'Aggressive' and 'breaking its promises': portrayal of NATO activities in the Baltics

Despite the focus of the media mostly falling on the COVID-19 pandemic, NATO remains one of the main topics discussed by Kremlin-related media. Harmful narratives are being pushed to create a sense that NATO is using its smaller members as cannon fodder, the Alliance making up the ‘Russian threat’, and violating its promises not to expand in post-Soviet countries. According to the analysis carried out by Debunk EU, in December, narratives focusing on military agenda of NATO outweighed the communication associated with political issues of the Alliance. Additionally, Baltic countries were often accused of their ‘inadequate NATO defence spending’ more than any other member state.


In December 2020, Debunk EU detected 4615 articles related to NATO, which were posted by hostile media sources. Within the period, Debunk EU analysts reviewed 3136 articles with potentially harmful content, identifying 938 articles with false and misleading content from 97 media outlets. The articles had a potential reach of 989 million contacts.


The main distributors of NATO-related disinformation and misinformation in the Baltic countries in Russian and English languages were Kremlin-aligned media sources rambler.ru, ria.ru, tsargrad.tv and gazeta.ru. As far as the local language media outlets are concerned, Kremlin-funded sputniknewslv.com and sputniknews.lt stood out as the most false and misleading content publishing media sources in Latvian and Lithuanian languages, respectively.


Share of NATO-focused content in December 2020, @DebunkEU data

Problematic information with false and misleading content comprised a third of the general coverage about NATO. Out of all the content pieces analysed, disinformation was identified in 924 articles (29.46%), while misinformation comprised only 14 publications (0.45%). Moreover, almost all the articles that mentioned NATO in December were identified as negative (99.6%).


Throughout the monitored period, stories related to the NATO military and political agenda have received high trace in the Baltic information space, despite the media focus being mainly drawn to the COVID-19 pandemic. Disinformation flow targeting NATO in the Baltic countries sought high fluctuation, with up to five waves of increased number of articles published per month. High intensity of false and misleading content disseminated against the Alliance was mostly generated in relation to the external events that took ground in the Russian Federation and Belarus.


On average, approx. 30.3 false and misleading content pieces were identified per day. The highest rise of problematic information was observed on December 16th - December 18th, following the annual press conference of the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. Within these days, increase in false and misleading content exceeded the average of the month almost twice, constituting +89% and +94% increase in disinformation articles published, respectively.

NATO-focused disinformation dynamics by language, @DebunkEU data

Throughout December, narratives focusing on the military agenda of NATO outweighed the communication which was associated with political issues of the Alliance. Within the analysed period, narrative NATO is a threat was the most mentioned narrative in false and misleading coverage, making up to three times more than the narrative placing second in the general distribution, and reaching at least 958 million potential contacts.

Share of NATO-focused disinformation by narrative, @DebunkEU data

Dominant role of the narrative NATO is a threat was also witnessed in the dynamics of its application, resulting in the communication of the supposed ‘aggressiveness’ and ‘offensiveness’ of the Alliance being pushed persistently throughout the whole month.


Moreover, compared with the general dynamics of information flow, there seems to be a correlation between the complexity of narratives used with the statements made by political figures of the Russian Federation and Belarus, resulting in official representatives of the country sustaining the role of initiators of false and misleading content on NATO, with the strategic application of digital media sources to further amplify hostile messages.

NATO-focused narrative dynamics, December 2020, @DebunkEU data

Cross-analysis of member country mention and application of disinformation narratives targeting NATO, shows strong tendency of narratives being applied both universally, addressed to all member states of the Alliance, and regionally, i.e., adjusted to country specific context.


In terms of universal application, NATO is a threat and NATO is untrustworthy stood out as the narratives that contributed to the highest number of countries mentioned per false and misleading content piece.


Baltic countries were addressed with the narrative ‘Inadequate NATO defence spending’ more often than any other member states, with the primary focus paid on the questioning of NATO military capabilities strengthening in the region. Narrative ‘Cracking unity of NATO states’ was used exceptionally with mentions of Turkey and the countries relations with the U.S.

Mentions by narrative & state, December 2020, @DebunkEU data

The most popular sub-narrative in December was ‘NATO is aggressive and provocative’ under the narrative ‘NATO is a threat’. The following sub-narrative was applied up to three times more often than any other sub-narrative and constituted 602 mentions in total.


The following paragraphs include examples of hostile messages about NATO with explanations provided by Debunk EU.


NATO is preparing to invade Belarus

On December 2nd, during online session of CSTO Collective Security Council, leader of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko speaking about aggravating situation in the country pointed out to external factors, contributing to protests in Belarus. In his speech A. Lukashenko claimed that “NATO is creating special military unit to seize Western parts of Belarus” and accused Poland of having territorial claims to the country.” (ria.ru, 02/12/2020)

Those statements of A. Lukashenko match the definition of ‘hyperbolization’ - seeking to falsely exaggerate and inflate regular military activity of NATO eFP and U.S. rotational forces in Lithuania and Poland, stationed for defensive and deterrence purposes. The statement about the “NATO special military unit” is unsubstantiated, because there is no evidence to support such thesis, as well as “Poland’s aspirations for Grodno region”, which were multiple times rejected by senior Polish officials.


NATO is training to seize Kaliningrad oblast and Crimea

“<…> Crimea is of the most important geopolitical significance, so the likelihood of an attempt to seize it by Ukraine and NATO is quite high<…> Similar threats are taking place against the Kaliningrad region<…> NATO also has plans to seize this territory.” (nation-news.ru, 21/12/2020)

False and misleading implication is made here to suggest that NATO has offensive intentions to seize Kaliningrad region and Crimea, the latter being presented as Russian territory. ‘Association’ rhetorical technique is used to legitimize these statements by referring to the authority of a ‘military expert’ Alexander Perendzhiev, who previously served in the Russian armed forces and was fired from the position in 2009. Apart from the reference to expert’s opinion, no substantial evidence is given to back these comments on supposedly offensive behaviour of the Alliance.


NATO violated the promise given to USSR president M. Gorbachev in 1990

On December 17th, annual press conference of the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin was held in Moscow. In a five-hours online session V. Putin claimed that Russia is “white and fluffy” and accused the West of sharing blame for deteriorating relations with Russia. V. Putin stated: “We heard your assurances that NATO won’t expand to the East, but you didn’t keep your promises. Just who is white and fluffy and who is spiky and aggressive?“ (ntv.ru, 17/12/2020)

Statements about the West breaking the alleged promise not to enlarge NATO forces beyond the borders of a reunited Germany has been historically used to deflect criticism from Russian approach to foreign relations with the West. There have never been political or legally binding commitments of the West not to extend NATO beyond the borders of the reunified Germany. Therefore, the claim about the ‘broken promise’ is an overstatement, which is supported by malign rhetoric technique used to ridicule the idea of being otherwise.


NATO is making up the myth of “Russian threat”

“NATO's accusations against Russia about an alleged threat from it are heard with enviable frequency. <…> Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg regularly speaks of the ‘Russian threat’. In order for the alliance to continue to prove the necessity of its existence, it is necessary to warm up the information space. <…> The facts do not matter much for Western countries, the main thing for them is to continue the hybrid war, where the information component plays a key role.” (lv.baltnews.com, 05/12/2020)

This opinion piece of a military expert Andrey Koshkinis was presented as a fact to legitimize the claim about the ‘Russian threat’ allegedly being an asset of the Alliance’s information warfare against Russia. To further support this statement, the author uses ‘selection’ rhetorical technique by inserting parts of factually correct information into flawed assumptions, leading readers to believe that differences in defence budgets of the Alliance and Russia already predetermine who the actual ‘aggressor’ is.


NATO committed aggression against Libya

“We are also concerned about the developments in another regional country, Libya. Its statehood was destroyed in NATO’s air raids in 2011. Now all of us have to deal with the consequences of that absolutely illegal act of aggression.” (Minister of Foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, mid.ru, 07/12/2020)

Though controversial, NATO-led military intervention in Libya back in 2011 by no means can be characterized as either ‘illegal act of aggression’ or ‘opened armed aggression’ since multi-state coalition was implementing the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which was affirmed by members of the SC (Russia abstaining from the vote) and which gave legal basis for the intervention. Therefore, claims about NATO’s ‘aggression’ are factually incorrect and are simplifications that are being used to demonize the Alliance.


NATO turns smaller countries into military bridgeheads

“Ukraine is being prepared as a springboard for military action against Russia. <…> NATO uses the territory of Ukraine to practice bombing strikes by aircraft on Russian cities. At the same time, the leadership of the Alliance does not even ask permission from Kiev, but simply informs it.” (tsargrad.tv, 14/12/2020)
“<…> NATO places its military bases in the former Soviet republics because their future is not important to them. The alliance is ready to burn countries in the fire of war, they will not care, they are ready to make cannon meat out of states.” (nation-news.ru, 23/12/2020)

Statements that NATO allegedly is turning its partner as well as member states into military bridgeheads fall under ‘hyperbolization’ rhetorical technique, where author tries to impose false dilemma on readers by presenting the strengthening of military capabilities as either/or choice vice versa more state sovereignty. In reality, there is no incompatibility between the two, as increase in deterrence capacities lowers the risk of armed conflict and, therefore, results in more effective sovereignty. The purpose of the false dilemma is to confuse readers to start treating manipulated situations as ‘real’.


Measured by mentions, publications in Russian language (89.1%) stood out as the main contributor to problematic information dissemination in the Baltic countries, followed by Lithuanian (8.5%) and Latvian (1.8%) languages. No false and misleading publications were identified in Estonian language. Measured by DebunkReach®, Russian and English language media sources stood out in terms of potential contacts reached, with Russian constituting 976 million contacts (via 836 articles) and English taking up to 7.6 million contacts (via 5 publications).


The main distributors of NATO-related disinformation and misinformation in the Baltic countries were Kremlin-aligned media sources rambler.ru, ria.ru, tsargrad.tv and gazeta.ru.


In terms of mentions produced, state-funded Kremlin outlets (such as Sputnik, RT, VGTRK and Pervyi) comprised only up to a fifth (20.74%) share of publications in December. High dispersion of media sources with none significantly standing out from the others indicates false and misleading content being scattered, rather than concentrated in one place, which in turn complicates the efforts to address each content piece with a factual and reliable information separately.

Main media sources by share of articles, @DebunkEU data

Measured by DebunkReach®, slight changes occurred in the ranking of media sources with the highest potential contact outreach. Almost all outlets within the period published false and misleading information on NATO in Russian language, except for rt.com, which published several content pieces in English.


The capacity of the Kremlin-affiliated outlets to dominate media landscape is also noteworthy, where state-controlled media sources (e.g., RIA Novosti, Rossyiskaya Gazeta, TASS) and media owned by private business companies close to the Kremlin circles (e.g., Federal News Agency, REN TV, Vzglyad, etc.) constituted up to 50% of the contacts reached.

Main media sources by DebunkReach®, @DebunkEU data

The share of media market, controlled by the Russian government, affects the ability of less dependent media sources, such as tsargrad.tv or news-front.info, to reach wider audiences, which amounted only for less than 2% of potential contacts reached.


As far as the local language media outlets are concerned, Kremlin-funded sputniknewslv.com and sputniknews.lt stood out as the most false and misleading content publishing media sources in Latvian and Lithuanian languages, respectively. Though public groups and pages on Facebook in Lithuania were leading in terms of mentions produced, no unifying pattern between social network users was found, suggesting that NATO-related disinformation published there is a combination of different topics and narratives instead.

Distribution by Lithuanian-language sources, @DebunkEU data
Distribution by Latvian-language sources, @DebunkEU data

Measured by DebunkReach®, both sputniknewslv.com and sputniknews.lt tended to result in the highest numbers of potential contacts reached within the local language media sources (sputniknewslv.com - 13 255 contacts, 49.5% of targeted audience; sputniknews.lt - 25 804 contacts, 65% of targeted audience). Despite the numbers of these outlets, compared to potential contacts of major news groups in Latvia and Lithuania, remaining relatively low, Sputnik branches in the respective countries nonetheless sustain the role of the most important contributors to NATO-related false and misleading content dissemination in the Baltic countries.


Debunk EU analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:

  • DebunkEU analysis platform

  • CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.

  • Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.

  • TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.


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