Briefs

Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media spread crude NATO disinformation

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  • Latvijas prokremliskie mediji izplata melīgus vēstījumus par NATO   Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
In June, pro-Kremlin media outlets in the Baltic states stepped up hostile disinformation actions against NATO. In Latvia, these outlets were particularly vicious, with the staging of the Saber Strike 2017 exercises and the arrival of Canadian troops—completing the formation of NATO’s multinational battalion.

On 14 June, a few days after the first wave of more than 450 Canadian military personnel arrived in Latvia, the local Russian-language website Imhoclub.lv published an opinion piece by Yuri Alekseev, an ardent advocate of Kremlin policy. The article mocked the battalion’s professional capabilities, groundlessly claiming that NATO soldiers have no motivation to defend Latvia. Alekseev drew parallels between the deployment of NATO troops and the Nazi occupation—and even alluded to the alleged sexual perversity of Canadian troops. He illustrated the article with a photographic collage of a Canadian soldier in uniform wearing women’s underwear. The caption identified the man as “the commander of the largest air force base in Canada, Col. Russell Williams.” In fact, Williams is a murderer, rapist and former colonel in the Canadian military who was convicted in 2010. Moreover, the linguistically ambiguous and provocative title of the article—“The ‘Blue Division’ of NATO has reached Latvia; waiting for reinforcements”—sought to undermine NATO’s presence in Latvia by suggesting that the alliance has deployed units of predominantly gay soldiers there. Latvia’s pro-Kremlin news portal Vesti.lv republished this opinion piece with the same out-of-context photos; the Vesti.lv article, in turn, was actively shared on Facebook.

On 20 June, Vesti.lv republished an article by Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, based on the opinion of Russian journalist Anatoly Vasserman. That story insisted that “NATO soldiers on Latvian territory can behave in a loose manner—up to the point of committing rape. And their violations will be hushed up under the pretext of the ‘Russian threat.’”

On 28 June, it posted another article, this one claiming that four U.S. soldiers had raped two Ukrainian teenage girls in Kyiv. This fake story had appeared two years ago on an obscure pro-Kremlin website, but Vesti.lv republished it as current news and added a Latvian context, claiming that U.S. soldiers in Latvia will be allowed to circumvent local traffic rules, ensuring their privileged position. Vesti.lv did not identify any sources that could corroborate its claim.

These different publications reflect the frequent pro-Kremlin media narrative that NATO soldiers will enjoy immunity from prosecution for breaking Latvian law. The escalation of disinformation shows that undermining NATO’s authority may be a higher priority than in the past. Perhaps the attempts of pro-Kremlin media to foster insecurity in Latvia along with NATO’s deployment of troops are having a limited effect on public opinion. The more vivid stories about sexual assaults against civilians also may be helpful to anchor and amplify the image of an aggressive NATO. Arguably, the summer season may also contribute to the publication of such stories, since this is normally a slow news cycle—which makes audiences more receptive to hardcore disinformation.