The Chavista media propagated a few days ago the image of Nicolasito Maduro applying the Russian vaccine against Covid-19, known as Sputnik V. But Russia needs to go beyond Venezuela in its promotion of the vaccine in Latin America, if it really wants to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the pandemic to better position itself geopolitically in the region. Hence, it has launched a cyber operation, using “malware”, to disseminate negative information about Western vaccines on social media and promote the one promoted by the Kremlin.
Latin America was already a field in which the main vaccines fought to be able to carry out clinical trials, given their suitability due to the level of affectation of the virus and its particular socio-sanitary conditions. It is again now that vaccines seek their market: Faced with the image of a safe vaccine being offered by those developed by Western laboratories, those from Russia and China can play the card of demanding less refrigeration requirements than that of Pfizer BioNTech and being much cheaper than that of Moderna; some of them even raise the possibility of reducing the treatment to a single dose, instead of two.
Moscow considers Sputnik V as a “state” vaccine (The injection was given to Maduro’s son in the presence of the Russian ambassador in Caracas) and therefore conceives its commercialization as a direct way to gain influence in new countries. Sputnik V has had clinical trials in Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico and its purchase is committed, in addition to those nations, also by Argentina; for its part, Peru is negotiating a possible order.
Several of these countries have precisely been the target of the computer “malware” campaign promoted from Russia, as revealed the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a US entity with a long investigative tradition, which has been following the case since September. In its latest report, the FAS indicates that the disinformation operation has been carried out especially through the website of “Sputnik Mundo” – the Spanish version of that media outlet dependent on the Russian government – but the “malware” has been Also extended to internet domains in Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and Mexico.
According to the FAS, the operation began by spreading negative information about the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca, a laboratory based in England, together with the University of Oxford, as a result of some adverse effects that emerged in their clinical trials. «The volume of shares of shares, mentions and“ tweets ”was an ideal entry point for malicious actors to potentially distribute “malware” to hundreds of thousands of unintentional readers, “says the report from analysis of 88,555 tweets in Spanish, that pointed to mundo.sputniknews.com as the epicenter of the operation.
The embedded “malware” can then be used to manipulate internet traffic and amplify certain narratives. “Such efforts have been made in at least five Latin American countries to undermine confidence in the Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines,” the report states. The investigation uncovered the use of link shortening services, such as bit.ly, “to redirect links from stories in Latin American media to web pages infected with ‘malware’.”
Argentina in the spotlight
Among the infected domains was that of the Argentine media “Página / 12”, confirming Moscow’s interest in Argentina, whose government already initially committed to the purchase of 25 million doses of the Russian vaccine. The recent refusal of Russian President Vladimir Putin to wear Sputnik V claiming that it had not yet been sufficiently experienced in people over 60 years, he left his counterpart Alberto Fernández, who had previously assured, to eliminate the possible fear of the Argentines towards the Russian injection, that he would be the first to apply it. The Casa Rosada then came to the step by saying that when the millions of doses of Sputnik V reach the country, the safe use for older people will have been guaranteed.
The Kremlin seems to want to consolidate a rapprochement with Buenos Aires that had cooled off during the government of Mauricio Macri. The populism of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner helped to achieve a certain understanding with Moscow, but when Macri became president he wanted to mark distances. One of his most symbolic decisions was to remove the license in 2015 to the Russian state television channel RT for broadcast in Argentina, although a few weeks later it had to be returned due to threats from the Kremlin to ban the Russian import of Argentine meat and the suspension of some pending investments. Macrit encouraged further collaboration with China on nuclear energy.
Argentina is Russia’s second commercial partner in Latin America, after Brazil, but the 1.26 billion dollars that in 2018 added imports and exports between the two countries remind that Russia’s commercial relationship with the region is limited. Its relationship with the western hemisphere, particularly with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, is above all strategic.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.