WASHINGTON — Russian spies are likely using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to collect intelligence on U.S. supply lines, which have struggled to provide adequate medical equipment, according to an intelligence report issued earlier this week by the Department of Homeland Security and obtained by Yahoo News.
The Russian intelligence services “likely are watching the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says says an April 6 intelligence bulletin produced by the DHS Counterintelligence Mission Center.
“Intelligence collection on medical supply chain vulnerabilities could inform future operations aimed at weakening key logistical elements in preparation for a wartime attack, or opportunistically during an emergency,” the document says.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images)
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the report comes at a time when the U.S. has surpassed other countries in coronavirus cases, while also facing domestic concerns about shortfalls in medical supplies, particularly for personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care providers. After weeks of delays, President Trump last month authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of equipment, including ventilators and N95 respirator masks.
Moscow, in the meantime, has already scored some major public relations coups amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Russia sent a planeload of medical equipment to the United States in what at first appeared to be a donation, though it was later revealed that the United States paid for supplies.
On Friday, President Trump spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the coronavirus pandemic, the White House announced.
Last month, Russia flew in plane loads of medical equipment and more than 100 personnel to Italy as part of what it describes a humanitarian mission. But La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, reported that Russian military intelligence officials were also on those flights.
Michael Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, told Yahoo News he wasn’t surprised by the report’s claims, given how Russia operates. “Russian intelligence service is always probing vulnerabilities among adversaries. It’s not surprising even in the midst of a pandemic where they are supposed to be focusing on their own safety and health, they’re scrutinizing our supply chain vulnerabilities, our critical infrastructure vulnerabilities and so forth,” said Carpenter, who previously served as a senior Pentagon official responsible for Russia.
“This pandemic is essentially a war game of countries’ resilience, how command and control works, how governments respond rapidly,” he added.
A billboard in St. Petersburg, Russia, reads: “Avoid crowded places, it will save a life.” (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
The unclassified DHS report notes that Russia has since January conducted a disinformation campaign related to the coronavirus epidemic. DHS also expects that Russia will use the current crisis as a way to improve its future information operations.
“We expect the Kremlin analyzes American public reaction to disinformation and adjusts techniques to maximize the impact both during the current COVID-19 situation and in the future, such as Russia’s ongoing 2020 election interference,” the report says.
Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA senior Intelligence Officer, said that Russia is using its propaganda to send a not so cryptic message to the U.S. government. “The Russians are well aware that we know what our vulnerabilities are,” he said. “Implicitly threatening us, the Kremlin wants us to know they also know our vulnerabilities.”
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Another target of Kremlin propaganda are Russians, according to Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. During the 2016 presidential elections, the Kremlin-directed interference campaign spread conspiracy theories.
Now it’s different, according to Schafer. “Instead, the narrative framing from state-backed outlets has generally been to portray the Russian government’s response to the crisis as competent, while framing the EU and U.S.’s response as inept,” he wrote in an email to Yahoo news.
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., agreed that the focus of Russian information operations now appears to be on a domestic audience. The goal is to show Russians what Putin is accomplishing, she says.
“I’m sure they’re watching as different parts of our supply chain are breaking down under this unique environment,” she says. “They can use that to broadcast at home.”
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