The silence of Zapad

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In mid-September, Russia and Belarus will stage what will likely be the biggest military exercise in recent history: Zapad-2017. News and analysis pieces about the upcoming exercise and its potential implications have begun appearing almost daily in Romanian mainstream media. Yet even as the online disinformation world has actively pushed the narrative of NATO as aggressor and Russia on the defensive, Romania’s pro-Kremlin propaganda outlets have been virtually silent about Zapad. Why?

For months, foreign policymakers and experts have warned about Zapad’s implications for Russia’s assertiveness in Central and Eastern Europe. These concerns have been amplified not only by a lack of transparency regarding the real extent of the military maneuvers but also by the precedents of Russia’s invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) following similar exercises. The Kremlin disinformation machine has kept up with the influx of foreign media reporting on Zapad with a classic “wolf cries wolf” tactic, counteracting Western anxiety with stories about the West’s fearmongering or those portraying NATO as the aggressor because of its placement of military bases and troops near the Russian border.

The same tactic happens in the Romanian online media sphere, except that Sputnik and the other main pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets have remained virtually silent about Zapad. While Romanians are less anxious about the exercises than those in the Baltic states or Poland, for instance, local media is reporting almost daily about how those exercises are driving international concerns and opinions about the upcoming exercises.

However, mainstream articles on Zapad encounter pushback from pro-Kremlin activists only on Facebook. Rather than engage directly with
the contentious issues regarding Zapad, social media and fringe websites work relentlessly to solidify the idea that Russia is surrounded and subjected to intimidation by Western actions. This is part of Russia’s propaganda strategy of portraying it as the victim—not the initiator—of aggression.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine has been very careful in dealing with Romanians’ collective memory of an aggressive Russia. As such, while Sputnik and social media roll out articles about Russia’s military superiority or strength, they are carefully timed and always clad in a technological or self-defensive stance. While only slightly nudging public opinion towards a more favorable view of Russia, such narratives aim to weaken adherence to the values that keep the transatlantic alliance together.

Furthermore, the silence on Zapad may also be part of a subtle attempt to dissociate Romania from its Central and Eastern European partners. This could explain why Sputnik covers military exercises taking place in Russia’s Southeast Military District, but mentions nothing about the largest drills keeping NATO allies on their toes: Zapad. Setting Romania apart from broader CEE security concerns is a wider narrative targeting Romanians that the Kremlin has been developing in recent months regarding defense spending. According to this narrative, investing in defense is not in Romania’s interest, but rather in the interest of Western countries and their defense industries. Its aim: to make Romanians doubt the motives of their government’s security partnerships—in particular with that of the United States—and of Romania’s leadership, especially that of the president and his foreign policy agenda. It also feeds into another historic fear: that of Romania once again being caught in a war between big powers.

Lastly, Russia realizes that remaining silent about Zapad is more helpful than explaining it. This creates more room for speculation and commentary that Kremlin propaganda can mock—but it also projects calm and quiet, in line with Moscow’s “Russia the victim” narrative.


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