On April 19, even as the pandemic disrupted Europe, it was reported that Russia had intercepted a U.S. Navy aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. and Russian governments issued conflicting statements on the incident. Washington stated that the Russians had flown in an “unsafe and unprofessional” manner when intercepting the Navy plane. The Russians denied this, claiming that they were simply escorting the aircraft.
It is difficult to reconcile Moscow’s explanation with the Russians’ behavior in a separate incident just the previous week, when a Russian plane attempted a high-speed maneuver in close proximity to another U.S. aircraft. While these aircraft maneuvers are not in themselves a warning of imminent military aggression, they show that Russia’s belligerence toward NATO and the West has not been softened by COVID-19.
As countries have not yet entered into a phase of economic recovery from the virus, it is still too early to accurately predict how the spread of the virus will change NATO. Nevertheless, it is possible that Russia will try to exploit the impact of the crisis on NATO members to undermine the alliance and the West. The economies of Western Europe have suffered depression-level damages from the virus’s impact on workers and industries thus far -- not to mention death tolls in the hundreds of thousands -- and the cumulative effect is all but certain to permanently alter national psyches.
It is probable that the foremost priority for our European allies will be economic recovery for the next several years. The deterrence of Russian aggression seems likely to be demoted to a secondary priority, politically if not also financially. This would set the stage for an increased security threat from Russia in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland.
Soft security threats from Russia have already emerged and spread alongside the novel coronavirus. Europe has caught on to various themes of disinformation about the origins of COVID-19 coming from pro-Kremlin sources. In mid-March, a document produced by the EU’s European External Action Service reported that Russian media had waged a “significant disinformation campaign” to undermine public trust in EU member-state governments and healthcare systems. One false narrative pushes the claim that EU countries’ responses to the virus have been completely botched, and that as a result, the European Union itself is teetering on the verge of collapse. Others claim that COVID-19 was a biological weapon engineered by China, the United States, or the United Kingdom; that it was caused by migrants; or that it is a complete hoax.
As was the case in recent European elections and the Brexit referendum, Moscow is attempting to throw the value of the European Union and NATO into question. Such campaigns will become more dangerous in the future, as the publics of countries that have had particularly high death tolls from the virus, such as Spain and Italy, remain vulnerable while the process the staggering trauma of their losses.
The United States may be increasingly seen as a prime target as the number of its cases and its death toll continue to climb. One pro-Kremlin media source has already framed the virus as a biological weapon developed by the United States and disseminated by U.S. special forces in China.
2020 being an election year also increases the United States’ appeal as a Russian target for disinformation, as Americans endure the uncertainty and confusion of an upended economy and way of life, and simultaneously decide whether to re-elect President Donald Trump in November.
An increase in the number of these campaigns would likely stem from the desire to distract from the Russian government’s own imperfect pandemic responses. Initially, Russia would have been able to contrast its number of confirmed cases and deaths, which for weeks remained extremely low, with those of countries like Spain and Italy. Cases in Russia at first seemed so low, in fact, that its government was suspected by the international community of concealing the real numbers. (The World Health Organization refuted these allegations, as did the Kremlin.)
Cases in Russia have now passed the 100,000 mark, though Moscow will not refrain from pushing anti-Western rhetoric while it manages the spread of the virus. What seems certain is that the Kremlin will continue to spin the pandemic to stoke nationalistic sentiment, to the political advantage of President Vladimir Putin.
Putin may soon be looking for any advantage he can find: An April 29 public opinion poll in Russia showed that less than 30 percent of respondents identified their president as a trustworthy figure, the lowest approval numbers he has had in 14 years.
While these numbers are low for Putin, a drop in his popularity was foreseeable: The Russian economy was slowing even before the pandemic. His government’s response to the virus has been lackluster after authoritative responses in the initial stages -- shutting Russia’s border with China and implementing screening at airports. Since then, Putin has had the rest of it taken off his hands, delegating much of the responsibility for additional containment measures to regional governors.
Clearly, this response is seen as insufficient. If Russians are losing trust in their own institutions in these uncertain times, dependable messaging strategies will be necessary. Before the virus recedes, Putin’s government may look to restore some of its credibility through a vigorous targeting of the usual scapegoats.
Sarah White is a research associate at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.