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Latvia: 12 December 2016 - 2 January 2017

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A pro-Kremlin TV channel links the visit of U.S. senators to Latvia with their private business interests.

Event: On 28 December, the state-owned Russian TV channel Россия 1 aired a news story about the visit of a U.S. Senate delegation to the Baltic states. The program focused specifically on Sen. John McCain’s visit to Latvia. 

The false fact or narrative: In introducing the report, the Россия 1 news anchor claimed that McCain—“Washington’s Russophobe”—decided to visit a series of “Russophobe” countries. He argued that McCain came to Latvia “to control the increase of defense spending” in the United States using “the old method of threatening Russian aggression.”  

The news story outlined other cases from Latvia and Ukraine that allegedly demonstrate the business interests of U.S. political leaders. The journalist reminded viewers about Vice President Joe Biden’s August 2016 visit to Latvia (see video starting from 1:33). He argued that Biden’s visit was partly business-oriented and that, according to unidentified experts, his goal was to negotiate a trade deal involving the Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, which will be privatized in 2017 in order to meet the EU requirements.

The Россия 1 story also aired the views of Latvian pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Gaponenko, who was presented as a political scientist (he is actually an economist).  Gaponenko alluded to the influence of Biden’s family on the Marguerite Fund, which is one of the stakeholders of JSC Latvijas Gāze, Latvia’s only natural gas transmission, storage, distribution and sales operator (see video starting from 2:23). 

Reality on the ground: The Baltic states became especially concerned with security issues after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea—which suggested that Moscow might move also against them. This anxiety worsened after Donald Trump’s comments during the U.S. presidential election campaign that that he only reluctantly supported Washington’s commitment to protect the Baltics. McCain’s goal was to reassure the Baltic nations that the United States remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance.

The Россия 1 journalist’s claim that Sen. McCain visited Latvia to control the growth of defense spending is an opinion that is presented as fact. Likewise, the claim that Latvia should sell its unique underground gas storage to Washington in order to maintain its defense commitments is another opinion expressed by anonymous “experts” and used as a hard fact in the story. This claim, together with Gaponenko’s unsubstantiated claim about Biden’s influence on the Marguerite Fund, is conspiracy theory without factual support about the selfish interests of U.S. politicians who visit the Baltics ostensibly to reassure their hosts about U.S. defense commitments.  Moreover, the story about Biden’s alleged business interests in the region is completely off the topic and has little to do McCain’s visit. 
  • Narrative laundering,
  • presenting opinion as facts, 
  • no proof.