As the protests in Belarus continue for the third month, political turmoil in the country still influences coverage about neighbouring Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in pro-Kremlin media. Throughout the month of September, Debunk EU experts analysed 1,567 articles with false and misleading content from 74 pro-Kremlin media outlets. Those pieces included various accusations — from imputing Baltic countries for stirring up the crisis in Belarus, to accusing them of growing support towards neo-Nazism.
Within the monitored period, the most of false and misleading content pieces were found in Lithuania (844), then in Estonia (419) and in Latvia (304). According to Debunk EU analysts, those articles had a potential reach of 1,3 billion contacts.
Accusations against the West, especially the Baltic countries, of interference in the internal affairs of Belarus were found in 38.4% of the total number of articles (605 hits). In addition, the Baltics were targeted for signing a deal to block Belarusian nuclear imports from Astravets Nuclear Power Plant, which on many occasions was criticized by Baltic leaders and named as a risk to public health because of neglected safety requirements. According to Debunk EU senior analyst Balys Liubinavičius, disinformation also often surfaces around significant historical events. “As September 1st marked the 81st anniversary of the beginning of the World War II, (the date is not commemorated in Russia itself, instead, the start of the Great Fatherland War in June 1941 is) Russian officials took an opportunity to address the alleged attempts by the Baltics to rewrite history and/or support neo-Nazism and Fascism, and blame the West for encouraging such actions”, — says the expert.
During the month of September, there was an increase of 23.4% in terms of misleading and false coverage about Lithuania. The growth came along LAF STRATCOM reporting a growth of illegitimate information influence activities, such as a complex cyber-information attack carried out against Lithuanian and Polish MFA’s on September 22–23.
The analysis has shown that negative rhetoric towards Lithuania also grew sharper:
“Pro-Kremlin media, as well as Russian and Belarusian official figures, voiced open accusations of pursuing ‘destructive’ policy towards Belarus. In terms of communicative approach, misleading articles mostly focused on Lithuanian domestic issues, such as defence and security, economic welfare, and history, whereas in August the most attention was given to foreign policy”, —says B. Liubinavičius.
The biggest share of criticism towards Lithuania concerned its support to Belarusian opposition (410 hits). High number of social interactions also confirms the importance of this topic: top 10 disinformation/misinformation articles in terms of social interactions in Lithuania concerned Belarus.
Another prominent narrative was accusations of growing support of Nazism. Balys Liubinavičius notices that the pro-Kremlin media exploited an incident, when on September 4th Soviet memorial was desecrated in the town on Žiežmariai. “Russian Embassy in Lithuania claimed that the act of vandalism has resulted from the Lithuanian “historical revisionism” policy. In turn, the Head of The Investigative Committee (IC) of the Russian Federation announced that a criminal investigation will be initiated on the basis of Russian federal laws, which prohibit the crimes associated with “rehabilitation of Nazism” and “falsification of history”, — says the analyst.
Similar to Lithuania, Estonia was also targeted for supporting sanctions placed on Belarusian regime: 104 articles (out of 419) contained disinformation pertaining Tallinn’s refusal to accept Alexander Lukashenko as legitimate Belarusian leader.
According to B. Liubinavičius, joint U.S. and Estonian military exercises also evoked a negative reaction from Russian politicians and high military command and were covered in the pro-Kremlin media (85 articles). The exercises were deemed as “provocative and very dangerous to regional stability”.
Comments made by Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid were also picked up by pro-Kremlin media and presented as Russophobic (71 articles). Estonian leader stated in an interview that Russia presents a great danger to its neighbours “not because it wanted to expand its empire, but instead because it realised its time is running short”, which was dubbed as an expression of “anti-Russian” policy.
Compared to Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia refrained from harsh criticism towards Belarus, however, it has made itself a target of pro-Kremlin media by initiating a ban on using St. George ribbons at public events:
“Prohibition of the symbol of loyalty towards the Putin regime resulted in labelling Latvia as a Russophobic country in about a quarter of analysed articles (out of 304). Moreover, a growing number of hits presented Latvian nationalism at the threshold of turning into neo-Nazism and/or Fascism”, — explains B. Liubinavičius.
The analysis has shown that the profile of disinformation targeting Latvia was being adjusted depending on the foreign or internal policy issues, such as the ongoing protests in Belarus and the sanctions issues by Baltic states and the EU, or the aforementioned ban of the St. Georges ribbon. According to Debunk EU analyst, the same clichés were applied to respond to different events. “Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been accusing Baltic governments of “Russophobia” and the “rehabilitation of Nazism” for years. It is important to mention that 95.1% of disinformation articles in September were written in Russian and was deliberately targeting the Russian-speaking population in the Baltics”, — says B. Liubinavičius.
94.3% of the false and misleading coverage in the Baltics was negative towards Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
While analysing the data it became clear that three pro-Kremlin sources, sputniknews.ru, baltnews.lt, and rubaltic.ru, were responsible for almost half of the overall publicity related to Lithuania (42% of the analysed articles). Sputnik, which was dubbed a “pseudo news agency” by the European Parliament in 2016, was also the leading propaganda outlet in Latvia (14.5% of the articles). In Estonia, were Sputnik was forced to cease its operations since 2020, baltnews.ee played the major role (13.7% of the articles). However, it was rubaltic.ru which generated the biggest number of social interactions.