Military analyst: Russian propaganda gurus knew it was coming before the war started

V. Putin on Russian television
V. Putin on Russian television RIA/Scanpix

The Russian propaganda machine was blowing harder than ever before in the run-up to the war. At the moment, about 400 lies are directed against Lithuania every month, but sometimes the whole propaganda chorus gets involved, says Auksė Ūsienė, an army propaganda expert. According to her, Lithuanians turned into “Nazis” in Russia’s eyes much earlier than Ukrainians, Julija Abuašvili writes in TV3.lt

Although pro-Russian TV channels have been banned in Lithuania, some people find ways to pick the forbidden fruit and watch propagandists’ content. A. Ūsienė, an analyst at the Strategic Communication Department of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, believes that pro-Russian thinking, which has been shaped over the years, will not change with the sudden “cutting” of information channels.

As soon as the war started, you said that there was a ” state of calm”, i.e. the propaganda targeting Lithuania was silent. How has the flow of lies changed since then, and how is it now? Perhaps there was a time when the propaganda ” state of calm” was replaced by a ” storm “?

Naturally, information attacks increase in the run-up to war: information operations increase in number and intensity. While the US was announcing that the war would take days or hours, we were all thinking, as was Ukraine, that people would react to rejection. But when you look back now, we have seen a huge upsurge in attacks against Lithuania alone. Almost 500-600 cases were recorded against Lithuania alone, and then there is a sudden drop, technical things, regrouping, seeing what happens, and then the curve starts going up again.

Traditionally, the information war does not stop when there is a war. But the Russian propaganda machine, which had been denying that there was going to be a war, may have finally gotten a shock when the war started. They were still juggling with terms like ‘special operation’, but they had calmed down. They have tried to get a grip on what is happening. That certain propaganda gurus knew that there was going to be war was even evident from certain messages. News preps were leaked – they were planning to broadcast that they had taken Kyiv in three days. Articles written about events that had not yet happened were accidentally published. Propaganda was also somewhat muted because of the suspension of Russian television broadcasts, and the flow of disinformation was reduced purely on technical grounds. <…> Now, we are seeing a return to normal – about 400 cases a month, but not the strong growth that we saw before the war started.

The propagandists were very provoked by the 10th of May. The resolution of the Seimas on the 10th of May, when parliamentarians recognised Russia as a terrorist state. The whole propaganda machine has been hammering away at this resolution. They threatened that Russia would withdraw its recognition of Lithuania’s independence, which is a completely new message. <…> A very large number of Duma deputies and other propagandists joined a whole chorus.

How else are they trying to discredit our country? What are the sore spots being targeted? Perhaps Lithuania has an Achilles heel?

In all areas – defence, foreign policy, protection of the constitutional foundations, the economy, energy, social security – they are trying to make it appear that Lithuania is a failed state. That we have no real statehood, that we are not independent, that everything is dictated to us by Washington and Brussels, and that we are dancing to the tune of the USA and NATO.

The propaganda about Lithuania’s defence covers everything: NATO membership, the development of military forces, acquisitions, exercises, and military support for Ukraine. The propagandists also target our foreign policy: relations with our neighbours, China, the US, Sakartvelo, and Ukraine. Everywhere we are supposedly lackeys, we do not pursue an independent foreign policy, and our policy is supposedly detrimental to Lithuania.

It is also claimed that we have allegedly moved from one union to another: from the USSR to the European Union. It is a sign of equality, even though these are completely different unions. They shout that there is no freedom of speech here, that we are ruled by a regime, just like Ukraine. They accuse us of rewriting historical facts – they talk mainly about the Second World War or the occupation of Lithuania in 1940.

They are trying to prove that Lithuanian statehood, which was created during the reign of Mindaugas and the GDL, was not Lithuanian or Baltic at all, that it is Slavic or Ruthenian, and that our rulers were Orthodox. Of course, there are many such interpretations.

Our Achilles’ heel – and the Russians are the least likely to target it, strange as it may seem – is in the sphere of social security. They often tell the truth but add propaganda manipulations. For example, the Kremlin portrays Lithuania negatively in demographic terms, in the sense that the birth rate is falling and emigration and suicide rates are rising. <…> But if we compare Russia and Lithuania, they are worse off in many areas. The point is that they do not cover this in their media. And the truth they tell about us is manipulative: they see the speck in the other’s eye, but they don’t see the log in their own cart.

What is the audience for this propaganda against Lithuania? It still reaches our population, so who is the target of most of the disinformation?

It is to maintain the image of the enemy – we are on Russia’s enemies list. If you look at the percentage of the Kremlin’s information field that is directed at Lithuania and that is directed at Russia, over 40%, on an annual average, will still be directed at Lithuania. This is broadcast on propaganda channels dedicated to Lithuania, such as Sputnik, Baltnews, and Rubaltic, or on other local portals that are mentioned in the State Security Department’s annual reports.

On the other hand, information has no borders. Some TV channels or portals are forbidden, but if a person wants it very badly, he or she will find a way to access those channels. I will not say how there are various set-top boxes and satellite dishes, but one can access the desired broadcast. Sometimes the banned portal itself changes its addresses and localisation. It happens that they reserve several Internet addresses, and if a court bans the activities of one Lithuanian channel that spreads propaganda, the activities of another one, which is very similar or duplicates it, start immediately. <…> If you ban one, others appear. Like a dragon with several heads – one is cut off, and the other grows.

How does an ordinary person, say you or me, try to bypass the system to watch pro-Russian channels?

My phone, for example, does not allow me to see some of the banned Russian portals. But it allows me to watch, say, the Belarusian BelTA. It is a state news agency controlled by the Lukashenko regime. The Belarusian and Russian information fields are very interlinked, so I will see news there as they declare themselves to be a union state.

After the elections, Russian propagandists came to work in Belarus and broadcasted the same narratives. If this channel is on my phone, if I can access it, so can someone else who is interested in it. This is how Russian propaganda reaches our citizens, even though it is a Belarusian information field for Belarusian citizens.

What about television? When the war broke out, Lithuania banned Russian channels. However, on the 9th of May, when I talked to people who came to pay their respects to the Soviet soldiers, I saw that they continued to watch those banned channels, repeating propaganda stories. Describe what kind of people these are who are seeking information from Russia and how many of them do we have in Lithuania?

Studies show that it is more of a border population where the people themselves are Russian or Polish, Russian-speaking or Polish-speaking. As previous surveys by the Centre for East European Studies have shown, border areas are the most problematic. These include Vilnius, Šalčininkai, Švenčionys and Klaipėda. These are mainly people who belong to ethnic communities, speak Russian at home and watch television there. So even if we cut off such television, the problem will not be solved here and now.

We need to understand why these channels were banned. Propaganda, warmongering, and support for military action were broadcast on these TV channels and portals. It is very difficult to say whether those who watch those television channels support hostilities. But they are saturated with narratives that do not change from year to year: that Lithuanians are Nazis, that they are Russophobes, that Russia is supposedly a peaceful country, and that they want to ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine. If people have heard these statements year after year and have them in their environment, then if you stop feeding them, nothing will change so quickly in their heads. Unless they have to lose their memory so that they do not say propaganda messages because it takes time to change the narratives that have been implanted in their heads.

After all, Moses led the Jews in the desert for 40 years. It is said that they got lost, but they were led to change the generation that had the slave consciousness and the slave syndrome. A new generation has to grow up that does not hear this for something to change. We need people who live in democratic information space and do not hear the same things.

What is Lithuania’s role in this information war since the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Are we immune to propaganda?

Generally, I would say yes – as a country, and we are resistant. The Ministry of Defence conducts surveys showing that around 70% of the Lithuanian population is aware of an information war and that Russia is the culprit. And more than 80% of the population thinks positively about the NATO alliance and its membership. This means that the public understands that our membership in NATO is good for national security and knows who would prefer that we did not have it.

Moreover, the way in which the public has mobilised and supported Ukraine shows that Lithuanians are resistant to propaganda and have empathy for Ukrainians. The population understands that if it were not for Ukraine, or if it were to lose, Lithuania could be different and that invaders could come to our homes.

Experts note that Russia has been waging an information offensive against Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It has systematically repeated that they are ‘Nazis’, ‘fascists’, oppressing the Russian-speaking people and need to be ‘demilitarised’. What does the propaganda aimed at Lithuania have in common with the image of Ukraine that the Kremlin is constructing?

The Russian propaganda machine has propaganda matrices, which is basically just adapted to the country. The same narratives are repeated. The fact that Russia is saying the same thing about Lithuania shows how primitive the Russian propaganda machine is and how easy it is to expose. For example, the attempt to rewrite history for us and Ukraine. The attempt to make territorial claims from the point of view of history, again, for us, for Ukraine and for Poland. They say that a piece of Kaliningrad was illegally given to Poland.

There is a denial of sovereignty that Ukraine is ruled by a supposedly pro-Nazi regime that needs to be replaced. They are trying to tell us that, too. They are trying to tell us that Ukraine is a failed state that has no right to exist, and the same is being said for Lithuania.

And Ukraine, until 2014, was bombarded with different messages from Russia: it talked about a common world, a common civilisation, and fraternal nations. I imagine that most Ukrainians were asleep at the switch, which is why Ukraine was not able to react to the annexation of Crimea. It was such a shock for them to be attacked and to have part of their territory taken away from them that, by comparison, it would be such a shock for us to be attacked by Latvians. But in eight years, the Ukrainians, by banning all Russian television, have prepared their minds that Russia is the aggressor. Time has played in the Ukrainians’ favour – they have managed to prepare for the war that is now taking place.

So, yes, there are many parallels. We Lithuanians became Nazis before the Ukrainians. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly, every few years, issues reports on the resurgence of neo-Nazism in the world. Even Australia is accused of being a Nazi there. It is repeated that Western civilisation has failed. That true Christianity, true values, are only to be found in Russia, that this is some kind of Gayropa.

Do you see any signs of a breakthrough in this bubble of information warfare? Where is the balance of power moving towards, and how can things continue to develop?

Russia is losing the information war in the West at the moment. It does not matter that we are hearing from Henry Kissinger, Emmanuel Macron or some Italian politicians who are in favour of Russia. In a general sense, there has been a major breakthrough in Ukraine, but the Russian people are convinced that the West is carrying out propaganda against them. The complete isolation of information, even the closure of the last slightly more liberal media channels, such as Echo Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta and Meduza, only shows that Russia’s information field is not accessible to us in the West. The Kremlin regime absolutely dominates and will continue to dominate there. The Russian public does not realise that their state apparatus is using the blackest propaganda techniques against them. There is no key to getting Western information to the Russians.

I believe that tectonic fractures can only occur when Ukraine wins the war. I am not saying ‘if’. I am saying when Ukraine wins. It cannot be otherwise because it must win. Otherwise, we will be at war with Russia.

So, on the information front, change can only happen when Ukraine wins the war. I do not know whether it will be sudden or gradual, but Putin will be replaced, his ruling class will be overthrown, and some infighting will break out. It is difficult to predict, but as the Russians themselves say, there may be a civil war and some other leader, more or less Putinist.

But as long as Russia and the Kremlin regime remain as it is now, its information war against the West will continue. We, as Western civilisation, with our abundance of information, and our pluralism of opinion, will not reach Russian society.

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