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This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 10 July 2016

NATO leaders meeting 8-9 July in Warsaw took significant steps to strengthen the alliance’s presence along Europe’s eastern flank with Russia. They agreed to station four battalions of up to 1,000 soldiers each in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on a rotational basis starting in 2017. The United States, Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom will each lead a battalion. The alliance took command of a US-built missile shield to defend against ballistic missiles from Iran (though the Russians have long complained loudly that is directed against them). It signed an agreement aimed at working more closely with the EU, from maritime patrols to cyber-attacks. NATO members also pledged further support to help Ukraine modernize its armed forces.  

The communique issued after the Warsaw summit suggested that the EU’s deepening divisions sparked by Brexit have not so far found their way into NATO. It devotes much space to the challenges Russia poses to European security and lists them in unusually clear language. These include the “ongoing illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea…the violation of sovereign borders by force; the deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine; large-scale snap exercises contrary to the spirit of the Vienna document; and provocative military activities near NATO borders.” NATO leaders also condemned Moscow’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric.” 

Such pronouncements were not a surprise to Moscow. As a new CEPA brief demonstrates, in the weeks leading up to the summit, Russia intensified its disinformation campaign against NATO. In Lithuania, for example, the local pro-Kremlin media ran a story 3 July promoting the narrative that Lithuania is a dangerous troublemaker trying to provoke a war with Russia, and that NATO is undermining security in Europe. In Latvia, local Russian-language media coverage of the US regional deployment of B-52s was not only misleading, but was more hawkish against the US than even the mainstream Russian press.  

For the most part, Russia publicly scoffed at the results of the NATO summit, accusing the alliance of creating more instability over an “imaginary” and “nonexistent” threat. However, Sergey Karaganov, a foreign policy expert close to the Kremlin, called the deployment of troops in Poland and the Baltic states a “provocation” in a 13 July interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “In crisis,” Karaganov threatened, “we will destroy exactly these weapons.”

NATO’s apparent unity at the summit was not without internal discord. France and Italy questioned the EU’s recent renewal of sanctions after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had already criticized Western military exercises as “saber rattling.” At the summit, France reportedly led the move to put the US-built missile shield under the control of the entire alliance. For the Kremlin, taking advantage of such strains by blaming Washington for steering NATO toward a more aggressive posture may ultimately be more successful than issuing bellicose statements such as the one made by Karaganov. In coming months, encouraging such divisions is likely to a key goal of Russia’s information war strategy.