Many eminent experts agree that the BelNPP was implemented as a Kremlin geopolitical project to profit from electricity exports to Western countries, further subordinate Belarus to the will of Russia and show its power by building the power plant extremely close to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. After analysing information environment surrounding the BelNPP for the first half of 2021, it became clear that the main purpose was to publicise the economic benefits of the BelNPP and to discredit the arguments and reputation of Lithuania, then other Baltic states and finally the European Union.
This analysis was carried out with a contribution from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania.
Throughout the first half of 2021 (January-June), malign information against the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP accounted for 1202 entities (34.59% out of examined 3475). In this regard, disinformation constituted 89.10% while misinformation – 10.90% of the articles published and distributed by the Kremlin-funded (or affiliated) media outlets, and social media accounts.
The most popular or repetitive message was that Lithuania unreasonably opposes the BelNPP. This narrative constantly proliferated by the pro-Kremlin media, which appealed to the allegedly economically unreasonable and irrational position of Lithuania on cheap electricity of the BelNPP. The number of mentions of this message was 622 and considering that the total number of malign content pieces in the January-June period was 1202, this suggests that it prevailed in more than half of the disinformation/misinformation recorded cases. In addition to this, the message has reached the largest audience of potential contacts in the last half-year – almost 96M.
The second most popular message – Lithuania is interfering in the internal affairs of Belarus was detected 360 times, and the third - Lithuania will be forced to buy electricity from the BelNPP was identified in 272 malign articles.
By using the selectively ignoring unfavorable facts technique the pro-Kremlin media systematically repeated that the IAEA and many other security experts have recognised the safety of the BelNPP, however, concealed the fact, that the Belarusian side has for a long time disregarded an important part of the recommendations of the same security experts. Also, though it emphasised the economic benefits of the BelNPP to Lithuanian and foreign consumers, it purposely ignored the fact that without sufficient attention to nuclear safety requirements today's savings could suddenly turn into a multi-billion euro humanitarian catastrophe tomorrow.
It is important to stress that a couple of messages that reached a larger potential contact audience as they were more often used by the most popular news websites:
Lithuania is sowing panic about the BelNPP insecurity – about 38.7M potential contacts and 128 mentions. This message intended to emphasise the alleged inadequacy of the Lithuanian authorities and their desire to intimidate Lithuanian society with the BelNPP by 1) organising training for special services on how to deal with possible threats or disastrous accidents, 2) by distributing potassium iodide pills, and 3) comparing the BelNPP to the disastrous Chernobyl NPP.
Lithuanians can blame themselves for the emergence of the BelNPP – almost 28M potential contacts and 114 mentions. It appeared in the pro-Kremlin media to emphasise that the Lithuanian government is to blame for the emergence of the BelNPP and in this way to neglect any fault of the Belarusian or Russian authorities (remember, Russia provided a 10 billion loan for the BelNPP project). Also, there was said, that Lithuania allegedly irrationally succumbed to EU pressure to close the Soviet-built Ignalina NPP and could not manage to find resources to build a new NPP.
The highest peak of negative mentions discrediting Lithuanian position was observed on February 12, as well on April 25-26, and June 2-3. Each increase reflected certain political steps of the Belarusian authorities that amplified already existing tensions with Lithuania, the EU, and the West.
On February 4 the Ministry of Energy of Belarus has denied Lithuanian acknowledgment about the actual consumption of the electricity generated by the BelNPP, suggesting that the amount of commercial flow to Lithuania was equal to zero. Then on February 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on serious concerns over the nuclear safety of the BelNPP. The resolution criticised hasting of its commissioning, lack of transparency, also the possible threats that this project may pose not only to Lithuania but to the entire region were identified. It is important to note, that this document set the conditions for ensuring the safety of the power plant as well as regulations prohibiting the import of the BelNPP electricity into the EU common market. Consequently, the very next day the Belarusian Ministry of Energy announced that this resolution is heavily politicised and is a clear example of double standards. These political distinctions were also reflected by the disinformation distributors. For instance, russian.rt.ru announced the comments of the Ministry of Energy of Belarus on the resolution of the European Parliament:
“Without convincing arguments, without even waiting for the preliminary report of the European experts ENSREG, who recently visited the station as part of the partnership review and whose work the European Commission has been paying so much attention to recently, the European Parliament, contrary to its own principles of “objectivity and impartiality”, adopted an openly politicised decision.”
All these events and commentary received a great deal of attention from the pro-Kremlin media - 190 mentions in 12 days which reached more than 44M potential contacts.
Information about hacking into the official BelNPP website and the appearance of the announcement where the Belarusian authorities were blamed for an irresponsible approach to nuclear safety, as well as for the concealment of numerous accidents (including deaths and injuries of the BelNPP workers) occurred at the end of April (25-26). The pro-Kremlin media endeavoured to create an allusion that the so-called hackers, who allegedly broke into the official website of the BelNPP, are representatives of the Belarusian opposition, who are working under the authority and support of Lithuania. For instance, riafan.ru quoted the head of the Centre for Belarusian Studies of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences Nikolay Mezhevich who said that:
“The Belarusian opposition has long lost its taste for civilised competition […] Absolutely any provocations are used, and I would not be surprised if these provocations are a deliberate violation of the life support of a nuclear power plant."
In a couple of days, as many as 49 cases of malign information were recorded, which reached more than 28.9M the audience of potential contacts. Interestingly, this happening resulted just before the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
At the beginning of June, the third-largest wave of disinformation appeared in a relation to the official announcement of the Ministry of Emergencies of the Republic of Belarus, informing that it had issued a license to start industrial operation of the Belarusian NPP Unit 1. In this regard, according to ria.ru, during the press conference Lukashenko said that his country is being criticised for constructing this nuclear power plant, while the West and Lithuania is allegedly planning to revive the old decommissioned, Soviet-built Ignalina NPP:
"It will be necessary [to] build a second nuclear power plant. […] The West and especially our neighbours criticised us all the time: “Oh, the station, security, violations, etc.” And now they themselves have planned the construction of the stations? Previously, Lithuania could barely articulate it, now is already thinking about building, and perhaps returning to the Ignalina NPP […]". Lukashenko also stressed that: "The nuclear energy is the future […] and, thank God, that at one time we tackled this problem.“
Moreover, vz.ru stated that European Commission expresses not a genuine view of its own, while saying that the operation of the BelNPP was started before implementing of all the safety recommendations contained in the EU's 2018 stress test report, but the official view of Lithuania, which was blamed for unreasonably opposing the BelNPP due to adverse political reasons.
On June 2-3, 48 cases of malign information were recorded, which reached 13M the audience of potential contacts.
Out of 1202 articles identified with false and misleading content, 70.8% were written in Russian and 29.2% in Lithuanian. Sputniknews.ru, sputniknews.lt, and baltnews.lt published the biggest share of it containing a malign message about the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP (15.5%, 11.1%, and 7.3% share of all articles respectively).
During the period considered ria.ru, lenta.ru and sputniknews.ru shared more than 42% of the total contact reach of articles (21.8%, 13.9%, and 6.5% of all articles respectively).