Countering Russian Disinformation in the Baltics

  • Sean Nottoli

With Russia’s ongoing use of hybrid warfare to undermine its neighbors, what steps can states take to counter disinformation and protect democracy? The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) >versus< media monitoring tool supports these states in the battle against Russian propaganda.

The invasion and annexation of foreign soil has become something of an Olympics tradition for the Kremlin. From the invasion of Georgia during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics to the invasion of Ukraine during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a common thread has emerged. As Japan gears up to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, Russia’s neighbors hold their breath, fearing attempts to replicate the Russian occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the outright annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Nowhere is the fear of another Russian land grab more palpable than in the Baltic states. Given their locations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will likely struggle to avoid confrontation with the Kremlin if it decides to continue its Olympic tradition. Estonia, the northernmost of the three, shares over 850 miles of border with Russia’s heavily armed Western Military District and is positioned on both the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. These bodies of water are significant because they serve as important trade routes for Russian ships destined for port at St. Petersburg. The southernmost state of Lithuania shares a border with the abundantly fortified Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, also part of the Western Military District. Additionally, Lithuania shares a 422-mile border with authoritarian Belarus, a Russian ally, and only a 56-mile border (known as the Suwalki Gap) with NATO member Poland. Latvia finds itself sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania, sharing a sizeable border with both Russia’s Western Military District and Belarus. All three Baltic states have sizeable Russian-speaking minority populations, whose welfare could serve as justification for Russian intervention, as it did in Crimea.

Rather than facing NATO in a traditional conflict, the Kremlin has adopted strategies to weaken the credibility of the alliance and neighboring democracies. These hybrid warfare strategies include cyberwarfare, election meddling through disinformation campaigns and armed intervention by nonuniformed soldiers. For example, in 2015, following the annexation of Crimea and amid Russian intervention in Ukraine’s east, the Kremlin began a series of cyberattacks on the Ukrainian power grid. Hundreds of thousands of people were without power in the wake of the attack.

Likewise, Estonia came under a series of Kremlin-orchestrated cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns designed to harm relations between the Russian-speaking and Estonian-speaking communities. A clear example of this was the 2007 statue incident, during which city officials in Tallinn moved a prominent statue of a Soviet soldier from the city center to a military cemetery containing the graves of Soviet soldiers who died in the Second World War. Russian media in Estonia and Russia expressed outrage at the incident and instigated false claims that the Estonian government was destroying Soviet graves everywhere. This sparked a two-day riot in Tallinn during which more than a hundred people were injured and one person died. Following these riots, Russia launched massive cyberattacks on Estonian banks, government agencies and news media. These attacks left Estonians unable to make withdraws from their accounts, the government could not communicate with its citizens and the media found it was unable to deliver the news. The Estonian state was effectively shut down.

These incidents make two facets of the Kremlin’s strategy clear. First, it seeks to destabilize target states through surgical disinformation and cyberattack campaigns. Second, once destabilization is achieved it employs the swift use of military force. Although potentially devastating, disinformation and cyberattacks are issues that can be addressed if treated in time.

To mitigate the destabilizing effects of disinformation in Europe, IRI developed the Beacon Project. Through the Beacon Project, IRI works closely with in-country partners to track hostile narratives that flow through the news media. This is made possible by our proprietary >versus< media monitoring tool, which scans local language media sources to help media monitors track language likely to appear in a disinformation campaign. IRI’s Beacon Network of partners have varied backgrounds throughout Europe but share a common goal of maintaining a free and stable democratic continent. Nourishing a robust and dynamic civil society to defend against interference is a vital part in discouraging future Russian aggression.

Given recent historical trends and past aggressions in the region, it may seem likely that a future attempt at a land grab or intervention in the Baltics is inevitable. We have seen the first steps of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare strategy already employed there, spreading disinformation to drive wedges between the Russian speaking minorities and their fellow Baltic residents. It’s not impossible to imagine that during a future celebration of the Olympics residents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania may awake one morning to emergency broadcasts warning of Russian soldiers swarming towards their borders. A future, that while possible, isn’t absolute. By educating the citizens of the Baltic region on how to recognize disinformation, we can put a stop to the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare strategy in its early stages and prevent any plans from escalating further. A strong strategy in countering disinformation can take away any excuses for armed intervention and help deter the Kremlin’s aggression in the region and beyond.

Up ArrowTop