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A nation must think before it acts.
June 26, 2020
Post by Nakeshia Diop
Russian state-sponsored news outlets RT and Sputnik are still churning out articles highlighting their “Russiagate” narrative as the saga of Russian meddling in U.S. affairs and Kremlin disinformation continues to unfold. Kremlin media has pushed the “Russiagate” narrative ever since claims of meddling in the 2016 election surfaced, and the narrative continues to arise in new contexts in 2020. By employing the “Russiagate” narrative to counter U.S. officials’ claims of Russian influence and interference in a variety of contexts, Russia limits the potency of the consensus by American intelligence agencies that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election and continues to interfere in the 2020 election.
This year, RT and Sputnik have repeated the narrative about the U.S. scapegoating Russia in response to both concerns of COVID-19 disinformation and claims of meddling in the 2020 election. In May, the narrative surfaced again, this time with regard to coverage of the Russia investigation as Attorney General William Barr called for increased scrutiny regarding the “unmasking” of members of President Trump’s campaign. What these articles have in common is the fervent denial of Russian meddling or disinformation efforts—in the case of the “unmasking” news coverage, attempts to shift the blame to former President Obama, the American mainstream media, or more generally an alleged anti-Russia bias in the American political sphere. For example, when President Trump tweeted on May 10 about allegations related to “Obamagate,” the Russian media was quick to hint at an elaborate attempt to sabotage Trump’s presidency by Obama and his aides. By painting “Russiagate” as a treasonous and baseless investigation into Russian meddling in 2016, the entire focus is shifted to domestic bipartisan clashes rather than the investigation’s findings themselves which concluded unequivocally that the Kremlin conducted a widespread influence campaign to effect the election’s outcome.
With regard to COVID-19, articles report on the accusations against both China and Russia for spreading disinformation about the pandemic. However, much of the Russian state-sponsored coverage focuses on China, with Russia almost never explicitly mentioned in article titles. In addition to playing victim of the blame game with the West, Russia also portrays China as a victim of the West’s accusations creating an authoritarian alliance to a degree that challenges the American viewpoint.
More recently, as the U.S. is experiencing mass protests over the death of George Floyd, there have been claims from U.S. officials that Russia might be stoking discord. These claims have been quickly dismissed and mocked by the Russian media using similar tactics of blaming the American media for pushing the “Russiagate” conspiracy, as well as capitalizing on domestic divides as a tool for deflection.
Kremlin media also uses the “Russiagate” narrative to boost President Trump in 2020 and claim that Democrats are “bent on denying President Donald Trump…a second term in office.” Russian media often employs snark to highlight the tendency for U.S. politicians, specifically Democrats, to blame Russia for domestic problems. One such example is this RT article “What can’t those dastardly Russian bots do?” Here the attention is drawn back to President Trump, who defends Russia and instead places the blame on ANTIFA and lefist extremists with regard to the U.S. protests. Russian media outlets are then able to capitalize on these divides.
According to its state media, Russian disinformation is no more than a conspiracy theory commonly attributed to the lack of concrete evidence. One RT article gloats about the dismissal of charges brought by Robert Mueller against Concord Management & Consulting LLC, a Russian firm linked to Russian oligarch and Putin’s “chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. The fact that the Russian firm never made it to trial is used to discredit Mueller’s investigation and further highlights the idea that there was “no collusion” between Russia and the Trump administration, a phrase ubiquitously used in Kremlin media stories.
Russia also continues to evade responsibility for spreading disinformation, as in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, by chalking it all up to an inherent bias against China and Russia. A Sputnik op-ed titled “US Intel Blames Chinese Hackers to Distract From Plans to ‘Profit Exclusively’ off COVID-19 Vaccine” contends U.S. intelligence is only further perpetuating a blame game that the U.S. plays with both China and Russia. “If we think back to how Russiagate started … so much of the animosity and xenophobia against Russia really began with these accusations of Russian hackers at the time,” one quote in the article says. Russia is the persistent victim according to the Kremlin.
Taken together, disputing claims of Russian interference in elections as well as spreading disinformation continues to be based on a supposed lack of evidence, as well as a biased media and political environment in the West that is hostile to Russia. Deflecting the blame also translates into amplifying existing disparities in U.S. domestic narratives. As the world continues to grapple with the realities of COVID-19 and as the U.S. enters into election season, special attention should be paid to how Russia is employing enduring strategies to draw attention away from their role in disinformation propagation and election interference in the future.