The Russian doping scandal is just another part of its disinformation campaign

The Russian doping scandal is just another part of its disinformation campaign
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On Feb. 8, 47 Russian athletes lost an appeal to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, just hours before the opening ceremony. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) supported the December 2017 decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russian athletes and the country’s Olympic Committee from participating in the games due to Russia’s decades-long practice of circumventing anti-doping programs and tests. Though Russia and its athletes deny that the doping program was created at the highest levels of government, make no mistake: This was a state-sponsored doping scheme.

Russian doping scandals are not new. Decades ago, Soviet officials developed a cheating system that enabled them to provide their athletes with performance-enhancing drugs without any consequences. They have been fooling the world and the IOC at least since 1968, and they are proud of it.  


What the United States fails to understand is that the doping scandals are simply one part of a broader disinformation strategy that is not only accepted, but often lauded, within the Russian government.


Russia was initially banned from participating in this year’s Olympics back in 2014, during the Sochi Olympic Games. The doping scheme was uncovered thanks to the Russian whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who provided testimony and thousands of documents to the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Rodchenkov — as the head of the Russia's national anti-doping laboratory, the Anti-Doping Center – had created a special drug-cocktail for athletes that dissolved easily in the blood and gave clean test results. He also testified that the Russian Federal Security Service developed a method to swap-out the urine samples of Russian athletes so that they gave clean readings. Finally, he confirmed that there has never been an anti-doping program in Russia or in the Soviet Union before it.

The United States should learn a lesson from this scandal.

Specifically, it should recognize that these illicit activities are part of the broader campaign to build up Russia and undermine the West. More importantly, it should expect these activities to occur in otherwise legitimate venues, including the Olympics.

What in the United States is called ‘disinformation and propaganda’ may be understood in Russia as the ‘ingenuity, wittiness, cleverness and cunningness’ of the nation’s decision-makers. Some Russians see disinformation not as a problem, but as an achievement of smart policy and clever politicians. As Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of Russian Parliament in exile (and the only parliament member who didn’t vote for the annexation of Crimea), said: 

[H]ungry Russia is aggressive. When everything is fine there, when there is a normal democratic order, when people have work, when people have access to medicine, education, and so on, the country will not behave aggressively. If you get a breakdown of the country, then you will receive 10 aggressive Russias, half of which will have its own nuclear weapons.

Right now, Russia is hungry. Until Russia reforms, the United States should expect continued government-sponsored disinformation campaigns from underground places, like those where Russian intelligence-backed hacker groups operate. But it should also expect various forms of Russian disinformation campaigns in otherwise legitimate venues and international organizations, forums where Russian success in a venture would give it more legitimacy on the world stage.

After all, an Olympic medal shows not only the prowess of an athlete, but also the success of the state behind the athlete — success that can legitimate a state’s “brilliant” coaches and “top-notch” facilities that support athletes’ training. If Russia can show the world that its athletes can win, it can show the world that Russia, and its model of government, can win. The doping scandal illustrates how far Russia will go to present that (dis)information to the world.

Megan Reiss (@MegReiss) is senior national security fellow and Iana Roginska is national security research assistant, both with the R Street Institute