18 November 2019

Russia’s strategic influence operations in the Baltic countries

Sergiu Medar

The Baltic states are subjected to a permanent bombardment of fake news from Russia, which aim to manipulate the population into pressuring government and parliament decision makers to take political decisions suitable for Russia. The 2007 cyberattack on Estonia was an example of using non-kinetical means in a violent manner. Later, Estonia managed to convince NATO to introduce misinformation and cyberattacks in the list of security threats for member states. In a firm and well-structured manner, the Baltic states have built a system to counteract these threats, which can be an example for the other NATO member states.

Image source: Mediafax

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia represent, through their proximity to Russia’s territory and membership to NATO, a major security concern to NATO.

For 50 years, starting with the end of the World War II, when the Baltic states where integrated in the Soviet Union, and up to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the population of these states was subjected to a permanent propaganda bombardment which sought to manipulate both history and day-to-day realities. Those who tried to present the actual reality were oppressed and considered traitors or fascists.

Through the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990, together with other Eastern and Central European states, the former Soviet Union member republic became free and independent states. Together with them, the Baltic states also chose the path to democracy.

Russia never came to peace with the fact that it does not dictate policy in Tallinn, Vilnius or Riga. As the physical occupation of these states, on the model of Crimea, is not possible anymore because they became NATO members, Putin elected to influence their political decisions and public opinion by developing a pro-Russian attitude for the population. The Baltic states understood from the beginning the manner in which Russia is going to act, and organized and prepared to handle it.  Despite the 2007 cyberattack failure, European states should learn from the experience of the Baltic states in the fight against the information warfare carried out by Moscow in all the states where it has political and economic interests.

The frontline position of the Baltic states in this war made Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite warn about the fact that its country was in a state of war in the area of propaganda and information security, in a 2018 presentation for the European Integration Studies Centre. Crimea’s annexation by Russia was an act of great concern for Lithuania, taking into account the possibility of the scenario repeating, with the large number of Russian ethnics in the Baltic states.

The strategic influence on these states is also based on the support Russian intelligence agencies grant to native Russian businessmen, in order for them to sign contracts with Russian companies, enrich themselves and enter politics. In this way, alongside the economic power, they will also become politically potent and influence government decisions, in order to align them with Moscow’s intention.

Another objective is to create a current of thought among the population which would pressure decision makers into decisions compatible with Russia’s intention. There is also the goal to influence the population during electoral campaigns, in order to elect those candidates who can take pro-Moscow decisions.

Maybe the best manner to attain these purposes is through television. There are many Russian speakers in the Baltic states, which means that propaganda messages can be directly transmitted both through Russian state media and local Russian-language channels.

The Baltic Media Alliance, registered in the United Kingdom in 2005, is the main integrator of media vector and Russian propaganda in the Baltic states. The Russian-language news channel with the most active presence is Pervii Baltiiskii Kanal (PBK). The channel has three departments, one for each Baltic state. It rebroadcasts Russian state media news, but also local news in a manner typical for the Kremlin. The Latvian government sanctioned the channel several times, due to the fact that it broadcasted fake news and completely suspended the emission of the RTR Planeta channel for incitement to war. Lithuania blocked PBK as well as other channels controlled by the Kremlin: RTR Planeta, NTV Mir Lietuva and TCVI. Estonia counteracts the influence of Russian state television by financing ETV+, a Russian language news channel. The Estonian Government supports an independent Russian media platform, medusa.io, which mostly made out of independent Russian journalists who are living in exile.

The Kremlin developed a real network of web platforms, which would launch information meant to serve their objectives. There is also a pro-Putin NGO network, which are funded by oligarchs close to the Russian president. The most active platforms are Sputnik, Baltnews and Vesti. While Sputnik is the Russian state’s official media platform, Baltnews has a very complicated network of owners and funders, which makes it hard to say who directs them. Sputnik is a recognized means of Russian propaganda. The group of websites which form Baltnews claim that they are made out of independents, when actually their op-eds and analyses are directly or by proxy commanded by the Russian state.

Vesti.lv is the Latvian Russian-language portal. This portal, according to an analysis made by the Easter European Political Studies Centre, spreads pro-Kremlin news among Latvians. They mainly refer to denigrating NATO and the Alliance’s troops deployed on the Baltic states’ territories, presenting them as “invaders”. The portal wants to decrease the population’s trust in NATO, which is explained by the fact that it is owned by a former member of the Moscow Duma, Edward Yanakov.

It is, therefore, obvious that Moscow is using all the media channels in its aim to influence the three countries’ populations. This mechanism is favoured by the many Russian-speakers in the region, but can be applied at any time in any other country, taking into account the fact that Sputnik, for example, also broadcasts in English.

The most important area in which Russia is carrying out strategic influencing actions is that of the democratic elections which take place in target countries designated from Kremlin’s highest level.

Following the Estonian parliamentary elections in March 2019, Security Service chief Arnold Sinisalu stated the following: “Since winning its independence (1991) the Russian Federation has permanently tried to influence elections in Estonia… after 2007, there were no more cyberattacks. They were replaced by media, social network influencing or constant personal contacts”.

In a public report at the beginning of 2019, the Lithuanian Information Services mentioned that: “Russian intelligence agencies will intensify their activity during the 2019-2020 electoral cycles”. These types of actions have already been taking place in the electoral campaign since March 2019, when the successor to former Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite – known for her anti-Kremlin stance – had to be elected. Russian hacking actions were also signalled, targeting the national electricity control systems.

Latvia held parliamentary elections in October 2018. Taking into account the fact that this country has the largest Russian minority of all three Baltic states, it was obvious that this could support the development of influencing action during the electoral campaign. One of the campaigning parties was supported by the Russian minority, and obtained a large number of votes.

Following the unfortunate 2007 experience, Estonia requested NATO to apply article 5 from the Washington Treaty, but without sufficient arguments to identify the aggressor, it was not invoked. However, NATO used this occasion to consider cybernetic aggression as an armed attack against NATO members, which would trigger the article. A NATO Centre of Excellence was established on Estonia’s territory to protect the country from cyberattacks.

Estonia was among the first NATO states which drafted, in 2011, a national strategy to counteract misinformation and cyberattacks. At the same time, the country’s defence strategy saw the notion of “psychological defence” added, which designates measures to respond the information war which aims to misinform the population. In this manner, the Estonian government has the obligation to identify and report any hostile influence which could affect national security.

In order to confront these non-kinetical threats, Latvia is also intending to elaborate a new defence strategy which includes the concept of “total defence” against all the components of hybrid warfare.

The Baltic states are NATO’s and the EU’s most experienced states with regards to Russia’s influencing operations, as well as how to counteract them. The Western European states, as well as the North American ones are potential targets of these types of aggression.

The lessons learned from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia’s experience are very useful for Western states.

Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Linas Linkevicius, in his attempt to convince European allies of the threat posed by Russian disinformation, said that: “the propagation of lies does not mean freedom of speech”.

The civil society in the Baltic states voluntarily assumed the mission of fighting against fake news spread by Moscow. There are young people working in IT, journalists, businessmen, students and other categories of citizens which follow these pieces of fake news, and some even created search systems for this type of news, which provide the reader a real answer. In this category we find the Estonian website propastop.org, while its equivalent in Lithuania is debunk.eu. In this Baltic state, as in Latvia, there are “elves”, which are the opposite of trolls generated by the Sankt Petersburg Internet Research Agency. These counteracting measures are also joined by the EU-financed euvsdisinfo.eu website. The greatest value of these actions stands in successfully mobilising the population to fight Russian disinformation.

This model should be followed by all NATO member states, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, which also have the advantage of lacking a high number of Russian ethnics on their territory. The more consistent the presence of NATO and US facilities and troops becomes in states close to Russia, the more will the Kremlin attempt even more aggressive strategic influence operations in these states. This brings the necessity of adopting the Baltic model of coagulating all forces which can act against disinformation. In this process, the population’s security education plays an essential role.

Translated by Ionut Preda