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Amid coronavirus chaos, Russian spies see opportunity: Intelligence assessment

ABC News logo ABC News 4/14/2020

a large clock tower towering over a city: A woman walks near the Kremlin in downtown Moscow, April 12, 2020, during a strict lockdown in Russia to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

A woman walks near the Kremlin in downtown Moscow, April 12, 2020, during a strict lockdown in Russia to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
© Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia’s leaders concede coronavirus is now an “emergency” in that country, Moscow’s intelligence services remain hard at work searching for an angle amid tragedy that could give them an upper hand over the U.S., according to a new U.S. intelligence analysis obtained by ABC News.

The assessment says U.S. intelligence suspects that their Russian counterparts have been trying to sow discord and chaos in America by amplifying social media messages that push conspiracy theories and other narratives that could cause people to lose faith in their government and communities.

At the same time, analysts say Russians would have been closely monitoring the well-documented failings in the U.S. healthcare system laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Russia has devised an asymmetric military doctrine to be used in combination with conventional tactics,” according to the April 6 document distributed to U.S. law enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security. The Russians hope to “sap the will to fight from its adversary by, among other things, putting pressure on the population at the same time as engaging militarily.” 

"During peacetime," the analysis says, "Russia prepares the ground in the event of hostilities by collecting intelligence on the vulnerabilities of each target. During degraded relations, Russia conducts some operations to keep its adversary off balance, such as disinformation campaigns and possibly mapping the medical supply chain.”

MORE: Russia's coronavirus cases expected to soar 

For instance, the document says that medical first responders "as of mid-March lacked enough supplies of COVID-19 test kits, personal protection equipment, and ventilators because the supply chain was unprepared for a pandemic, according to credible press reporting.”

“This information could fulfill Russia’s collection requirements to understand vulnerabilities in the US medical supply chain," the document says.

Such efforts by Russian intelligence should come as no surprise, according to ABC News contributor John Cohen, who used to lead intelligence operations at DHS.

“Russia, terrorist groups and other adversaries are watching carefully how the U.S. responds to the COVID-19 pandemic so that they can identify weaknesses in our defenses that could be exploited to conduct future attacks,” said Cohen, a former acting undersecretary of DHS. “There is no doubt that Russia would seek to exploit the current public health crisis to achieve their objectives.”

MORE: Why is Russia reporting so few COVID-19 cases? Some say it's a cover-up 

The intelligence analysis was distributed last week, just days before the Kremlin admitted Saturday for the first time that there was a “huge influx” of patients in Moscow and that hospitals are now working in “emergency mode.” The day before, a deputy to Moscow mayor said that the number of hospital admissions had doubled in a week.

Russia’s confirmed coronavirus numbers have been jumping by over 1,000 a day for the past few days, and Monday saw a huge leap of over 2,500 new cases in 24 hours. The country’s total now stands at 18,328 cases, with a reported 130 deaths.

Slideshow by photo services

Adding to the concerns is the reality that Russia’s ramshackle health service could be no match for the health crisis if it worsens, especially outside Moscow. Outside some cities, the Russian military has been building special coronavirus hospitals, which authorities say are intended to create thousands more beds for those being treated.

ABC News’s Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.

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