The Russian information war in Lithuania

Lithuania is one of many countries where Russia is waging war for hearts and minds – the information war. It is a war fought on television, the internet, and newspapers without any loss of human life. The goal, however, is the same as in any classic warfare scenario: controlling the central political processes of the enemy state.
The Russian information war in Lithuania
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In the beginning of May 2014, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that its editors had deleted 494 comments from three different, at the time recently published news articles. The moderators warned that Nashi (the youth organization of Yedianaya Rossiya, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party) was using thousands of activists in attempts to flood chosen comment section with pro-Putinist messages. This often resulted in nothing short of pure hate campaigns. Similar comments were found below the aforementioned article about comments on articles.

The Guardian is but one example on how an old type of soft power warfare – influence, psychological operations, propaganda – is spreading into new realms. Old measures have given birth to counter measures, after which new measures have come to life. The comment section warrior is an example of a much wider, deeper Russian strategy than many are aware of.

Lithuania is one of many countries in which the war for hearts and minds – the information war – is being fought. It is war fought through television, the internet, and newspapers without any loss of human life. The goal, however, is the same as in any classic warfare scenario: controlling the central political processes of the enemy state. To fulfil this, physical military presence may not be required. Under favourable circumstances, psychological warfare combined with political pressure may suffice in attaining the goal of controlling the major political processes of another country.

This report seeks to explain what the information war is all about: its goals, means and consequences. Lithuania must, in one way or another, find a way to combat Russia’s obvious attempts to influence the Lithuanian population by means of soft power. Firstly, the report covers the Russian information attacks against Lithuania during 2013 and what defensive measures the country has implemented, as well as the consequences of this.

However, this warfare is not all about propaganda. Actors in the business sector, the demographical development and cultural mole organisations are equally important in understanding the entirety of the conflict. Central to the information war is the concept of disinformation used to mislead the target group. While propaganda is used to affect the emotions of the target group, disinformation is used to affect the group’s rational decision making. By supporting incorrect conclusions – in part based on pure lying – the offender is attempting to promote his desired worldview.

Russia is engaged in what might be called information attacks. This differs from ordinary dissemination of information in several ways. Unlike an openly stated opinion in the public debate, an information attack seeks to harm as opposed to actually provide an opinion on an issue. If someone commits an act of war through an information attack, they seek to misinform, destabilize and finally to overcome the enemy’s control over his own area. The purpose is to advance one’s own influence while decreasing that of one’s enemy. Therefore the attacks occur over longer periods of time and under coordination of a rarely overt primary disseminator.

Jakob Ljungman
Jakob Ljungman

The report presents the information war from a Lithuanian perspective. Lithuania has a prominent role in the information war. Additionally, the country has strong ties to Sweden, both politically and economically. To determine what Sweden can do to defend herself, the Lithuanian situation should be analysed. The report also presents information attack implementation, purposes and Lithuanian defensive measures.

Lithuania is a young nation. Having experienced two periods of independence: the interwar years and the post-Soviet period, Lithuania joined NATO and the EU in 2004. Meanwhile, an unhealthy energy and infrastructural dependence still remains. The relationship between the two nations has consistently deteriorated in latter years. Recently, a security agreement pertaining to mutual surveillance of the military forces in Kaliningrad and Lithuania was unexpectedly terminated by Russia. Also, according to the Lithuanian security service, foreign intelligence activity in Lithuania increased sharply during 2013. At one occasion, a Russian intelligence officer under diplomatic cover attempted to buy information concerning the 2013 Lithuanian EU presidency from a Lithuanian government employee. At an earlier date, a private phone call between two Lithuanian ambassadors was leaked. The wiretapping and leaking of the phone call was later traced back to the Russian intelligence community.

International cooperation and history threatened

The Russian strategy for the Baltic states often involves targeting the three countries' relation to the EU and NATO. Every step that Lithuania takes further to the West must have some consequence.

This fact becomes even more obvious when looking at countries such as Georgia or Ukraine. During 2013, the trend pointed in precisely this direction. Lithuanian membership both in NATO and the EU was the target of several information attacks, the purpose being to discredit Lithuanian domestic policies and international engagements, the Eastern Partnership and the November 2013 Vilnius Summit on the matter.

At the same time, Russia seeks to diminish the view of Lithuania in other countries in order to weaken support for Lithuania internationally. Additionally, the usual economic pressures were present, especially in the energy sector, as well as cyber attacks.

Disinformation in order to discredit NATO and Lithuania increased during the crisis in Kiev and following conflict in Ukraine. Rumours that NATO mercenaries firing upon demonstrators were supposed to have been trained in Lithuania were circulated by the Russian mass media, such as the news agency Interfax. Lithuania was also demonised as a “hawk”, acting with unjustifiable aggression towards Russia.

The complexity of historical politics is also of relevance here. Even the medieval history of the region is of interest. There is a conflict going on about the general historical narrative regarding medieval Lithuania. This mainly concerns the issue of who the Lithuanians at the time actually were. It all boils down to a question of statehood and nationality, concepts that did not exist in the same way in the Middle Ages. Today, Belarusian scholars would claim that today’s Belarus is the legitimate heir to the Grand Duchy, while Lithuanian scholars would, of course, contend that the Lithuanians of today are the real heirs. Russia’s interest would then be promoting the Slavic, Belarusian, account of history.

The 1944 Soviet re-occupation of the Baltic states led to almost a decade of internal conflict that was finally brought to a tragic end in the early 1950s. When the Soviets once again marched into Lithuania, a resistance movement, known as ‘the Forest Brothers’, was founded. These guerillas battled the NKVD and the Red Army in a brave but ill-fated war for independence.

The result of the Soviet repression in this ‘war after the war’ were the deaths of over 20,000 civilians accused of supporting the Lithuanian guerillas. 186,000 people were jailed or arrested. Of the 118,000 people deported, staggering 53,000 died during captivity or as a consequence of their deportation.

Doctored accounts of these atrocities and the suppression of the independence movement are important as a pretext for the legitimacy of the occupation. The guerillas were portrayed as Jew murderers and criminals – enemies of the Lithuanian people – as oppose to freedom fighters. This was of course more evident during the Soviet occupation, but has recently been revived to some extent. In May 2013, Putin awarded NKVD veterans of the military units that took part in the repression during the 1940s and 1950s.

Another significant historic event with regards to information attacks is the fight for independence during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The violent clashes between peaceful demonstrators and Soviet military forces, from what came to be known as the “Alpha group”, on 13 January 1991 is an example of one such event. During the events, 14 unarmed Lithuanians were killed and hundreds wounded. In 2013, a Russian TV channel aired a documentary claiming that undercover Lithuanians shot their fellow countrymen, in order to discredit the Soviet military forces. The documentary was aired once more by the Gazprom-owned TV channel NTV Mir in 2014, causing a Lithuanian court to temporary ban broadcasts of that channel for three months.

Moscow’s view of soft power

Soft power is a dualistic term. On the one hand, it is a natural complement to traditional diplomacy often referred to as public diplomacy. On the other hand, it can be used as a pretext for intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries. A reason often used to do the latter is defending the physical security or human rights of a particular minority. President Putin himself has defined soft power as “instruments and methods to achieve foreign policy goals without the use of weapons – information and other pressure actions”.

The Russian soft power, miagkaya sila, is largely inherited from the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spread its influence through various front organisations and “peace movements”. Another instrument were the so-called Active Measures which included the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation, but also assassinations and political repression.

The Active Measures program was implemented both domestically and in foreign nations. Amongst the most notorious propaganda campaigns were the lies that American defence researchers were supposed to have created the Aids virus and that J.Edgar Hoover was homosexual. Additionally, American defector and writer Philip Agee was used to discredit and smear the Central Intelligence Agency.

Today Russian soft power is focused on three main goals: promoting the Russian language, culture and educational system; counter propaganda in order to whitewash the negative image of Russia in international media, instead focusing on supposedly bad conditions in other countries. One such example is the treatment of the Russian minority in the Lithuania. Charges made against Lithuania and other states claim that the governments of these countries pursue policies unfavourable, or directly hurtful to the Russian minorities in the respective countries.

Again, Ukraine can serve as a grotesque example of the consequences anti-Russian policies may have. Third and last, the Russian government is attempting to construct worldwide networks through state-run organizations such as Rossotrudnichestvo and Russkiy Mir.

Influence by means of “civilian” organisations like these is another way of implementing soft power policies. Russkiy Mir, sponsored by the Russian state, opened its first operation in Lithuania in 2009, when a language centre was established in Vilnius to counter a long-term fading interest in the Russian language amongst Lithuanians (and, of course, to uphold cultural ties to the Russian-speaking minority). Later, a second centre was opened in Šiauliai.

The Russian government also provides scholarships for studies in Russia. Baltic students today seem more interested in pursuing studies in other EU countries. Russkiy Mir also finances several cultural organizations oriented towards the Russian minority in Lithuania. Some of these organizations have refused to account for their financing when asked to do so by the Lithuanian media. The Russian embassy in Vilnius has not been willing to discuss the issue either, according to media reports.

Rossotrudnichestvo was founded in 2008 and serves the Russian Foreign Ministry. Its director has been diplomat-turned-politician doctor Konstantin Kosachev.

Rossotrudnichestvo has offices in 77 countries across the globe, and a staff of about 600 people, 415 of them stationed abroad. Inheriting its formal duties from the KGB, the agency’s practical task is to centrally coordinate the use of soft power. It cooperates with a number of organizations and businesses directly or indirectly owned or controlled by the Russian state such as the media giants ITAR-TASS, RT, RIA Novosti.

Russkiy Mir pursues similar cooperation. On a number of occasions, Rossotrudnichestvo centres have invited students at host country universities to Moscow. On a number of occasions, these students have met several high-ranking Russian officials and politicians. During late 2013, the Rossotrudnichestvo director in Washington, D.C., was under federal investigation for attempting to recruit at least one student to become an intelligence asset.

Russkiy Mir and Rossotrudnichestvo are prime examples of what today’s soft power institutions look like. Again, it is important to take into account that the actual duties of the organizations were not thought up yesterday but decades ago. The difference is that it is no longer some intelligence service spreading propaganda.

A fundamental part of soft power policy directed to Russians living abroad is the Compatriot policy. The main purpose of this policy is to maintain contacts with Russians living in foreign countries, through information, cultural activities and support to diaspora youth and socially exposed Russians (it is not entirely clear what “socially exposed” imply). Since 2006 there is also a program intended to encourage compatriots to return home to Russia. Despite offering economic support, repatriation has not been as successful as initially expected.

While the effects of the compatriot policy might be more significant in Latvia or Estonia, as there are many times more ethnic Russians living there, promotion of not only Russian but also Soviet music, film, language and television is common in Lithuania as well. One example from everyday life is the home appliances stores, where Russian films are disproportionally frequent.

Jakob Ljungman is a Masters student in political science at Uppsala University in Sweden, with a focus on international security issues. He is a former intern at the Embassy of Sweden in Lithuania and has also worked in the Swedish Armed Forces. His major interest lies in intelligence services and Eastern European security.

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