Lies, half-truths & propaganda: Even during Covid-19 crisis, Britain’s leading news source can’t resist Russia-bashing

29 Apr, 2020 15:40 / Updated 4 years ago

By Jonny Tickle

One of the side-effects of attaining any reasonable level of knowledge about Russia is that it’s subsequently impossible to read most US/UK media coverage of the country without suffering a discomforting rise in blood pressure.

Viewed from here, it can seem like every Anglo-American mainstream media publication is printing reams of never-ending drivel about Russia. Of course, in reality, for the average joe in London or New York, Russia is barely even a consideration. It is just another nation in a long list of far-away lands, and naturally, people are more concerned about issues at home. Yet, media elites have a peculiar preoccupation with the country.

Take the Mail, for instance. The Daily Mail is Britain’s most widely read title across print and online, which took the biscuit a few days ago with a piece so poorly compiled that you’d call it “a new low” – if the depths weren’t plumbed with such regularity. As Russia hack-jobs go, this was painting-by-numbers, even featuring an appearance from the creator of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ hoax. 

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To make things even more bizarre, it claimed its sources said the health minister was unable to see President Putin for over six months, despite the fact he’s only been in the job since January.

On the morning of April 26, MailOnline readers opened their favorite news website to see this headline:

“Could coronavirus topple Vladimir Putin? As oligarchs buy up ventilators for their dachas, businesses go bust and badly-paid doctors quit in droves, the oil price collapse has left Russia’s coffers running dry” 

Russia will go skint due to falling oil prices

According to author Ian Birrell (who, incidentally has no track record of Russia expertise), the “oil price collapse has left Russia’s coffers running dry.”

While it is true that the country’s economy has a high level of dependency on the export of oil, in recent years, officials have positioned the country to be much better prepared for a price drop than other oil producers, by diversifying the economy into additional sectors.

Furthermore, Russia’s resilience to fluctuations is based on its gigantic forex fund. At the end of March, Russia had a whopping $563 billion in reserves of foreign currencies and gold – the fourth-largest in the world, behind only China, Japan, and Switzerland. Hardly “dry” coffers!

Half a decade of austerity in the face of US sanctions has encouraged the country to keep topping up its rainy-day fund (another $125 billion or so), leaving Russia in an incredibly strong position to get through any turbulence, in the medium term, at least. In mid-March, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said that at current prices (then around $30 per barrel), the government could fulfill its financial obligations for up to six years. However, at sub-$18, many analysts say this may only last for two.

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Furthermore, while oil is a significant portion of Russia’s budget, the country also exports gas, metals, and chemical products, and is the world’s leading grain exporter. Russia is simply not as dependent on ‘black gold’ as many other leading producers.

Doctors are quitting en masse

According to Birrell, “badly paid doctors have quit in droves” and “scores of medics have quit their jobs in at least five cities after being told to work with infected patients with inadequate protection.”

By any definition of ‘droves,’ this claim is undeniably incorrect. While there have certainly been some resignations, the vast majority are isolated incidents with mitigating circumstances, rather than doctors walking out en masse while fighting Covid-19.

For example, in the northern region of Karelia, a handful of physicians resigned before the area even had a single case. In another episode – in Saratov – doctors quit as their perinatal unit was converted into a clinic for fighting coronavirus, and they felt unqualified. Most other cases in Russia are singular, isolated incidents – mainly involving at-risk doctors over the age of 60. 

It is true: the unprecedented epidemiological situation has indeed prompted some Russian doctors to resign. However, the numbers are barely worth mentioning in comparison to the overall number in Russia. Furthermore, the figures are not an outlier compared to the rest of the world.

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While only one hospital in Russia saw a ‘score’ of resignations, the epidemiological situation has seen many more across the world, with a cursory Google search bringing up departures in India, Romania, and Bulgaria.

While Russia’s small amount of resignations expose some of the failures of the nation’s healthcare system – such as low official salaries – the vast majority of the country’s doctors haven’t expressed a desire to walk out.

Long lines of ambulances

The Daily Mail’s next claim is that “ambulance crews queue for hours to deliver patients to overloaded hospitals.” Like all seasoned sensationalist hacks, Birrell is fond of portraying one event as a reflection of an overall situation.

On April 11, in Khimki, just outside Moscow, a long queue of ambulances was filmed waiting to take patients to a local hospital. This was a one-off.

Speaking to Russian TV, the head of the Moscow Department of Health Alexei Khripun explained that the traffic jam was caused by the “uneven distribution” of empty hospital beds, and it just so happened that, on that day, many spaces were freed up in the same location.

This single incident is absolutely not indicative of a more significant issue, but an isolated logistical anomaly. Moscow has plenty of available spaces, especially after a brand-new, 800-bed facility was completed in the city’s outskirts just last week.

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Russia’s ventilators are being snapped up by the wealthy

Based solely on a report from the Moscow Times (which despite its name is Dutch, not Russian), Birrell claims that “desperately needed ventilators have been bought by billionaires setting up makeshift clinics in their mansions.” The Moscow Times’ report provides no concrete evidence and is based solely on anonymous, unnamed sources. Furthermore, the claims don’t entirely pass the smell test – ventilators are absolutely useless without fully trained personnel, who may well need back up from specialists in other areas. 

Birrell also takes aim at the location of Russia’s equipment, conceding that, when “the current crisis hit, [Russia] had more ventilators per capita than Britain,” but criticizing the fact that “many of them are in Moscow and St. Petersburg.” 

Moscow and St. Petersburg are the most populated cities in the country, and naturally have more ventilators – any other way would be absurd mismanagement. According to data sourced by Western-funded news outlet Meduza, at the end of March, Russia had 40,000 state-owned ventilators, with 5,077 of those being in Moscow. With the Moscow area home to over 20 million in a country of 146 million, this is hardly irrational. As things stand, the capital has over half of the country’s confirmed cases.

According to the same data source, at the end of March, Russia had 27.3 ventilators per 100,000 population. In comparison, the USA had 18.8, the UK 12.9, and Italy 8.3. In particular, the United Kingdom’s per capita numbers are lower than all but a handful of Russia’s 85 regions. Meduza states that Russia has an “abundance of ventilators.”

The government is covering up the real figures

Using a single quote from political activist Anastasia Vasilyeva, Birrell pushes the notion that the Russian government is hiding the real coronavirus figures. While, as in almost all other countries, the official numbers are not entirely accurate – something admitted by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin – there is no evidence to suggest a deliberate cover-up.

The original accusation emerged after the number of patients with pneumonia in Moscow increased in January 2020 by 37 percent, compared to January 2019.

Vasilyeva, head of the ‘Doctor’s Alliance,’ a group allied to US/UK media darling Alexei Navalny, said: “The idea that this pneumonia is coronavirus comes to mind, there seem to be no other reasons for the rise.”

Doctors, however, disagree with Vasilyeva. Nikolai Briko, the chief epidemiologist of the Ministry of Health, noted that there is no real increase in the incidence of pneumonia, and the numbers are comparable to previous years. According to Briko, comparisons need to be made looking at five-year differences, not one. 

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Briko was backed up by chief pulmonologist of Moscow Region, Stanislav Terpigorev, who explained to Moscow daily RBK that “there’s no catastrophic increase. In addition, the increase may indicate the [improved] quality of the diagnosis... the number of pneumonia cases varies from year to year, which may be due to a number of factors: the level of immunity, viruses, the number of sunny days in a year.”

Apart from Vasilyeva, there is no other regularly quoted source in the entirety of the English-language media making this argument. Once again, without any concrete evidence, Birrell saw fit to push another conspiracy theory.

In reality, a cover-up is just not feasible. With the proliferation of social networks and messaging apps – in particular Telegram – there is no way that the government could hide anything, on this scale, for very long.

The government is bailing out big business while abandoning small companies

One thing in Russia, like in the rest of the world, is entirely true: many businesses will fail as a result of coronavirus.

As in most capitalist societies, governments focus their efforts on big companies in a bid to preserve the most number of jobs. But, unlike in many countries, the oligarch owners have bailed out their own enterprises – just as the system was designed.

However, it is not entirely fair to say that the government has given small businesses nothing. Amongst other measures, Putin announced that certain payments can be delayed for half a year, social security contributions have been halved, and he introduced a six-month moratorium on fines and debt collection. State Banks have also offered interest-free loans to help businesses out. Companies who retain at least 90 percent of their employees will receive extra money from the government, to go towards the payroll. 

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Of course, for many businesses, these measures simply kick the can down the road. Due to sanctions from the West, Russia cannot afford to be fiscally reckless, and that means there is little willingness to risk financial instability by bailing out small businesses. Regrettably, for many, Covid-19 will be the final nail in the coffin. On this one, Birrell is somewhat correct.

Russia has mishandled the epidemic

Another dubious claim by the Mail is that Russia has been “slow to react,” and there are no signs that the “curve is flattening.”

As Birrell says, the Kremlin has consistently stated that the country is unlikely to see a peak before mid-May. On many occasions, Putin has pointed out that the worst is yet to come, and unlike other world leaders, has not downplayed the potentially severe impacts of the virus. Putin cuts a contrasting figure to the likes of US President Donald Trump, who infamously predicted on February 26 that “within a number of days” cases would be “close to zero” [in America]. 

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Despite Birrell’s evaluation, the curve in Russia IS flattening. Since the big run-up to 6,060 cases in a single day on April 19, numbers have fluctuated up and down, and are no longer continually increasing. Since April 24, daily numbers have hovered around 6,000.

Even odder is Birrell’s assertion that the government didn’t react fast enough. As he admits, “the Kremlin moved sharply when the pandemic flared in Wuhan,” but the journalist suggests that the government “was slow to react as rich Russians brought the disease home from Europe.”

On the contrary, Moscow has reacted relatively quickly to the virus. Since mid-March, Russia has had a two-week mandatory quarantine for anyone returning from Italy. In comparison, the Mail’s beloved Boris Johnson only introduced this measure last week. When ‘Covidiots’ brought coronavirus back from Europe in early March, the government reacted IMMEDIATELY, banning almost all flights to Italy, Germany, France, and Spain from March 11. By comparison, passenger planes from the US and EU continue to fly to Britain.

The article has a whole host of other bizarre claims

Birrell, who is not based in Russia, says that he spoke to a man named ‘Mikhail,’ who blames Putin for destroying his business. While there are, of course, many people who DO blame the president, and plenty of Mikhails in Russia, who is this anonymous Mikhail – and how did Birrell meet him?

Even stranger, the journalist claims ‘a source’ told him that the health minister took “six months to fix an appointment to see the president before the crisis.” As unbelievable as it sounds, there’s something even stranger – the health minister was part of the January reshuffle, and hasn’t even been in the job for four months yet!

The article also quotes James Nixey of the think-tank Chatham House, which is funded by the British government, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, amongst others. Despite keeping power for 20 years, accumulating the fourth-largest Forex reserves in the world, and overseeing a life-expectancy increase of EIGHT years, while maintaining some of lowest unemployment rates in Europe, Nixey states that “Russia’s government could never be called competent.” One wonders what ‘competent’ means in this context.


British people don’t keep up with Russian news. They don’t read government-run or opposition-leaning newspapers, consume Russia-related social media, and they certainly don’t keep up with speeches of governors, mayors, and deputies. That’s why, when Russia gets a full-page spread in one of Britain’s most popular newspapers, it needs to be accurate. Which brings us back to another point: Western disinformation about Russia is a far bigger problem than the much-publicized inverse, which has spawned a cottage industry.

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