Contemporary Russian revisionism weaponizes disinformation and cyberspace to yield a competitive advantage and facilitate the realization of Russia’s foreign policy objectives. State-sponsored propaganda is never spread merely for its merit. It is a constituent of a broader foreign policy toolbox. Relative to this intent, Kremlin propaganda aims to export a certain perception of the Russian state into the consciousness of a large audience worldwide.
Europe and the U.S. have become increasingly affected by the spread of misinformation and its consequences. The Kremlin-backed meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election was followed by the UK’s Brexit referendum the same year, alongside the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and Russia’s covert interference in the 2017 Catalan secession crisis.
The Baltic states have been the bulls-eye of Russian propaganda since Soviet times. Lithuania has been amassing experience from decades-long fake news and disinformation and as such, the state sees itself as being on the frontline of cyber warfare. Vilnius’ strategy is potent because it pushes for a tough approach to Russia’s offensive and relies on cooperation between different societal groups, which would otherwise have a more adversarial relationship. Lithuania sets a precedent by uniting civil society, military, and major news outlets to counter Russian propaganda.
The initial paradigm shift followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. A group of volunteers came up with the answer to Russian “trolls” and established a movement – as they prefer to refer to it – known as the Baltic “elves”. These anonymous internet commentators challenge Kremlin’s propaganda by debunking false information. Moreover, some run “name and shame” campaigns against pro-Russian trolls. The movement has had a spillover into other Baltic states and the group members vary from IT professionals, journalists, students, scientists, and other members of civil society. An undisclosed number of “elves” are also members of the Lithuanian Riflemen Union (LRU), which is a paramilitary force controlled by a joint Ministry of Defense and civilian leadership.
Close cooperation between the military and civil society actors has proven to be highly utilitarian with the development of Demaskuok. lt (debunk.EU in English) – a platform that was funded by the Baltic media outlet Delfi and Google Digital Innovation Fund. An algorithm scans over 1,000 sources and an estimated 2,000 articles per day against a database of certain prevailing narratives and triggers words. Afterward, the flagged content is reviewed by volunteers and potential threats are assessed. This evaluation is further scrutinized by journalists, the military, and other civil society members with sufficient expertise on the matter. To address certain concerns about the conflict of interest due to the media collaborating with state institutions, a freelance defense journalist from Lithuania Vaidas Saldziunas says that Russian propaganda is a “topic that everybody drops everything for” and working alongside the military does not deter the media from writing a critical story about the institution.
Although the Russian disinformation campaigns have increasingly moved in the cyberspace, it is still omnipresent in traditional broadcast media, as online platforms can oftentimes bypass the older generation. In 2016 Kremlin-funded Sputnik News started operating in all three Baltic languages and its office location remains obscure. Russia’s most ubiquitous TV network Russia Today (RT) has an estimated budget of $275 million a year, which is almost three times Lithuania’s entire defense budget for 2019. Lithuania banned RT in September 2020 based on it being controlled by EU-sanctioned Dmitry Kiselyov and for the dissemination of fake news and enmity, however, Russian state-sponsored vessels remain broadcasting on as many as 10 TV stations in Lithuania, given that such programs are cheaper than those of the EU and can be transmitted without translation. Additionally, the media literacy level in Lithuania remains one of the lowest in the European Union. To combat the issues at hand, Lithuania has a growing number of legal means against the alleged sources of disinformation. In case of a disinformation attack, authorities can order for the servers to be shut down for 48 hours without the need for a court order. Provisions have been put in place following the breach in the Vilnius bureau of Baltic News Service (BNS), which was used to publicize a false story alleging that US troops were poisoned by gas in Latvia.
The weaponization of new conflict methods such as media, cyber, and intelligence services – referred to as the Trojan Horse by Valery Gerasimov – attempts to identify and exploit Lithuania’s socio-economic weaknesses and to strengthen the cultural divide within the state. As such, Russian-backed propaganda in the Baltic region aims to label Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as failing or temporary “Fake Europe” to undermine their integration in Euro-Atlantic structures. Although Estonia and Latvia are more densely populated with ethnic-Russians than Lithuania, it is a desirable target for propaganda in a broader geopolitical sense. Lithuania along with Poland borders Russian exclave Kaliningrad and the two also contain a flat terrain between Belarus and Kaliningrad known as the Suwalki corridor, which could serve as a link-up for Russian troops when needed. In 2018 marginal stories started to circulate on Russian social media portal VKontakte (VK) claiming that Lithuania was planning to act on its “expansionary vision” and take Kaliningrad, however, if this vision was to come to fruition Lithuania ought to be incorporated into the Russian Federation. The original stories were written in Russian, indicating that they were likely tailored to the Russian domestic audience and ethnic-Russians in Baltics.
Kremlin trolls are notorious for organizing their activities through VKontakte and afterward engaging on other social media platforms, most notably on Facebook. Although certain fake stories fit the templates of the past, for example, similar rape stories in Germany and Ukraine, certain patterns are endemic to Lithuania. For instance, rather than pushing a specific narrative, Kremlin Trolls adopt extremist positions on both sides of the country’s political spectrum, thereby attempting to disrupt public discourse and polarize Lithuanian society on already sensitive topics such as ethnic minorities being hostages of geopolitics and socio-economic disadvantages. Moreover, the Kremlin propaganda often manipulates history in an attempt to deny Lithuania’s right to exist: Vilnius is claimed to be a Polish territory and Klaipeda should belong to Russia as it was a gift from Stalin. Russia’s efforts to promote a distorted version of Soviet occupation heavily rely on persuasion that the occupation was voluntary and it was a deliberate action taken by the Lithuanian government. Promoting Soviet nostalgia is prevalent in post-Soviet states, however, a national uproar was caused in 2013, when Russian broadcaster First Baltic Channeltransmitted a TV program called The Man and the Law. The program defamed Lithuanian freedom fighters and suggested that on 13 January 1991, not a single person was killed by the Soviet troops and the killing was planned by the Lithuanian leadership. The program suggested that the following investigation was motivated by national hatred and the government was responsible for the victims. As a result, the TV channel was banned in Lithuania, however, other outlets remain at Kremlin’s disposal to sow mistrust and encourage political and cultural fragmentation in Lithuanian society.
To counter disinformation and Russian propaganda, the state with a population of 3 million and limited resources when opposed to the Kremlin, has implemented a collaborative approach towards suspected violations and propaganda. A civil-military unit Lithuania’s Armed Forces Strategic Communications department closely monitors media news transactions and has the authority to take down websites that promulgate fake news. Since 2014 Lithuania’s defense budget has grown faster than any other in the world (20-30 percent annually) and the defense system is based on the concept of “total and unconditional defense” enshrined in the state’s 2012 National Security Strategy. As such, it encompasses non-military instruments and sophisticated cyber protection. Additionally, the National Strategy 2030 aims to introduce media literacy programs in all educational institutions.
Article was prepared within the framework of Jan Karski Program For Young Georgian Leaders 2021 / Capacity-Building for the Better Resistance to the Russian Propaganda
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.