Throughout the year of 2021, a widespread network of Kremlin-affiliated media was utilised to cover up multiple accidents and divert any concerns about the safety of Belarusian nuclear power plant in Astraviets. Disinformation narratives were applied to discredit major critics of the plant, escalate disagreements between allies, publicise the economic benefits of the BelNPP, present the Soviet-era infrastructure as the most economically viable and safe, and, finally, to improve the image of Belarus and Russia.
There is a consensus amongst various political analysts and nuclear safety experts that the BelNPP, built in Belarus on a Russian loan, is a geopolitical project of the Kremlin, designed to help achieve several different strategic objectives in the region, such as profiting from electricity exports to Western countries, further subordinating Belarus to the will of the Kremlin, and showing Russia’s power and disregard towards its neighbours. The later was done by choosing the location of the power plant extremely close to the Lithuanian capital and the largest city Vilnius.
Throughout January-December 2021, malign information against the Lithuanian position regarding the BelNPP accounted for 2128 entities (37.98% out of examined 5603). Disinformation constituted 85.20%, while misinformation – 14.80% of the articles published and distributed by Kremlin-funded (or affiliated) media outlets and social media accounts.
Sputniknews.ru, sputniknews.lt, and baltnews.lt published the biggest share of it containing a malign message about the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP (11.8%, 9.3%, and 6.2% share of all articles respectively).
In turn, ria.ru, lenta.ru and rambler.ru shared more than 44% of the total contact reach of articles (27.4%, 9.9%, and 7.3% of all articles respectively). It is worthwhile mentioning that since 2014 ria.ru has been taken over by the Kremlin-subordinate institutions and is funded through the state budget.
The highest peak of negative mentions discrediting Lithuanian position was observed on October 21. It coincided with a message by the deputy from Ukrainian party ‘Servant of the People’ Andriy Gerus on various social media profiles of his own saying that Lithuania has increased the consumption of electricity supplied from the BelNPP, while urging Ukraine to abandon it.
The analysis of the disinformation disseminated by pro-Kremlin outlets has highlighted at least five essential strategic communication tasks. These insights are also attested by the fact that media channels directly funded by the Kremlin were amongst the most frequent and most effective sources of disinformation. The same thing can be seen when comparing content disseminated in different languages.
According to the analysis of narratives and sub-narratives, the first strategic aim was to discredit the arguments used by Lithuania, and of its political activity in general. Attempts to do so come from different angles and in a variety of topics. The most recurrent leitmotif is that Lithuania’s criticism against the BelNPP is built on political, Russophobic reasons, and not on environmental concerns. The Lithuanian authorities are therefore determined to ignore not only the interests of their neighbours and partners, but also the well-being of their own society. Many articles published by pro-Kremlin outlets asserted that Lithuania’s policies are driving up the energy prices, and sowing panic of inevitable nuclear disaster amongst the people.
A very important emphasis is also placed on exposing the weakness of the Lithuanian state, which is allegedly unable to live up to its publicly stated principles and is secretly doing the opposite by buying Belarusian electricity. Moreover, Lithuania supposedly is not in a position to rally regional and EU partners, nor international nuclear safety organisations, to boycott the BelNPP electricity. Moreover, Lithuania is allegedly jealous of the BelNPP because it has not been able to build its own power plant.
Along with attempts to discredit Lithuanian government and its policies came efforts to highlight any possible disagreements between allies and partners in the region. The analysis has shown that those can be categorised in several main directions.
The most important target of the pro-Kremlin media is present the cracking unity of the Baltic states. In such articles, the focus always falls on the alleged pressure of Lithuania on the other Baltic states. It is stressed that even the most ‘Russophobic’ neighbours no longer understand supposedly radical and logically unjustified actions of Lithuanian authorities. Moreover, because of that, Latvia, and Estonia are even starting to look to the Russians for help.
Another very important element of malign information is the Lithuania-Ukraine relations. In this case, it can be noted that the target of disinformation differs a bit – Lithuania is presented as a selfish and unreliable partner to Ukraine, allegedly asking to refuse Belarusian electricity out of solidarity, while proposing to freeze as an alternative. Moreover, it allegedly continues to import BelNPP products in secret. This is an attempt to show that not only Lithuania, but all Western partners in general, are not worthy of Ukraine's trust.
A third important objective of pro-Kremlin media communication is to defend the BelNPP from both an economic and environmental perspective. This task is carried out by firstly highlighting the unfoundedness of Lithuania's accusations, glossing over environmental problems and security incidents, and pointing out the alleged political subtext of the confrontation. Secondly, it is done by reproducing only the positive reviews of international nuclear safety organisations and ignoring the shortcomings highlighted by the same organisations. Finally, the supposed economic profitability is driven by the myth that the electricity from the BelNPP is cheaper and can decrease the prices in the region significantly, ignoring both the experts' concerns that such claims are not substantiated, and the assumption that austerity and incompetence can make today's cheapness very expensive tomorrow.
In addition to the exoneration of the BelNPP, there is a strong emphasis on maintaining the overall Soviet-era infrastructure in the region. On the one hand, it is stressed that Lithuania unwisely succumbed to the pressure of the EU and closed the highly profitable Ignalina NPP. On the other hand, it is said that the Baltic states stand to lose a lot by disconnecting from the BRELL energy ring, which, unlike Western interconnectors, is time-tested, reliable and gives access to supposedly cheaper electricity imports from the East. These arguments are conveniently ignored in the light of the similarities between the Chernobyl NPP and the Ignalina NPP and the fact that the BRELL network is being used to blackmail the Baltic states.
Finally, the least frequent but equally important task of pro-Kremlin media in the analysed domains is to improve the image of Belarusian and Russian politics. Belarus is portrayed as very open to the missions of international nuclear safety organisations, sensitive to the environmental issues, and willing to provide cheaper electricity exports to its neighbours. On the other hand, the Russian side is shown to be rational, magnanimous, and willing to lend a helping hand, even to those who hurt it. For example, the pro-Kremlin media widely circulated the messages that Russian companies are ready to increase exports immediately, when news of Latvian and Estonian representatives considering increasing the electricity capacity from Belarus appeared. Moreover, Russia's role as an arbitrator in the alleged dispute between the Baltic states was exaggerated.