Calgary Herald

Russia sharpens ‘informatio­n weapon’


- 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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