic. The EU’s East is clearly lagging behind their western counterparts with their vaccination efforts, while Ukraine’s rates are even lower. As Covid vaccines are becoming widely available in Europe, experts associate this trend with disinformation and vaccine hesitancy.
Certainly, the low trust not only towards the government but also the media and science plays a major role.
Decades of communist rule, followed by a rocky and corruption-stricken transition period, have stripped many Central and Eastern Europeans of trust within their own state.
However, that is not the region’s only legacy of the Cold War era. A report by the Slovak think-tank Globsec identifies several attitudes and views common in Central and Eastern European countries. These reveal how the shadow of Soviet-American competition persists in the minds of many and shapes viewpoints even today.
- First of all, a strong sense of inferiority. Decades of Soviet suzerainty have taught people to rely on their security, not on their domestic government, but on a stronger “big brother.” Most likely, this stems not merely from the official narrative about hawkish Western imperialists, held back only by the Soviet military power. Soviet-bloc governments and militaries were at the mercy of Moscow itself, as Hungarians learned in 1956, or Czechoslovaks in 1968. Once the USSR fell apart, this sense of security dependence simply shifted to the new “big brother” — the United States and NATO.
- Tied to inferiority is the sense of insecurity. The United States may be an ally now and the new “big brother,” but they are far away and occupied elsewhere. Russia, on the other hand, is close, active, and threatening. There are fears that should Russia make a move, the US will not be there to stop them. This ties into the third trait:
- Idealization and overestimation of Russia and other authoritarian regimes. Though the popularity of Putin’s regime has been dropping globally, the same cannot be said for the respect of Moscow’s power and influence. Likely thinking back on the times of the Soviet superpower, Central and Eastern Europeans often overestimate Russia’s military and economic power high above its actual ranking. Sometimes even equal or superseding that of the US.
People also tend to describe Russia by strongly emotional attributes, like “masculine” and “strong.” Putin is then depicted as an epitome of a decisive and daunting leader, in stark contrast to Western bureaucrats. This transcends also to other dictatorial regimes, including China.
So how exactly can Russia and China exploit these attitudes?
- Inflate the power and influence of Russia and China. Support the narrative of two competing superpower blocs.
- Link the West and the liberal democratic system with emotionally-based traits like decadency, weakness, and incompetence, while associating the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China with strength, masculinity and competence. By discrediting the West, you discredit the Western vaccines. By promoting Russia and China, you promote the Russian and the Chinese vaccines.
- Covid is deepening the already prevalent sense of insecurity. Use disinformation to spread fear abroad and increase the insecurity further. Create a fearful population.
- Present Russia and China as the saviours. Offer vaccines and other aid. By cherry-picking Beijing’s and Moscow’s acts of help and domestic successes, create a doctored success story in a contrast with the chaotic and incompetent West.
This is not merely a presumption. An analysis by Ukraine Media Crisis Center shows that this is indeed how Russian and Chinese narratives are tailored. In fact, the key objectives identified by the Center match the vulnerabilities of CEE almost perfectly: discredit the Western democracies and their alliances, dissuade potential members from joining them, and present liberal values as obsolete, inferior to the leadership of authoritarian regimes.
It is not necessary for Russia and China to achieve all of these goals. The minimal effect can indeed be simple destabilization and unrest. It can also lead to creating demand for Russian and Chinese vaccines, and to fostering dependency through their supplies.
But the ultimate goal is convincing the local populations that the covid pandemic revealed the decay and weakness of Western liberal democracy and that the only safe path lies with Moscow and Beijing and their regimes.
The effects can already be seen.
Hungary, the illiberal “black sheep” of the EU with sympathies towards both Moscow and Beijing, even considered this May to opt-out from purchasing EU vaccines completely, arguing that the cheaper Sputnik and Sinopharm are sufficient. Needless to say, amidst the country’s most recent wave, Budapest silently rejoined the EU’s vaccination plan.
In Ukraine, the pro-Russian regions are also the ones most likely to distrust the Western vaccines, while putting more faith in Sputnik V. Since the Russian vaccine is not distributed in the country (bar the occupied territories), it leads to some people longing for unattainable Sputnik while refusing the free and widely accessible Western counterparts. Their preference is influenced by Soviet-era nostalgia, personal affinity towards Russia, and simply by the belief that Moscow is more reliable and competent than the West. So for many, the choice between Pfizer and Sputnik became the choice between the West and the East.