Latvia’s pro-Kremlin news portal Vesti.lv continues to spread disinformation about the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics in general, and in Latvia in particular.
On 2 February, Vesti.lv republished a story claiming that NATO risks provoking “a Russian riot” by imposing deterrence upon Russia. The website attributed this claim to the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung which, according to Vesti.lv, argued that in the fog of hybrid warfare, German soldiers could be faced with an insurgency by Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states. “If the Bundeswehr units react in an ill-considered manner, then Moscow can use that as a pretext to invade [the Baltic states] and to protect the Russian community of the Baltic states.”
Tageszeitung indeed published an article on 31 January about the deployment of NATO forces in Lithuania and elsewhere in the regions. However, it never claimed the deployment could provoke a “Russian riot.” Apparently, Vesti.lv attributed to Tageszeitung the opinion of Martin Zapfe, a political scientist quoted in the Tageszeitung story. Yet Zapfe also did not refer to potential Russian “riots.” What he actually said was this: “In the fog of hybrid warfare, the Russian-speaking minorities could be supported and guided by Russia.”
The Tageszeitung journalist added that Zapfe’s speculation is “a hypothetical scenario which, given the experience of the Ukrainian crisis, is not entirely unthinkable. If a NATO unit reacts inconsistently to such a confrontation, the situation could quickly escalate—and possibly provide the Kremlin with a pretext to intervene to protect minorities.”
Vesti.lv distorted the original Tageszeitung text by removing any reference to Russia as a country which uses Russian-speaking communities for its geopolitical goals. The story replaced “a NATO unit” with “Bundeswehr units,” a change which evokes historical associations with World War II. It also added new text that makes Zapfe’s claim more focused on the Baltic states as countries Russia could invade. Moreover, unlike the Tageszeitung article, it uses the terms “Russian-speaking minority” and “Russian community” interchangeably. The main purpose of distorting the Tageszeitung article thus apparently is to highlight and legitimize a Kremlin strategy vis-à-vis NATO in which protecting Russian-speakers may provide a pretext for Moscow to attack the Baltic states.
Along with a selective reading of the Tageszeitung article, Vesti.lv has in general used a more primitive type of disinformation. For instance, on 6 February, it republished an article—“Latvia exchanged health for war”—that focused on the country’s healthcare problems. The author argued that Latvia’s ruling elite is not interested in dealing with the country’s shrinking medical work force, which has caused a shortage of healthcare professionals. Instead, Vesti.lv claimed, the elite is more interested in protecting the country from Russia. This claim—with its tabloid-like title—is characteristic of how pro-Kremlin disinformation works when it comes to Latvian defense spending. Namely, any discussion about increasing the defense budget is juxtaposed with other, more “tangible” needs like healthcare or emigration. Such false dilemmas tend to show defense issues as artificial problems. For this reason, the pro-Kremlin media are inclined to exacerbate Latvia’s socioeconomic problems in order to undercut its defense capability.
Pro-Kremlin media use that same demoralization strategy to establish the narrative that Latvia supports the deployment of NATO forces only for economic benefits—a view vividly expressed in The Conspiracy Theory, a program that aired 10 February on the TV network Zvezda (which is run by Russia’s Defense Ministry). The program focused on the Baltic states, presenting them as countries which have decided to be Russia’s enemy because it gives them economic advantages.
Photo: Reuters/Ints Kalnins