In April 2017, Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media outlets used a broad arsenal of disinformation techniques and narratives to rally the country’s Russian-speaking minority against NATO. They did so by trying to undermine confidence in NATO’s commitment to Latvia’s security and weaken popular trust in Latvia’s defense capabilities.
These disinformation activities coincide with the annual “Summer Shield” international military exercises, which Latvia hosted on 17-30 April. Just before the maneuvers started, the Russian-language journal Otkritij Gorod published an interview with prominent Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov. In it, he argued that if he were Latvian, he would run away from NATO because he’d feel very insecure to be located on the border of an aggressive alliance. The pro-Kremlin website Vesti.lv, which republished that interview, used Karaganov’s statement as the title. Karaganov downplayed NATO claims that its decision to boost its military presence in the Baltic states and Poland—taken at the 2016 Warsaw Summit—was a defense response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Instead, he blamed increasing regional tensions on NATO’s aggressiveness.
On 17 April, the day Summer Shield started, the website of the Kremlin TV channel Zvezda published materials apparently intended to humiliate the Latvian army. One cartoon implied that Americans have created a scarecrow—an object in the shape of a person holding the Russian flag—and have placed it near the Latvian-Russian border. The cartoonist claimed that the American instructors are laughing about the Baltic soldiers, who “just need chaplets and bugbear in order to avoid thinking about real problems.” Zvezda also quoted Russian military expert Alexander Zhilin, who argued that military exercises in Latvia are a meaningless activity, and that “Latvians and Lithuanians are warriors as much as Papuans are scientists.”
On 24 April, the pro-Kremlin website Baltnews published an article which speculated that during the Summer Shield exercises NATO might use Russian-speakers to test new physical, biological and other tools that influence the psychics and behavior of human beings. Baltnews referred to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta where this claim originally appeared. This article also was republished by other pro-Kremlin websites. The Latvian Ministry of Defense immediately reacted by debunking these completely unsubstantiated statements by illuminating the fake content of these articles.
In another effort to mislead its Russophone audience about NATO, pro-Kremlin media spread misleading news about the Latvian Defense Ministry’s request to earmark €8.9 million in state funds to house the Canadian-led NATO international battalion. The allocation, which was later approved, is a prepayment that Canada will reimburse after receiving an invoice. After providing correct information from Latvian news agency LETA about the need to allocate additional funds, Vesti.lv used deceptive titles such as “You will pay for that: Latvia will pay millions to deploy the NATO battalion” (see article 1 and article 2). These claims ignored the fact that Canada would pay Latvia back. Vesti.lv published similar content in another story, but under a totally misleading title which claimed that “Latvia does not have money to maintain toilets for the NATO army.”
Some analyses of how the Kremlin distributes anti-NATO narratives through its network of friendly websites suggests that Latvia bore the brunt of hostile articles about NATO. The cases explored in this brief reinforce this point by revealing how pro-Kremlin media exploit different narratives in order to undermine NATO’s authority. Sometimes these outlets try to link NATO to aggressive policies, blaming the alliance for a warmongering attitude toward Russia. But other time they take the opposite tact by exaggerating the inability of either NATO or Baltic armies to protect the three countries’ citizens. Occasionally, pro-Kremlin media also try to frighten Baltic societies by warning that the deployment of NATO forces makes a Russian attack more rather than less likely. This diversification of narratives helps the Kremlin ensure that its propaganda reaches various segments of Latvia’s Russophone community.
Photo: RYC/Gatis Dieziņš