The year when Russia invaded Ukraine is approaching. This date is important not only for Ukrainians but also, presumably, for Russia, albeit for very different reasons. Putin loves dates and symbols, and Ukrainians believe that on the ‘anniversary,’ the country could face a major new attack. However, Lithuanians also fear an attack, and not only in Ukraine. Conspiracy theories are circulating on social media that Putin may turn against Lithuania at the end of February. Experts say that the eyes of fear are big but irrational and that this type of talk benefits no one else but Russia itself, Jūratė Važgauskaitė is writing at the tv3.lt portal.
Experts say that the fear-mongering rumours on social media and the people who believe them should not be surprising. Fear, anxiety and uncertainty about the future have surrounded us since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
Yes, there is a war in Ukraine, but it affects the whole region, which makes people more sensitive to any news of a threat. However, you should not buy tickets abroad at the end of February unless you have been planning a holiday for a really long time. There are no signs, apart from irrational fears, that Russia is turning towards the Baltic States because the Russian army is bogged down in the war in Ukraine, and there is no sign of victory on that front.
It is true that the Ukrainians, unfortunately, expect nasty ‘surprises’ from Russia. However, Ukrainian security officials believe that the Russian regime pays a lot of attention to dates, so Moscow is already “preparing for certain events” on the war anniversary with Ukraine, according to Ukrainian media.
The Kremlin may decide to go for the jugular and try to please the Russian public, expecting victories on the battlefield. Therefore, on the anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Ukrainians warn Moscow is already “preparing for certain events” on the eve of 24 February 2023.
Experts believe that it will be necessary for Putin to announce at least some progress on the front during this year of the war. The following two or three months will therefore be difficult and decisive.
“The next two or three months will be difficult and decisive for us. This means that something has to happen in Russia too. It too cannot delay this war indefinitely, the situation there is not easy, and the problems in Russia are piling up”, Ukrainian experts reflect.
They also do not doubt that the Russian regime is particularly “respectful” of dates. “24 February will be one of the days when they would like to announce at least some success to their public”.
Fear is the queen of propaganda
Commenting on rumours and fears, Mantas Martišius, associate professor at the Centre for Journalism and Media Studies, says that the greatest weapon of propaganda is fear. Russia is using it well.
“Propaganda always affects feelings first and logic second. So feelings always come first. You always get a better result by using emotions rather than reasoning. Because arguments still need to be listened to, understood, and applied. And it is much easier with feelings. Of all the feelings, the most important for propaganda, the queen and king of propaganda, so to speak, is fear.
It is the greatest engine of propaganda. If you tell people something is unclear or dangerous, then people start behaving irrationally. Then people begin to think, ‘for goodness sake’, I am going to buy a ticket to go abroad for the days when it is one year since the war started. We often underestimate people, and those who believe in certain things do not understand, read, or know. But that is not the case. Most people are rational, but when they feel fear, they find all sorts of justifications for their actions or the inaction of others.
For example, they may say that if the central bank goes bankrupt, the head of the central bank will never say so in advance. It is the same with war. Could a general, a politician, say something different from what he is saying now? No. It convinces frightened people. They feel existential fear. The same thing happened last year when the war started. Some people also left because there were reports that Ukraine would fall in three days, and then it would be our turn”, the communication specialist reflected.
The more complex question, he said, is who benefits. Why the fears? Most of the information, he said, is available on social networks, where everything is—some work for themselves and those who work for Russia or whoever. So, for some people, it is useful and even pleasurable to spread irrelevant information to promote fear.
“People who are afraid find justification for any action by, say, Putin. They claim that he is behaving irrationally. They believe it and, accordingly, are afraid that he will not come to Lithuania now. But, militarily, we know that this will not happen. You may want to buy a lot of plots, but if you only have the money for one, you will not buy others. It is the same here. <…> Getting people out of their beliefs or fears is difficult. There is no magic word that you can say, and people will understand that it is like this and not like that,” said Martišius.
He believes such fears are not very useful for Russia in the short term but have long-term benefits. Some of the public is already inclined to doubt, fear, disbelieve, buy tickets and flee when they feel it is unsafe to do so. Now it may be a minority, but one day it may be even more people.
The Kremlin likes dates and intimidation
Viktoras Denisenko, a lecturer at the General Jonas Žemaitis Lithuanian Military Academy, says Russia is fighting a hot war with Ukraine and a cold war with the West. The Kremlin’s propaganda aims to maintain a certain tension in other countries’ societies and foster fears because people’s anxiety weakens the state.
“Fears can foster divisions in society, distrust in one’s own government, and a lack of confidence in Lithuania’s or NATO’s ability to provide security. So there are indeed some interests in information and psychological warfare.
From a communication point of view, it is pretty challenging to say whether this is a targeted effort by Russia, whether people themselves are becoming afraid, thinking about how things will be, whether Russia is preparing something for the anniversary, or whether it will try to “break” the course of the conflict. The anniversary is an important symbolic occasion, so people may come up with their own ideas and start to get scared,” the propaganda expert said.
He said Russia might seek to turn people’s fears into political pressure. The public may want to rush negotiations with Russia, seek an end to the war, and pressure Ukraine to negotiate. He said that the fear that something might break out is not rational, but that does not mean it is false.
“It was not rational for Russia to go to war against Ukraine. It could pursue its own goals in hybrid ways, and if we look at it, a year ago, not many people believed that a war would break out. Although US intelligence was leaking information that Russia was preparing for war, very few people believed it because it was irrational. Russia is behaving irrationally, people are aware of that, and that is why the fear is based on that now.
The other thing is that fear is a strong feeling in itself, and people psychologically prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario. That can have an effect. Indeed, war is talked about a lot, it has become an objective reality, and the discourse of war creates a sense of insecurity. Conflict is not just local, and it is a challenge for the whole region. Tensions and fears are, therefore, real,” said Mr Denisenko.
He added that the Kremlin likes dates and symbols. When you fix a date, the narrative of the event becomes stronger.
“Let’s say, for example, that it is believed that Russia wanted to achieve some breakthrough in the war before the centenary of the creation of the Soviet Union at the end of last year. It didn’t. But here we can remember the massive bombing of Ukraine on New Year’s Eve. This is not only a military moment but also a psychological moment. So there is a certain attachment to dates because they are symbolically important events. Actions receive more attention then and can have a symbolic meaning”, Denisenko said.
Less shrugging is needed
Political analyst Vytis Yurkonis, referring to the public’s anxiety about Russia and the talk of possible provocations on the war anniversary, said that it is not surprising that people are scared and that it is suitable for Russia to encourage such feelings.
“One of Russia’s goals is to sow fear and anxiety because aggression against Ukraine should cause terror not only to Ukrainian citizens but also to neighbouring countries. Such associations are in many people’s heads. Even when you think rationally, you know that we are in NATO, Article 5 is in place, and Russia should not, if it thinks rationally, get involved in another conflict when it is already failing in Ukraine.
We saw similar fears at the beginning of the war, in March when there was a lot of speculation about a possible nuclear strike. So this just goes to show that information attacks are being used to a large extent to try to spread anxiety.
This is apparently the least costly thing to do. You just plant the idea and repeat it in different contexts. And then people live under constant stress, some of them leave, and there is a growing distrust of the institutions. So this is the cheapest thing for Russia, and they will inevitably take advantage of it”, said Yurkonis, who assured that we need to constantly remind ourselves what the Kremlin is trying to achieve with such messages.
He thinks that all sorts of provocations are to be expected from the Russian side, and they happen all the time. We have experienced this, and so have our neighbours: there was the annexation of Crimea, the war in Sakartvel, the story of the bronze warrior in Tallinn, the intimidation, and the other kinds of attacks.
The fact that some citizens, according to a political scientist, do not see vulnerable airspace or cyber-attacks does not mean that they are not happening. At the same time, it means that state institutions are doing their job, repelling attacks, and fighting back in some other way.
“There should be less shrugging and less fear. We need to make it clear to ourselves that the main war is in Ukraine. Support and attention must now be directed there because until Ukraine is fully victorious, we will be condemned to continued uncertainty and insecurity.
It is essential to realise that we are also looking at our own back because it would not be to anyone’s benefit if the Baltic States did not secure their own back. We have NATO partners anyway. Ukraine does not have them, and we are its partners”, Yurkonis said, acknowledging that for the Russians, for Putin, the dates are important, but at the same time, it can be seen that they don’t need a special occasion and a pretext to launch a major missile attack.
“There is no need to be paralysed by these dates. I understand that the attention of the services is heightened these days, the aim is to track down provocations or incidents, but this is a problem and a fixation of Putin. In a way, it makes it easier to predict his moves or actions”, the political scientist said.