Near Shirokino village (close to Mariupol), at the front line, ruined houses. Photo: Author

Near Shirokino village (close to Mariupol), at the front line, ruined houses. Photo: Author

Commentaries Countering Kremlin`s disinformation in Baltic and Eastern Europe

Disinformation tools are not something unique or new and have been used long time ago. But now we are living in times when information became a weapon. Annexation of Crimea, war in Donbas and in Syria have shown a significant role of information.

Published on balticworlds.com on december 21, 2016

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Disinformation tools are not something unique or new and have been used long time ago. But now we are living in times when information became a weapon. Annexation of Crimea, war in Donbas and in Syria have shown a significant role of information. Such role was also mentioned in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, issued in December 2014. In December 2016 a Doctrine of information security has been signed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, where an important status of information technologies during conflicts between the nations was stated.

The roots of the modern Russia`s disinformation could be found at least in the Soviet times and in times of the Cold War. But if during the Cold War times a boundary between domestic and foreign audience was constituted by the Iron Curtain, now such division is much more complicated. What we are observing now is usage of the same experience, gained during that period of time combined with modern information-age technology. Spending on TV broadcasting abroad only during last several years has increased significantly by Russia. So if during the Soviet times there were no such capabilities, as well as no need to reach Western audience, now such strengths exist. Interestingly that though the war against Georgia in 2008 was focused more on the demonstration of Russia`s military power, it has become a trigger for Kremlin`s propaganda upgrade. Especially concerning the Internet, where Russia has failed. Exactly after 2008 Russian authorities decided to pay more attention to information warfare and to propaganda capacities. After the war in Georgia a whole concept of the Russian foreign TV-broadcasting has been changed significantly.

Such Russian foreign media as Sputnik and RT are serving as an “alternative” source of information abroad and are using efficiently conspiracy theories, anti-US, anti-EU or anti-migrants sentiments. One of the main narratives of the Kremlin`s disinformation is blaming the West for events in revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005 as well as for a so called “Arab Spring”.  Symptomatically that in October 2016 the pro-Kremlin journalists Dmitri Kisseliov on one of the Russian TV-channels have even named the events, which took place in Hungary in 1956 as “a first color revolution” led by Americans.

Russian disinformation, on one hand, is using cultural, linguistic and ethnic weaknesses pretty effectively. But, on another hand, it is also exploitig weaknesses of such democratic principles as freedom a speech, plurality and balance of opinions. Moreover, Kremlin`s disinformation is also quite vividly used as an additional tool and a “dark side” of Russian diplomacy, which is another issue worth mentioning.

As it was stated above nowadays we should say about a division of the Kremlin`s disinformation between foreign and domestic audience but in terms of different zones. The first zone is a domestic audience in Russia, while Kremlin is using its disinformation also to preserve its regime and not to let any revolutionary actions happen on the streets of Moscow or Saint-Petersburg.  The second one belongs to Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus to some extent. The next zone is represented with the Baltic countries, the fourth and fifth ones– with the Central and Western European. For sure, even in each country of those zones disinformation strategies are not the same. Though a number of such zones does not end with mentioned countries I will dwell upon Eastern European and Baltic countries as such that have suffered from Kremlin`s disinformation most of all.

It has been said a lot about the Baltic countries as the next Russia`s target after Ukraine. Nevertheless, disinformation against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had started much earlier than the annexation of Crimea. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Baltic countries have been perceived as a part of Russian geopolitical interests. Even from the beginning of the 2000s it was quite obvious that Kremlin will oppose integration of those countries into the EU and NATO. Baltic countries were portrayed by Russian media as xenophobic, hostile and totally different from the rest of Europe. Each of the Baltic countries has a Russian ethnic minority, though its number in Lithuania is relatively small than in Latvia and Estonia. But the most known usage of disinformation and ethnic Russians in Baltic has been witnessed in Estonia in 2007 during the so called “Bronze night”. On 26-27 April in 2007 this country has faced one of the most tragic days in its modern history, when the memorial for the Soviet soldier was relocated from the centre of Tallinn to the military cemetery. It should be mentioned that there is a fundamentally different perception of Soviet soldiers in Estonia. For ethnic Russians they have always been liberators, for Estonians – generally as occupants. At the beginning of the 2000s the Bronze Soldier became an important symbol of unity for ethnic Russians living in Estonia. Every year on May 9 they have been gathering in front of that memorial to commemorate a victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. This relocation has provoked riots in the very centre of Tallinn accompanied by cyber attacks against Estonian government agencies and by diplomatic pressure from Russian Federation. Kremlin`s propaganda have portrayed Estonians as fascists, that are discriminating Russians. Protestors, who took part in riots and were crashing shop-windows and stealing goods from the shops, were labeled “peaceful demonstrators” by Russian TV. Luckily Estonian authorities managed to cope with those protests and did not allow them to turn into something even more terrifying. But still the scale of those riots, huge disinformation campaign and cyber attacks against Estonia are demonstrating that they have been preparing much earlier. Even now after almost ten years since the “The Bronze Soldier” is still a very sensitive page in modern Estonian history and is quite often used in political debates inside a country. A significant countermeasure against disinformation in Estonia was made in September 2015 when a national Russian-language TV channel ETV+ was launched. At the same time debates about such TV channel appeared right after Estonia has regained its independence in 1991. The ETV+ was created as a public broadcasting channel, but still it is funded by Estonian government. So far it is not as efficient as it was planned to be and still is not much popular among Russians in this country. An experience of such Russian-language TV-channel supposed to be borrowed in 2017 by another Baltic country – Latvia. Among 2 millions of people living in this country about one third identifies themselves as ethnic Russians. Due to Estonian example and to other reasons a launch of a Russian-speaking channel in Latvia is being postponed and most likely will not happen in 2017.

Lithuania does not have such a large Russian ethnic minority as in other two Baltic states. But it has a large and strong Polish minority, which is often used as a tool of disinformation against Lithuania, portraying it as oppressive towards the Polish-speaking minority. Moreover this Baltic state is described by Russian disinformation as a non-Western and more close to Russian culture. Having a look at the Eastern European countries one may notice the same narrative used by the Kremlin’s disinformation: that the countries are not sovereign and belong to the so called “Russian world”. For example, today Belarus is under an extremely strong influence of Russian media. Even in 2010 Belarus experienced a huge disinformation campaign against its President Aliaksandr Lukashenko in a documentary movie “The Godfather” made by the Russian TV channel NTV. On 10 December 2016 the Ministry of Information in Belarus has argued that during the last months a number of news from Russia portraying the country as non-sovereign, lacking its culture and language has significantly increased. Another Eastern European country, Moldova is also influenced by Russian media. It is very often described as a powerless and poor country, manipulated by the West. Right before the Presidential elections in Moldova in 2016 Pavel Filip, the Moldovan Prime-Minister, during his interview for US media The Hill has called the West to help his country to fight against disinformation. By the way, during those Presidential elections the pro-European candidate Maia Sandu was labeled (mostly by Russian media) as a totally dependent on the West.

A narrative of a total dependence on the West and of an absence of sovereignty was also used against Ukraine. It should be said that unlike Belarus, Moldova or Baltic countries disinformation for Ukraine is connected with war and with lots of casualties. The Ukrainian case is also unique, while it is the first time in modern history when a horizontally organized Ukrainian civil society had to fight against Kremlin’s vertically constructed propaganda machine. As the information war progressed, a country with no real experience in counterpropaganda and with restricted financial capacities had to learn how to fight back literally from the square one. Nowadays Ukraine is doing better in fighting disinformation than it was in 2014, but still it lacks capabilities to fight it in the annexed Crimea and in temporary occupied territories of Donbas, as well as in spreading its messages in Western countries.

Though a usage of disinformation has become a new reality and countering it is an important task not just for Eastern European and Baltic countries, but for the whole West. Still, a straight and aggressive counterpropaganda measures will not work, not just because it does not correspond with democratic values and will turn those states into another propagandist. But simply cause it makes no sense and will be ineffective in strategic perspective. And still what is more important is focusing on own weaknesses, strengthening civil society capabilities and educating critically thinking people. Until that moment fighting against disinformation will remind a fight against windmills.

  • Maksym Kyiak

    Maksym Kyiak, thank you, Alexander. Frankly speaking, it was not easy to remain neutral when I was examing disinformation. Especially after I`ve witnessed everything in a real life. But still I thinki that I managed to do it.

  • Alexander Zubchenko

    Good article, thanks a lot. “Russian world” is really similar to neo-fascist ideology and Russian propaganda machine is just like Nazi one during WW2. Why EU and US can`t understand this? Tolerance is not a reason to be blind to real facts of Russian crimes in Ukraine and Syria.

  • by Maksym Kyiak

    PhD, worked at various academic and governmental institutions in Ukraine and abroad. After becoming a PhD, became involved in public diplomacy and science. Has represented Ukraine at the CAHROM Committee in the Council of Europe. Is the Co-Founder of the Global Ukraine INGO, a world-wide network of global leaders. He is also working now on postdoctoral research on information society and its influence on religion.

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