Since information confrontation is a key instrument of Russian foreign policy, the Kremlin pays close attention to the audiences it targets, the messages it sends to those audiences, and the impact of those messages. Moscow provides funding and administrative support to create media resources to achieve its goals. These resources, often in the Russian language and including TV, the Internet and social media, have influence in the Russian-speaking diaspora of neighboring countries. Measuring their effect is difficult, however, and varies from audience to audience. The recent example of RT in Estonia, moreover, shows how local authorities can effectively derail Moscow’s efforts to control the information space.
In the spring of 2015, Russia’s state-owned Rossiya Segodnya media company began efforts to open an office in Estonia for Sputnik—the Kremlin’s multimedia channel—and to establish an Estonian- and Russian-language language portal, according to the most recent annual review of the Estonian Internal Security Service. Russia launched Sputnik in November 2014 to distribute material supporting Russian policies via web portals, radio stations and press centers in 35 languages. Sputnik opened a bureau and bank account in Tallinn under the leadership of two journalists brought in from Moscow; their local staff included an intelligence officer, according to the report, and other journalists who received personal training in Russia.
Problems on the ground, however, prevented a quick opening. The Estonian government’s Financial Intelligence Unit seized the assets in the Sputnik bank account, following the EU’s imposition of sanctions on Dmitry Kiselev, director-general of Rossiya Segodnya, as well as companies related to him. In addition, Sputnik had trouble finding journalists with sufficient command of the Estonian language to spread Russian propaganda; as a result, Sputnik ended up translating articles from Russian into Estonian. The Sputnik website finally opened in February 2016, at about the same time as offices in Latvia and Moldova. Similarly, the Baltnews portal was launched simultaneously in the three Baltic states in late 2014. Russia finances them all via front companies elsewhere in Europe.
The Estonian government views these media projects as ineffective, however, because the “visible reality” in Estonia is “fundamentally and materially” different from the picture described by the Kremlin. “The conflict and hostility instigated by Russia does not outweigh the better living, environment, peace and stability of the target group,” it says.
But there are other possible pro-Kremlin messages as well. As this week’s Estonia brief demonstrates, history can also play a role in Russian influence operations, where the Kremlin chooses past events that suit its propaganda and tries to construct a new narrative compatible with its foreign policy goals. Baltnews argues that the Soviet Army did not occupy the Estonian city of Tartu in 1944 but instead “liberated” it—a message targeted to the Kremlin’s ethnic Russian “compatriots” inside Estonia. Such misuse of history has worked elsewhere. Even if they don’t support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a surprising number of Western commentators accept the Kremlin’s false historical narrative that Ukraine is an offshoot of the Russian state, without its own separate identity. But it’s hard to believe that even those ethnic Russians who honor the Red Army’s role in 1944 would see that as enough to throw away the benefits of living in a democracy firmly integrated into Western security and economic institutions.