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Kremlin mind games and how the West can change the rules

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Estonia: 20 February 2017

In the last few days of January and the first day of February, Kremlin disinformation outlets ran three different stories questioning the independence of the Baltic states and their historic legitimacy. Although all three articles focus on the Baltics, none really do: the main point is to show that Russia still looms strong on the international stage.

A 30 January article published by pro-Kremlin, Russian-language website reported on a suggestion made by Lithuanian lawmaker Linas Balsys to discuss the future of Russia’s Kaliningrad region at the international level. It quoted Russian political analyst Sergei Mikheyev, who said the Baltic states live, figuratively speaking, in a glass house, since the legitimacy of their independence is very fragile and hangs by a hair. He also claimed that Lithuania’s 9 February 1991 referendum on independence from the Soviet Union was invalid—as were similar ballots conducted 3 March 1991 in Latvia and Estonia,

Also on 30 January, another article quoted Yuri Petrov, director of the Institute of Russian History, stating that from a historical viewpoint the claim that the USSR occupied the Baltics is absurd, since one can equally say that Peter I already occupied these territories during the Russian Empire. The Soviet period in the Baltics cannot be called an “occupation” since their relations with Moscow differed from the relations that exist during an actual occupation. Neither is it appropriate, he added, to speak of Soviet damages for which Moscow must now compensate, since the USSR invested a huge amount of money in local industries, railways, highways and seaports.

On 1 February, the TV show Osobaja statja, aired by Russian-language Zvezda—a nationwide network run by Russia’s Defense Ministry—featured Estonian-born Russian civil servant and pro-Kremlin political activist Dmitri Linter, whom Kremlin media channels often use to give the so-called “Estonian point of view.” Linter stated that the Soviet Union never occupied the Baltic states, and that claiming it did is an attempt to rewrite history. He said the Soviet Red Army liberated—not occupied—Estonia, which he said has always been part of Russia.


These three cases contain several false narratives—none of which are grounded by facts, and all of which are easily disproven. The independence of the Baltic states does not hang on by a hair but is enshrined by internationally accepted independence referendums, historical documents and international laws. The Baltics did not join the Soviet Union voluntarily, and calling the Soviet presence an “occupation” is not an attempt to rewrite history but an internationally accepted historical fact, according to the accepted meaning of that term. The Soviet occupation resulted from the Nazi-communist Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939. The Red Army reoccupied Estonia in 1944 as the Wehrmacht retreated. It was not liberated. The Welles Declaration stated that Estonia was occupied, a fact backed by the European Court of Human Rights Cases on Occupation of Baltic States.

The disinformation technique used here, “appealing to the relativity of truth,” has recently become one of the Kremlin’s favorite techniques. Moscow uses it to show that one truth is no better than another; there are no facts, only interpretations, and the concept of the truth itself can be questioned. Concerning the Baltics, this technique is most often used to cast doubt on their independence from the USSR. So if the Soviet occupation and the regaining of independence in 1991 is not a fact but only one interpretation of what happened, other international agreements based on these facts can also be undermined.

Estonia’s foreign intelligence service reported that in 2016, Russia demonstrated its intent to counter historical truth by establishing the Russian Association of Baltic Studies (RABS). As the report shows, the main function of RABS is to support Russian state influence on the Baltic front, releasing pseudoscientific publications and organizing conferences. Most of its activities aim to discredit the Baltic states. Its reports are biased and have no scientific value. A call for papers last year elicited studies on several Baltic-related topics, among others: “The theory of a ‘Soviet occupation’ as the cornerstone of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian statehood.”

The Kremlin’s focus on the illegitimacy of the Baltic states proves Moscow’s interest in ”post-truth” to advance its foreign policy interests. Oxford Dictionaries chose the term “post-truth” as its International Word of the Year 2016, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Russia wants to show that not only does it set the global rules, but that it also has the right to define what the truth is. Another example of the Kremlin’s confident cynicism is the call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the recent Munich Security Conference for the West to let nations choose “in favor of a fair and democratic world order” where “every country, based on its sovereignty and within international law” can “overcome the post-truth period.” Yet it is not the West that does not “respect a fair and democratic world order” and countries’ sovereignty and international law; it is Russia itself. The “post-truth period” does not originate from the West but results from Kremlin disinformation campaigns begun after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

This confident cynicism has had some recent success. After being isolated for its violation of international norms by annexing Crimea, Russia managed to force its way back to the diplomatic table by intervening in Syria—even though Russian forces hardly attacked ISIS positions, and even though Russian and Syrian forces destroyed rather than “liberated” Aleppo, as illustrated by the Atlantic Council’s recent report.)

How can the West respond to Moscow’s attempts to blur the boundaries between truth and falsehood, and its insistence that there are no objective facts? The West should show that it values the facts more than ever, by taking these four steps:

1. Root out disinformation (by increasing daily media monitoring, both in mainstream and social media sites).

2. Debunk disinformation (by developing fact-checking institutions like the EU’s East Stratcom Task Force and CEPA, and investing in quality journalism by re-establishing the position of fact-checker).

3. Protect media consumers against disinformation (by explaining Russian false narratives and disinformation techniques to readers and viewers so that they can protect themselves and others, and by promoting general media literacy).

4. Predict disinformation attacks (by analyzing Kremlin narratives, their characteristics and frequency to find the most vulnerable target groups). 

Photo: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS