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After a massive disinfo attack against Estonia, what’s next?

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In recent weeks, Russian media has sparked a new nationality- and history-based controversy over a Soviet-era memorial in Tallinn. The dispute is similar to the 2007 clash that led to riots in the city, followed by a massive cyberattack against Estonian government servers. What does the latest dispute say about the Kremlin’s intentions? Are the propaganda attacks being coordinated by Moscow to carry out its foreign policy goals? Or are they the result of the uncontrolled activity of local journalists? Answering these questions requires an analysis of not only narratives and techniques used, but also expected outcomes.

During the first week of January, Estonia appeared to be the focus of a disinformation attack: at least 13 Russian media channels reported that the Estonian government had planned to demolish the Soviet-era memorial located in Maarjamäe, Tallinn. The memorial, built between 1960 and 1975, was dedicated “to those who fought for a free Estonia— a reference to the Red Army troops that fought Nazi Germany after the Soviet Union had first occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940. For Estonians, the Red Army’s “fighting for free Estonia” ended with a second Soviet occupation—one that lasted until 1991, when Estonia regained its independence after the USSR’s collapse. 

The disinformation attack began shortly after 5 January, when Estonian Justice Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Estonian Public Broadcasting about his government’s plan to create a monument near an existing memorial in Maarjamäe to commemorate the victims of communism. Answering the journalist’s question about the future of the existing Soviet memorial, Reinsalu said some restoration work might be needed to make it safer for visitors. This is primarily an architectural and technological question, he added, that requires a specialist’s expertise to answer. Reinsalu said he personally has no special feelings towards the monument.

Russian media outlets reported the news very differently. They claimed the Estonian government was about to demolish the Soviet memorial and—amplifying each other’s interpretation—they saw the decision as yet another example of the same official Russophobia that in their view had also caused the 2007 riots in Tallinn. 

An article published by TASS on 5 January warning that the “Soviet memorial in Maarjamäe, Tallinn, may be demolished” triggered many stories the next day in the pro-Kremlin press. Each emphasized a narrative built on national or historical conflict. 
  • stated that the “dangerous Soviet statue is about to be demolished.”
  • Izvestia claimed that “Estonian authorities are planning the partial demolition of the Soviet memorial.” 
  • RBK took a step further, reporting that “Estonian authorities gave permission to demolish the Soviet memorial.”
  • added an emotional tone, stating that “Estonia is about to take down yet another Soviet memorial. Nothing is sacred for them.” 

That the Kremlin-linked media is trying to inflame relations between the country’s Estonian and Russian speakers, to whom the Soviet monuments represent Russia’s glorious past, is nothing unusual. What’s unusual this time is the scale of the dispute. Even though the pro-Kremlin media often publishes disinformation stories on Estonia, such a massive disinformation attack is rare. What is the reason for it? How can we measure whether this represents the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals or is simply the work of local, amateur journalists? Concentrating only on the issue of a narrative (Estonia is a Russophobic country) or a technique (Kremlin ping-pong with a snowball effect) may not be sufficient to answer these questions. Three other criteria must also be considered: the place disinformation channels have in the pro-Kremlin media’s vertical network; the usefulness of the particular disinformation for the Kremlin, and finally, Moscow’s expected long-term outcome. 

In this case, the evidence suggests Kremlin direction.

First, the network we call “Kremlin-linked media”—media channels whose function is to advance Russian foreign policy goals—is a diverse and more importantly a vertical system. It consists of at least four different types of media channels which all have their place in the power vertical dependency on their proximity to the Kremlin and the purpose they are supposed to serve. On the top are channels for international distribution such as Channel One Russia, Rossia 1, RT, TASS, etc. On the lowest level are local news sites such as as Baltnews and Rubaltic, which—even if financed by the Kremlin—have no significant place in the Kremlin’s media ecosystem.

Most disinformation attacks against Estonia are initiated by low-level local gathering channels (and occasionally picked up later by higher-level channels). In this instance the disinformation chain began with TASS, a major news agency wholly owned and operated by the Russian government that enjoys proximity to the Kremlin.

Second, this particular disinformation attack was useful to the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a 15 January press conference, used the same narrative about Estonia as a Russophobic country to justify the fact that Russia has still not ratified the frontier agreement with Estonia. 

Third, as coordinated disinformation attacks in Europe have shown, these narratives often aim to achieve goals that are not obvious on the surface. On Syria, for example, Russia spread the narrative that it successfully fought ISIS in order to convince European governments to cooperate with Russia so they’d drop the sanctions. Since Russia sees NATO activity in Eastern Europe as the result of anti-Russian behavior in Estonia—and not due to its own actions in Ukraine—the narrative of Russophobic Estonia may be a useful way to convince other NATO states that no Russian threat exists, eliminating any need for more NATO troops in Eastern Europe.

So despite any superficial resemblance to the 2007 riots and subsequent cyber attack, it is difficult to believe that the Kremlin is planning similar action in Tallinn again. Rather, the intention of this latest disinformation offensive is to send a message to the West: Russia is not a threat, even if Russophobic Estonia wants to portray it that way.

Photo: “Maarjamäe War Memorial” by rudi-k under CC BY 2.0