Military competition between Russia and the West intensified this week in Central and Eastern Europe, while the Kremlin used disinformation to exploit differences within NATO over the nature of the Russian threat. NATO forces continued a series of regional military exercises, this time to practice responding swiftly to any threat to Poland or the Baltic states. More than 30,000 troops were involved, including a Ukrainian contingent. At a 14 June press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that NATO would regard cyberspace as an operational domain, joining land, sea and air. The Kremlin denounced the NATO exercises as “counterproductive” and “undermining the atmosphere of security and trust in Europe,” while Russian President Vladimir Putin called for large snap exercises to test the battle readiness of Russian troops, to last through 15 June. The latest CEPA information warfare briefs demonstrate how NATO’s alleged militarism has been a consistent topic not only of Kremlin propaganda in recent weeks—even before last week’s exercises—but also of Russian-language websites in Latvia and Lithuania.
Some Western leaders are clearly sympathetic to Moscow’s point of view regarding the current impasse. At the St. Petersburg economic forum this week, Putin hailed the presence of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as a sign the two sides were beginning to bridge their differences. Renzi told a forum audience that “we need Europe and Russia to become wonderful neighbors again” He appeared to ignore facts on the ground—documented by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—by apparently blaming Ukraine, not Russia and its “separatist” clients, for the majority of Minsk II ceasefire violations.
Meanwhile, a RT-produced alternative history of Russia’s annexation of Crimea suggests that if Russia had not annexed the peninsula, the situation there would today be as bloody as in Ukraine’s Donbass. That video was among the most widely viewed in Estonia between 9 and 13 June. As the third brief this week suggests, the RT program appears to have been especially popular among Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority. It is difficult to know for sure how convincing this propaganda is with ordinary viewers, but such counter-factual history might resonate with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, if not Italy’s Renzi. In a 19 June interview with Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Steinmeier sharply criticized NATO war games in Eastern Europe. Inflaming the standoff with Russia, he added, would endanger European security and risk reviving an “old confrontation.”