Pro-Kremlin media advances the narrative that NATO is a threat.
Event: On 8 July 2016, Gelezinisvilkassite—a Lithuanian-language, pro-Kremlin website, published an article on the eve of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. The story claimed that Gen. Jonas Vytautas Zukas had said NATO would not be able to defend Lithuania in case of an attack. It also stated that a planned NATO battalion “was not sufficient to protect the Suwalki corridor, which connects Lithuania with other NATO member states, if Russia decided to block that corridor,” and that “positioning of NATO troops in Lithuania undermines the strategic stability of NATO-Russia relations.”
The article offered no proof that the defense minister had actually made those remarks, though it did refer to a separate article in Ukininko patarejas— a mainstream farmers’ newspaper in Lithuanian. In the latter story, published 7 June, Zukas said the opposite: “If the Warsaw summit decides to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank, NATO rotating military units will come to our region, not only for joint exercises but, if necessary, will immediately defend the Baltic states and Poland as the NATO front units… The region’s collective defense plans will define the clear role of alliance battalions as well as precise weapons-use rules. This will definitely speed up NATO’s response to a possible aggression, provide the coherence for the common defense and, of course, strengthen our security.”
The false facts or narrative: The Gelezinisvilkassite article made it appear that Lithuania’s defense minister disagreed with the summit’s expected decision to position a 1,000-member NATO battalion in Lithuania. The article cited the mainstream news website www.delfi.lt, which republished the Ukininko patarejas story—even though it did not support the pro-Kremlin claims that Zukas “...rings alarm bells” about NATO’s Warsaw summit.
The reality on the ground: The original article in which Zukas was quoted gave an overview of Lithuania’s security situation when preparing for the NATO battalion deployment of 1,000 troops under German command in 2017. Zukas was one of five Lithuanian and NATO officials quoted in the article. He spoke about the importance of NATO as a defensive alliance and stated that its purpose was deterrence.
The pro-Kremlin website repeated its persistent argument that Russia must defend itself, but it made no mention of the Russian military buildup: that Moscow recently reestablished its 1st tank division (10,000 to 20,000 troops) and deployed it along the border with Belarus; that it has established the 11th corps (30,000 to 50,000 troops) in Kaliningrad, an enclave of Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania; and that it plans to create three new divisions (10,000 to 20,000 troops each) to be formed next to the Baltic, according to delfi.lt.
Some military experts consider the Suwalki Corridor referred to in the pro-Kremlin article a weak link in NATO defenses. Russian control of the Suwalki Gap would cut off the three Baltic states from the rest of the alliance. Since 2003, the Russian military has had access (albeit highly regulated) to transit Lithuania to supply its troops in Kaliningrad under an agreement with the Lithuanian government.
Technique: Manipulation, lying, card staking (a propaganda technique that seeks to manipulate audience perception of an issue by emphasizing one side and repressing another), signaling and testing the reaction. The article uses another objective, balanced article from the mainstream media in order to strengthen its arguments and appear trustworthy. It then twists that story and uses it for propaganda purposes. The article also seeks to spread alarm by mentioning the Suwalki corridor as a vulnerable NATO link. Gelezinisvilkassite was established in June when Lithuanian soldiers carried out the Iron Wolf 2016 exercises with NATO troops. The website criticized those exercises as well as the Anaconda 2016 exercises which followed. It then went silent until the NATO Summit in Warsaw.
Audience: Lithuanian- and Russian-speaking segments of society in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and the West, and Russian society.
Impact and Analysis: The narrative that NATO is an aggressor and Russia is a victim that’s forced to defend itself is a continuing theme in pro-Kremlin information warfare. Portrayal of the Suwalki corridor as a NATO weak point is intended to reassure Russian audiences that Russia will be able to defend itself properly—even as the message for Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland is that NATO cannot guarantee their security.
A similar technique—activating a website for use as a propaganda instrument regarding a single issue—took place 2007. That year, the pro-Kremlin website ekspertai.eu was established for apparently one purpose: to criticize the EU’s designation of Vilnius as a European Capital of Culture in 2009. This was to discredit the EU and show that Lithuania does not live up to its EU obligations (Vilnius was the first city in the former Soviet bloc to win such a designation). Initially, that website carried mainly heavy-handed propaganda; over time it developed into a consistent supplier of pro-Kremlin information for Lithuanian public consumption.