Estonia report: Russia bets on COVID-19 weakening the West

HELSINKI (AP) — Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency said on Wednesday that Russia is counting on the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken unity in the West which will help Moscow gain a more prominent role in international affairs and lead to “declining Western influence on the global stage”.

The Kremlin believes that the pandemic will force the West to focus on domestic policy and economic problems and cause among other things populist and extremist movements to emerge, the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service said in its annual report.

“For its part, Russia is prepared to add fuel to the flames to encourage these trends,” the 79-page report said. “Therefore, 2021 will again see Russian influence operations designed to create and deepen divides within and between Western societies, including at the EU (European Union) level.”

It said Russia’s moves will likely include attempts to discredit Western-produced COVID-19 vaccines, especially the one made by the Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca which Russian propaganda has labelled as a “monkey vaccine.”

“With these smear campaigns, Russia hopes, on the one hand, to create a more favorable position for its own vaccines on the world market and, on the other hand, to promote its strategic ambition to show itself as being the first among the major powers to provide a solution to the COVID-19,” the report said.

Russia is actively promoting its own Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in several European nations, including Serbia. Hungary is the first EU nation and so far only EU nation to have purchased quantities of Sputnik V.

“The coronavirus epidemic hasn’t diminished the actions and ambitions of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime. On the contrary, we can see how there is an attempt to utilize the pandemic to reap gains for (Russia’s) domestic and foreign policy,” the Estonian agency’s Director General Mikk Marran told reporters during a news conference in Tallinn, the nation’s capital.

Addressing the new U.S. leadership and President Joe Biden, the report said that Russia’s agenda toward Washington isn’t likely to significantly change and will remain “largely confrontational”.

Estonia’s relations with neighboring Russia have remained chilly ever since 1991 when the former Soviet republic of 1.3 million and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence amid the fall of the Soviet Union.

Though focusing largely on events in Russia or that country’s immediate neighborhood like in Belarus and Ukraine, the report also noted developments in China. It said Beijing’s ambitious plan to become the world leader in technology “poses major security threats” to the rest of the world.

The new generation 5G mobile networks, advanced satellite navigation technology, cloud services and artificial intelligence were listed in the report as examples of where China either is or hopes to play a key global role.

China’s “leadership has a clear objective of making the world dependent on Chinese technology”, the report said.

The agency warned Estonia’s leadership that integrating the country “into China’s autonomous technology ecosystem makes Estonia vulnerable and dependent on China.”

NATO and EU member Estonia had earlier banned China’s Huawei – the world’s leading 5G technology provider – from supplying technology and equipment to the Baltic country’s government, citing security concerns.

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