Russian state media has blamed Britain for the global coronavirus pandemic.
Kremlin-backed media has broadcast propaganda which states Covid-19, the new form of coronavirus, was created as a tool for the benefit of the UK.
As Britain continues to fight the pandemic rapidly gripping the world, outrageous slurs in Russian media include that:
- The British ‘smeared something in Wuhan’ in the same way that they ‘smear[ed] nerve agent on Skripal’s door handle’;
- The pandemic was intentionally timed with Britain’s exit from the EU to enhance its global status;
- Porton Down, the Salisbury laboratory at the centre of the Skripal Novichok scandal, ‘patented a vaccine’ for Covid-19;
- ‘There is a special operation ongoing’ related to the virus whose ‘players are the British-American Alliance’;
- Covid-19 was accidentally created as a bioweapon in 2015 at the Pirbright Institute in Woking;
- Coronavirus is an attempt to gain access to Chinese markets, because ‘Churchill…said England doesn’t have friends or enemies… only business interests’.
The Big Game roundtable discussion on Covid-19 on Russia’s Channel 1
Igor Nikulin, a microbiologist who allegedly worked at the UN, who made the comments about Britain’s involvement in Coronavirus. Another panellist disagreed with him
The programme shows file images of Porton Down during his comments
Last night Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, commented on the Mail’s findings and said: ‘We take disinformation extremely seriously and have brought together cross-government capabilities to give the most comprehensive picture possible.
‘People must have access to the correct information and we are working with tech firms to […] make sure the most reliable sources are promoted online.’
Britain was first targeted with Russian coronavirus propaganda at the end of January, two days before the first official case was confirmed in this country.
The five pieces of disinformation analysed by the Mail were collated by EUvsDisinfo, a project of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is funded by the European Union.
Three were broadcast by Sputnik, a Kremlin-funded news platform created by a Presidential decree with the aim to ‘report on the state policy of Russia abroad’. One was broadcast on Channel 1, Russia’s main, state-aligned TV channel, and another was published in the nationalist leaning, pro-Kremlin Svobodnaia Pressa news site.
It comes after ministers announced this week that they had set up a ‘counter-disinformation unit’ amid fears that Russia is spreading fake news about coronavirus to create panic.
The programme. The five pieces of disinformation analysed by the Mail were collated by EUvsDisinfo, a project of the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is funded by the European Union
Last week a government source said the unit had already met to discuss the impact of disinformation linked to the virus.
One British official said creating fears to ‘spread uncertainty’ and undermine the West would be straight out of the ‘Russian toolbox’.
US officials have previously claimed that thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about Covid-19.
Last month on Russia’s Channel 1 – the status equivalent of BBC One – a special roundtable discussion on Covid-19 was broadcast on ‘The Big Game’, a political talk-show.
The programme featured Igor Nikulin, billed as a microbiologist and former ‘member of the UN Commission on Biological and Chemical Weapons’.
The programme. It featured Igor Nikulin, billed as a microbiologist and former ‘member of the UN Commission on Biological and Chemical Weapons
The programme. Last month on Russia’s Channel 1 – the status equivalent of BBC One – a special roundtable discussion on Covid-19 was broadcast on ‘The Big Game’, a political talk-show
EUvsDisinfo disputes his links to the UN. Mr Nikulin told the host that he was ‘certain’ coronavirus was a ‘man-made disease’ and said: ‘the Americans and the British have already announced that they already have a vaccine. ‘By the British I mean Porton Down, a well-known facility that has for a long time been working with chemical and biological weapons.’
Questioned by other panellists, Mr Nikulin said: ‘That’s incidentally the same facility that I suspect was behind smearing the nerve agent on Skripal’s door handle. ‘Maybe they smeared something in Wuhan, Hubei, too, such as an escalator hand rail on the subway – something thousands of people touch daily.’
Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2018.
The UK accused Russia of orchestrating the assassination, and Porton Down – the government’s biochemical laboratory in the same town – identified the poison as the military-grade Novichok. The Kremlin denied the accusations, and State TV channel Russia-1 accused Britain of poisoning Mr Skripal in a bid to sabotage its World Cup.
Earlier this year, the Sputnik Belarus website broadcast videos online featuring Dr Dmitry Belyakov [CORR], a social sciences doctor who claims to have worked at the Beijing Academy of Public Sciences.
Russian double agent Sergei Skripal (right) and his daughter Yulia (left) were poisoned in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2018
On 28th January – three days before Britain formally left the EU – Dr Belyakov said in a video that ‘the artificial nature of the virus, it all adds up to a single puzzle. ‘A puzzle of the second stage of the negotiation with the USA, a puzzle of the idea that China must be limited, and a puzzle of the fact that there are a couple of days left until Britain leaves the European Union and becomes another global player… ‘There starts the new bloom of the British Empire and all this plays in their favour.
‘Britain inflates in terms of information all these moments and becomes a separate hub [to] the European Union through which can go the goods.’
On 4th February, Dr Belyakov said in a video: ‘The whole hysteria with coronavirus is an information and psychological operation based in the artificial ground’. Referring to the West, he said: ‘Regardless of whom you hug or kiss in public areas, if the people in charge of these activities on the other side decide that the virus should appear in Belarus, it will appear.
‘I believe that… you can agree or disagree… that there is a special operation ongoing. The players are the British-American Alliance, as I call them. ‘Moreover Britain is now a free country, its hands are untied now. From the material losses that will now be in the EU. ‘There are the links of one chain. Do not look at such a serious processes separately. You see, even the persons who head Britain now, Boris Johnson … Now there is going on economic collapse, leaving the Union, disconnection.’
Igor Nikulin is second from left. On 28th January – three days before Britain formally left the EU – Dr Belyakov said in a video that ‘the artificial nature of the virus, it all adds up to a single puzzle’
Days later Sputnik Belarus broadcast a studio discussion between Alexey Avdonin, an ‘expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies’ in Belarus, and Anastasia Miksyuk, an ‘expert in international relations’. Mr Avdonin likened the coronavirus crisis to the opium wars of the 19th Century, and said that ‘at that time China…tried not to provide the British with the access to Chinese ports’, but that the British gained access to the ports by offering to assist with opium addiction.
The host replied that ‘they have a massive historical experience in that’, and Miss Miksyuk replied: ‘Yes, they love it. ‘I think it was Churchill who said ‘England doesn’t have friends or enemies. England only has business interests’.’
While broadcast in Russian, not Belarusian, Sputnik Belarus would be mainly consumed by viewers outside of Russia itself, and via the internet.
Edward Lucas, a security expert in Russian disinformation, said: ‘There’s a difference between what the Russians are saying about coronavirus in the English language version of Sputnik and the other languages versions. [Therefore], to the West, Putin looks respectable.
‘Porton Down is always in their sights; [to them] Porton Down is an evil secret, and they want to make the Russians think that the West is run by very evil people….The idea is to scare their own people, discredit the West in the eyes of the Russians’.
Earlier this year, the ultra-nationalist Svobodnaya Pressa news website published an article titled: ‘Coronavirus – Patent Found That Proves British Trace in 2019-nCoV: The British had a hand in a new dangerous pneumonia’.
The article has been viewed almost 40,000 times. The author of the article, Alexander Sitnikov, discusses a coronavirus patent given to the Pirbright Institute in 2015. The Pirbright Institute, formerly known as the Institute for Animal Health, in Woking, studied the patent with the aim of developing a medicine for treating diseases in poultry.
The programme shows file images of Porton Down during his comments
Mr Sitnikov cited online conspiracy theories which say that Covid-19 is a bioweapon which was accidentally created in the UK. ‘Those ‘advocates of conspiracy theory’ who write on forums that ‘2019-nCoV is a biological weapon developed by the British, even if they pursued scientific goals’ are not so sinful against the truth’, he wrote.
‘Leak of viruses is possible only in the case of a deliberate operation of special services, which would be able to obtain access codes. One researcher or a group of scientists will not be able to do this by accident or on purpose , even if they want to.
‘Why, then,[do] the Anglo-Saxons point a finger at the Chinese? The situation, if desired, can be characterized by the proverb: ‘The cap is on the thief.’
The Kremlin issues weekly guidance to its state media for instructions on what themes to cover, and who or what should be given positive or negative coverage. These are weekly verbal meetings between media executives and Kremlin officials. But experts cautioned against attributing everything in Russian media as a direct message from the Kremlin. ‘When Russian state interests are not directly at stake, there is always much less evidence of a coordinated script, and much more leeway given to media outlets and presenters’, said Stephen Hutchings, Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Manchester.
‘With a story such as the Coronavirus in which Russian interests […] coincide with those of other countries, there is little sign of a single, coherent narrative.’ Dmitrii Simes, one of the moderators of ‘The Big Game’ on which the Porton Down claims were made, repeated several times during the programme that he did not believe the conspiracy theories surrounding Coronavirus.
EUvsDisinfo declined to provide a spokesperson to comment on its work. But a European Commission Spokesperson said: ‘The European Union has been actively tackling disinformation since 2015… ‘In order to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns, the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service (EEAS) was set up.
‘The Task Force East [has] detected and exposed altogether about 7,800 examples of disinformation from pro-Kremlin media sources, such as Sputnik and RT.’
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in the UK said: ‘The Russian Government has nothing to do with these views, which form part of a public debate protected by rules of freedom of expression.’