There were a number of significant disinformation attacks on NATO leaders and partners in 2020. In April, a spoofed email letter was sent to the Minister of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis on behalf of NATO President Jens Stoltenberg about the decision to withdraw NATO troops from Lithuania, as it allegedly failed to deal with the coronavirus outbreak at that time.
A month before when the pandemic broke out, a spoofed email letter about Minister Karoblis’ alleged request not to cancel the Defender Europe 2020 exercise and the permission for the US military to move freely on Lithuanian territory without noticing the society in order to avoid public outrage, was sent to the media on behalf of the Lithuanian Armed Forces’ Strategic Communications Officer.
As experts unanimously agree, the main goal of the increase of these and other similar attacks is Russia’s desire to undermine the public image of NATO troops and the organisation itself. This trend is confirmed by a study conducted by Debunk EU on how the NATO exercise Defender Europe 2020 is portrayed in the analysed Russian media outlets. 70% of all the mentions of these exercises the information was misleading, nearly 30% neutral and only two articles can be classified as positive content.
According to Algirdas Kazlauskas, Chief Analyst at Debunk EU, during the observation period (September 2019 – June 2020), the topics in the context of which NATO exercises were discussed changed significantly depending on events and processes in the international arena. “The COVID-19 pandemic made significant adjustments to NATO’s exercise plans, as reflected in the Russian media analysed, with the message peaking in the heat of the pandemic in March – more than a quarter of all analysed cases were identified then.”
“Misleading messages have been constantly changed and quickly adapted to the changing socio-political situation. Initially, the largest number of US troops in Europe since the Cold War was highlighted. Meanwhile, the leaders of Russia and Belarus, in turn, promised to respond to these allied exercises,” says A. Kazlauskas.
According to Debunk EU, the deliberations of Alexander Noah, a member of the German Bundestag and a representative of the Socialist Party (“die Linke”), that Defender Europe 2020 is an example of aggressive Western policy have been republished many times. He reiterated Moscow’s myth, popularised for decades, that the West had promised Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO, and that the Alliance itself was an aggressive organisation inciting militarism.
With the serious threat of a pandemic in February and March, the topics have also changed. “During this period, the lack of responsibility of the United States and other NATO allies which did not interrupt the maneuvers was repeatedly highlighted. A little later, when the Alliance suspended the exercise, the Kremlin media began to rejoice over failed plans. And even later, when they were extended on a smaller scale, they criticised the “relentless militarism” and “heartlessness” of NATO countries in maneuvering during the plague,” A. Kazlauskas names the course of events and the accompanying narratives.
“Finally, as the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War approached in Europe, a narrative emerged that the purpose of NATO exercise was to overshadow the celebration of Victory Day, the main historical date of the Kremlin,” the Debunk EU analyst concludes.
The most common topic in the sources of disinformation when it comes to the Defender Europe 2020 exercise was military maneuvers, which accounted for about 75% of all mentions. The articles also covered other topics: both NATO’s military plans and political peripeteias, as well as global security policy and the US military in Europe.
The narratives that prevailed in the articles were mostly related to the supposedly threatening nature of NATO and the allegedly erroneous Western belief about the threats. The most popular narrative – NATO is an aggressive alliance – has been spotted 84 times. It has been mentioned 60 times that NATO is escalating tensions, while Russia is doing the opposite. Narratives have been repeated more than forty times that Russia’s threat is imaginary, that NATO is provoking it to respond, and that the drill is a preparation for a war against Russia.
“Seeing the overall scale of the negative messages, their diversity and the wide-ranging discussion in the Kremlin’s disinformation channels, it can be concluded that the Defender Europe 2020 exercise was one of the most painful of the recent NATO actions, even in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic” says A. Kazlauskas.