“Coronavirus is an instrument of the West”: a roundup of anti-Western messages in April and May

May 21, 2020
Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld.org are continuing to publish a regular roundup of anti-Western messages in Ukraine aimed at undermining trust in democracy and in Ukraine’s integration with the EU and NATO. We publish regular weekly and monthly reports, and also provide alerts covering specific narratives when they appear.

Over the period of 1 April to 15 May, the following anti-Western narratives were the most prolific in Ukraine's information sphere:

  • the West is behind the coronavirus pandemic and is using it for its own gain;
  • the West is trying to rob Ukraine during  the pandemic and turn it into a colony;
  • the coronavirus is being used against Russia and its church.

Let's look at these messages in more detail:

"The West developed SARS-CoV-2 virus to advance its own interests"

Over the course of the reporting period, there has been an evolving narrative about the West being somehow involved in the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. This narrative can be divided into four mutually-reinforcing sub-narratives.

The first sub-narrative directly blames the U.S. for creating SARS-CoV-2. This one has been more visible on "junk websites," media outlets controlled by Russia, and on social networks. All of these messages are simplistic fantasies aimed at those who believe in conspiracy theories. Notable examples include:

  • "The U.S. has been testing a biological weapon on its own population, hence the high number of COVID-19 victims is among black population" - naspravdi.info;
  • "The coronavirus was created in the U.S. to target Muslims" - spzh.news;
  • "The coronavirus is a biological weapon developed by the U.S., the head of Kurchatov Institute says," - bots on Twitter.

The second sub-narrative concerns "U.S. military biological laboratories in Ukraine." It was launched by Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform - For Life party. This narrative has been further spread via outlets controlled by Medvechuk and Russian media. This message is rather sophisticated and built upon a Serbian fake from 2017. Examples include:

  • "The creation of a separate laboratory for human pathogens indicates experiments on humans. This is the main reason for the creation of the U.S. biolaboratories in Ukraine" - Medvedchuk on 112 Ukraine;
  • "American laboratories in former Soviet republics could be developing dangerous viruses." - rt.com;
  • "Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) arrested a woman from Kherson Oblast' who dared to say that COVID-19 is a biological weapon created by the U.S." - e-news.su.

The third sub-narrative directly targets the World Health Organisation and Bill Gates. It has gained traction on social networks and "junk websites," and has been mixed with several other relevant conspiracy theories. Notable instances include:

  • "COVID-19 is barely dangerous, and quarantine measures all over the world are the result of the conspiracy among the IMF, the WHO, and Bill Gates (who controls the WHO) in order to make money selling the vaccine." - blogger Andriy Kozak;
  • "Bill Gates profits from selling vaccines; even the pope supports him" - nk.org.ua;
  • "Bill Gates and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are jointly developing a vaccine for coronavirus to genetically modify people" - bots on Twitter.

The fourth sub-narrative is  doublethink at its best. It targets Western countries for their inability to deal with COVID-19 pandemic.  It is being spread by Medvedchuk-controlled media, Russian media, "junk websites," and social networks alike. Some examples include:

  • "There are big doubts that liberal democracy and globalism should be the model for most people living on our planet. These ideas have effectively been killed after the coronavirus pandemic" - Mykhailo Pohrebynskyi, an outspoken pro-Russian political commentator, in a talk-show on 112 Ukraine;
  • "Coronavirus ended America's supremacy in the international arena" - naspravdi.info;
  • "Amid the pandemic, every EU country stands for itself; the so-called "European solidarity" turned out to be a phantom" - inosminews.ru.

"The West is using the pandemic and economic crisis to rob Ukraine"

This narrative mainly revolves around two legislative initiatives, namely the long-pushed-for agricultural land market law and the law prohibiting the restoration of nationalized banks to their previous owners. These were the IMF's requirements prior to provision of a loan which would allow Ukraine to avoid sovereign bankruptcy - a fact which is being used against the IMF. Numerous actors have portrayed this development as another step in the process of the West turning Ukraine into a "banana republic.".

This narrative is being promoted not only by pro-Russian forces and their media, but also by internal Ukrainian forces linked to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi

There are several targets of this narrative, chief among them George Soros. For anti-Western actors, Soros is the devil - the shadowy figure who has numerous servants (called "sorosiata") who aim only to please their master. Meanwhile, according to the narrative, Soros controls most spheres of Ukraine's economy, government and public life. Some examples of this messaging include:

  • "the new government is 'laying before Soros,' just like the previous one did, and is fulfilling all his whims" - Yuriy Boyko, one of the leaders of Opposition Platform - For Life, on 112 Ukraine;
  • "the International Renaissance Foundation [a Soros foundation] controls Ukraine's State Investigation Bureau (SIB)" - Andriy Portnov;
  • "Sorosiata" are taking over Ukrainian state-owned enterprises" - Telegram channel Sorosiata.

Another target is the IMF. This organisation is being posed as an instrument of "external governance." According to the messages, IMF are the "bad guys" who are forcing the Ukrainian government to conduct reforms which are destroying the Ukrainian economy. IMF loans are aimed at "buying out" all of Ukraine's natural resources on the cheap, anti-Western actors say. Here are some notable messages:

  • "The authorities stupidly follow the instructions of the external administration -- the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Soros funds, and many others who are not interested in our country's survival" - Viktor Medvedchuk on 112 Ukraine;
  • "They [the IMF] come and start to praise you: "You will have GDP growth of 3% next year, that is, you can easily take $10 billion [in loans], and your economy will enable you to repay it," they say. However, they are well aware that GDP growth will not exceed 3%. This means that we'll go into negative territory, working hard to repay the debt," - a commentator on a NewsOne talk show;
  • "Ukraine will never be able to repay the IMF loans; the loans are like drugs for the Ukrainian government." - iz.ru.

The EU is being targeted separately as a foreign power that "uses Ukrainians for low-paid labor" and "made Ukraine sign the unfavourable Association Agreement." Notable messages include:

  • "EU partners had not shown any solidarity at all; the only thing that they have been capable of was to organise a charter flight to host Ukrainian cheap labour force in their countries, even amid the imposed restrictive measures during the pandemic" - a commentator in a talk-show on NewsOne TV channel;
  • "Europe is using coronavirus as an excuse to get rid of Ukrainian migrant workers" - ik.arhano.ru;
  • "Europe is getting ready to "buy up" all Ukrainian medical workers" - 112 Ukraine TV channel.

"Coronavirus is being used against Russia and Russian church"

This narrative is smaller if compared to the previous two described above. Nevertheless, it is very important because it shows how the "Russian world" uses religion and the Russian Orthodox Church for its own gain. This narrative consists of two subnarratives.

The first sub-narrative is being used by Russian-controlled media and "junk websites" --- it says that coronavirus is "God's punishment" for those who are not true Christians. Here are the notable messages:

  • "Coronavirus in Europe is a punishment for same-sex marriages" - antifashist.com;
  • "Russian priest-virologist said that coronavirus is a punishment for sins" - bots on Twitter;
  • "Grigoriy Rasputin [a monk close to the court of Russian Tsar Nikolai II] predicted that there will be a "white plague," a punishment for Sodom and Gomorrah which will be established on Earth again" - from-ua.com.

Simultaneously, the second subnarrative is being used to strengthen the positions of Russian church in Ukraine.  It says that the Russian church is "the only true church." Here are the notable messages:

  • "Halychany (Ukrainians from Galicia - Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk Regions) are "disgusting" because "herds of them were bringing the virus [COVID-19] from Europe, and now they "blame" the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate" - bots on Twitter;
  • "The antichrist government is making the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate close churches" - 3rm.info;
  • "Close McDonalds, not churches!" - tsargrad.tv.

Note: Why we do this research

In past years, but especially after the 2019 elections in Ukraine, anti-Western and anti-democratic messages have become more widespread in the Ukrainian information space. They are aimed at undermining trust in democracy and creating a monstrous image of the "West" ("Europe", "America", "Soros", and "the IMF") trying to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty. They are traditionally disseminated by Russian and pro-Russian information actors, but they have now been joined by increasingly visible Yanukovych-era "revanchist" politicians (Andriy Portnov, Olena Lukash, etc.); forces close to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, and even by the formerly pro-Western "Orange Revolution Queen" Yulia Tymoshenko.

Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld.org, in cooperation with SemanticForce and Looqme, compile a regular digest of these messages. We weekly and monthly reports, and also provide alerts about specific narratives when they appear. This project is conducted with the support of the Media Program in Ukraine, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by the international organization Internews.

Read our weekly reports here:

analyst and journalist at Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld