The Kremlin is using the COVID-19 pandemic to test an expanded societal control toolkit. The Kremlin has empowered Russian security services, deployed Russia’s national guard nationally, empowered the Ministry of Defense as a domestic actor for the first time, implemented mass digital surveillance, and further tightened control over Russia’s information space. The Kremlin seeks to expand its ability to control the Russian population in the long-term, as Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly relies on authoritarian measures to preserve his regime, and suppress potential unrest in the aftermath of the national voting on Russia’s constitutional amendments on July 1. Digital surveillance technology, such as facial recognition, geolocation on smart devices, and comprehensive digital databases for all Russian citizens, will help the Kremlin circumvent the cost requirements associated with constructing and staffing a massive control infrastructure. These technologies will further erode privacy in Russia and grant the Kremlin new capabilities to discretely identify and neutralize its opponents with minimal public confrontation. Putin will increasingly rely on societal control tools and digitally targeted repression to stifle critics and preserve his regime.
The COVID-19 crisis has impeded some of the Kremlin’s efforts but has not changed its objectives, one of which is expanding Russia’s power projection capabilities internationally. Russia’s military footprint and basing opportunities are expanding but remain limited. Putin is thus using coalitions and partnerships to amplify Russia’s security space - as ISW will analyze in its upcoming major report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.
Putin’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is focused on shaping reality to conform to his desired narrative. The Kremlin is restricting the free flow of information on COVID-19, jailing doctors, and obfuscating its public infection numbers to support Putin’s central narrative that COVID-19 will affect Russia less than much of the world. The Kremlin is additionally testing new methods of societal control as part of its efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The Kremlin will retain these improved authoritarian tools for use against future opposition.
The Kremlin is exploiting calls by the United Nations for limited sanctions waivers to combat COVID-19, to advance the Kremlin’s longstanding objective of removing international sanctions on Russia and its partners. The Kremlin has launched an information campaign on this issue and is leveraging its sanctioned allies around the world, alongside networks of Russia-amenable actors in Europe, to amplify the Kremlin’s message.
Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.
Likely Russian actors conducted a disinformation campaign against Ukraine exploiting COVID-19 fears related to the Ukrainian government’s evacuation of its citizens from Wuhan, China. The campaign’s tactics, timing, and nature all point toward Kremlin involvement.
The Kremlin is successfully posturing as a legitimate, impartial mediator for the war in Donbas despite being a belligerent in the conflict. Claims that the Kremlin-initiated peace process is stabilizing the war in Donbas misrepresent the reality of the Kremlin’s actions and objectives.
The Kremlin is successfully increasing its political influence in Moldova. The pro-Kremlin Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova won the largest share in the February 24 Moldovan Parliamentary Elections.
The U.S. and NATO must recognize that Russia is serious about integrating information operations with both conventional and unconventional military operations and adjust their preparations for potential conflict with Russia accordingly.
Russia's brazen act of war on Ukraine in the Sea of Azov is part of a broader deliberate campaign by Russia to test the resolve of the U.S. and NATO.