Last week's events concerning the pro-Kremlin disinformation campaign

Topics of the Week

Russian "aid" to Italy comes hand in hand with threats to journalists.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security suspects that the Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to collect information on American supply chains.

Russian state outlets seek to redeem the memory of marshal Konev.

Good Old Soviet Joke

A group of tourists with a guide are passing through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. They come to a painting of two pairs of legs sticking out from a haystack. 

The guide says: "This painting is called Lenin in Finland."

One tourist asks: "Oh, so the feet with the toes up, are they Lenin's feet?"

"No, those are the feet of Nadezda Krupska."

"Ah, so the ones with the toes down are Lenin's?"

"No, these are Lev Trotsky's feet.

"And where is Lenin?"

"In Finland."

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Policy & Research News

From Russia with Love, vol. II: After useless aid, a threat to journalists

Two weeks ago, Kremlin Watch briefed its readers on the Russian COVID aid to Italy and the concerns it raised among journalists in Italy and elsewhere. This week, an open-source estimate by an independent think tank, confirmed the issues already raised and added further details. But what comes in the middle, is a wave of targeted threats to Italian reporters guilty of questioning the goodwill behind the “From Russia with Love” operation.

First came the comment by Ambassador Razov to the article published in the newspaper “La Stampa,” questioning the accuracy of the claims presented in the article. On the same page of the newspaper, the answer written by the original article’s author was attached, too, defending the accuracy of his analysis. The estimate above cited, in fact, now confirms and enriches the conclusions of the article.

But then, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Defense intervened, and this time the message was a direct threat. His comment fully rejected the claims of La Stampa’s article, by dismissing it as “russophobia”, and – quoting: “to the real mandators of La Stampa’s russophobia, which are known to us, we recommend them to make their own the old aphorism: Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam (who digs the pit, falls in it). To be clearer: Bad penny always turns up”. The message was delivered through the FB page of the Russian Embassy to Italy. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense responded in a joint statement in which they “thanked for the aid, but could not help but blame the inappropriate tone of certain expressions used by the spokesman of the Russian Ministry of Defense” adding that “freedom of expression and right of criticism” are the “core values of our country”.

Along with the patent nature, now confirmed, of a full-fledged military operation started with the pretext of sending aid, Russian offensive to Italy can be considered now in a second phase of silencing critical voices.

Another major Italian newspaper’s director has been repeatedly attacked by anonymous sources of obvious far-right background, including changes of his Wikipedia page, adding the pass-away date (23 April 2020); or inviting him to keep an eye on his daughter and other threats. Previous attacks on him already brought him under police protection, and stirred the comment of the Council of Europe, in addition to those of a wide range of Italian intellectuals, institutions, and political representatives. In addition to this, on 7 April, the website of the newspaper he directs, and of the other journals of the same editorial group, has been downed for around half an hour, in what appears to be DDoS attack.

It has been widely analyzed how the Kremlin operates in Italy for years through the use of Trojan horses, a constellation of far-right groups, lobbies, and agents of influence, some of which are particularly active in this time of crises in campaigning to lift sanctions to Russia. Thus, while the attacks to “La Stampa” comes publicly from Russian institutions, there is no reason not to believe the other attacks may have been conducted through the usual use of deniable proxies, and that else is yet to come. 

US Developments

Kremlin might exploit the pandemic to investigate American supply chains

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security suspects that the Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to collect information on American supply chains. The United States has had trouble procuring medical equipment, and Russia could discover and exploit these logistical vulnerabilities in the future. It is also expected that the Kremlin will pay close attention to how Americans and the United States react to pandemic-related disinformation and will adjust their disinformation strategies accordingly, including their strategy for their ongoing campaign prior to the 2020 American elections.

Mexican scientist arrested in the United States for alleged Russian espionage

Dr Héctor Cabrera, a Mexican scientist educated in Germany and Russia, was arrested in Miami this February, accused of acting on behalf of the Russian government. It is believed that Cabrera was recruited to collect and deliver information on an American informant. His trial is set to begin July of this year and could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted. Cabrera will likely claim that he was manipulated unknowingly into cooperating with the Kremlin, however, it appears that the Kremlin leveraged his relations with his family in Russia to urge him to cooperate.

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Kremlin's Current Narrative

Russian state outlets seek to redeem the memory of marshal Konev

On April 3, Prague 6 mayor Ondřej Kolář ordered the removal from Interbrigade Square of the statue of Soviet marshal Ivan Konev, as agreed last September by the district council. The statue, erected in 1980 to honour the marshal that at the end of WWII drove Nazi troops out of part of Czechoslovakia, had in recent years caused growing discomfort among Prague residents, due to Konev’s involvement in the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and, chiefly, the suspected role that he played in planning the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The statue’s removal caused the harsh response of Moscow, culminating in the decision of Russia’s Investigative Committee to open a criminal case against the Czech authorities for “desecration of the symbols of Russia's military glory” – ostensibly an act of propaganda, given the impracticality of prosecuting foreign officials.

Propaganda discourses were copiously present in the accounts of the event by the Kremlin’s outlets too. Here, the most vocal critics have condemned the removal of the statue as a manifestation of “fascism in action”, or an act of “historical revisionism [aimed at] asserting moral equivalence between the USSR and Nazi Germany”. From this perspective, the Kremlin’s channels have expressed further resentment for the possible relocation of the statue in the planned Museum of the 20th Century Memory, meaning that the Soviet Marshal will be “part of the same exhibition as the Nazis who occupied the Czech state” – it is argued. Other outlets have preferred to frame their response in emotional terms, condemning the dismantlement of the monument as a provocation intended to hurt, insult and humiliate the renegade brother – Russia.

Others have focused on the timing of the event, denouncing the “desecration” of a WWII hero just a few weeks before the 75th celebrations in Russia of Victory Day. In a similar vein, various reports have accused mayor Kolář of abusing of the COVID-19 emergency to prevent demonstrations, maintaining that “[t]he demolition of the monument was opposed by residents of Prague”. Probably to support these claims, Izvestia published a misleading picture of a large crowd on Charles Bridge in its report on the protests that last December took place in support of Konev, which in fact involved no more than sixty people and never took place on Charles Bridge, but on Interbrigade Square. Finally, Russian state channels have echoed the criticism expressed by some current and former Czech officials, in the attempt to portray the event as the result of the capricious politics of mayor Kolář and warning the Czech government of the dangers of placing foreign policy issues in the hands of local politicians.

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Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.

For comments. suggestions or media inquiries, please contact the Head of the Kremlin Watch Program Veronika Víchová at 

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