Russia tailors its information warfare to specific countries

  • Tomáš Čižík, CENAA
  • 6.11.2017 10:31

Tools that failed in Sweden might work perfectly in Slovakia. In Scandinavia, the Kremlin attacks its opponents, while disinformation works in Slovakia -- and Soviet nostalgia helps in the Baltic.

Russia’s information warfare tactics are not uniform: different instruments are optimised for different countries. The Kremlin is using information warfare as a geopolitically universal tool to influence and affect internal issues in specific countries – Russian information warfare can be considered tailored to specific countries and regions, utilising local languages and adapting to the situation in different regions, solely for Russia’s benefit.

The Kremlin also uses information warfare as a military instrument without the typical ‘hard-power’ aspect. The advent of the information age, globalisation and spread of internet access and social networks allow information warfare to have a role in ‘soft-power’ tactics which do not require military deployment or use of force to reach strategic goals. Information warfare does not follow borders: its tools work almost without restrictions in nearly every country and in different forms. The Kremlin does not differentiate between peacetime and wartime contexts for using information warfare, while Western countries still debate whether they are at war or not. Russia has thus taken the lead in the use of information warfare, catching Western states unprepared.

Russian information warfare tactics were particularly conspicuous throughout Europe in March 2014 , during Russia’s campaign to reacquire Crimea. But the same tactics are not universally applied. The tools Kremlin uses in Central Europe do not work in Scandinavia or the Baltic and vice versa. However, Russian embassies are involved in information warfare in all the examined regions and actively help in spreading disinformation while also supporting local alternative media. Their representatives also aim to discredit experts, journalists and politicians who criticise Russian activities in these regions.

Scandinavia

In Scandinavia, Russia’s information war focuses mainly on disgracing journalists, experts and politicians in an attempt to discredit their abilities and the relevance of their claims. Russian state-controlled media, embassies and their representatives all take part in this slander. For example, in December 2013, Russian state television Rossia 1 accused Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of being a CIA agent and stated his anti-Russian attitude is “the revenge for Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Poltava battle in 1709”. Such accusations levied at high-level politicians are very common in Scandinavia.

In April 2015, Kremlin tried to launch its infamous Sputnik conspiracy channel in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. This resulted in a massive failure, with Sputnik ceasing operations in these countries after only 11 months.

 

The typical sign of such conspiracies was an “exposure of secrets”, which have long been kept from the population.

 

According to Anke Schmidt-Felzmann at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs, Sputnik spread disinformation, conspiracy theories and anti-Western propaganda. These disinformation campaigns were in local languages and aimed to reach a wide share of the population. The typical sign of such conspiracies was an ‘exposure of secrets’ which have long been kept from the population. However, disinformation campaigns do not work well in Scandinavia, since these countries have exceptional education systems and have been ranking high on issues such as the fight against corruption. Therefore, it can be said that quality education and absence of significant internal issues within a country effectively prevent the spread of disinformation campaigns.

Baltics

In the Baltic States, Russian information warfare mainly focuses on Russian-speaking minorities, which comprise up to 26.9 % of the population in Latvia (out of two million citizens) and 24.8 % in Estonia (out of 1.3 million citizens). In Lithuania, the Russian-speaking minority account for 5.8 % of the total population of 2.9 million people. The Belarussian, Ukrainian and Polish minorities living in the Baltics may also be considered among these groups.

The presence of a Russian-speaking population creates the ideal conditions for spreading Russian propaganda in the Russian language. Similarly to the countries of northern Europe, the Baltic States also have Russian disinformation media operating in their territories, specifically Sputnik and RT who spread pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives. Half of the most popular TV stations are Russian-owned.

 

Baltic States’ own experience with Soviet occupation also plays a role in their citizens’ higher resistance to Moscow’s disinformation.

 

Russian propaganda is also spread by so-called ‘Soviet nostalgia’ in the Baltics, which can be characterised as an ongoing interest in Russian humour, music, television programmes, movies and theatre within the population. This interest increases the area for the Kremlin’s disinformation activities. Russian propaganda is mainly effective among the middle and older generations. According to Dovile Sukyte, a research scholar at the Lithuanian Center for Eastern European Studies, the younger generation in the Baltic countries has grown up in independent states and has stronger ties to Western culture. Despite this, Russia still seeks to influence the younger generation: for example, Russkiy Mir, a state-sponsored agency, was established in 2007 with the aim of spreading Russia’s language, culture and thinking, and organises events for young people.

The influence of Russian disinformation campaigns in the Baltics is however limited, thanks to quality education systems focused on history, critical thinking and media education. The Baltic States’ own historical experience with Soviet occupation also plays a role in their citizens’ higher resistance to Russia’s disinformation tactics, even though the pro-Russian media - contrary to reality - often try to depict the former occupation as the Baltic States having voluntarily joined the Soviet Union.

Central Europe

In Central Europe, mainly Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Russian information warfare uses alternative media and social networks to produce massive amounts of disinformation articles and enable their propagation through the population.

 

Young people are among the most vulnerable to disinformation campaigns in Central Europe.

 

In Poland, a cautious to outright negative approach towards Russia is still present, while in Hungary, disinformation is spread by traditional media supported by Viktor Orban’s pro-Russian stances. Young people are among the most vulnerable population groups to disinformation campaigns in Central Europe, mainly high school students who use the internet as their primary source of information and almost never read traditional media. Poor education standards (such as reliance on pure memorisation, in place of active learning) create the perfect environment for spreading disinformation, conspiracies and hoaxes. 

I can personally attest to the fact that most high school students have no idea what the European Union or NATO are, what values they were built on and what their goals are. Many of them believe in conspiracy theories. Contrary to Scandinavian or Baltic countries, media education and critical thinking are not taught in Central European schools and history textbooks do not cover the Cold War period.

Solutions

In the long term, countries in Central Europe are the most vulnerable to Russian information warfare tactics and lack an effective mechanism to counter disinformation campaigns. Non-profit organisations are proactive in organising public debates about the influence of Russian propaganda and, together with traditional media, work on disproving lies published by alternative media. Their representatives also hold lectures and educate young people on how to verify information quickly and easily. Russian information warfare and its instruments can be countered effectively, mainly through investing in improving the quality of education, specifically critical thinking and media education, which can increase citizens’ resistance to disinformation, lies, conspiracy theories and hoaxes.

 

The goal of Russian propaganda is to gradually undermine people‘s trust in local and European institutions and, in the long term, create suspicion between states.

 

The fight against Russia’s propaganda and information warfare tactics is difficult and requires close cooperation between governments and non-profits, and between different countries. The goal of Russian propaganda is to gradually undermine citizens’ trust in their local and European institutions and, in the long term, create suspicion and distrust between nation states themselves. It is vital to constantly remind people what our memberships in the EU and NATO have brought us, notably that we have been living in a peaceful and prosperous society for over 70 years.

About author: Tomáš Čižík, CENAA

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