Latvia - 7-13 June 2016

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The country’s Russian-language media distort Gen. Richard Shirreff’s statements on Russia by portraying NATO as the aggressor.

Object of manipulation:

Date: 18 May 2016

Title:Nuclear war may begin because of Russian speakers in the Baltics” („Из-за русскоязычных в Прибалтике может начаться ядерная война с Россией”) 

Source of manipulation:

Date: 18 May 2016

Title:A British general declared the possibility of war with Russia” (“Британский генерал заявил о возможности ядерной войны с Россией)

The false fact or narrative: On 8 May, the Russian version of TvNet—one of Latvia’s largest Internet portals—republished an article from Russian news agency The article focused on 2017: War with Russia, a novel by Gen. Richard Shirreff, who was NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander in Europe from 2011 to 2014. The article, in turn, was based on an article published by the British newspaper The Independent. The TvNet article, titled “A nuclear war can start in the Baltic states because of Russian speakers,” highlighted Shirreff’s prediction that war between NATO and Russia would start in a year, and that it would evolve from a conventional war to a nuclear war. The conflict, as Shirreff suggested, would be triggered by Moscow’s aggression toward the Baltic states, which the Kremlin would portray as an act to protect the three countries’ large Russian-speaking minorities. 

The highlights of Shirreff’s book resonated in Latvian-language as well as Latvia’s Russian-language media.  Some media also used dramatic titles: “A nuclear attack on Riga: Will the Purvciems survive?” —with reference to a Riga neighborhood that has a high concentration of Russian speakers; “Yet another British general dreams about a nuclear war with Russia,” and “A nuclear war with Russia: The rubbish by a military retiree.” 

Reality on the ground: The title of TvNet makes Russia passive, thereby substantially changing Shirreff’s main argument that Russia—rather than NATO—would start the next war. Moreover, the TvNet title cites Shirreff, although such a quotation appears neither in The Independent, nor in The title of the TvNet article, as well as the article itself, narrows the context of Shirreff’s statements, emphasizing the Baltic states as the goal of Russian aggression, although The Independent article suggests that the Baltics are part of a much larger Russian strategy. Also ignored is the fact that The Independent qualifies Shirreff’s work as “a fictional book.”  

In contrast to the article published by The Independent, the TvNet article completely ignores President Vladimir Putin’s decisive role in current Russian policy. Instead, the original article contains supplemental information about confrontational statements of previous NATO commanders (Curtis Scaparrotti and Philip Breedlove) in Europe, which criticize “the revival of Russia.”  The TvNet article also uses ad hominem arguments to undermine Shirreff’s statements, which various sources call “the dreams of the British general” and “rubbish by a military retiree.” Shirreff himself is described as a “severely sick individual.” Unlike the TvNet article, the title of the article is presented in a less dramatic tone: “The British general has pointed to the likelihood of a nuclear war with Russia.”  

Technique: Inventing quotes in the title of an article; presenting ideas originally expressed as speculation as a solid opinion, and undermining the authority of Western public officials.

Audience: Latvians—both those who speak Russian and those who do not.

Analysis: Russia’s media is famous for manipulating the news using the provocative opinions of Western politicians and public officials. In this case, the media portrays NATO member states as militaristic. The sharp reaction of some Latvian media outlets is not surprising, given Shirreff’s outspokenness.  However, a simply critical reaction isn’t the same as one that intentionally stirs up anti-Western positions or that portrays NATO as an aggressor—thus actually inverting the meaning of Shirreff’s statements. Moreover, those harsh reactions were evident not only among Latvia’s Russophone media outlets, but also among Latvian media which already take Eurosceptic and moderately anti-Western positions.

In recent months, the Latvian press has extensively covered the subject of war between Russia and the West—especially after the BBC’s fictional documentary World War Three: Inside the War Room. Yet reaction has been varied. While Latvian media outlets are rather reluctant to assess or criticize prospects of a war with Russia, local Russophone newspapers, TV stations and websites regularly condemn attempts to demonize Russia—thereby cultivating anxiety among Russian speakers with respect to the idea of stationing NATO troops in the Baltics.