Despite a deteriorating economy or, at first sight, a thin spread of foreign policy priorities, the Kremlin continues to spend huge resources on propaganda media in Russian and European languages. What can we learn from Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine war and how can these lessons help us defend ourselves?
The Kremlin started broadcasting propaganda inside the country and to the West a good decade ago, prior to the annexation of Crimea. And in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, it flooded from Russian TV channels. Shocked Western societies could not come to grip with how quickly Russia deployed misinformation and propaganda to annex Crimea and incited separatism in eastern Ukraine. Suddenly, the West realised that it wasn’t quite ready for such a Blitzkrieg of information and had hopelessly opened up its informational space to toxic but very well-choreographed information.
Forced to live side by side with its dangerous and unpredictable neighbour, Lithuania was not caught that unaware, but it did not have a plan to repel Russia’s growing appetite on all fronts either. Lithuania had been monitoring Russia’s information space relatively vigilantly, but it had done almost no prevention.
After Russia unexpectedly annexed Crimea, we suddenly woke up to the fact that we have a sizeable Russian-speaking population, who for long have been getting their news solely from Russian TV channels or quaint local media outlets with obscure financing sources; that we don’t know how they live, what they think, or what they’d do if little green men suddenly appeared to defend their “compatriots”. At times we’ve seen them let their children attend paramilitary camps or universities in Russia, because they are free of charge and because these people come from regions that are not doing so well economically. We have seen them associate in peculiar semi-militarized paintball clubs and post pictures on social networks of themselves with St George ribbons and (fake) automatic rifles. And, as the recent Public Security Service controversy has revealed, such people serve in big numbers even in crucial state institutions.
While the West debates how to react, the Putin regime is perfecting its skills: more and more Russian propaganda is spreading across Europe in local languages, internet trolls post their comments in Lithuanian. They are setting up new and obscure websites which aren’t exactly portals but rather politicized trolling hubs with a purpose to disparage certain topics and public figures who defend pro-Western positions. These websites are maintained by shady individuals or marginalised journalists who have been turned into useful idiots. Conspiracy theories abound in portals that mushroomed in the wake of the Garliava scandal, all claiming their goal is to defend Lithuania.
At the same time, Moscow invests in new Russian-language channels and gives more and more attention to online news, because it’s simpler, quicker and cheaper to produce sharable content.
The trolls’ tone has become more customised for their audiences, more polite and refined so as not to give ground to ban their activities. If they are reprimanded, they immediately appeal to free speech (What? Why me? It’s just an opinion! Double standards, they cry). The Kremlin trolls have learnt to use social networks very efficiently, generating false identities in unbelievable numbers. Those who touch upon topics of interest for the Kremlin get their Facebook and Twitter accounts so trashed that it takes days to sort everything out. It’s like an army of the dead from “Game of Thrones” – they are numerous and very difficult to kill.
And all of this comes on top of other soft power tools. Russia keeps sending loyal musicians to perform Lithuania, especially around national holidays. A band might start shouting "Crimea is ours" from the stage or a Red Army Choir looks for a concert venue. Or they start flirting with non-governmental human rights organisations, insisting that Russia's and Lithuania's interests coincide in this or that area.
Sadly, even after the annexation of Crimea, Europe is too slow in mobilizing defence on the information war front - and with meagre results to show for it. For an entire year everyone was merely debating what propaganda is and what Putin is thinking and, for one more year, they continued to believe that the opinion' spread by trolls were genuine views that have a right to exist. Finally, they agreed that the scope and volume of Kremlin propaganda was huge, but that fighting propaganda with propaganda was not fitting for democratic countries. Everyone then decided that the thing to do was to strengthen independent journalism. Still, besides unending seminars, sessions for “sharing experience”, and meetings, there is but one European-scale project on unmasking propaganda - and that one is not very significant or user-friendly.
In fact, the Estonians have opened a Russian-language TV channel, but it has nothing to do with EU institutions. After some hesitation, Latvian and Lithuanian national broadcasters decided not to follow the Estonian example. It’s not at all easy to produce programming that is interesting and it’s even more difficult to persuade people to switch from Russian-speaking Kremlin channels to local ones. Still, it would be a way to build alternative media and give attention to ethnic communities. Finally, it’s a way to put across a an alternative to Putin’s version of events.
The Americans have proven more reasonable and proactive. They are already investing in Russian-language TV programmes and financing other media projects in Europe as well as in the Baltics. What then is Lithuania doing in this regard? I’m not talking about brilliant civil initiatives or elves that fight trolls every day, but rather about what the government is doing. Unfortunately, it looks like we have not achieved more than the rest of Europe - perennially concerned and conferencing - although we supposedly grasped the threats better and earlier than others.
Up to now only one representative opinion poll has been carried out in regions dominated by ethnic minorities. All it showed what Lithuanian citizens think depends on where they get their news – if they watch Russian television, they accept that the Ukrainian “facists” are to blame for the turmoil in Ukraine. No other polls have been conducted and so it’s impossible to know if there have been any changes in what ethnic minority communities feel.
According to various polls conducted before and at the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, about one third of those polled fostered direct or indirect sympathies for Russia, saying that it was necessary to pursue more acquiescent policy vis-a-vis Russia, be friendlier, etc.
The latest poll, announced by Polish pollsters, confirmed the same thing – the same stable one-third share of people in Lithuania thinks that we are too harsh on Russia. Depending on how you interpret results like these – is the glass half-full or half-empty – the good news for optimists is that that the one-third share hasn't grown. The bad news is that it is very stable and clearly impervious to actual facts, statements from our leaders and to the markedly anti-Kremlin tone of the Lithuanian media. That one third of the population is living in a parallel information space and has not heard either about the threats to national security or about an increase in defence spending and the reinstatement of conscription.
It has been a difficult period for Lithuanian journalists who try to balance their duties as journalists and as citizens. They have constantly sought the golden middle between being patriotic, not unnecessarily giving too much voice to the Kremlin and its satellites, and at the same time reporting news in a fair and enticing way, responding to democratic needs and not suppressing different opinions - even those that aren’t popular. And do all that under huge pressure from readers, politicians, the military and, yes, even the journalist community. When an honest discussion on sensitive issues like Holocaust collaborators or the efficiency of the Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal can be accused of playing in Moscow's hands.
Lithuanian institutions even temporarily banned rebroadcasting of certain Kremlin television programmes. And although it was just a temporary decision, which was met with mixed reactions in the democratic world, we should give ourselves credit for courage and determination. We sent a message to Putin's regime that, in this fight, we are not scared to use cardinal measures, event at the risk of being misunderstood by some. Maybe that had something to do with the decision of Pervyi Baltiskyi Kanal to discontinue their so-called information programme "Lithuanian Time".
The government made sure to assign additional funding for media projects, but as so often happens with the agency that manages that funding, government money was distributed without much regard for results, dividing up crumbs for dubious projects aimed at Lithuanian-speaking audiences rather than ethnic minorities.
It’s obvious that creating a counterweight to the Kremlin's propaganda by simply talking about that propaganda and publicly shaming those who spread it is inefficient. In order to reclaim the hearts and minds of Lithuania's citizens or at least stop the Kremlin from spreading its narratives, we will need to work hard and use more refined and strategic measures. It’s important that we do not do something just for the sake of doing it or in order to shore up cash-strapped regional media - the fight has to be targeted and effective.
It’s not that easy to repel the flow of misinformation. In this case, the greatest victory for Lithuania wouldn’t even be to mount resistance, but to heighten everyone's awareness about the presence of propaganda and to finally paying due attention to parts of our citizenry that have been neglected for so long. To achieve that, we do not have to speak about countering propaganda every day; instead, we should talk about how we could encourage positive initiatives from ethnic minority communities themselves, how to engage them, find leaders among them that everyone in the country could be proud of.
Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė is editor-in-chief of DELFI