How disinformation really works: Activists linked to Pro-nato think tank smear Russian Covid-19 aid to Italy

How disinformation really works: Activists linked to Pro-nato think tank smear Russian Covid-19 aid to Italy

With over 11,000 deaths and more than 100,000 cases of Covid-19, Italy is currently a country which feels under siege. But this is no impediment to the think tank racket twisting an offer of support for its propaganda purposes.

Let’s be clear from the outset, there was undoubtably a strong PR element to Russia’s assistance. However, also bear in mind that Moscow was responding to a request from Rome.

Here’s what happened. The weekend before last, Vladimir Putin called Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. During the conversation, Conte asked for help, according to the Kremlin readout which hasn’t been contradicted by Italian officials. Moscow sent teams of “doctors, protective gear and medical equipment” to the stricken country. The detail included 100 military virologists and epidemiologists, along with eight medical teams, according to Moscow news outlets. Most importantly, it delivered 600 ventilators.

A significant amount given Italy apparently had only about 5,000 of the devices. Indeed, a few days after the Putin/Conte call, the New York Times was writing about Italy’s “ventilator crisis.”

The Italians got some practical assistance from the arrangement, but officials in Rome were probably trying to use it twist a few arms in the European Union. There’s usually nothing like a bit of Russian influence to jolt EU and NATO elites into action. No doubt this was also part of Conte’s reasoning. That said, it’s also worth mentioning that some other Europeans states have tried to help the Italians. Germany and France, in particular, took patients and sent supplies, despite dealing with outbreaks of their own. Yet, many in Italy feel they haven’t done enough.

Putin was also surely thinking ahead to a post-coronavirus crisis time when Italians will remember who stood by them in their hour of need. Of course, it might exercise a few minds the next time Brussels and Washington try to extend sanctions against Russia.

Indeed as the Diplomatic Editor of BBC’s newsnight, Mark Urban, noted “Russia and China have sent help to Italy. You might argue it’s not huge in scale and given for political reasons. But when Italians remember this crisis and wonder what the US did for them at this hour of need…” 

Urban is a vocal Russia critic and hardly a Kremlin patsy.

A few days after the aid landed, a campaign began on Twitter to discredit the Russian initiative. The first I saw of it was a tweet from Oliver Carroll, of London’s Independent newspaper, who presumably speaks Italian (I don’t, so I am relying on his translation).“Some Italians are expressing unease about Putin’s Covid-19 emergency aid,” he wrote. “Acc(ording) to La Stampa, 80 percent of supplies (are) “useless,” (and) sources worry about high-ranking military officers now in (the) country. Russian soldiers (are) free to roam (in) Italy a few steps away from NATO,” the paper stated.

“La Stampa says China sent masks (and) ventilators; (but) Russia sent irrelevant equipment used for bacteriological and chemical outbreaks,” Carroll added. “(There is a) belief that Russia … (is) not helping us only for great goodness of its people… now beginning to circulate in broad sectors, military and political.”

The newspaper’s report seemingly relied on the testimony of an anonymous source, who did not give their name. Thus, we have to take the author’s word for it.

However, the same day, Italy’s Ambassador to Moscow had a rather different point-of-view. “Pasquale Terracciano thanked Russia for its assistance in the fight against novel coronavirus, adding that the humanitarian aid to his country included about 600 medical ventilators,” reported the TASS news agency. “It is very important that all this medical equipment includes 600 ventilators, which are critically important at this stage of the epidemic.”

The same day the President of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, openly dismissed La Stampa’s report. “I say thanks to the Russians who sent us doctors and other people who can help with disinfection,” he told an online press conference. Lombardy is the Italian region most affect by the Covid-19 crisis. “The Russian Federation has sent face masks, ventilators and medical staff and teams to disinfect public buildings and our cities,” Italian Foreign Minister Di Maio said. “They have helped in their own way in an act of solidarity.”

As you can see, those entitled to speak for Italy seem to be pretty grateful for Moscow’s aid. Nevertheless, predictably, ‘Atlanticists’ weren’t happy. Despite the fact that Trump’s America has been about as useful to Europe in this emergency as a bicycle in the middle of the ocean.

Eto Buziashvili of NATO’s Atlantic Council adjunct wrote on Twitter that “80% of the Covid-19 supplies supplies that Russia send to Italy are useless,” citing La Stampa. Her Twitter biography, by the way, claims she’s an expert in ‘disinformation.’

Next up was Olga Tokariuk, who also writes for Atlantic Council as well as a Kiev-based news site, Hromadske, which is bankrolled by the local US embassy. “According to La Stampa sources in the Italian military, 80% of items they [the Russians]brought are useless,” she tweeted. This was shared over 600 times.

“Italy recently reported that 80% of Russian aid against #Covid_19 is useless,” wrote Dionis Cenusa. He also pens articles for, you guessed it, the Atlantic Council. His intervention was retweeted by more than 400 accounts. Also, note that he says “Italy recently reported,” not La Stampa.

I decided to ask Cenusa a perfectly reasonable question. “[Do] you think “Italy” is an anonymous commenter to a single newspaper, and that person (assuming they even exist) has more right to speak for Italy (even though they won’t even give their name) than the ambassador to Moscow or the President of Lombardy. Yes? For real?”

His reply was to block me. Which speaks volumes for how the think tank disinformation racket works.

One of Atlantic Council’s more high profile lobbyists, Michael Weiss, also joined in. The ‘fellow’ noted how “80% of Russian coronavirus aid to Italy is useless, apparently.”

What’s most interesting here the fact that so many of the people pushing the disinformation are connected to the pro-NATO pressure group. Not to mention the fact that they used almost the same form of words. Was this coordination, or coincidence?

Circling back to the original La Stampa piece, it seemed logical to check whether the reporter had any the tank links himself. Not surprisingly, it turns out Jacopo Iacoboni has also written for the Atlantic Council. He most notably assisted Alina Polyakova with a 2017 report dubbed ‘The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses.’ This hit job smeared numerous Italian public figures — such as politician’s Beppe Grillo and Matteo Salvini — as willingly doing Moscow’s bidding.

Polyakova has since been appointed to run CEPA, a lobby firm, masquerading as a think tank, which promotes NATO’s role in Eastern Europe and is funded by American and British weapons manufacturers.

It turns out Iacoboni’s anti-Russia credentials are quite well known. Indeed, they have even been endorsed by the Intregity Initiative. In case you have forgotten, this was a British government funded undercover “information wars” effort which didn’t stay secret for very long.The Integrity Initiative included him in its list of people in particular countries its organizers felt they could use to run anti-Russian coverage during elections. This is not to imply Iacoboni knew he was he being considered by the British for such operations, but it does mean they regarded him as reliably anti-Russian. Which tells its own tale.

The La Stampa story, based on anonymous sources, which may or may not be legitimate, was a curious intervention at a time when Italy is on its knees. The fact the think tank crowd, most notably those from Atlantic Council, who rarely show any interest in Italian affairs, jumped on it is very instructive. As is the author’s own association with the pro-NATO institution. Make of it what you will.

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