Briefs

Deconstructing Zapad narratives

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  • Apie Zapad naratyvus  Šį straipsnį taip pat galite skaityti lietuvių kalba
With the completion of the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises Zapad 2017 on NATO’s eastern flank, pro-Kremlin media outlets have repeated the longstanding theme that Western concerns about the threat posed by the exercises have no grounds. In early September, the pro-Kremlin, Lithuanian-language website Ekspertai.eu mocked Lithuania’s “information hype” about Zapad 2017. Another pro-Kremlin website, Rubalic.ru, claimed that Russia has become a victim of Western information attacks.

On the eve of Zapad 2017, Rubaltic.ru wrote that “NATO interests come into direct conflict with the interests of Russia, not only in the Baltic, but also in the Caucasus region,” and that “Russia should build up its policy and act on the basis of an analysis of NATO’s true interests in the region, and not information noise.” Kremlin media refer to “former USSR states” or “post-Soviet states”—ignoring the fact that countries bordering Russia are sovereign nations—some of them EU and NATO members, and not proxies of Russia.

Coverage of Zapad by pro-Kremlin media websites Sputniknews.lt, Ria.ru, Rubaltic.ru, Tass.com and Ekspertai.eu has been limited to repeating official Russian Defense Ministry figures about troop totals (12,700 troops in all, including 5,500 Russian personnel and 7,200 Belarussian soldiers). In this way, such media forms an information environment whose audience memorizes only Kremlin data and becomes immune to critical analysis that would undermine official Russian figures. Two examples illustrate how pro-Kremlin media outlets ignore important facts. Last year, Russia declared that 12,500 of its troops would participate in the Kavkaz military exercise; afterwards, it admitted that 120,000 Russian troops had taken part. Several years ago, Russia ran a military exercise on its border with Ukraine and then invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Pro-Kremlin media coverage has never discussed why NATO is concerned about Zapad 2017. 

Sputniknews.lt in Lithuanian referred to another pro-Kremlin news agency, RIA Novosti, which claimed that “during this year from June to September” NATO conducted “about 50 maneuvers in Europe with more than 60,000 troops.” But neither commented on facts presented by Faz.net—the website of German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—that since 2015, Russia has conducted three times as many military exercises as NATO and its European member states.

On 15 September, Sputniknews.lt in Lithuanian—indicating that U.S. concerns about Zapad 2017 had been addressed—distorted information about the adequacy of steps Russia and Belarus have taken to assure transparency. However, according to reuters.com, the Pentagon actually said that “while Russia and Belarus had taken some steps towards providing transparency, there were concerns about the official estimate of troop numbers.” “We urge Russia to share information regarding its exercises and operations in NATO’s vicinity to clearly convey its intentions and minimize any misunderstandings,” a Pentagon spokeswoman said in a statement.

In this way, pro-Kremlin media outlets demonstrated a good command of a wealth of manipulation techniques when reporting on Zapad 2017. They apply the “whataboutism” technique to divert readers’ attention from any constructive analysis of Zapad 2017; they portray NATO military exercises as offensive, projecting understanding among its readers that Russia is under attack. They selectively misquote or distort quotations, present opinions as facts, and introduce conspiracy theories to switch readers’ attention to emotional issues rather than those which are relevant to facts, reason or logic. Moreover, the pro-Kremlin media forces the narrative of “post-Soviet states” or “former USSR states” — forcing readers to suffer from the phantom syndrome that the USSR still exists.

Photo: Kremlin.ru