February continued the trends set in the beginning of the year, as major disinformation flow triggers included tensions around Alexey Navalny’s case as well as the politicized promotion of Sputnik V vaccine. The news about Latvia banning selected TV channels produced in Russia and announcing a Russian TV as persona non grata amplified the narrative of violations of freedom of speech. The analysis also showcased a trend of top Kremlin officials singling out Baltic states and Poland as creating obstacles for Russia‘s cooperation with the West.
In February 2021, Debunk EU analysts reviewed 6,523 articles related to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland with potentially harmful content posted by hostile media sources. Of these, 2,226 articles with false and misleading content from 146 media sources (including 54 Facebook groups) in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian languages were identified.
The 2,226 articles with false and misleading content analysed by Debunk EU had a potential reach of 953.9 million contacts. Vast majority of the articles with false and misleading content regarding the Baltic countries and Poland were published in Russian language, capturing a share of 73.0% measured by articles.
The most vivid common denominator in terms of false and misleading content was the case of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny: the presence of Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish diplomats at the court hearing, calls for EU sanctions against Russia, and expulsion of diplomats sparked a wave of problematic information, fitted under the already existing narratives of interfering into internal affairs of other countries, pursuing irrational policies, aiming for more attention from big players in the international arena.
Case #1: The Baltics interfere in Russian internal affairs
What was claimed:
For the Baltic countries, Alexey Navalny is a new Boris Yeltsin: the three would want Russia to crumble. The Baltics are like a Soviet dissident: even though they are in the EU, mentally they are a part of ‘Big Russia.’ Being an inseparable part of it, they are waiting for the Russian liberalism of 1991 to come back, and this hope gives birth to ‘the painfully obscene interest of the Baltic authorities in the internal affairs of Russia and the support of the Russian opposition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which defies all diplomatic propriety.’ (news-front.info, 04/02/2021)
The article comes as a part of several meta-narratives traced in pro-Kremlin media and in line with the statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin on how the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Although in this case the Baltics are ‘mentally’ dependable on Russia, this is a part of the rhetoric on the three countries being unable to survive without Russia, first of all - economically. The Baltics are presented as a colony of the metropolis, official Moscow, and reflects the denial of the ability by the Baltics to act independently. In addition, criticism on the handling of the Navalny case is not an interference in Russia’s internal affairs yet a legitimate stance regarding human rights and the rule of law in the country. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and hence is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Overall, the month was marked by reactive and adaptive flow of disinformation. The ‘vaccine war’ was also echoed within the coverage, as separating politics from health/medical issues proved to be an almost impossible task, with Russia promoting its Sputnik V vaccine, dubbed as ‘Russia’s hybrid weapon’ by the Lithuanian PM. Bans on some Russian media outlets which were imposed by Latvia and considered by Lithuania were used as an alleged proof of breachingthe freedom of speech and a hostile attack on Russian media in the Baltics.
The analysis also uncovered a worrying trend - the Baltic countries and Poland were increasingly singled out by pro-Kremlin media, citing Russia’s top officials, such as the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, as not just ‘limitrophe states,’ as they are often derogatory referred to in the Kremlin linked media, but as an alleged bastion of Russophobia, and an obstacle to the peaceful coexistence of Russia and the EU.
Compared to the previous month, in February there was an increase of over 70% in total amount of cases targeting Estonia. Issues related to foreign policy of the country tended to dominate the negative information flow, largely resulting from expulsion of a Russian diplomat. The publication of an intelligence service yearbook added to that as well.
The peak of disinformation was identified on February 18th; it was triggered by Estonia’s decision the declare a diplomat of the Russian Embassy persona non grata.
Case #2: Estonia expelled a Russian diplomat to express its loyalty to the West
What was claimed:
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commenting on the expulsion of the Russian diplomat from Estonia: ‘Maybe the Estonian government that took office recently wanted to demonstrate its loyalty to Washington and Brussels by declaring, absolutelygroundlessly, a diplomat working at the Russian embassy a persona non grata.’ (russian.rt.com, 19/02/2021)
Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not revealed the reason why the Russian diplomat was expelled from the country. However, according to former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu, the decision was made during his term of office, which ended mid-January. The diplomat was expelled for 'improper activities in the host country' as ‘Estonia is an independent country and must defend its sovereignty comprehensively,’ Reinsalu said. The claims that the Estonian Government is trying to ‘demonstrate it loyalty to Washington and Brussels’ with this move comes as a part of the narrative aimed at purveying the image of Estonia and the Baltics overall as EU/U.S./NATO vassals.
Compared to January, with an average of 20.1% of disinformation rate per reviewed articles, February presented 98.1% increase of the share of problematic information.
Vast majority of articles (85.9%) focused on political topics, mainly resulting from the decision to exclude 16 programs from the list of transmission in Latvia due to problems in the handling of documents.
The peak of mis/disinformation related to Latvia was identified on February 17-19. The main trigger was Latvia’s Foreign Minister’s decision to declare Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian TV host, as persona non-grata for glorification of Hitler in one of his shows.
Case #3: Sanctions for ‘glorification of Nazism’ are hypocritical
What was claimed:
Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs included the Russian journalist Vladimir Soloviev in the list of persons who are prohibited from entering Latvia for ‘glorification of Nazism.’ All the laws of morality and common sense have been overthrown. This is a unique phenomenon even for the EU: a country where Nazism and Nazi supporters are openly glorified, imposes sanctions on an anti-fascist journalist from Russia. The decision is a revenge to Solovyov for labelling Navalny ‘codpiece Fuhrer.’ (lv.sputniknews.ru, 22/02/2021)
During a live broadcast on February 5, Vladimir Solovyov referred to Hitler as ‘personally a very brave man’ who ‘fought honourably in World War I.’ He had been comparing Hitler to Alexey Navalny, whom he disparaged as a ‘codpiece Fuhrer.’ The glorification of Nazism is a criminal offense in Russia itself. The claims of Latvia being a country glorifying Nazism has been present for years and may in fact be traced back to the Soviet propaganda. The Latvian Legion Day on March 16th is commemorated for fighting against the Soviet occupation and for Latvia's freedom but the Nazi connection (the Latvian Legion was a part of the Waffen-SS) causes great controversy abroad with Russia taking the opportunity to present the Legionnaires via the simplified ‘you are either with us or against us’ alternative.
In February Lithuania was mostly presented as politically failed state, yet the amount of hits classified under the category of rhetoric claiming Lithuania was ridden with Russophobia grew along with the country’s prime minister’s statements on the refusal to buy Sputnik V and thus supporting the Putin regime.
Noteworthy, narratives concerning domestic and foreign policy overlapped in a considerable part of articles, with the Lithuanian Government being portrayed as cynical or hypocritical, accused of interference into internal affairs of other countries while failing to deal with the problems of its own (Covid-19 pandemic, violations of human rights).
Case #4: Lithuanian government does not care for people’s safety by refusing Sputnik V
What was claimed:
The statements made by the Lithuanian PM on Sputnik V evidence how deeply Russophobia is rooted in the Lithuanian political elite. Europe now speaks exclusively in a positive way about the Russian vaccine, sometimes as about a real salvation. Russophobia is widespread, yet in Old Europe it does not completely disable the common sense, and Lithuanian authorities suffer from Russophobia as a serious psychiatric pathology. The refusal to use Sputnik V whilst not being able to tackle the pandemic shows that Lithuanian political elite doesn’t give a damn about the people and its health. (riafan.ru, 07/02/2021)
Faced with mounting cases and deaths caused by COVID-19, some EU members have or are announcing plans to purchase doses of Sputnik V. However, most of the EU discussion about the vaccine do include the dilemma of using a jab from the Putin regime, especially at the background of sanctions against Russia and Navalny case. The claims that Russia fares much better in national vaccination programme than Lithuania is questionable: in terms of the number of COVID-19 vaccination doses administered per 100 population, Lithuania ranks higher than Russia. Both Lithuania and Ukraine have been continuously denigrated for refusing to see Russia offering its COVID-19 vaccine decoupled from its geopolitical interests.
The dynamics of problematic information with regards to Poland was largely affected by international events. Smaller waves of specific narratives were repetitively published simultaneously throughout the month: for example, several statements by Polish and Russian politicians have been used to undermine the Polish position on Nord Stream 2. The highest increase of disinformation targeting the country was identified on February 2-8, mostly triggered by tense political situation surrounding Alexey Navalny’s case and expulsion of Polish/Russian diplomats.
At the end of the month noticeable flow of disinformation was noticed regarding the Polish military (triggered by military exercises and the construction of a new US anti-missile shield in Słupsk) and introduction of new regulation related to covering faces in public with only medical masks.
Case #5: By supporting Navalny, Poland serves the interests of the West
What was claimed:
An online meeting with members of Russian opposition initiated by Poland's Permanent Mission to the EU is yet another evidence of Western countries continuing their ‘absolutely illegal, unlawful, aggressive attack on Russia, according to the spokeswoman of Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova. The attempts Alexei Navalny’s supporters to resort to foreign policy methods to release him from prison is a demonstration of the status of a foreign agent, the spokesman for Russian President Dmitry Peskov said. The German special services must have helped Alexei Navalny when filming a film about the ‘Putin’s palace’ in Gelendzhik. The film was a fake and it was ordered by the U.S. (news-front.info, 09/02/2021)