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How local pro-Kremlin agents in Estonia campaign against NATO

During 1998-2004, NATO membership for Estonia was a kind of priority, which was set by the country's main political forces, but was also widely supported by many residents, with some minor exceptions, who viewed the Alliance as either a threat to Estonian sovereignty or an attempt to annoy the West Russia The latter was clearly opposed to the membership of the Baltic States in NATO and used continually aggressive arguments and unfriendly rhetoric, referring to someone's promises “not to expand NATO to the east”. A few years later, this phrase was embedded in one of the main anti-NATO narratives, which are designed to emphasize the conspiratorial and contemptible betrayal of Russia by the West.

In order to widely disseminate its antagonistic attitude, Russia mobilized various media channels, pseudo-media and other tools among the communities of so-called compatriots in Estonia, who generally tend to consume information in Russian from Russian or local pro-Kremlin forces. After 15 years of full membership of NATO and the EU in Estonian society, divisions along linguistic and ethnic lines can still be observed when it comes to NATO, the presence of allied forces in Estonia, the country's participation in international missions, national security guarantees, etc.

The arrival of NATO allies in Estonia as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) has provoked many violent reactions in almost every local Russian-language media. One of the reasons for this unbalanced coverage was the presence of strong anti-NATO prejudices and widespread myths that were created and cultivated among local Russian-speaking pro-Kremlin propagandists for many decades. In other words, the anti-NATO information campaigns were for the most part designed to meet the expectations of most of the local Russian-speaking Estonia. In the essence of such information campaigns there is no high degree of sophistication, but rather they consist of a series of repetitive simple messages with an accurate understanding of their target audience, their fears and ingrained stereotypes.

One of the most common anti-NATO narratives in Estonia is based on the idea of NATO and its troops as immoral deviants who show no respect for the local people, are very arrogant with ordinary civilians and are not aware of local traditions. Usually such stories are emotionally charged and often spiced with offensive denouncing accusations to highlight the “personal experience of witnesses” of the intolerable behavior of NATO troops against ordinary people in Estonia.

Among the key hostile anti-NATO narratives in the Estonian information space are the following:

1: NATO troops - immoral deviants, notorious murderers, illegal militants, etc. As a method, very offensive rhetoric, coarse language and labeling are used.

2: NATO troops are portrayed as frivolous, comical, absurd, dull and stupid. As a method, ridicule, funny associations and comparison with cheap circus are used.

3: NATO does not wish and / or is unable to defend Estonia militarily. As a method, the sarcastic rhetoric about the weakness of NATO is used, while Russia is portrayed as a stronger country militarily.

4: NATO is spending meaninglessly huge financial resources of its member countries. As a method, cynical remarks and comparison with underfinancing of other socio-economic areas are used.

5: The sole purpose of a NATO presence in Estonia is to annoy Russia. As a method, firm convictions are spreading and advancing that the sovereignty and territory of Estonia are abused by foreign forces.

6: NATO is simply a tool for the geopolitical and imperialist aspirations of the United States. As a method, they are trying to convince people that they are foolishly playing with Estonia to the detriment of its own interests (which, presumably, should manifest themselves in strong political and economic ties with Russia).

7: NATO spreads bloody unjust wars with many casualties around the world. As a method, pacifistic messages are distributed, containing appeals to the world and causing alarm because of the presence of NATO, since Estonia has now become a real military goal.

8: NATO creates many unpleasant obstacles to the everyday lives of ordinary people. As a method, various stories are being fabricated with some piquant examples: noisy exercises disrupt the nighttime sleep of local peaceful people, heavy military vehicles completely destroy the environment or the local road, drunk soldiers rudely irritate or even openly unfriendly to local people, etc.

In accordance with opportunistic timing, target audiences and information channels, the above-mentioned anti-NATO narratives are regularly distributed in Estonia in order to develop and maintain a negative attitude towards NATO as a whole, as well as analyse feedback from the audience - which anti-NATO narrative resonates the most effective in a way.

Social networks provide unprecedentedly better opportunities for introducing hostile narrative and supporting its widespread distribution among various online communities. Serious attempts to spread anti-NATO misinformation in Estonia were registered even before the real Allied troops arrived in the country. Thus, in November 2016, a fake (falsehood) in Russian was posted on a Facebook profile, where allegedly British soldiers were accused of immoral, rude and vulgar behaviour towards an elderly Russian pensioner. The invented incident allegedly occurred publicly in the Tallinn City Hospital. That fake was quickly spread by the pro-Kremlin pseudo-most important website BaltNews, after which, as usual, the story began to live its own life. The professional community of media experts learned about the fake, and it was later exposed in Estonian and English, but, unfortunately, not in Russian.

As described above, falsehood migrated quickly from social networks to online media channels, some of which act as collectors of fakes, propaganda megaphones and disinformation trumpeters. For example, badly tainted web portals BaltNews and regularly contribute to the spread of toxic anti-NATO narratives taken from certain profiles in social networks.

The so-called classic media channels in Russia also used similar anti-NATO narratives to describe the allied forces in Estonia as immoral militants. The following intriguing story was spread in February 2017, when Estonia celebrated its Independence Day with a traditional military parade organized in Tallinn, where allied forces also participated. As a suitable propaganda pretext, an article from the British tabloid Daily Express was used to combine different facts and fabrications into one pre-prepared disinformation story. The article referred to written recommendations for striptease clubs in Tallinn, allegedly issued in 2015 for the British allies, as well as general vigilance about Russian honey traps allegedly rigged for the arrival of British troops in Estonia in 2017. Using the video of the Russian military television channel Zvezda about the military the parade in Tallinn, another Kremlin-controlled NTV television channel showed a report depicting a mixture of cadres of military vehicles, soldiers and strip clubs along with half-naked women . NTV claimed that NATO troops were in Tallinn solely for the purpose of sex tourism. The whole story was fabricated in a very simplistic way, and thus, it was intended for those who can easily believe in such things. In this case, the problem of “low morale” again played out, emphasizing the degradation and, therefore, the senselessness of the presence of NATO troops in Estonia.

A few months later, in May 2017, a very familiar scheme was repeated to re-label NATO on anti-Russian - someone made an absurd public post on Facebook, where BaltNews took it and this message was replicated through its own network of contacts. Again, a fictional excuse was used to create an unrealistic mix of real facts and untruths: the construction of a conventional fence on the border between Estonia and Russia was presented as a way to keep local Russian speakers as hostages in the event of a military conflict between NATO and Russia.

Regardless of the absurdity of the content, such anti-NATO narratives are successfully distributed among the local Russian-speaking people, who in general are much more willing to believe in various conspiracy theories. In addition, it is much easier for them to take a very humiliating image of NATO allied forces, because pro-Kremlin propaganda has been brainwashing them against NATO for several decades. Even a small accident or some funny story can be expertly exaggerated by pro-Kremlin propagandists so that they become credible and trustworthy in the eyes of many local Russian-speakers in Estonia. This further confirms their psychological and emotional readiness to believe in all the invented toxicity associated with NATO.

The situation is complicated by the fact that some local pro-Kremlin influence agents also regularly introduce malicious anti-NATO messages into the Estonian information environment. In this context, one particular case is very illustrative, which began in 2016 and then continued in 2017, and therefore it could serve as a classic example of a small but rather effective information campaign against NATO.

The International Autumn School Fairness League (Resilience League), organized by the Security and Defense Information Center (NCDSA) and the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), was held in Northeast Estonia during the first week of October 2017. This non-public event was dedicated to training young professionals and experts from the Baltic countries, Ukraine and other countries. The autumn school has already been organized in Estonia for the second time, and its implementation, among others, has been supported by NATO. This fact itself, combined with the general theme of the school — the demystification of hostile propaganda — was immediately used in 2016 by pro-Kremlin propaganda in Estonia and even reached some federal channels in Russia, which bitterly dubbed the event as a school of “NATO political instructors.”

Given the sensitivity of the topic, the autumn school attracted a lot of attention in the media, especially in many Russian sources, where the event was described primarily as anti-Russian and hostile. The pro-Kremlin portal was the first platform to publish a story about the “anti-Russian NATO school.” This portal is led by a man who is one of the leaders of the so-called Peace March and the Immortal Regiment movement, and also co-author of the propaganda portal BaltNews.

Later, several extremely provocative articles were created and then re-published and strengthened by pro-Kremlin groups in social networks, as well as on news channels (including Sputnik, Russia24, BaltNews, Regnum, etc.). In total, 53 different information channels (including Facebook, VK accounts) were used to maximize the number of audiences and reposts. The total reach was estimated at 68,000. The phrase “NATO political leaders” became for the time being a viral meme on the Russian-language Internet. The results of the media analysis confirmed that there were coordinated attacks not only against the event as such, but also against the reputation of the organizers and participants. In 2016, the following biased titles and hysterical headlines were created to describe the event as mainly anti-Russian and hostile:

  • “The Baltic states have always been used to train anti-Russian propagandists.”
  • “School for NATO political instructors teaching in Russian opened in Estonia”
  • “Anti-Russian School of the League of Fortitude 2016 in Estonia: it is forbidden to disclose the authorship of opinions”
  • “Is a NATO-funded school preparing an anti-Russian attack on Runet in Estonia in Russian?”
  • “Russophobic youth trained in Estonia”
  • “How to become a Russophobe?”
  • “School in Russian for NATO political instructors”
  • “Ukrainian puppet of Estonian puppet NATO”
  • “A school for training anti-Russian propagandists was organized in Estonia”
  • “How does NATO recruit prison guards against Russians in Estonia?”
  • “NATO is preparing young people in Estonia to attack Russia”

The story got an interesting sequel a year later. As in 2016, all sessions at the school in 2017 were also held under the rule of Chatham House, which states that participants were free to use the information received, but neither the person, nor the statements of the speakers, nor any other participant can be published. The rule was intended to encourage openness in the exchange of information, which is normal practice for such events. Among other problems, school participants discussed the topic of strategic deterrence, that is, how military power is used as a communication tool, and why a country’s membership in NATO should really be considered. Presumably, having misunderstood the essence of the Chatham House rule, one of the participants carried some information out of school from an informal discussion about the possible scenarios and reactions of NATO to the military threat of one of the countries. Among others, a scenario was declared where every ally of NATO is basically free to decide how to respond. There was a long, interesting and thought-provoking discussion about the possibilities and means of diversity of reaction. At the end, the guest speaker added: “Theoretically, if Russia attacked us, we could receive 28 condolences from our allies.”

The day after this session, a well-known pro-Kremlin activist who works as the editor-in-chief of the largest municipal newspaper in Estonia (the Capital), posted on his Facebook profile a post with exactly the same content, meaning and wording, as was heard during the informal discussion at the school. It is obvious that the probability of such a coincidence is very small. Based on the experience from the previous year, the organizers already knew that the school could be an information target for pro-Kremlin forces and anti-NATO activists. Being part of an ideologically charged network of pro-Russian leaders, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Stolitsa is viewed by some local Russian speakers in Estonia as a public figure, an informal leader and a fighter for their rights (“and also against the NATO fascist regime”). Nevertheless, being an experienced propagandist, this man played a much more important role - his post was intended to become the primary source of information for injecting the topic into the Russian media. On the same day, this message was reprinted by BaltNews, the next day by the pro-Kremlin portals of RuBaltic, Sputnik and some other Internet pages. As a result, the anti-NATO message was again circulated among the local Russian speakers in Estonia and also got on some channels in Russia. The total coverage of this message is estimated at 75,000.

From the 2016 case, it can be stated that the behavior of pro-Kremlin agents and their information associates is very opportunistic, since they continuously monitor situations in both the virtual and physical world in order to find some facts or local events that can be used for anti- NATO information campaigns. One of the main reasons for them is the need to maintain among the local Russian-speaking a constant level of negativism against NATO. From the 2017 case, it can be noted that even with fairly moderate coverage, this anti-NATO information injection achieved its goal of reactivating one of the hostile narratives, according to which NATO does not want to protect Estonia. In this case, frequency, timing, and repetition seem more important than coverage. In both cases, it is possible to identify two target audiences that were tried to influence the perception: these are not only local Russian speakers in Estonia, but in fact also Russians living in Russia.

By making professionally very accurate socio-psychological profiling of target groups, Russia has identified clearly vulnerable communities in Estonia, through which it continuously distributes pro-Kremlin toxic propaganda and anti-NATO narratives. Manipulating playing with artificially supported Soviet nostalgia and the learned helplessness of local Russian-speakers in Estonia, the Kremlin regime managed to exacerbate the linguistic and ethnic divisions of Estonian society and therefore have the opportunity to shape this group’s perception of security and national defence issues.

In general, the anti-NATO rhetoric in Estonia is mainly focused on the Russian-speaking population and is distributed in Russian. There are exceptions, but so far there are not many of them. A reasonably developed set of different anti-NATO narratives can be effective for each specific social segment according to the perception of the group, their beliefs, values, socio-economic situation, information consumption, online behavior, etc. This provides a significant degree of flexibility in handling and attracting the target audience.

A variety of networks of pro-Kremlin initiative people, local agents of influence and propaganda pseudo-journalists are used in the Estonian information space to disseminate anti-NATO stories both at organized events and protests, and virtually through propaganda portals and more and more in social networks where the younger generation is targeted. Since the information landscape of Estonia still has too little meaningful presence of pro-Estonian, pro-Western and pro-NATO rhetoric in Russian, the daily agenda is set by pro-Kremlin antagonistic stories that are popular among the local Russian speakers. Nevertheless, the problem is taken seriously not only by experts and civil society, but also by Estonian government institutions, which contribute to strengthening cooperation in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of Russian information aggression and to develop a consistently functioning system approach to quality countermeasures.

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