Rus­sia sharp­ens ‘in­for­ma­tion weapon’


Calgary Herald - - NP - MATTHEW FISHER from Riga, Latvia

Rus­sia’s on­go­ing cam­paign to un­der­mine NATO’s pres­ence in the for­mer Soviet Baltic re­publics via pro­pa­ganda and dis­in­for­ma­tion in­cluded a re­cent at­tack on De­fence Min­is­ter Har­jit Sa­j­jan for wear­ing a tur­ban, ac­cord­ing to one of Latvia’s top sol­diers.

“That was the talk of the town,” Col. Il­mars Le­jins said at a con­fer­ence here that dis­cussed “NATO in the Dis­in­for­ma­tion Age.”

“The mere fact that (Sa­j­jan) wore a tur­ban was ex­ploited. That will hap­pen again,” said the colonel, who as com­man­der of Latvia’s army brigade has been work­ing with of­fi­cers from the Cana­dian-led NATO bat­tle group that will this sum­mer es­tab­lish a long-term trip­wire pres­ence in the state, which shares a 214-kilo­me­tre bor­der with Rus­sia.

The colonel’s the­ory as to why sus­pected In­ter­net trolls act­ing on Rus­sia’s be­half made an ef­fort to spread word that Sa­j­jan wore “dif­fer­ent head­gear than any­one else” was to play upon what it re­gards as “la­tent xeno­pho­bia” in eastern Europe.

It took ad­van­tage of the fact that some Euro­peans as­so­ciate tur­bans with rad­i­cal Is­lam, he said.

Sa­j­jan is not Mus­lim; he wears a tur­ban as a prac­tis­ing Sikh. His of­fice did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

“Some things which ap­pear in the In­ter­net com­mu­nity are bla­tantly racist,” Le­jins said, such as spec­u­la­tion about whether NATO “will be serv­ing halal” in mil­i­tary chow halls and can­teens, and why Latvia’s Air Baltic “stopped serv­ing pork and switched to beef and chicken.”

The 450 Cana­di­ans bound for Latvia must be pre­pared to de­fend against tra­di­tional threats, such as tanks, ar­tillery, in­fantry and at­tack air­craft. But be­cause Rus­sian op­er­a­tives have been in­fect­ing the Baltics with a large num­ber of false sto­ries, it is a much more com­pli­cated bat­tle space than it was when Cana­dian troops re­turned home from bases in Ger­many in 1994.

Rus­sia’s top gen­eral, Valery Gerasi­mov, summed up the new en­vi­ron­ment in two words: “cy­ber war­fare.”

The so-called Gerasi­mov Doc­trine in­volves a toxic brew of con­ven­tional mil­i­tary ac­tions, covert in­flu­ence, elec­tronic war­fare and psy­cho­log­i­cal op­er­a­tions that “opens wide asym­met­ri­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties for re­duc­ing the fight­ing po­ten­tial of the en­emy,” the gen­eral said in an es­say pub­lished four years ago.

Ear­lier this year, one of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s clos­est al­lies, De­fence Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu, an­nounced the cre­ation of a mil­i­tary unit pur­pose-built to con­duct in­for­ma­tion war­fare.

Ex­am­ples of what it may al­ready be up to in­clude re­cent re­ports that death threats had been texted to the phones of Ukrainian troops fight­ing Rus­sian­backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, and a fake let­ter cir­cu­lated on­line, on Swedish govern­ment let­ter­head, that pur­port­edly sanc­tioned the ex­port of weapons to Ukrainian forces.

Four Rus­sian-lan­guage sta­tions owned or con­trolled by Moscow broad­cast di­rectly into the three Baltic states, where they are avidly watched by the large Rus­sian mi­nori­ties there. An ob­vi­ous way Rus­sia has tried to shape pub­lic opin­ion against the West was to give tele­vi­sion au­di­ences in the Baltic states “en­ter­tain­ment which they found at­trac­tive,” said Ja­nis Sarts, di­rec­tor of the Riga-based NATO Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence.

This ap­proach de­lib­er­ately “cuts down crit­i­cal think­ing and makes (view­ers) vul­ner­a­ble to the mes­sag­ing that news pro­grams tell them. Rus­sia is very good at this.”

In one of the few for­mal pushes back against Rus­sian in­flu­ence in the re­gion’s in­for­ma­tion sphere, a Lithua­nian court last month or­dered the clo­sure of the Latvia-reg­is­tered Balti­jas Me­duja Al­liance, which streams Rus­sian-lan­guage pro­gram­ming over the In­ter­net.

The Krem­lin was try­ing “to cre­ate an in­for­ma­tion fog,” said Don­ald Jensen, a fel­low with the Wash­ing­ton­based think-tank Cen­tre for Euro­pean Pol­icy Anal­y­sis. One of the weapons in its “bag of tricks” was to con­stantly claim that “ev­ery­one lies,” he said.

Martins Kaprans, who stud­ies Rus­sian me­dia for CEPA, said that what the Baltic states, NATO and coun­tries such as Canada de­ploy­ing to Eastern Europe were up against was “an ar­chi­pel­ago of pro-Krem­lin web­sites” that de­picted the al­liance as a group of in­creas­ingly rad­i­cal­ized “war­mon­gers.” One of them, Vesti. lv, a slickly pro­duced news site specif­i­cally di­rected at Latvia, ag­gres­sively pro­motes Rus­sia’s point of view.

A re­cent Vesti re­port grossly ex­ag­ger­ated what NATO was do­ing, Kaprans said: it stated that 3,000 al­liance tanks were to be de­ployed to the Baltics when the real num­ber was less than 100. In the same murky spirit, one of Vesti’s lead re­ports on Fri­day de­scribed “the fight against Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda” as “ab­surd.”

De­spite the ubiq­uity of such mes­sag­ing, Kaprans cited a poll that showed sup­port for the west­ern mil­i­tary al­liance in Latvia has risen among eth­nic Rus­sians from 34 per cent to 45 per cent over the past five years, while sup­port among eth­nic Lat­vians had grown from 49 per cent to 59 per cent dur­ing the same pe­riod.

The Soviet Union had al­ways “weaponized in­for­ma­tion, but in some ways tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments have changed the struc­ture,” said Sarts. “The in­for­ma­tion weapon is be­com­ing sharper. We are up for a much more in­tense en­vi­ron­ment and at the mo­ment we are quite far be­hind.”


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