Mutually independent political experts in Russia, left-wing politicians in Germany, and an anonymous online persona from Latvia have attempted to spread a narrative suggesting that Defender Europe 20, the U.S.-led multinational military exercise including NATO participation will bring the COVID-19 novel coronavirus to the Baltic states.
The narrative has the hallmarks of prior attempts to promote anti-NATO sentiment in Europe, though so far has failed to garner much engagement on social media. Regardless of engagement, however, the political opportunism of spreading fear and dislike of NATO in the context of coronavirus is a distraction from controlling the spread of a disease that ignores borders. Any entity attempting to score geopolitical points using COVID-19 as its attack mechanism will likely undermine any collaborative multinational efforts to contain the epidemic.
Most of the articles spreading the narrative imply that U.S. military troops in Italy might be contagious with the novel coronavirus and are thus a threat to countries participating in the exercise. Defender Europe 20 began in February 2020 and is expected to run through the spring. The U.S. Department of Defense, meanwhile, has already canceled a joint military exercise with Israel that was to involve the same troops based in Italy — the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
U.S. Army Europe is calling the Defender Europe 20 exercise “the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe in the more than 25 years.” Though the exercise does not target any particular country, Kremlin-owned media outlets continue to label it as a “war against Russia role-play.” In early 2017, NATO enhanced its presence in the Baltic states and Poland amid Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Narratives such as NATO being aggressive and unwelcome in the region routinely target Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states.
A Latvian persona
The anti-NATO coronavirus narrative first appeared on February 26 on English-language fringe outlet OpEdNews.com before spreading to three additional fringe sites: BulgarianMilitary.com, BalticWord.eu, and TheDuran.com. The author on all four sites was listed as “Alvis Petus,” an anonymous online persona with a Latvian-sounding name. At the time of writing, there were no profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, VKontakte, or Odnoklasniki for a persona with that specific name. The name only appears in search results related to anti-NATO articles and a few petitions against NATO presence in Latvia.
The DFRLab has previously investigated a network of online personas with Latvian and Lithuanian names that spread anti-NATO narratives on fringe media. The network identified in the earlier investigation included OpEdNews.com, BalticWord.eu, and TheDuran.com — three of the outlets promoting the latest anti-NATO narrative. “Alvis Petus” appears be a new persona for the same network.
Anti-NATO with a German twist
Others spreading the same narrative came from German left-wing politics. Alexander Neu, member of the German Bundestag for Die Linke party and its spokesperson on the Bundestag Defense Committee, argued against the NATO exercise in an article published on a party website. “Defender 2020 must be stopped,” he said. “Even without the virus occurring, the maneuver is irresponsible from a peace policy perspective. Now there is a risk of the corona epidemic spreading further.” Sputnik Germany cited this quote in an article published on February 27.
On February 28, local German newspaper Nordkurier quoted Torsten Koplin, another Die Linke MP. “[I]f 36,000 soldiers are transported across Europe, the risk of an epidemic with COVID-19 increases,” he said.
COVID-19 is not the main reason Die Linke is calling for a stop the Defender Europe 20 exercise, however. “Stop Defender 2020” is one of the topical sections on its home page. In an article published on January 27, 2020, the party calls it a “war exercise, provocation and preparation for war” with Russia.
At the bottom of the “Stop Defender 2020” section of their website, the party provided links to additional resources, including a website by Alexander Neu and Kathrin Vogler, a Die Linke MP who has administered a Facebook page called Stop Defender 2020 since December 12, 2019. Given that the page launched two weeks prior to the first reported case of COVID-19 on December 31, 2019, however, it was not founded specifically to amplify coronavirus-related narratives.
The Die Linke party website also linked to antidef20.de, a campaign page for DFG-VK Ost, or German Peace Society — United Opponents of War. On February 11, Alvis Petus wrote to the campaign to garner more visibility for his previous campaign against Defender Europe 2020 and calling for a rejection of a plan to enlarge a military training ground near Daugavpils, a Latvian city with a large Russian-speaking population.
Finally, pro-Kremlin military experts voiced their concerns that the NATO military exercise would help spread COVID-19 across Europe.
On February 27, Voenno Politicheskoe Obozrenie, a fringe Russian-language outlet about political and military affairs, published an article by pro-Kremlin political expert Vladimir Vyachich titled “Defender Europe 2020 — the deadly route of Coronavirus in Europe.”
The article describes COVID-19’s impact on Italy, pointing out that U.S. troops based in the city of Vicenza will participate in the NATO exercise and claiming that the situation at the Vicenza base is “out of control.” The article predicts that residents of countries impacted by the exercise will become infected with COVID-19 through transmission by U.S. soldiers. Other pro-Kremlin fringe outlets as RusVesna and NovostiDnya24.ru republished the story on February 28.
Meanwhile, the pro-Kremlin outlet EADaily shared a similar concern, citing Ivan Popel, a military and infection specialist from Kaliningrad. The outlet quoted him as saying that military transports used in the NATO exercise could spread COVID-19 through dust particles containing the coronavirus. The pro-Kremlin outlet News Front also picked the story up and published its version in English, Spanish, and French.
Though the COVID-19 NATO exercise narrative appeared simultaneously within Russian, English, and German information spaces, only the articles in German garnered any notable social media engagement.
In Germany, the narrative garnered a little over 2,000 social media engagements in total, according to data collected via the social media monitoring tool BuzzSumo. Neu’s opinion piece on Die Linke’s website was the most popular among other stories on social media, though it received little to no engagement outside of Facebook.
At the time of writing, the articles in Russian garnered a mere 94 engagements in total. BuzzSumo provided engagement data only for the RusVesna and EADaily articles. Other articles that contained the narrative in Russian garnered insufficient engagement to be recognized by BuzzSumo.
Finally, the articles by Alvis Petus garnered a paltry 72 engagements on social media.
The DFRLab previously identified related narratives by pro-Kremlin actors who blamed the United States for supposedly using bioweapons to disseminate the virus. This case, with its intent to undermine NATO, shows an attempt to use COVID-19 as a means of rhetorical attack and, in doing so, may complicate efforts to bring the disease’s spread under control: epidemics are a global threat, and the world’s people would be best served by international cooperation and not geopolitical conflict.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly described German Bundestag member Alexander Neu as the chairman of the Bundestag Defense Committee. While Neu is a member of the committee, he is not its chairman; instead he serves as coordinator of The Left (Die Linke) on the committee. We regret the error.