#BalticBrief: Enhanced Anti-NATO Narratives Target Enhanced Forward Presence

How Russian-language media in Poland and the Baltic States portray NATO’s reinforcements

(Source: @DFRLab)

In July 2016, NATO member states decided to enhance the Alliance’s presence in the Baltic states and Poland on a rotational basis, with four multinational battalion-size groups — one each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The move was intended to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defense posture and serve as a reminder that an attack on one is an attack on all, in line with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The Kremlin interpreted the decision as a hostile act and pledged to respond. The main component of that response was an increased Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea region. This was accompanied by a series of distorted and entirely faked stories about the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) spread by pro-Kremlin and Russian state-funded media and social media.

Based on our previous reporting, @DFRLab tracked online media coverage surrounding NATO’s deployment in the Baltics and Poland since February 2016 to identify hostile, distorted, and misleading content.

Key narratives

To make sense of the coverage and track its evolution over time, @DFRLab categorized the hostile reporting according to six key narratives.

1. NATO is unwelcome and NATO troops are occupants;

2. The Baltics and Poland are paranoid or “Russophobic”;

3. NATO is provocative and aggressive;

4. NATO is obsolete and cannot protect its allies;

5. NATO, the Baltics, and Poland are sympathetic to the Nazi ideology;

6. The Baltics are artificial countries and unreliable partners.

Some narratives clearly contradict one another, for example, NATO cannot be obsolete and incapable of protecting its allies while at the same time be the aggressor in the region. Each anti-NATO narrative was flexible and usage showed that whatever NATO does — reassures or deters — it will be held against the Alliance.

To learn more about the narrative categorization and see examples of the type of stories that fall under each narrative, read our “Russian Narratives on NATO’s Deployment” report.

Monitoring period 23 May 2017–29 January 2018 (Source: @DFRLab)

Of the six narratives mentioned above, the first four dominated the hostile media coverage, accounting for over 90 percent of all posts between May 2017 and January 2018. The most dominant narrative was that NATO is provocative and aggressive. The narrative generated 218 articles and social media posts in the past eight months alone — meaning almost one per day. This narrative was particularly prominent in Russian state-funded media, like RT and Sputnik.

Narratives by country

Monitoring period 23 May 2017–29 January 2018 (Source: @DFRLab)

The narrative categorization by country showed that certain narratives targeted some countries more than others. The negative narratives disproportionately accused Lithuania of being paranoid and Russophobic.

Lithuania has always been an outspoken critic of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, explicitly named Russia as a threat to European security, and recently passed a Lithuanian version of the Magnitsky Act, which Russian media labelled Russophobic.

Poland, on the other hand, was targeted with messages that suggested NATO’s actions were provocative and aggressive significantly more than the three Baltic states. One explanation for the tailored messaging is the additional presence of the U.S. troops in Poland under the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), separate to the eFP.

Narratives over time

Monitoring period 23 May 2017–29 January 2018 (Source: @DFRLab)

The narrative spread over time showed anti-NATO narratives tend to follow the real-world events and developments concerning NATO, the Baltic states, and Russia.

An example of that was Zapad 2017. During the largest joint Russian and Belorussian exercise Zapad 2017, the most dominant anti-NATO narrative was that Baltic states are paranoid and Russophobic. This appeared to have been the result of the comments made by the Baltic ministries of defense and high-ranking officials, all of whom expressed concern about the exercise and asked NATO for additional security measures to be put in place ahead of the exercise.

The same Russophobia narrative spiked again in early January this year, after Latvian authorities expelled two Russian journalists from the country, citing national security concerns. Russian and pro-Kremlin coverage of the story portrayed Latvia as a Russophobic country.

In October 2017, the narrative that NATO is obsolete and cannot protect its allies spiked after the publication of a Der Spiegel article, which pointed out reported:

NATO’s ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in the strongly expanded territory of the European commander’s area has atrophied since the end of the Cold War.

Russian language and pro-Kremlin media outlets in the Baltics quoted the findings of the report extensively and used them to promote the narrative that NATO is incapable of protecting the Baltic States and Poland in the case of a conflict with Russia.

Language

Over the course of our monitoring period, we found that the majority of the hostile eFP reporting was in Russian language. On average, 10 percent of hostile coverage concerning Estonia was in Estonian language, with the remaining 90 percent in Russian. The language split of the hostile reporting targeting Latvia was 14 percent in Latvian, 86 percent in Russian. Lithuania and Poland had the same percentage of hostile messages towards NATO with 16 percent of hostile coverage in Lithuanian or Polish language and 84 percent in Russian.

Monitoring period 23 May 2017–29 January 2018 (Source: @DFRLab)

This suggests that the primary audience of the hostile eFP coverage are the native Russian speakers in the Baltics as well as native Russian speakers living in Russia.

Conclusion

Although the eFP battlegroups arrived in the Baltic states and Poland over a year ago, the information warfare against them is ongoing and showed no signs of a gradual decrease. Overall, the hostile coverage reflected Kremlin’s views on real-world events and developments related to NATO in the Baltic states and Poland. Hostile narratives were organized in six broad narratives, of which “NATO is provocative and aggressive” remained dominant, with the “Baltic States and Poland are paranoid and Russophobic” a close second.

Each narrative targeted Russian-speakers in the Baltic states and Russia, but were, so far, consistently out-numbered by the neutral and positive coverage of the eFP in the official state languages.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

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