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This Week in Info War

Editor's Note - 17 July 2016

After the NATO’s 2016 Summit, held 8-9 July in Warsaw, participants widely saw the NATO-Russia Council session 13 July in Brussels as an opportunity to diffuse tensions. In Poland, the alliance had announced it was deploying four battalions along its eastern flank to counter Russia’s more assertive behavior. The Brussels meeting, however, did not lead to much progress.  NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and Aleksandr Grushko, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, agreed at separate press conferences that the discussions were “frank” but that serious differences remained between the two sides.
The Kremlin’s view of the NATO deployments remains contradictory. On the one hand, according to Grushko, the alliance’s moves are “ungrounded, excessive, counterproductive and confrontational.” They “undermine security and return us to the days of the Cold War,” says  Grushko, alleging that NATO is building a bridgehead in Poland and the Baltic states to pressure Moscow, while Washington’s ABM bases in Poland and Romania “undermine strategic stability.”  NATO countries “must freeze military deployments near Russia’s borders and withdraw all units already deployed,” he added, as a prerequisite for “normalizing relations.” Otherwise, Moscow will deploy additional forces in response, leaving Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania less secure than before.

On the other hand, some Russian officials and commentators dismiss the deployments as unthreatening. “Several thousand NATO soldiers would be easily overrun if Russia began an attack,” according to the pro-Kremlin Internet news portal Vzglad, “but Moscow does not intend to invade. This is US-led propaganda.” Surprisingly, this view coincides with NATO’s argument that four battalions cannot be considered a force that could possibly threaten Russia.

CEPA’s infowar briefs this week reflect these contradictions, as well as the ambiguity over Russia’s reasons for opposing the NATO decision to bolster its presence on the region. On 8 July, a pro-Kremlin website in Lithuania quoted a fictitious interview with a high-ranking Lithuanian general as saying NATO was unable to defend Lithuania in case of attack. That quote, however, was based on an extensive article about Lithuania’s security situation that appeared in the mainstream media and was then distorted. In Latvia on 18 June, a pro-Kremlin Russian-language Internet site reprinted an interview from Russian media with Sergey Ivanov, head of Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration, in which he claimed that Latvia was committed to the alliance mainly because a stronger NATO created jobs for Latvian workers.  

Whatever the Kremlin’s rationale for the moment, it continues to deny the reason for NATO’s concern: the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine and the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As CEPA’s brief on Estonia shows, after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s 7 July opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal offering to help teach NATO members how to fight Russia and restating that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was a military occupation, the Moscow-based, Russian-language website rejected Poroshenko’s allegations. The article was reprinted in, a Russian-language version of Estonia’s leading Internet portal. 

In a trenchant article, noted Russia expert Pavel Baev recently pointed out the difficulty of dealing with a Russia that acts like it believes its own disinformation if that will advance its interests. Moscow’s denials of direct involvement in the fighting in the Donbass, for example, mean that no substantive discussions on this important security issue are possible. The Kremlin’s “self-serving ambiguity” about its intentions “enable it to freely move back and forth between a ‘principled’ stance and “bazaar-style bargaining.”

Washington and its NATO allies cannot logically connect Russian discourse on the primacy of international law with its breach of the key norm of the inviolability of borders created by its annexation of Crimea. If it ever happens, this connection will almost certainly not happen in the NATO-Russia Council, which well-connected Kremlin apologist recently told Germany’s Der Speigel is “no longer a legitimate body.”