The fabricated and entirely unsubstantiated story had its origins on April 18, in Moscow’s Nezavismaya Gazeta. The article quoted Russian Lieutenant General Yuri Netkachev, who had succeeded General Aleksandr Lebed in Transnistria in 1992 and commanded Russian forces in the Caucasus more recently. Netkachev told the Moscow paper that “NATO might use some novel techniques affecting the human psyche” during its summer training exercise, Shield XVI, in the Baltic countries. He further alleged that the Alliance’s effort to identify and recruit Russian-speakers, something he insisted NATO has done elsewhere, is likely to be part of that exercise. And providing absolutely no evidence, he concluded that “the use of such methods cannot be ruled out” in the current campaign (Nezavismaya Gazeta, April 18). But those quoted remarks sparked a spate of articles in the Baltic region that repeated this story in increasingly extravagant ways (Baltnews.lv, April 24; Leta.lv, April 25).
Both the original Moscow article and especially its epigones in the Baltic countries repeated the now-standard Russian line that NATO’s activities in Latvia and its neighbors bear “a strikingly anti-Russian character.” Now, Russian media in Latvia has expanded this assertion to mean that NATO is preparing to use Latvia as a base for launching an attack on the Russian Federation (Baltnews.lv, April 24).
The Latvian defense ministry has pointed out that such “fake news” stories about the North Atlantic Alliance are being “spread with increasing frequency.” Moreover, it notes that stories in outlets directed specifically at Baltic nationals and Russian-speakers there are often far more outrageous than those that emanate directly from Moscow. In support of that contention, the ministry pointed to a story that Russian hackers had illegally inserted on the BNS Lithuania news service website. The fake article was titled “The Echo of Syria in Latvia: US Troops Poisoned With Yperite.” BNS has asked the Lithuanian government to help bring the perpetrators to justice (Leta.lv, April 13). Latvian officials have called on everyone in Latvia to adopt “a critical approach” to all such “subversive information operations [now being conducted] in Latvia’s media environment” (Leta.lv, April 25).
Undoubtedly, most Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, including Russian speakers, have already adopted such an attitude; but Moscow clearly believes it can profit by fishing in what it sees as the still-troubled waters of these three countries and their Russian minorities. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta put it, from Moscow’s perspective, “it is no big secret that in Latvia and the other Baltic countries, [the Western alliance] is viewed with a certain degree of hostility” and that NATO commanders take that into account, especially because many in the West operate on the assumption that Russia will use ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, especially in Latvia, to “unleash ‘a Crimea scenario’ ” against these three NATO countries (Nezavismaya Gazeta, April 18).
At one level, such Russian “fake news” claims that NATO is performing psychological experiments on Russian speakers and is preparing to invade Russia are so hyperbolic as to be easily dismissed. But there is an important reason that Moscow and its agents in the Baltics are making them: In today’s increasingly “post-truth” world, all such claims become part of the narrative—even of those who are critical of them. These stories muddy the waters of public discourse to such an extent that what would have seemed outlandish only months or years ago now seems plausible to at least some people. Moscow would not be involved in such propaganda efforts if it did not believe that they would have at least some success.
However, there are three more immediate lessons from this latest Kremlin-orchestrated “fake news” campaign in the Baltic countries. First, this effort is entirely directed from and by Moscow. Not only did a Moscow newspaper initiate this campaign but a Russian general with experience in “hot spots” was its primary source. Consequently, these ridiculous stories should not be dismissed, as they sometimes are, as the products of the overheated imagination of local activists.
Second, a single story is quickly multiplied by various outlets so that it appears that more is going on than in reality. All the “news” in this campaign can be traced back to the same source in Moscow, but the number of stories in newspapers, news agencies, and websites that repeat it make it appear that this is a massive issue. In examining Russian disinformation, it is thus always important to go back to first sources and see how they are exploited.
And third—and this may be the most important lesson—Moscow is clever enough to use an indirect approach. Thus, a story that surfaces in Moscow is inserted into a Lithuanian website by hackers and then picked up by Latvian and Estonian outlets. Not only does that have the effect of obscuring the Russian origins of the story, but it lends the patina of credibility to claims that are completely without foundation.
Those who are working to counter Russian propaganda and disinformation cannot forget any of these lessons, because Moscow has shown itself sophisticated enough to use any gap in Western opposition to its messages to insert its own false version of reality.