Spring Storm: A tale of disinformation in three parts

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In May, the Estonian Defense Forces held their 15th annual Spring Storm, an 18-day exercise involving more than 9,000 troops from Estonia and allied countries. Both Estonian and Russian media widely covered the exercise, yet the tone of coverage differed. Russian media spread three somber narratives: first, the accidents that occurred during Spring Storm show that the exercises were poorly organized and unprepared; second, the exercises were a sign that NATO is assembling an invasion force on its eastern flank to provoke Russia; and third, that they stirred tensions in Estonian society, eventually boiling into anti-NATO protests. All three narratives are fictitious and are based on false interpretations of what transpired.

While Spring Storm did not pass completely without incident—two people were involved in traffic accidents, four sustained injuries while using mobile cooking equipment and four others suffered broken bones—the narrative of an unprepared exercise does not stack up. It’s inevitable that during an 18-day exercise involving more than 9,000 participants and numerous military vehicles, accidents may happen. Besides Estonia’s own units—which included regular troops, conscripts and members of the volunteer Estonian Defense League—more than 2,000 personnel of other nations contributed to the exercise. They included the entire British-French-Danish battle group forming NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia, a 400-strong German armored unit, a U.S. company rotating in Estonia as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve and infantry companies from Latvia and Lithuania, pioneers from the Finnish Defense Forces (marking the first time Finland has ever participated in an exercise in Estonia) and smaller specialized units from other nations. In addition to land forces, Spring Storm also included an air component with U.S. Apache and Blackhawk helicopters as well as Polish ground attack aircraft.

Likewise, the narrative of the Estonian exercise acting as a buildup of NATO troops on the border to provoke Russia is equally false. This narrative, spread throughout Russian-language media, depicts Moscow as the passive and oppressed party, and NATO as the aggressive, manipulative, harmful bully. The Kremlin tends to overlook the fact that NATO’s increased troop presence in Estonia is in response to Russia’s revanchist behavior in Ukraine.

Finally, and perhaps unfortunately for pro-Kremlin media, Estonian society is not teeming with so much anti-NATO sentiment that a military exercise would provoke protests. This narrative builds upon the false interpretation of two events.

The first incident occurred during Spring Storm, when military vehicles harmed newly planted trees in a resident’s forest and exceeded the speed limit passing his courtyard, causing a local to fire a warning shot. No one was injured, but authorities confiscated his gun, and he may have to pay a fine. What Russian media didn’t mention is that since large portions of the Spring Storm exercise are held in public spaces—in many cases on privately owned land—it is unavoidable that heavy, oversized military vehicles may harm local flora and fauna. Every year, the military seeks local permission for land usage, just as every year, the Estonian government compensates for any damage to the environment.

Another detail Russian media failed to mention is that the man who fired the warning shot said in an interview that it was mainly a communications problem—and that in fact, he fully supports both the military exercises and NATO and would gladly allow his private land to be used for future exercises. The claim that Estonians do not support NATO troops in their country is also false. Respondents in an October 2016 survey listed Estonia’s NATO membership as the single most important factor that would ensure Estonian security.

Russian media also eagerly pointed out that Estonians were so upset by these military exercises that they passed out anti-NATO leaflets throughout the country. What they didn’t say is that these leaflets were spread by the pro-Kremlin United Left Party, which in a strong showing in the past election received barely 0.1 percent of the votes.

Even though these three narratives are false, the multitude of articles in the Russian-language, pro-Kremlin media dedicated to this topic underscores how important the Kremlin considers this exercise—and more widely, the presence of additional NATO troops in the Baltic region—to be.

Since all three narratives are based on false interpretations, herein lies the question: is the false interpretation intentional or has Russia really failed to understand the West? Does the Kremlin truly see NATO exercises in the Baltics as a threat to Russia? Has Russian President Vladimir Putin really failed to see NATO’s actions as a response to Russian aggression in Ukraine? And if so, how can the West change the Kremlin’s somber worldview, considering that it tends to see all attempts to explain that the interpretation is false as provocation and propaganda? If the slightest possibility exists that the misinterpretation was not intentional, the last question might be the most important one to ask.