Kremlin narratives for subversive activity in Lithuania‘s information space
Dalia Bankauskaitė is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington. She has extensive professional experience in strategic and integrated communication in public (central and local) and private sectors of Lithuania, Balkans, Ukraine and Georgia. She served as a political counsellor at the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow and served as an advisor to the European Affairs Committee at the Lithuanian parliament. Here she looks at how the Kremlin uses disinformation specific to Lithuania to support its over-arching propaganda narratives:
Kremlin public diplomacy experts in Russia state, and experience confirms, that Russia does not seek to be loved by the West, but does intend to pursue its own interests there. Following this reasoning, the Kremlin is not interested in building a positive image of Russia in Lithuanian society or in winning the hearts and minds of the Lithuanian public. Neither does the Kremlin aim to utterly destroy Lithuania (or the West): it aims to contain and restrain it through ‘divide and rule’ tactics. The Kremlin seeks to change the choices Lithuania makes by gaining influence over its society and its political decisions.
The Kremlin’s information warfare is meant to increase confusion and division in Lithuanian society, undermine trust in the government, erode public support for liberal democratic values so as to increase its own relative power, and create tensions within the Euro-Atlantic alliance. The National Threat Assessment Report 2019¹ points out that in order to influence Lithuania’s domestic processes, the Kremlin exploits democratic freedoms and rights.
Kremlin information warfare exploits any event or issue which resonates strongly among the Lithuanian public — economic, political, social or ethnic issues — and targets vulnerable portions of the population. The Kremlin uses traditional and new manipulation techniques and instruments, such as traditional and social media merged new technologies and psychological manipulation tools. Such tactics allow the Kremlin to conceal its influence under existing tensions and at the same time deepen gaps in society and further exploit vulnerabilities.
Kremlin disinformation tactics
The Kremlin’s communication activities are characterized by consistency and comprehensiveness at the strategic level and high flexibility at the tactical (operational) level. Master narratives define the strategic direction of pro-Kremlin communication (disinformation), while at the operational level the pro-Kremlin media is free to choose ways to support and further the narratives. As mentioned above, pro-Kremlin disinformation selectively focuses on the negative aspects of Lithuanian society.
This report will sum up the master narratives dominating Lithuania’s information environment and will present several case studies showing how and why sub-narratives are developed. It is based on experience accumulated while contributing to the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) StratCom Programme,² which has gathered extensive knowledge of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda strategies, tactics and techniques.
Master narratives of Kremlin Disinformation
A master narrative in communication is interpreted as an overarching story, which is made up of smaller subplots and individual cases tailored to particular information spaces. The narrative for each space is built from a series of stories that are repeated again and again. Local narratives are more persuasive as they appeal to individual lives and experiences — a classic technique of good communication.
Monitoring of Kremlin disinformation in Lithuania shows that master narratives intertwine, and stories that make the local narrative might serve and reinforce several master narratives. Stories and narratives are not necessarily consistent and might cover opposite sides of the same narrative, but the master narrative is reinforced nevertheless.
Kremlin disinformation master narratives are the same in all Baltic states and other Central and Eastern Europe countries, while local narratives supporting the master narrative are specific to each country.
The following master narratives are present in Lithuania’s information environment.
- Anti-EU — “the EU as a place of moral and economic decay”, “the EU is deeply anti-democratic”, “the EU is falling apart”. The anti-EU master narrative consists of sub-narratives focusing on both the failures of the EU or Western states and Russia’s cultural and moral superiority. The local narrative also argues that the EU is the same as the former USSR and that now Lithuanians have to live under the rule of Brussels, and that the single currency (the euro) has increased living costs in Lithuania, moreover, it encouraged high emigration.
- Anti-NATO — “NATO, the insecurity alliance” and an aggressor; moreover, it’s “obsolete”.³ According to pro-Kremlin outlets, NATO has not fulfilled its promises about enlargement and is the aggressor par excellence, forcing Russia into a defensive position and feeding the Kremlin’s besieged fortress posture. Moreover, the presence of foreign (NATO) troops on the ground in Lithuania “violates the national Constitution” as it means the country has lost its sovereignty. Furthermore, NATO allies are supposedly both unwilling to defend the smaller and more exposed countries on the eastern flank and are incapable of doing so. Across the region, anti-NATO narratives seek to instill the idea that by positioning troops and equipment, countries on the eastern flank become more exposed to aggression and potential conflict. NATO and Western allies in particular are thus turning the Baltic and the CEE states into battlefields and their populations into cannon fodder
- Domestic ‘Failure’ — “Lithuania (as well as other Baltic and CEE nations) as a failed state”. Domestic failure, socio-economic, political or ethnic vulnerabilities in Lithuania are also key elements of Kremlin disinformation.
- Anti-US — “American neo-colonialism”. The US is exploitative and uses its partnerships to expand its political and economic dominance, while at the same time using partners as proxies in its international conflicts — in this case with Russia. Lithuania is “a vassal of the US”. Depending on domestic developments, the US can be shown by disinformation outlets (traditional and online media and social media) in Lithuania as an actor that undermines energy projects (like Nord Stream 2) only to promote its interest in exporting more LNG to Europe. Lithuania was instrumentalized to provoke the Euromaidan Revolution (Revolution of Dignity) in Ukraine in 2014. “The loss of sovereignty to Brussels and even to Washington” is another strand.
- History — “Controlling the past”. Aiming to disparage Lithuania’s statehood, the Kremlin implements targeted projects to promote its history policy: denying the Soviet occupation; propagating (manipulating) a positive image of Soviet influence on Lithuania’s development; glorifying Russia’s past and seeking to deny key historical events in Lithuania, at the same as promoting Russia’s current foreign policy agenda. One such example is the story of anti-Soviet resistance in the Baltic States and the disinformation campaign against the commemoration of the ’Forest Brothers’ in Lithuania.⁴ The Kremlin gets angry when somebody denies Russia’s narrative that the people of the Baltics welcomed the Soviet Red Army as a liberating force. Another dominating history-related narrative is about World War II and the Soviet Red Army’s role in liberating Europe from the Nazis, while avoiding the subject of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the atrocities committed in the occupied territories by Stalin. The focus on the ’Great Patriotic War’ is also used to invoke an ongoing conflict with the West. The Kremlin supports projects such as youth summer camps in Russia and seeks to attract Lithuanian youth to these projects. The Kremlin also likely calculates that these false narratives may resonate among younger Lithuanians and Russians who have no memory of the Soviet regime itself.
- ‘Russophobia’ — “Russian threat as baseless hysteria”. Pro-Kremlin media try to propagate the view that the Lithuanian authorities are paranoid, and that their decisions are excessive. Any criticism of the Putin regime or cooperation with the US is qualified by pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda actors (in particular on social media and on official media outlets like RT, Sputnik News, RIA, BaltNews, RuBaltic, Regnum, to name but a few, as well local fringe media outlets) as ‘Russophobia’.
Attempts to capture Lithuania’s information space
The Kremlin makes efforts to reach out to Lithuania’s public in the following ways. The pro-Kremlin media (printed, online, social) identifies political, economic or social, cultural issues which resonate strongly in Lithuanian society. Then the media develop stories or local narratives emphasizing the negative aspects of the issue and present the issue in an emotionally charged way. An emotionally moved person is less critical of the information he or she receives. In parallel, the communication platforms are carefully selected to spin the story: the story told by the pro-Kremlin online media is repeated in various ways on social media, and may be supported by events on the ground. Success is measured by the spillover effect, i.e. the story’s reach beyond the original place where it was ‘reported’.
Sometimes even the mainstream media retell the story without being aware of its origin, in this way multiplying the disinformation and deepening stereotypes, for instance, about ethnic minorities.
There are not many pro-Kremlin traditional and online media outlets where disinformation is likely to appear but their number is sufficient to contribute to the Kremlin’s efforts to sow doubt, confusion or mistrust among Lithuanians.
Hostile social media in Lithuania.
Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Lithuania. Twitter is prevailingly used for external communication, mainly by state institutions or experts working internationally. Social media are very dynamic and in constant flux: groups and pages are born and others die, some grow while others shrink or become silent for a while.
The titles of the hostile social groups speak for themselves and clearly indicate their political point of view. For instance: ‘For a Glorious Lithuania’; ‘Union for a United Nation’; ‘The Lithuanian Government occupied Lithuania’; ‘Liberate Lithuania!’; ‘Lithuanian against refugees!!!’; ‘Pro-national (ethnically clean) information centre’; ‘Rural people/villagers about nothing’; ‘NO to Refugees! YES to the Boom of Lithuanian demography and support for families’; ‘Dark side of Lithuania’s “Independence”’; ‘How to survive the CHAOS’, etc.
Hostile social media pages: ‘Propaganda LT’, ‘Lithuania — a funny bitch’, ‘Referendum against the President’, ‘Voice of Nation’, ‘Our Ranks’, ‘Fight’, ‘New Lithuania’, etc.
Disinformation in the digital space develops as follows: the hostile media outlets ping-pong stories among themselves and amplify them on social media, exploiting the genuine concern or interest of social media groups about issues, which they discuss online. The hostile social accounts and groups are a network of proxies that make use of the situation and fan the flames by provoking or openly calling on people to protest against the government and the existing order. The accounts pick a specific and very topical issue and load it with criticism, which is emotionally charged and often not based on facts, just accusations. The noise raised stirs up emotions and drowns out constructive discussion and analysis of the context, let alone sensible proposals.
Example. Criticism of the National Law on the Fundamentals of the Protection of the Rights of the Child. The law adopted in 2018 banned all forms of violence (physical, psychological, sexual, neglect) against children. The law introduced a centralized and multi-agency type of child rights protection system, based on case management with early risk identification, proactive work with families and community engagement. However, hostile accounts on social media and hostile websites keep arguing that the law allows the state to take children away, start child trafficking and paedophilia, destroy families, etc.
This disinformation campaign contributes to the ‘Failing State’ master narrative. If there were cases of violence against children in Russian or Polish families, the ethnic minorities issue would likely be raised as well.
The social media disinformation campaign was supported by protest meetings on the ground, which are also covered by the same hostile social media accounts.
Examples of hostile iconography:
Monitoring of the information environment in Lithuania
Efficient monitoring of developments in the information environment is an integral part of the comprehensive system to counter hybrid threats in Lithuania. The Lithuanian model involves the state and civic society. At the state level, government institutions assess the information environment according to their areas of responsibility and competence. A concept of strategic communication coordination on national security (scheduled for implementation in 2019) sets the framework of policies and operations performed by government institutions:
- Roles in the field of stratcom and implementing stratcom into the decision-making process.
- Information environment monitoring and assessment in space and time.
- Planning of stratcom campaigns, coordination and evaluation of the results and reaction mechanism regarding information attacks.
- Raising awareness by establishing dedicated mechanisms for the exchange of information among state institutions and agencies at home and the public, and externally between EU and NATO member states.
- Stepping up cooperation between the EU and NATO as well as other partner organizations, in a joint effort to provide coordinated stratcom campaigns, counter information attacks and hostile narratives, while respecting the principles of inclusiveness and autonomy of each organization’s decision making process.
On the civic society level, information environment monitoring is carried out by a number of long-term initiatives in the field of non-violent resilience, fact checking, media and information literacy, etc. These initiatives supplement and contribute to the state-level monitoring level framework.
In recent years Lithuania has accumulated extensive experience in monitoring and assessing the risks of the hostile strategic communication. This includes (but is not limited to) the assessment of the physical and electronic (virtual) environments. For instance, the monitoring of the electronic environment includes but is not limited to the following hostile actions: cyber-attacks — by denial of service; defacement — illegal changing of information on a website; opinion shaping through articles and comments on media websites; opinion shaping on TV and radio; opinion shaping by blogs, social media, etc.
Monitoring of the physical environment includes but is not limited to the following hostile actions: hostile political narratives from foreign countries, opinion shaping by visual measures, e.g. graffiti; deception, e.g. fake calls about bombs at shopping malls, airports, administrative buildings; opinion shaping in printed media (newspapers); opinion shaping by symbol propagation; opinion shaping by NGO hostile activities; opinion shaping by legal and illegal protest, demonstrations.
It should be noted that information environment monitoring is only one segment of societal resilience building.
Efforts to inoculate society in Lithuania include citizen education programs, public tracking and analysis of foreign disinformation campaigns, election protection and ensuring the transparency of political campaigns as well as legal actions to limit the effect of malign information and communication designed to fracture society and undermine support for democracy.
Case study I
Local sub-narrative: Lithuania’s energy policy and energy independence. The pro-Kremlin master narrative of a ‘failing state’.
The Kremlin is carrying out a disinformation campaign to manipulate the energy vulnerabilities of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbours. Pro-Kremlin media criticize Lithuania’s energy policy.⁵ The policy is aimed at ensuring Lithuania’s energy security, which is viewed as the basis for national independence, and is aimed at Lithuania becoming fully integrated into the EU energy market, eliminating the possibility of Russia dominating Lithuania’s energy market.
What is the Kremlin’s goal in furthering a narrative on the unsustainability of Lithuania’s independent energy policy?
First, next year Lithuania will hold municipal, presidential, and European Parliament elections. There are deep social differences among Lithuanians on a variety of issues that the Kremlin can exploit. Moscow seeks to use the issue of energy tariffs⁶ to create confusion and dissatisfaction among Lithuanians, hoping that the cheap energy it can offer from Russian producers and the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets nuclear plant will make Lithuanians more willing to vote for candidates it prefers.
The Kremlin does not support one particular candidate or party in the upcoming elections in Lithuania, as any openly pro-Russian candidate has no chance of being elected. However, following the usual pattern, the Kremlin chooses to support several candidates (among political parties) who would make Lithuania’s foreign policy ‘softer’ and not so assertive towards Russia if they won.
Also, in 2019 the question of buying electricity produced by the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets nuclear plant (NPP) becomes more topical, as the plant’s first reactor is scheduled to go online. In June 2017, Lithuania adopted a law banning the import of electricity produced by unsafe power plants located in third party countries. Since the Russian nuclear energy company Rosatom has invested $10 billion in constructing the Ostrovets NPP and wants the investment to be profitable, it is important for Russian energy business owners that Lithuania and Europe buy Ostrovets electricity. Russia’s strategic goal is to enhance its extensive presence in the Baltic energy market and broaden its access to European energy markets generally.
On 7 February, the Meeting of the Parties to the Espoo Convention⁷ in Geneva decided that Belarus had violated the Espoo Convention in choosing a construction site for its nuclear power plant. The decision undermines the international reputation of Belarus and the companies engaged in the NPP’s construction. Lithuania lodged a complaint in 2011 that the Convention had been violated when the environmental impact assessment of the Ostrovets NPP was carried out. But the country did not receive any response from Belarus to substantive questions regarding the safety of the NPP and its potential impact on the environment and population of Lithuania. Belarus warned that the Espoo Convention decision would have a negative effect on its relationship with countries that voted for the decision. The decision gives Lithuania grounds to demand that Belarus institute additional safety measures for the Ostrovets NPP. Also, the decision gives grounds to encourage Latvia and Estonia not to buy electricity from the unsafe Ostrovets NPP. None of this action is convenient for Belarus.
In June 2018 the Baltic States, Poland, and the European Commission completed a deal to synchronize electricity grids with Western Europe through Poland, which will end the region’s dependence on the Soviet-era BRELL (the Belarus-Russian-Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania) electricity network, managed from and by Moscow. Also, Lithuania is considering the purchase of a floating LNG terminal from the Norwegian company Hoegh LNG by 2024, after its lease expires. The Kremlin argues that it is not economically feasible to disconnect from the BRELL system — that people will pay more for electricity and there may be disruptions (including blackouts) during the transition to the European system — and it mocks Lithuania’s national energy strategy.
Pro-Kremlin media claim that the controversial Ostrovets plant is safe. However, they do not mention the recommendations by the Ostrovets Stress Peer Review Board, appointed by the European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), which are supposed to be implemented to ensure the NPP’s safety.⁸ Many experts have argued that the Ostrovets plant poses not only environmental and radiological threats, but military ones as well. Moscow and Minsk need the BRELL network to export electricity produced by the Ostrovets plant when it goes online.
Disconnection from the BRELL system and synchronization with continental Europe will bar Russian-Belarus electricity suppliers from entering the EU energy market and using European infrastructure. This would impede the Kremlin’s ability to use its control over the system as a diplomatic weapon — for example, by offering low-price electricity in exchange for pro-Kremlin policies. Russia and Belarus also hope to use Lithuanian electricity infrastructure (via BRELL), including new interconnections with Poland and Sweden, to distribute electricity from Ostrovets.
Moscow also seeks to exploit differences among the three Baltic states on energy policy⁹: Estonia is an electricity exporter and is interested in higher prices; Latvia is self-sufficient in electricity production, and wants low prices; while Lithuania, an electricity importer, wants to connect to the electricity infrastructure of continental Europe. The smooth implementation of the agreement on electricity synchronization with Europe and coordinated actions in the energy sector are signs of Baltic solidarity — any cooperation requires the subordination of individual interests to common ones.
The floating LNG terminal at Klaipeda strengthens the Baltic natural gas market and enables Lithuania to export LNG by both land and sea.
Lithuania is financing the Klaipeda LNG terminal itself: via Lithuanian consumers and businesses. Kremlin media claim that “Lithuanians will have to pay too high a price for the Klaipeda LNG terminal”. Neither the Kremlin media nor fringe websites in Lithuania tell their readers that gas prices dropped only after Lithuania constructed its floating LNG terminal. Prior to 2015, Lithuania was entirely dependent on Russian sources of energy, and the price it was paying Gazprom was one of the highest in the world. The new LNG terminal has undercut Russia’s gas monopoly in Lithuania. Now, Lithuania sets the price limit for gas and can choose among suppliers.
Pro-Kremlin media outlets will use increasing electricity prices in Lithuania as an argument to buy ‘cheap’ Ostrovets electricity and to stay with the BRELL. Also, they will criticize the decision to buy the floating LNG terminal, named ‘Independence’, in Klaipeda by 2024 (currently the LNG terminal is leased¹⁰), which might cause additional costs for Lithuanian taxpayers.
There is no doubt that an increase in energy prices would not be welcomed by the Lithuanian population. But the political price for dependence on Russian energy is likely to be much higher.
The political objective of the Kremlin could be to focus on creating confusion and dissatisfaction among Lithuanians about the rising cost of living and then to offer ‘cheap energy’: gas and electricity from Russia and the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets NPP.
Case study II
Local sub-narrative: Lithuania-Polish relations and Lithuania’s Polish minority issues. Pro-Kremlin master narrative of a failing state, a Polo-phobic state.
The Kremlin media seeks to exacerbate ethnic tensions in Lithuania by claiming the country’s Polish minority is the victim of discrimination.
The Kremlin draws on the Soviet historical interpretation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the Union of Lublin in the 16th century). Under the Soviet regime, the common history of the two countries was rewritten to depict a rivalry and used as a tool of control through division. In reality, both Lithuania and Poland benefited from their union. This is the divide and rule technique.
Kremlin media outlets suggest that initially the Orthodox religion prevailed in Lithuania, but because of a Polish conspiracy, Lithuania was converted to Roman Catholicism.
“Lithuania shuts down Polish schools and forces Polish children go to Lithuanian schools” claim the Kremlin media. In reality, schools are being consolidated for demographic reasons: the number of schoolchildren and students have decreased. This is happening to all types of schools: Lithuanian, Russian and Polish, but not a single one has been closed because of its ethnic character.
In early 2019, Lithuania’s National Threat Assessment¹¹ pointed that in 2017, on the orders of Russian information policy-makers, the pro-Kremlin Sputniknews.lt and Baltnews.lt media began publishing more articles about the Polish community in Lithuania and in Vilnius region. Their goal appeared to be to incite ethnic confrontation and exacerbate relations between Lithuania and Poland.
The Polish weekly Wprost referred¹² to a study by the War Studies University of Poland that “it is worrying that some members of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania — Christian Families Alliance (LLRA)¹³ are associated with the Kremlin’s interests”. The Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania — Christian Families Alliance (LLRA) is a political party which was formed to represent ethnic Poles and holds eight seats in the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament). The leader of the LLRA is the member of the European Parliament and is known for supporting Kremlin policies.
The Polish ambassador to Lithuania recently said¹⁴ that it is unacceptable for Poland that “Lithuanian political figures representing Poles in Lithuania … try to show their support for the Kremlin”.
The Kremlin is following its strategic pattern and is seeking to instrumentalize the Polish ethnic minorities to further its ideological policy, spread confusion among the Lithuanian public and create discord between Lithuania and Poland. If Lithuanian and Polish societies share accurate knowledge of their countries’ mutual history, for example, as well as the falsehoods behind other Kremlin narratives more broadly, there is much less opportunity for the Kremlin’s information operations to be effective.
These are just some examples of the disinformation and manipulation carried out on a daily basis by pro-Kremlin media outlets. How should Lithuania, the Baltic States, and Western countries respond to this disinformation? The West should recognize that Kremlin-linked media are not real media, but part of the Kremlin’s information warfare weaponry. In practice, this means that the West should not grant them (including Sputnik and RT) the same privileges as genuinely free media.¹⁵
To push back against the challenge of Kremlin misinformation, the West should focus on a comprehensive set of technological, economic, and conceptual tools. The West should continue fact-checking efforts, while understanding that these are not the only answer to a complex issue. “He said, she said” journalism is outdated. Responding to hybrid warfare requires open journalism, where the public is informed on the nuances of the story rather than simply retelling what both sides claim, an arena open to Kremlin exploitation. This model should be replaced by a search for transparency. Information on media ownership and media funding should be publicly available and media regulations should be more transparent.
Another important point made at the Vilnius conference¹⁶ was that, while the Kremlin itself is not causing societal divisions in Western countries, it certainly knows how to exploit them. So long as the Kremlin has a captive audience for its narratives it will have opportunities to expand its sphere of influence.
To immunize the public against fake news, the West (including the EU) needs a strategy for building societal resilience. We know too little about the end user of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda.
Media literacy is a crucial skill for the modern age, but before we start promoting media literacy right away, we also need to persuade the public they need to improve their media literacy skills. Public education plays a decisive role in meeting this objective: resilient citizens are forged in the early years of school.
Finally, the surge in various forms of pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda has been extensively described and analyzed. However, we still need to foster a shared understanding of the threats Western countries face.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Integrity Initiative.
² See CEPA StratCom Program http://infowar.cepa.org/Countries/Lithuania
⁴ http://infowar.cepa.org/Briefs/Lt_20_March17; http://infowar.cepa.org/briefs/The-Kremlin-grapples-with-history
⁵ See Žygimantas Vaičiūnas „89ISSN 1392–1681Europos Sąjungos Bendros Energetikos politikos formavimasis ir Lietuvos interesai“, http://www.zurnalai.vu.lt/politologija/article/view/8403/6271
⁶ See Dalia Bankauskaite “Kremlin targets Lithuania’s energy policy”, CEPA, http://infowar.cepa.org/Kremlin-Targets-Lithuanias-Energy-Policy
⁷ The Espoo (EIA) Convention sets out the obligations of Parties to assess the environmental impact of certain activities at an early stage of planning. It also lays down the general obligation of States to notify and consult each other on all major projects under consideration that are likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact across boundaries.
¹⁵ The Vilnius Consultations 2018 , a conference organized by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis on 13 September 2018