#BalticBrief: Sputnik Targets NATO Exercise, Reveals Wider Narrative Trend

Pundit in Kremlin outlet asserts “prostitutes” were only beneficiaries of NATO exercise

Search results for Alexander Zhilin on local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states. Left (Source: Sputnik Estonia); middle (Source: Sputnik Latvia); right (Source: Sputnik Lithuania)

NATO exercises close to Russian borders sparked hostile responses on Kremlin-owned media outlets. Saber Strike was a multinational, U.S. led NATO excercise that took place from June 3 through June 15. @DFRLab previously reported various instances of inaccurate reporting on NATO via pro-Kremlin media at the time the exercise started. The stories misrepresented facts about the exercise, suggesting that NATO soldiers were an aggressive occupying force and the Baltic states are surrendering to it.

On June 9, Russian military expert Alexander Zhilin spoke to Sputnik Lithuania and claimed:

“Only prostitutes profit from NATO exercises.”

The remark happened while Saber Strike was still underway in the Baltic states and Poland.

The claim was made broadly and was unburdened by facts about the exercise. The expert instead appealed to the readers’ emotions to push an anti-NATO agenda. The comment spread throughout Russian-language media and fit within a broader trend of frequently featuring anti-western commentators.

@DFRLab took a closer look at the case and identified some other pro-Kremlin commentators whose opinions were promoted on the same topic..

Zhilin's Comment

The full statement by Zhilin read:

Unfortunately, few people realize that Anglo-Saxons deploy a military contingent there, this contingent in particular, because the exercise and other exercises are just a cover for military equipment transfer. In fact, it is a direct confrontation with the Russian Federation. This loss is most immediate for the civilian population, as the level of security of the countries is close to zero. We cannot but react to this situation, therefore, prostitutes are happy, political prostitutes receive money from the Anglo-Saxons to trade their national interests. Where ever you look — prostitutes win.

Zhilin employed a common logical fallacy with these comments that appealed to emotion. @DFRLab previously explained how logical fallacies fuel Kremlin disinformation campaigns. In this case, Zhilin made a number of disparate claims with no evidence about the transfer of military equipment, state of conflict with the Russian Federation, and the level of security across the Baltic states to arrive at unrelated, and similarly non-evidence based, conclusion.

The comments appealed to the reader’s emotion of fear when claiming that NATO exercises put locals in danger, and disgust when saying that only prostitutes profit from the exercises.

The comment triggered hostile headlines on Russian language media.

Headlines translated from Russian. (Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

Both Sputnik Lithuania and Sputnik Latvia focused on the part of the comment that triggered disgust. The same approach was used by Vesti.lv, a Russian language media site in Latvia that shares pro-Kremlin narratives. Sputnik Estonia used a different approach. The title of its article based on Zhilin’s comment read:

“Zhilin: only politicians are happy with NATO occupants.”

Kremlin-financed news agency RIA took an angle from Zhilin’s comment that suggested that the local population in the Baltics was suffering from NATO exercises. Many other smaller Russian language media outlets used similar headlines for their articles.

The same angle was used in the article published by Russian media outlet Politikus.ru. It listed alleged cases when NATO troops disturbed civilians in the Baltic states. The article cited just a small part of Zhilin’s comment:

It read:

According to military columnist Alexander Zhilin, “Where ever you look — prostitutes win”. That’s how he described the situation with NATO, in the Baltics.

A detailed media spread analysis shows that Sputnik Lithuania was the most cited source of information for Zhilin’s comment.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

Sputnik Lithuania published the story in Lithuanian, too. The story in local language was viewed just 218 times and was not shared on any social media platform. @DFRLab did not identify the comment to be used in any article in Estonian, Latvian, or English.

Appearances on Kremlin Media

Alexander Zhilin often appeared on pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-backed media outlets in Russian like “IA Rex”, “Rambler”, “News Front”, “Regnum”, Russian Army TV channel “Zvezda TV” and others.

This was not the first time Zhilin’s comments were used by the local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states.

Search results for Alexander Zhilin on local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states. Left (Source: Sputnik Estonia); Middle (Source: Sputnik Latvia); Right (Source: Sputnik Lithuania)

All three local Sputnik outlets had similar numbers of publications that mentioned Zhilin (see the image above). Most of the publications used his photo and created news based on his comments.

There were at least four stories that were cross-published on more than one of Sputnik’s local versions in the Baltics.

Headlines translated from Russian. Top story (Source: Sputnik Lithuania); second story (Source: Sputnik Lithuania); third story (Source: Sputnik Latvia); fourth story (Source: Sputnik Estonia).

The stories that were republished by all three local versions of Sputnik were about the Pentagon revealing its UFO program, as The New York Times reported in December 2017, and in response to U.S. allocating 100 million dollars for the Baltic states to deter the Russian threat.

Many of the Zhilin’s comments published on Sputnik were country specific. For instance on May 18, Sputnik Lithuania published an article based on Zhilin’s comment suggesting that conscription in Lithuania would intensify youth brain-drain. On August 11, 2017, Sputnik Estonia published an article titled “Zhilin: U.S. will force Estonia to pay for its planes.” In Latvia, Zhillin suggested that the country itself is to be blamed for the bad behavior of NATO soldiers in Latvia.

Sputnik's Experts

Other experts are similarly used by Sputnik to promote pro-Kremlin narratives across the Baltics. For example, Sputnik in the Baltic states often published opinions of Armen Gasparyan, a writer and political commentator from Russia. Sputnik presented him as a historian, journalist, writer, and political expert.

Search results for Armen Gasparyan on local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states. Left (Source: Sputnik Estonia); Middle (Source: Sputnik Latvia); Right (Source: Sputnik Lithuania).

Most of the Gasparyan's recent comments focused on the NATO Summit in Brussels, history of the Second World War, NATO presence in the Baltic states, and other topics relevant for the Kremlin. Gasparyan also promoted ideas that neo-Nazism and Russophobia are rising in the Baltic states.

Another expert Sputnik used frequently was an energy expert Alexey Grivach. Sputnik and other pro-Kremlin and Kremlin-backed media outlets presented him as the Deputy Director of National Energy Security Foundation (FNEB — ФНЭБ). His name does not appear on the FNEB's website.

Search results for Alexey Grivach on local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states. Left (Source: Sputnik Estonia); Middle (Source: Sputnik Latvia); Right (Source: Sputnik Lithuania).

The number of times he commented on the Sputnik in the Baltic states was similar to Zhilin's. The topics he commented on were North Stream 2, Lithuanian liquified natural gas (LNG) imports, Russian gas in Europe, and other matters of a kind.

Sputnik in the Baltics also gave a platform to Mihail Smolin, who it called a Russian political scientist and a PhD candidate in History.

Search results for Mihail Smolin on local versions of Sputnik in the Baltic states. Left (Source: Sputnik Estonia); Middle (Source: Sputnik Latvia); Right (Source: Sputnik Lithuania).

The number of times he appeared on Sputnik Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was similar to appearances by Zhilin and Grivach. He commented mostly on U.S. affairs, the European Union, and how the West sees Russia. He has also shared his opinion on NATO troops in the Baltic states.

Conclusion

Alexander Zhilin’s comment that only prostitutes profit from NATO exercises in the Baltic states spread across all three local versions of Kremlin-financed media outlet Sputnik in the Baltic states and was picked up by at least twelve more Russian language media outlets.

Alexander Zhilin appears on the Baltic versions of Sputnik regularly along with other “experts” like Armen Gasparyan, Alexey Grivach, Mihail Smolin, and others. It appeared to be a larger trend used by Sputnik to promote pro-Kremlin ideas in the Baltic states.

Zhilin’s comments on the Saber Strike exercise were emblematic of Kremlin-owned media in the Baltics: long on assertion and short on facts.


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

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