Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Defeating Disinformation Threats
Defeating Disinformation Threats

Defeating Disinformation Threats

This article has been adapted from the “Defeating Disinformation Threats” chapter written by Dalia Bankauskaitė and Vytautas Keršanskas in the Baltic Security Strategy Report.

Russia, to a smaller or larger extent, has deliberately challenged the Baltic states on both domestic and international levels since the breakup of the Soviet Union. After Russia began an unannounced war against Ukraine and occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014 in violation of international law, the Western security community conceptualized the Kremlin’s tactics as “hybrid warfare.” While the search for the most accurate phrasing to describe Russia’s current modus operandi is still in progress in the West, the Baltics look at the issue from a much less theoretical and more practical point of view—Russian aggression is a reality and a constant strategic challenge that occasionally features new elements, but whose general content does not change.

A report on hybrid warfare published by the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) suggests Russia possesses the following range of hybrid tools that it utilizes against foreign countries: Propaganda; Fake news; Strategic leaks; Funding organizations; Political parties; Organized protest movements; Cyber tools for espionage, attack and/or manipulation; Economic leverage; Proxies and unacknowledged war; and Paramilitary organizations.

However, the experience of the Baltic states shows that even this extensive list is not definitive. In the last decade, and especially with the increased tensions between the West and Russia related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Baltic states have also been targeted by other measures that fit the notion of hybrid attacks. Among others: Sabotage of strategic infrastructure and energy; Border violation by intelligence and (officially unconfirmed) military troops; Large-scale offensive military drills; and Threats of military attack.

Such multidimensional threats require not only a comprehensive analytical approach by security experts, academics, policymakers and implementers, but also a developed national and multinational approach to practically counter these challenges. For this article, we selected some notable cases of Russian hybrid activities in the Baltic states to analyze—considering their presumed goals and target audiences, responses by targeted states, and possible countermeasures for such incursions. This piece also presents a pilot overview of the cooperation of the three Baltic states and highlights the opportunities, need, and potential for further development, harmonization, or synchronization of the national security effort in the context of closer regional cooperation.

Disinformation as a Major Challenge

Information warfare is a key component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy. The societies of the Baltic states are extensively exposed to Moscow’s disinformation and subversion activities that are designed to create a favorable environment for Russian policies and politics. The three Baltic states reside on the frontiers of NATO and the EU, and they are the only former Soviet republics to have become full members of these Euro-Atlantic organizations. At the same time, they have large minorities of Russian-speaking people; and although public nostalgia for Soviet times has significantly decreased over the last two decades, some level of it persists. The Kremlin views the Baltics as an area where it might be possible to subvert trans-Atlantic and EU unity. Any weakness of the Baltic states would serve the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation campaign as proof at home and internationally that the EU and NATO are failing organizations.

Russia establishes a strong presence in local information environments

Moscow’s main goals in moving into local information spaces in the Baltic states are the formation of positive opinions on Russia, exacerbating dissatisfaction with local governments, shaping and misrepresenting historical facts, and exploiting vulnerabilities in the Baltic states’ political systems, economies, and societies to its own advantage. Pro-Kremlin narratives suggest, for example, that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are failing states, that the Baltics are puppets/proxies of the US, and that Balts are Russophobic and fascist. Russia’s main targets for disinformation are groups vulnerable to such messaging, especially the Russian-speaking populations, and even society writ-large.

Responses by the Baltic states

  • Since 2015, Lithuania and Latvia have utilized temporary bans on Russian media outlets that violated media laws. In most cases, such as with RTR Planeta in Lithuania and RTR Rossiya in Latvia, the bans lasted a matter of about three months.
  • In 2017, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a law restricting media content produced in Russia on Lithuanian television. According to the new law, 90 percent of Lithuania television content must be produced inside the EU and broadcast in one or more of the official languages of the EU. Although this law restricts direct Russian influence on Lithuania media, it still permits various other pro-Russia media companies registered in EU countries to broadcast their content without limitations.
  • In June 2018, the Lithuanian parliament adopted new amendments to the Public Information Law, according to which television channels in Lithuania must translate programs into Lithuanian if these programs are produced in Russian or other non–EU languages and broadcast for longer than one and a half hours. The amendments are aimed at Russian television productions.
  • In September 2015, Estonia launched an alternative channel for Russian language news and entertainment targeting Russian-speaking minority populations. The channel, which falls under Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR), was designed to undercut the dominance of pro-Kremlin narratives in programming for Russian-speakers, and thereby reduce Russia’s influence on this audience.

Possible Actions the Baltic States Could Take

Reactions to Russia’s measures in the information sphere are often problematic due to their potential political and legal repercussions, as well as domestic statutory hurdles. Therefore, countries should focus on proactive policy options to decrease the effects of Russia’s hybrid warfare activities, as well as the potential ramifications of reactionary policy.

  • Baltic governments should research and employ methods to restrict the activities of “fake news” outlets which propagate pro-Kremlin narratives.
  • Another important measure is raising public awareness about the threats and overall functioning of information warfare as a critical component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy. Additionally, training sessions need to be organized both for owners and staff of key media outlets in any given country.
  • Expanding state support for Russian-language channels geared toward the Russian-speaking population—such as the aforementioned ETV+ project in Estonia—could provide an alternative to broadcasts emanating from Russia.
  • Much can be learned from the experience of the Baltic countries, particularly regarding the online domain, where voluntary activist groups, so-called “elves,” organized to virtually fight against Russian-coordinated trolling, eventually gaining the recognition of the Lithuanian military. Since 2015, these groups have spread across all three Baltic states and even to Finland.
  • The best tool to defend against hybrid warfare is good governance, speaking in the broadest sense. To sustain democratic political structures and well-functioning public administrations, it is necessary to respect the values of transparency, media freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. All these need to be in place to improve domestic democratic legitimacy and support for the government, which is the basis for the stability of the state. Special focus requires measures to fight against corruption at all state and societal levels, paying special attention to the members of the political elite, state administration, and personnel and leadership of the armed forces.

Examples of Smart Defense: Environmental Monitoring in Space and Time as Well as Inter-Institutional Crisis Management

Russian disinformation on German ‘rape’ of Lithuanian girl

In February 2017, Lithuania became the target of an information operation and cyberattack from an unknown source. The speaker of the Seimas received an email stating that a girl from an orphanage “was surrounded and raped by a crowd of drunken German-speaking uniformed German soldiers” on her way home from school. The letter claimed the alleged incident occurred in the region where NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battalion, led by Germany, had been deployed.

This story resembles the infamous “Lisa case” of January 2016, in which Muslim immigrants in Germany were falsely reported to have sexually assaulted a Russian girl. That story first appeared on an obscure German website, but was immediately spun by Russian media outlets like Perviy Kanal, a state-run TV channel. By spreading that fake story, the Kremlin likely sought to inflame German public opinion about the threats posed by immigrants and create a backlash to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s permissive immigration policies.

Reactions by the Lithuanian authorities

  • The Prosecutor’s Office established that the Lithuanian story was fake, that the letter was signed under a false name, and that it was sent from an undisclosed server located in a non-EU member state.
  • The timing of the letter and its content suggests it was released by Russia with the aim of discrediting Lithuania and its NATO allies, encouraging public disapproval of government decisions and sowing distrust among Lithuanians about the deployment of NATO soldiers to Lithuania.
  • National institutions reacted in a coordinated way. The Parliament speaker’s office immediately informed national security agencies. In tandem with the investigation process, the authorities provided frequent formal updates on the investigation to the media and the public. Furthermore, most media outlets failed to take the bait in the first place, launching their own journalistic investigations. The German government also was informed.

Institutional Structures for Common Actions Against Disinformation

Mechanisms for fostering the Baltic states’ regional cooperation were established in the 1990s—at the inter-parliamentary level with the Baltic Assembly, and at the inter-governmental level with the Baltic Council of Ministers. They function successfully and provide a framework for more tangible Baltic cooperation.

In addition, Baltic cooperation takes place within other regional and international structures, including the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8), Baltic-Polish relations, the Three Seas Initiative framework and, of course, with NATO and the EU.

In May 2016, at a joint conference of the Baltic Assembly and the Baltic council of Ministers, the Baltic states adopted a resolution addressing the current issue of strategic communications, stating their full support of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga and the EU East Strategic Communications Team in Brussels. The Baltic governments also confirmed their readiness to undertake joint activities promoting quality media in the Baltics, as well as cooperation in media literacy development and support for the Baltic Center for Media Excellence in Riga.

During its annual sessions, the Baltic Assembly regularly mentions the issue of strategic communications, disinformation and societal resilience. The Baltic Assembly resolutions of 2014 and 2017 pointed to the importance of Baltic cooperation in strategic communications activities; in 2018, the Baltic Assembly Security and Defense Committee named strategic communications among its priority activities. These resolutions are of a declarative character and, so far, have never instructed or empowered their national government to take concrete measures regarding joint activities. On the other hand, the Baltic states can sincerely boast of extensive experience in confronting (impeding) hostile soft power activities at their national level.

The Baltic states also approach the topic of information warfare within the Nordic-Baltic cooperation format. On May 6, 2015, the Nordic and Baltic (NB8) ministers of foreign affairs discussed the Russian media’s ongoing broad campaign of biased coverage, including regarding the crisis in Ukraine. The NB8 meeting was aimed at identifying common approaches to combatting disinformation and supporting free media. In 2017, the Nordic Council finalized its program to support media content and strengthen minority-language media production in the Baltic states; the program included concrete technical aid to media producers, media information sharing, training of young journalists, direct financial aid to ETV+ (Estonian TV in Russian) and to several Latvian radio stations in Russian, and grants for journalists.

In July 2018, the Baltic states established the Baltic Cultural Fund to finance cultural cooperation programs in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as organized common cultural events. The Fund will sponsor professional projects in the areas of architecture, visual arts, design, literature, music, theater, libraries, museums and archives. The Fund is an example of practical measures for building up the cultural identity of the region in order to bolster popular engagement in civil society through patriotic events. In turn, such events inspire greater emotional connection among the public to their country, theoretically helping ensure that citizens of the Baltic states are less vulnerable to Russian narratives intended to stoke dissention. These events also showcase minority cultures, including Russian culture, in order to demonstrate that these populations have a place in Baltic society.

What Should be Done?

In summary, there is a clear understanding among the Baltics’ parliamentary and governmental institutions about the need for more concrete cooperation or coordination of activities in the strategic communication field, as well as when it comes to information and experience sharing. With the active participation of third parties, such as the Nordic Council, such cooperation can more easily be converted into concrete measures and activities. Russia will continue to utilize hybrid warfare, in particular information warfare, in order to destabilize Baltic societies and political systems, with the ultimate aim of wresting the Baltics away from—or at least neutralizing them within—Western institutions such as the EU and NATO. All three Baltic states have taken both proactive and reactive measures to combat disinformation, from legal regulations and temporary license suspensions, to creating alternative Russian-language content providers and monitoring the information space.

Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia also seek to mitigate the effects of disinformation by promoting active engagement with civil society. The theory goes that by building a sense of belonging and national pride, populations are less susceptible to the Kremlin’s propagandistic narratives. Inherent in all of this, however, is the notion that more can, and should, be done. The intensity of conflict in hybrid warfare is in constant flux, and governments must be prepared for moments of greater pressure. Governments should focus on proactive policies, such as media literacy education and fostering transparency, while at the same time maintaining the ability to respond when threats arise in order to neutralize their effect on society.