The diplomats of Poland and the Baltic states undertake continuous efforts to convey to the EU institutions and the NATO governance the information that their countries have long resisted information aggression of Russia. They also focus attention on the fact that Russian cyber troops, long before the start of the hot phase of the conflict with Ukraine, unleashed an information war against the neighboring state. The latter supposes the broad dissemination of propaganda materials, the deliberate spread of false information, the activities of Internet trolls, the hacking of websites and personal accounts, the spread of malicious programs and the conduct of special information and psychological operations.
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia (as former USSR members) and Poland (as former member of the communist camp) do not exclude the possibility of a hot conflict which may rise from the information war unleashed against them by Russia.
NATO activity in general and the deployment of US troops in particular is of special interest for the actions of the Russian Federation on disinformation in the Baltic region. The purpose of Russia’s information operations is to portray the Alliance in a bad light and to reduce trust in NATO among the population of the region. The security services of Poland and the Baltic countries constantly reveal cases of disinformation activities aimed at inciting anti-American sentiments and destabilizing military cooperation with the United States. At the same time, the high intensity of Russian disinformation efforts, which is opposing the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank, is a sign of a high importance of the topic for Moscow. Generally, Russia views NATO as its adversary and consider strengthening of the Alliance’s troops on its western borders as its main threat.
Thus, infamous was an April operation of the Russian hackers concerning hacking website of the Academy of Military Arts (Warsaw), where a fake letter of the university’s rector addressed to the Polish military was posted, in which the general accused the government of pursuing a thoughtless friendly policy towards the United States and unfair charges against the Russian Federation.
Further, this letter was distributed to many Polish and several foreign websites. For example, the English-language web-portal The Duran posted the information about the “Rector’s Letter” under the heading “A Polish General Calls on Polish Soldiers to Fight the US Occupation.”
In this situation, a positive moment for Poland was the wide coverage of the problem of the Russian Federation’s activity in the state information space. As a result, it became clear that the system of countering disinformation in Poland is weak and this requires urgent correction. It appeared necessary to conduct information campaigns aimed at disclosure of not only the already published fakes, but also at warning the country’s population about possible spread of fake news, as well as explaining the purpose of the US military presence in the region.
Another time the Russian hackers posted appeals to Polish patriots, to hold a march under the slogan “No US troops in Poland!” on the website of the Ogisz Mayor’s Office and local web-portals. The fight against cyber attacks lasted for two days. When editorial offices deleted the fake articles, cybercriminals re-published them using vulnerabilities. The material was accessible on different websites, from one hour to one day. There was a case of a fake article published on citizen journalism website orzysz.wm.pl, which give rise to the question whether there is a mechanism for verification of the content of such websites.
Earlier, Poland and Lithuania at once posted false information regarding the mass evacuation of people. In Poland it was the evacuation of local residents by the US military and the US military police from the areas of high risk of hostilities. In Lithuania, the fact of purposed radioactive contamination of river waters by NATO troops was reported . It was expected that during the exercise, missiles carrying depleted uranium would fall into one of the local rivers and infect waters in the Kaunas region. The date of the operation was not accidental – it coincided with the Dragon exercises in Poland and the Iron Wolf in Lithuania. The main purpose of the disinformation was to discredit NATO. False information was posted at night on several Polish and Lithuanian websites, which were hacked due to “gaps” in their Content Management System.
Very often, Russian cyber warriors distribute content containing accusations of crimes, typically sexual violence (most often pedophilia) and commitment to Nazism against NATO soldiers. For example, a fake about US soldier who allegedly killed a Pole was posted at 3 am on 8 local web-portals. Posting content at night or on weekends ensures that editorial offices will not notice fake content until the next day.
Fake about deployed German soldiers who raped a local woman appeared in Latvia. Another case, which also concerns the military from Germany, occurred in Lithuania, where they allegedly desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Kaunas by painting swastikas on graves. At the same time, the moment of the fake was not chosen by chance – back then Vilnius held the meeting of the President of Lithuania with representatives of the Jewish community of the United States. The false news was promptly sent to several English-speaking Israeli newsrooms. Moreover, despite the rapid denial of this story, the Kremlin still managed to cause damage to the image of both Lithuania and the German military.
Massive cyber operation involved a fake about US plans to remove nuclear weapons from Turkey to Lithuania. The idea of Kremlin was the information about the likelihood of nuclear weapons appeared within the state to cause disruption of the sense of safety in the society, sow discord within Lithuanians, and ultimately – wreak havoc in the political life of the state to weaken it.
At the same time, the messages appeared very timely – during a period of tension between Washington and Ankara due to Turkish operations in Syria. The hackers have hacked into the web-portal of the kasvyksta.lt agency, where they posted a fake about the transfer of nuclear weapons to Lithuania, and then, under the veil of well-known journalists, requested a comment from the press service of the President of Lithuania and members of the government. This was not the final of operation – the second target was the journalists of the Lithuanian media, who received emails with false information from cyber criminals on this case representing themselves as high-ranking officials of Lithuania. The entire operation was performed at a high professional level – even a tweet of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was created, in which he congratulated the President of Lithuania on the successful transfer of nuclear weapons.
In addition, the cyber troops of the Russian Federation are putting every effort to split Poland with its eastern neighbor, Ukraine, in order to deprive Warsaw of support of Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. However, if the Ukraine’s accession of the Alliance is a nightmare for the Russian authorities, it may become beneficial for Poland. First, with such a state of things, Poland will no longer be a border country of the Alliance. Secondly, Ukraine will become a buffer for Poland, being first to take on the complex of threats emanating from Russia. Obviously, this situation is already observed today, however, one should take into account the fact that Moscow keeps on trying to return Ukraine into its zone of influence.
Sputnik Polska, the Russian Polish-language agency together with affiliated media are actively using the difficult history of Poland and Ukraine to arouse mutual distrust among the population. The Kremlin-controlled media sows contempt for Ukrainians among Poles, presenting them as a society “obsessed with fascism and the cult of the terrorist Stepan Bandera.” In turn, Russian hackers are replicating the image of Poles within the territory of Ukraine as arrogant chauvinists and modern slave owners who mock Ukrainian labor migrants.
Moreover, spreading misinformation on Polish websites, blogs, forums and social networks, the Kremlin hackers and the Polish journalists they use preemptively forget to give a link to the source of the material, for example, to Sputnik Polska. This makes the information more reliable and not so easy to link it to intentional actions of the Russian Federation.
Despite the fact that cyber operations take place within the territory of Poland and the Baltic countries very often, they had no practical effect – the attitude of the local population towards NATO has not changed. However, there is no doubt that they will be repeated over and over again, and their sophistication will only grow.
Also, politicians of the Baltic region draw the attention of the EU and the NATO leaders to the fact that if trust in Alliance among the population of their region fell (due to the Kremlin’s propaganda), the next day the cyber troops of the Russian Federation would start influencing the opinion of another member of the Alliance for a similar purpose. Probably this may be Norway, as well as Sweden and Finland, which still discuss whether it is advisable to join NATO.
Polish and Baltic politicians constantly warn that, despite the obvious absurdity of most of the information disseminated by the cyber troops of the Russian Federation, the favourable for the Kremlin content is still slowly seeping into one or another Western society. As an expert of cynical propaganda Joseph Goebbels used to say, “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes true”.
Responding to the information war initiated by Russia, the Alliance created the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, headquartered in Tallinn, as well as takes up the monitoring and correction of fakes generated by Russian media. In turn, the EU has created a special working group, EastStratComTaskForce, and the European External Action Service publishes a weekly Disinformation Review. But Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn believe that in light of the threats emanating from Moscow, this is clearly not enough. Well, possibly, they’ll be fortunate enough to convince the VIPs in Brussels.