Russia’s information warfare in the Baltic states (II)

Part I: Anatomy of Russia’s information warfare in the Baltic states

Russian television channels such as First Baltic, RTR Planeta, NTV Mir, and both Russian and locally produced Russian-language newspapers, internet news portals, and radio disseminate information, which often has a Kremlin bias. Numerous studies reveal a steady increase of the Russian media presence in the Baltic information environment, significant segments of Baltic society receive their news about the world and the region through the Russian media1. Nerijus Maliukevičius, political scientist of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, interprets such Russian strategy as information geopolitics: since the 2000s Russian media entered the European market rapidly and decisively in order to have the control over this ‘media territory’ and to benefit from the flexible and free European media regulation2.

Since then the Russian media sets the agenda of some organizations and political groups in the Baltic states, promotes loyal political forces, and rallies areas around specific issues. For instance, in the Latvian 2010 parliamentary elections, the First Baltic channel lobbied for, without disclosure, the Russian minority party, the Concord Centre.3 In 2007, Russian language media portals tried to shape the perceptions of Estonian Russian minorities regarding the Soviet monument relocation in Tallinn and arguably contributed to inciting the subsequent riots by providing false accounts of the events such as that the monument was destroyed by the Estonian government. These events demonstrated the influence Russia has had on even teenage Estonians of Russian origin who, despite the fact that they had never lived under the Soviet Union, held signs saying ‘the Soviet Union Forever’ in demonstrations.

Not only have Russian media have gained a foothold in the Baltic states, but since the late 2000s Russian investors sought a larger stake in the Baltic, and especially Lithuanian media. In 2009 the Russian-owned Lithuanian bank Snoras (insolvent since 2011) increased its stake to 34% in the largest Lithuanian media group Lietuvos Rytas, which consists of the main national daily, a television station, a news-portal, and other publications. However, in 2011, Snoras became insolvent and was nationalized by the Lithuanian government following an official investigation into the bank’s alleged fraud and embezzlement4 to the tune of EUR 493 million5. Overall Russian media has successfully permeated the Lithuanian information space. According to TNS media research data, in 2013, the four main Russian TV channels, namely NTV Mir, Первый Балтийский Канал PBK, Ren Lietuva and RTR Planeta attracted some 15 percent of Lithuania’s viewers6. In contrast, the national Lithuanian broadcaster, LRT, has merely attracted 8 percent of the total Lithuanian television audience. Furthermore, in 2014 the Lithuanian internal security service – the VSD – announced that that Russian media sources pursue a consistent anti-Lithuanian propaganda. In particular, the announcement stated that Russia media sources in Lithuania “attempt to humiliate Lithuanian domestic and foreign policies” and that “[e]ven if the audience susceptible to this information is not very large, however, it still may incite hostile moods and encourage discontent against the government”7.

By 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s information warfare in the Baltic states intensified. Russia included the ‘Baltic threat’ into its general anti-Ukrainian narrative. First, the influential Russian journalist, Dmitry Kiselev, consistently argued that Sweden, Poland and Lithuania were behind Kiev’s Euromaidan events to revenge Russia for the centuries old Poltava battle defeat.8 Second, the Russian NTV television station (notorious for its smear campaign against the US ambassador to Russia (2011-2014), Michael McFaul) ran a pseudo-documentary which among many historical falsehoods invented the myth of Baltic snipers shooting during the episode of Soviet aggression in 1991 in Vilnius and the 2014 protests in Kiev9. As a result, three most popular Russian TV channels in Lithuania – NTV Mir, First Baltic Channel PBK and RTR Planeta – faced administrative restrictions on their broadcasts from the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission10.

As demonstrated in the previous cases, Russia’s information warfare becomes most potent during times of tensions and military conflict. As the profiles of Baltic Russian speakers demonstrate, none of them currently feel they have grievances with their state. But, if they were to read in the media stories like the false ones circulated in Russian media vis-à-vis Ukraine about the crucifixion of a Russian toddler or ‘refugees’ from Ukraine that are actually delivered by paid actors, Russian compatriots may indeed feel outrage. They are much more likely to feel outrage if the publicized ‘wrongs’ are reported to be taking place in the Baltic states. For example, Lithuania’s Russian speaker Natalia stated that today Russian compatriots do not require protection because there are no grievances. However, her words could also imply that if there were grievances, then Moscow’s protection would be needed. Certainly ‘grievances’ can be easily fabricated and politicized in the age of media, particularly one that is fully controlled by the Russian state.

However, it is also important to consider that the Baltic states do differ significantly from places like Ukraine, Moldova, or Kazakhstan. The unrest in eastern Ukraine, bolstered by Moscow’s information warfare machine, demonstrated that the Kremlin’s tactics only required the support of a minority of the local population to support its separatist aims. Nonetheless, the dissemination of falsehoods that aided Russia’s tactics in Ukraine could have less impact on the Baltic populations. As Ivan Lavrentjev, Coordinator of Russian-speaking NGOs, Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations (NENO), notes, the Baltic states are very small—Estonia, for example, has a significantly smaller population than the Donetsk region of Ukraine11. While the Baltic population may be swayed in the short term, in the long term Baltic residents are less likely to believe false reporting because they know what is happening with their neighbours or in their backyards.

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1 The “Humanitarian Dimension” of Russian Foreign Policy toward Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic States. Ed. Gatis Pelnens, Riga, 2009.
2 Interview conducted in Vilnius, Lithuania, October 2014.
3 Anda Rožkalne, ‘Slēptā reklāma nogalina maigi,’ Politika.lv, 12 October 2010, in Muiznieks, 2011.
4 Milda Seputyte, “Snoras Bank Likely Over-Reported 300 Million Euros in Assets”, businessweek.com, 18 November 2011.
5 “Snoras UK High Court appeal scheduled for 22 July”, lithuaniatribune.com, 14 March 2014.
6 Mantas Martišius “Nori stabdyti Kremliaus melą – reikia drąsos”, 15min.lt, 27 October 2014.
7 Ibid.
8 Киселев «выдал»: Месть шведов за Полтаву и «десятки погибших» на Евромайдане.
9 Приговоренные. Капкан для группы Альфа.
10 Temporal Suspension of NTV Mir Lithuania Programme Parts.
11 Interview conducted in Vilnius, Lithuania, October 2014.

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Agnia Grigas (Ph.D, University of Oxford) is the author of ‘The Politics of Energy and Memory between the Baltic States and Russia’ (Ashgate 2013) and a forthcoming book ‘Rebuilding the Russian Empire: Compatriots, Information Warfare, and New Military Tactics’ (Yale University Press 2015). Learn more: www.grigas.net.

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