Briefs

NATO, the "insecurity" alliance

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In the wake of NATO’s Brussels summit, the pro-Kremlin disinformation ecosystem is raving about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro in which he described the alliance as delusional about a “fictional Russian threat” and offered an explicit illustration of the narrative that NATO is a source of insecurity for member states—in particular those bordering Russia.

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In Romania, Putin’s narrative spread like wildfire—mainly through Facebook—and helped reinforce the idea that Romania is simply a vassal for Washington and Brussels, and a military testing ground for the West to spar with Russia. In constructing this narrative, a few elements stand out.

First, it portrays NATO members—and the United States in particular—as selfish states controlled by war-mongering elites that put all their allies at risk of conflict with Russia through their bellicose attitude, but at the same time are not willing to defend their partners in the East. Sputnik News, invoking this lack of solidarity within NATO, quotes a Pew Research Center study showing that Germans are unlikely to favor intervening to defend an ally. The goal here is to amplify the rhetoric of disunity and undermine the confidence of NATO’s security guarantee while subtly attacking Germany’s commitment to European security. The last aspect in particular has been a favorite theme of pro-Kremlin disinformation, especially with German general elections approaching.

Second, it either ridicules or overplays the idea of Romania as a full-fledged NATO partner, depending on specific security developments. Pro-Kremlin outlets view Romania as an insignificant security actor, so vulnerable that it almost doesn’t interest Moscow. They combine this with the idea that defense spending is useless and counterproductive, contributing to more insecurity. A constant component of this narrative has been the idea that by hosting U.S. anti-missile shield elements, Romania not only puts itself at risk but also directly threats Russia, which will then have to defend itself. And of course, the disinformation channels are flooded with stories of Russian military superiority to show that
whatever investment Romania decides to make will be futile.

Third, they use military exercises involving Romania to spread anti-Americanism, fear of war and panic about imminent conflict. The most recent NATO exercise in Romania, Noble Jump 2017, offers extra ammunition to reinforce this anti-NATO narrative. One seemingly Romanian Orthodox website suggestively asks its readers whether the military forces will actually leave Romania after the exercise ends. This is meant to lend credence to an idea that has been circulating for awhile, that Romania is nothing more than a military testing ground for the NATO alliance, a new type of colony created against the will of its people and to their detriment.

Such outlets use these narrative strands to weaponize Romania’s existing apprehension about regional conflict, and in particular a confrontation with Russia that is deeply ingrained in Romanian society. By instilling fear and repeating the idea that the West provokes Russia, the pro-Kremlin propaganda machine paradoxically foments not anti-Russian sentiment but anti-Western sentiment, portraying the West as even a bigger potential enemy of Romania if it throws the country in an open conflict with its historical enemy, Russia. By creating the impression that NATO is the aggressor and that it harms more than helps its members, then pro-Kremlin propaganda efforts to weaken NATO from within will have been achieved.

Whether this disinformation campaign has convinced Romanian audiences is easily apparent in opinion polls. In recent years, NATO has been the most trusted international organization in Romania, falling slightly from 2015 to 2016. While survey results may hinge on many factors and are difficult to attribute to one source or another, they can be a proxy indicator of how effective anti-Western narratives are becoming in Romania and elsewhere. Policymakers and experts should be alarmed that undercurrents in society are changing with the post-Cold War generation currently coming of age, and warned not to take post-communist Romania’s prevalent pro-Western inclination for granted.

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