10 years after Web War I in Estonia

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  • Kümme aastat hiljem samad narratiivid, uued ohud  Artiklit saab lugeda ka eesti keeles
Little change in Kremlin narratives about Estonia a decade after Russia’s first major cyber warfare campaign.

Ten years has passed since the start of Web War I—Russia’s cyber and disinformation attacks against Estonia sparked by the government’s 2007 decision to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial in central Tallinn—yet the pro-Kremlin media has barely changed its core narratives about Estonia. According to these narratives, Russia had nothing to do with the cyber and disinformation attacks. The street protests that followed the memorial’s relocation in Tallinn were provoked by Estonia’s political elite, which later used them for self-victimization and attention-seeking. And the decision to relocate the monument ruined Estonia’s relations both with Russia and the West.

In the spring of 2007, Estonia not only experienced the most serious security crisis in its post-occupation history, but also the beginning of a new phenomenon; for perhaps the first time in history, Russia combined cyber attacks and a disinformation campaign as a tool of its hybrid warfare to attain political objectives. On 26-27 April 2007, about 1,500 mostly Russian-speaking people gathered in the center of Tallinn, broke windows, looted shops and attacked policemen, civilians and private property. The riots were preceded and followed by a heavy disinformation campaign—apparently from Russia—followed by cyber attacks directed against Estonian state institutions, banks and media.

These disturbances followed the Estonian government’s relocation of the “Bronze Soldier”—a Soviet war memorial—and the remains of Red Army soldiers buried near the monument from their location in central Tallinn to the military cemetery. By then, tensions between ethnic Estonians and the Russian-speaking minority were already high. The monument, originally named “Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn,” was erected by Soviet authorities in 1944, but for Estonians, the Red Army’s entrance to the city on 22 September 1944 marked not the liberation of Estonia but its re-occupation, which lasted until 1991.

Russian media, widely followed by Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority, stoked the conflict. Russian TV channels portrayed the government
relocation or the monument as a fascist, Russophobic attack against human rights as well as Russia’s cultural values, its religious beliefs and the Russian language. Russia’s special services and power structures were behind the emotional hysteria in the Russian media, according to the Estonian Internal Security Service.

Ten years later, these narratives remain the same: the pro-Kremlin information agency Regnum, in a 20 April article and a 26 April article, portrayed Estonia as a Russophobic, fascist country, and said that Estonia’s political elite had provoked the riots. Moreover, these narratives are today accompanied by a new one: that the elite later used those riots and cyber attacks to gain Western sympathy and attention, fueling tensions between Russia and the United States. That, the articles stated, helped ruin Estonia’s relations with both Russia and the West.

While the Kremlin’s main narratives have remained the same over the past 10 years, a lot has changed. Back in 2007, the idea of Kremlin-organized disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks in Estonia caused moderate skepticism in the West. Hybrid attacks against Georgia a year later did not significantly change this skepticism. Only after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 did the concept of hybrid war enter Western political discourse. Hacking, doxing and disinformation as the tools of Kremlin hybrid warfare have caused confusion, a breakdown of trust in the media, and polarization on both sides of the Atlantic.

Even though no silver bullet can solve this situation, CEPA’s report, Winning the Information War, gives tactical, strategic and long-term recommendations for improving the quality of the information space and for building trust. Without trust in the media, there can be no accurate and balanced information on world events. Without accurate and balanced coverage of world events, citizens won’t have enough information to make reality-based election decisions. If trust in quality media cannot be restored, disinformation will become a serious threat to free and fair elections—a pillar of liberal democracy.