In the run-up to the Zapad 2017 Russia-Belarus joint offensive military exercises—scheduled for September in Russia’s Western Military District—the region’s pro-Kremlin media continues to spread disinformation narratives aimed at intimidating Lithuanians by claiming that their government’s lobbying Washington for anti-missile systems makes war between Russia and the West more likely.
The Baltic states and Poland have felt vulnerable ever since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, its invasion of eastern Ukraine and its heavy militarization of Kaliningrad—the westernmost region of Russia. In response, at NATO Warsaw summit in July 2016, the alliance agreed to deploy four battalions of about 1,000 soldiers each to the Baltic states and Poland. Lithuania along with Estonia and Latvia, have also been asking NATO and the United States to take additional security measures such as deploying strategic level air defense systems and heavy arms in the Baltics. Regional concerns have been heightened by the approaching Zapad exercises, which Western experts predict will involve about 150,000 troops and a significant number of Russia’s military reserves. Russia is expected to conduct the maneuvers in such a way as to allow it to prevent international observers from attending the military exercise, as required by the Vienna Convention.
On 24 February, the pro-Kremlin website RuBaltic.ru published an article—“American missile defense system in Lithuania will undermine its security”—that totally rejects Western security guarantees and instead argues that Russia must defend itself against the West. It tries to undermine Lithuania’s security by claiming that the United States is an aggressor because U.S. armed forces approach Russia’s borders and threaten its security.
Second, the article diminishes Lithuania’s political institutions by alleging they behave irresponsibly by lobbying the Pentagon to deploy its Aegis missile defense system in Lithuania, “as this will lead to catastrophe.” Third, the article criticizes Lithuania for increasing its defense budget, correctly noting that defense expenditures this year will reach 1.8 percent of GDP (rising to 2 percent by 2018 and 2.5 percent by 2020).
Finally, the article singles out NATO’s Anaconda 2016 exercises, which involved 31,000 troops along the alliance’s eastern borders. Thus, it argues, Russia is justified in conducting the Zapad 2017 military exercise on its Western border (under Zapad, Russian military forces will simulate a Baltic invasion).
According to Russian military doctrine, information confrontation is an essential aspect of warfare. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, notes that the importance of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases has exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness. It is not yet clear whether the current Kremlin disinformation campaign will shape public opinion in Lithuania and the Baltic states, though it is likely to continue as Zapad 2017 approaches.