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Latvia - 23-30 May 2016

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As the Saber Strike military exercise takes place in the Baltics, Russian-language media publicizes incidents that could taint the image of NATO and U.S. troops.

Object of manipulation:
Date: 30 May 2016

Source of manipulation:
Date: 18 May 2016

The false fact or narrative: On 30 May, the Russian-language version of Latvian Internet portal TvNet republished an article from Russian news agency The article focused on an incident in the Czech Republic, in which Czech army veteran Martin Zapletal showed his naked buttocks to a U.S. convoy passing through the southern Czech city of Vyškova. Zapletal was protesting the convoy’s participation in the NATO Saber Strike exercises that took place in the Baltics from 27 May to 22 June. The TvNet story also included commentary from Ivan Kratohvil, an activist from the group Czechoslovak Military Reservists Against the War (which claims NATO is a criminal organization). Kratohvil, whose comments were originally published by pro-Kremlin Internet portal Sputnik, argued that while serving in the international police mission in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s,  Zapletal had understood the true “purposes of the U.S. soldiers in Europe” and “steadily became aware of the fact that he was rather a part of an occupation regime.” Ludvik Cimburek, an adviser to the chairman of the Headquarters of the Czech Armed Forces, has called members of the Czechoslovak Military Reservists “potential informers of foreign secret services.”

Reality on the ground: The original news story in pro-Kremlin news agency (which was later republished by TvNet) was partly based on an article that appeared in the Czech Internet portal Parlamentní listy. In general, Parlamentní listy publishes articles that support Moscow’s policies. Although the Parlamentní listy article also contained an opinion by a general in the Czech reserves, Andor Šándor that was critical of Zapletal’s behaviour, Šándor’s opinion does not appear in the article. Thus, Zapletal’s protest is framed as an acceptable rather than a deviant way of expressing discontent. The TvNet article does not mention that Zapletal also belongs to Czechoslovak Military Reservists Against the War, nor does it inform its readers of the organization’s complete title—Czechoslovak Military Reservists Against the War Planned by NATO—a reflection of its extremist views. 

The source of Kratohvil’s quotes in the TvNet article appears to be the pro-Russian, Serbian version of Sputnik rather than Parlamentní listy. Kratohvil, who has previously made Islamophobic statements in Russian media, justifies Zapletal’s odd behavior by drawing parallels with the activities of Pussy Riot and gay rights groups that the Kremlin has condemned.  

Technique: Exploiting pro-Kremlin media and activists as news sources; selectively republishing foreign media content.  

Audience: Latvia’s Russian-speaking community.

Analysis: This case of disinformation appears intended to discredit NATO troops involved in Baltic military exercises. Additionally, the news seeks to reinforce the negative attitude of Baltic Russian speakers toward NATO military training. Although the story offers an ostensibly neutral report on the Czech incident, in fact, it portrays only the actions and “voices” of pro-Kremlin activists. 

This is not the only media attempt to discredit the Saber Strike exercises. For instance, numerous Latvian media outlets recently reported on an outdoor banner near Daugavpils which said, in English, “NATO You Are Killers. Yankee, Go Home!” The banner appeared during a visit by the 2nd Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army in predominantly Russian-speaking Daugavpils, Latvia’s second-largest city. Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis countered the anti-NATO placard by denying that it reflects general public sentiment. When U.S. soldiers visited Riga’s Old Town on 13 June to demonstrate military techniques to the general public, a local Russian-language portal described the excursion with an implicitly aggressive title: “The American armed forces have entered the Old Town”. These media reports generally downplay survey data which find Latvian public opinion toward NATO and U.S. soldiers to be neutral or positive.