The Center for European Policy Analysis sent Donald N. Jensen on a listening tour of the Baltics to interview officials and experts in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the issues of Russian information warfare and the associated geostrategic scenarios that are likely to play out in the region over the next decade. He reports back that now more than ever the West needs to learn from the experiences of the Baltic states who have long been on the frontline of Russia’s disinformation campaign.
My conversation in all three Baltic states focused overwhelmingly on the need to counter Russian information warfare. Many of the people I met urged that Russian information warfare be seen not as an isolated weapon in the arsenal of Russian foreign policy, but as part of Russia’s broader approach toward advancing Russian interests. So-called hard power still matters, but Russia uses other approaches as well. First, it wages “non-linear” war across several fronts: the Baltics, Ukraine, Syria, Turkey and Georgia. Second, it uses a variety of instruments to advance its interests: military, technological, diplomatic, economic and cultural, as well as information. Third, Russian information warfare is not about creating alternative truths or propagating an ideology. It is about eroding the West’s ability to distinguish truth at all. Finally, the diplomatic side of Moscow’s non-linear warfare is not a foreign policy aimed at building a new, pro-Russian alliance. Instead, it is what the Kremlin calls a multi-vector foreign policy to undermine the strength of Western institutions by assembling alternative centers of power.
Of primary concern was the impact of Russian information warfare on their countries. Experts in the Baltic states cited two points of vulnerability. On foreign policy, they highlighted Moscow’s potential to undermine popular support for Baltic integration into multilateral Western security and economic institutions. Most experts, however, did not believe this was a serious threat. Commentators were more worried about Moscow’s ability to co-opt the political loyalties of ethnic Russian minorities in the three countries, which are substantially unintegrated into the broader societies.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania long have expressed confidence that the relatively high standard of living enjoyed by their ethnic Russian minorities—compared to that of their brethren inside Russia itself—would ensure social stability. However, many interlocutors I interviewed disagreed. To support their view, they cited the comparatively low voting participation by members of this minority, their apparent acceptance of Kremlin narratives about World War II, the victimization of Russia in the 1990s and Russia’s alleged current encirclement by foreign enemies. This vulnerability is made more acute because ethnic Russians get their news primarily from Russian media, according to many surveys, and they generally have confidence in the accuracy of those sources.
Confounding this issue, Russian messaging in the Baltics is spread through a wide variety entertainment videos, humor and other methods that go well beyond news and information. Moscow has successfully used “national mega-events” such as the heroism of Soviet soldiers during World War II to create images and narratives that specifically target ethnic Russians in the Baltics.
While the West has awoken to the threat of Russian propaganda, all three Baltic states urged that more must be done. There was general agreement that, so far, efforts at pushback have been ineffective in two key areas: prioritizing target audiences and ensuring more effective delivery of anti-Kremlin messages. On messaging, some Baltic experts argued that the best response would be the dissemination of fact-based responses to Russian-speaking audiences. Others, however, believed that to be impractical, since it is physically impossible to respond point by point to the flood of Kremlin misinformation. Some experts believe the most effective response is simply to increase public awareness of Russian information operations as widely as possible. That itself is the best inoculation. Several interlocutors went further, arguing that any approach emphasizing “news” only would not be successful. Many Kremlin inroads, they believe, come from spreading favorable messages using humor and entertainment.
There was wide disagreement on how to reach consumers, even if there was agreement on which audiences to target. There was substantial criticism of the decision to abolish the U.S. Information Agency, which promoted East-West cultural exchanges besides overseeing those two broadcasting entities before being disbanded in 1999. Some experts also took issue with the Western preoccupation with RT and Sputnik, given that Russia also conducts messaging using social media, movies and other forms of entertainment.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. 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.