Pro-Kremlin media in Lithuania mocked Poland’s proposal for a permanent American military base, on its eastern territory, and argued that building it would provoke Russia.
1tv.ru (Perviy kanal TV), joked about the American military base in Poland, showing the caricature image of “Fort Trump.” Another outlet, Sputniknews. lt ridiculed Lithuania by saying that Poland has pushed the Baltic state out of the role of “the U.S.’ most favorite mistress.” It argued that a permanent American base in Poland will become an instrument for Polish dominance in the region, particularly over Lithuania. This was a veiled reference to the Soviet historical interpretation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the Union of Lublin in the 16th century). During the Soviet regime, the common history of two countries was rewritten as a rivalry and used a tool of control through division. In reality, both Lithuania and Poland benefited from their union.
At the same time, pro-Kremlin media outlets in Lithuania published other articles and commentaries, which at first glance appeared to be objective reporting about the summit between the Polish and U.S. presidents on 18 September. But they were actually Kremlin spin. Sputinknews.lt quoted only Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the meeting, who said that “NATO is well aware that Russia has no plans to attack, but simply takes the opportunity (provoked by the Polish initiative) to deploy more equipment and battalions near Russian borders.” Ekspertai.eu published an article by Rolandas Paksas, the impeached and pro-Moscow former president of Lithuania, who called on the country to initiate the “demilitarization of the Baltics and Kaliningrad.” This was an indirect demand for NATO forces to be withdrawn from the Baltic region. Paksas criticized – but without advancing any evidence – the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense the “international military bureaucracy” and “squandering the national budget on weapons, ammunition, military logistics, and propaganda.” In this way, he criticized Lithuania for meeting its NATO membership obligation of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
In these two examples Lithuania’s pro-Kremlin media outlets merely imitated an adherence to the principles of mainstream journalism. Their bias toward support of Russia’s foreign policy prohibited them from following the journalistic principles of accuracy and objectivity. They advanced instead the narrative that Russia is not an aggressor and that the West is responsible for tensions between it and Moscow.
These cases are only 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 Vilnius Consultations 2018, a conference organized by the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis on 13 September, concluded that the West should recognize that Kremlin-linked media are not real media, but part of the Kremlin’s weaponry in informational warfare. Practically, this means that the West should not grant them (including Sputnik and RT) the same privileges as genuinely free media.
To push back against the challenge of Kremlin misinformation, conference participants urged the West to 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 conference was that, while the Kremlin itself is not causing societal cleavages in the Western countries, it surely knows how to exploit them. To immunize the public against fake news, the West (including the EU) needs a strategy on building social resilience. Popular education plays a decisive role in meeting this objective: resilient citizens start from early years at school. If Lithuanian and Polish societies share accurate knowledge of their countries’ mutual histories, for example, as well as the untruth behind other Kremlin narratives more broadly, there is much less opportunity for the Kremlin’s information operations to be effective.
October 16, 2018
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.