#BalticBrief: Russia Editorializes Saber Strike

The spread of hostile messaging during joint NATO exercise in Poland and the Baltic states

(Source: Twitter/@2dCavalryRegt)

On June 3, a major NATO exercise “Saber Strike” kicked off in Poland and the Baltic states. Due to the proximity of the exercise to Russian borders, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the exercise would not go unnoticed. The Kremlin used the opportunity to strengthen its common narratives about NATO presence in the Baltic states and Poland that @DFRLab has reported on before.

NATO — Local Enemy?

A day after the exercise started, Sputnik Latvia published a story about the exercises taking place on the streets of Latvia and among civilians.

The lead paragraph read:

International military exercises in Latvia will move from the training grounds to the streets of cities, so that NATO soldiers could adapt to different Latvian terrain or, perhaps, once again get into a fight with civilians.

The article used information published by Latvian public service media outlet LSM. The LSM article originated from a radio interview with Latvian Ministry of Defense press officer Mairita Senkevicina. She confirmed the fact that the active phase of the exercise would take place in urban environment.

The article read:

In addition, the training will take place in an urban environment in the area of the city of Skrunda. There will be an active phase of the exercise, so we ask the local residents not to worry if they see Latvian soldiers, National Guards or soldiers of the NATO combat group moving around Kurzeme.

Sputnik’s suggestion that the soldiers may get violent was an editorial statement that the media outlet used in its social media posts too. The post on its Russian language Facebook page garnered at least 209 reactions, 100 comments, and 62 shares, whereas its Latvian language Facebook page garnered just one reaction and one share.

Translated from Russian (left) and Latvian (right): “In Latvia, international military training will move from training grounds to city streets so that NATO soldiers are able to adapt to the diverse terrain of Latvia, or perhaps, once again, to get into a fight the civilian population.” (Left Source: Facebook / @SputnikLV); (Right Source: Facebook / @SputnikLatvia)

It is worth mentioning that the most influential social media channel Sputnik Latvia has is its Facebook page in Russian with 10,556 followers. It has 23 times more followers than its Facebook page in Latvian 450 followers. Sputnik Latvia has a Twitter channel too, but it has only eight followers.

The editorial tone from Sputnik targeted Russian language users in Latvia and provoked hostile comments. The implication that soldiers would incite violence during the exercise was made without evidence and provoked emotive comments.

Translation of comments on the right. (Source: Facebook/@SputnikLV)

NATO — Planning to Attack Kaliningrad?

Another story about Saber Strike suggested that NATO was aggressive and planning an attack on Kaliningrad, a Russia’s exclave that shares borders with Poland and Lithuania.

The source for this claim was an image posted on U.S. Army 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s Twitter account a week before the exercise started.

A day after the image was tweeted, “Voennoe Obozrenie” a Russian media outlet that covers military affairs, published an article titled “NATO servicemen are carrying out the seizure of Kaliningrad during ‘Saber Strike-18’ exercise.”

The article read:

We remind that in NATO countries, as well as in Russia, servicemen put on the map the symbols of likely enemies in red. You can see well that on the map the red color indicates the Russian Kaliningrad.

@DFRLab could not cross-check the statement of “Voennoe Obozrenie” with the scenario of the exercise, as the scenario was not published. The 2nd Cavalry Regiment did not address the claim on its web page or any of its social media pages.

According to social media monitoring tool Buzzsumo, the article was shared at least 1,300 times — mostly on Facebook.

Translated from Russian: “NATO servicemen are carrying out the seizure of Kaliningrad during “Saber Strike-18” (Source: Buzzsumo)

Google reverse image search results show that the article was republished by three more fringe news sites (two in Russian, one in English), but did not spread further.

(Source: @DFRLab via Google.com)

The story circulated for over a week, and was covered the most on June 3 and 5 on Russian media. The analysis also shows other influencers of this message. These were Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian Army news media Zvezda and Russian media outlet Rambler, that republished Zvezda’s two articles both times.

On June 3, Zvezda published an article titled “A ‘seizure’ of Kaliningrad may be worked out during a NATO exercise”.

According to Buzzsumo, the article was shared at least 262 times mostly on Facebook.

Translated from Russian: “A ‘seizure’ of Kaliningrad may be worked out during a NATO exercise.” (Source: Buzzsumo)

Curiously, two days later Zvezda rewrote and published the same story with a slightly different title, that put an emphasis on NATO seeing Kaliningrad as a territory of an enemy.

Left: (Source: Zvezda); Right (Source: Zvezda)

The second iteration of the same story was shared ten times less than the first one.

Translated from Russian: “Kaliningrad turned out to be enemy territory during a NATO exercise” (Source: Buzzsumo)

In both cases, Rambler picked up Zvezda’s articles, but it did not generate major traction on social media.

Translated from Russian: (Top) “NATO servicemen are practicing seizure”; (bottom) “Kaliningrad turned out to be enemy territory during the NATO exercise” (Source: Buzzsumo)

Overall the media spread did not show the story as being viral, but the fact that Russian media kept bringing it up throughout the week signaled persistency to make the story noticed.

Lithuania — A NATO Shooting Range?

In the end of May, Russian media outlets came up with a story suggesting that Lithuania had opened its borders to NATO troops completely. 
 
On May 28, Russian media outlet Regnum published an article titled “Lithuania has given its territory to NATO entirely”. The next day it was republished by Russian news media agency Rex. A day later Komsomolskaya Pravda published a similar article titled “Lithuania slavishly opens all doors to NATO”, and two days later “Voennoe Obozrenie” published the same story with the headline “Passage yard: Lithuania opens all the ways for NATO servicemen”.

The stories came in response to an announcement by Lithuanian Ministry of Defense (MoD) on May 28 ahead of Saber Strike 2018.

An extract from the announcement read:

From now on, the Allied troops during military exercises or other military cooperation events to Lithuania will arrive faster and easier — for example, instead of the usual entry through the border checkpoints they will be able to land from air or debark from sea.

[..]

“Military mobility insurance is among the key NATO and the European Union’s defence and security strengthening priorities, and the ability to smoothly, efficiently and rapidly move troops and equipment to the other region of the Alliance or even outside, it is necessary condition to respond rapidly to the crisis”, — says Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis.

[..]

Existing legal regulation was changed urgently also because Lithuania will participate in the multinational exercise “Saber Strike 2018” on 3–15 June with the scenario of the Allied forces (including the US) landing and debarkation of the sea in the territory of Lithuania.

While the headlines of the Russian language articles mentioned above where rather hostile, most of them reported about the announcement without editorial statements. An exception was an article on “Voennoe Obozrenie”.

An extract from the article read:

The adoption of such laws by Lithuanian legislators will allow the North Atlantic alliance to strengthen its military contingent in a short time on the eastern flank, next to the Russian borders. Latvia, expanding the capabilities of NATO servicemen, hopes to speak with Russia from a position of strength, but so far it is only losing its sovereignty.

This article also garnered the most attention on social media, according to Buzzsumo.

Translated from Russian: (Top) “Passage yard: Lithuania opens all the ways for NATO servicemen”; (middle) “Lithuania slavishly opens all doors to NATO”; (bottom) “Lithuania has given its territory to NATO entirely” (Source: Buzzsumo)

Conclusion

Russian media shared hostile stories during the first week of the joint NATO exercise Saber Strike that reinforced some of the common narratives @DFRLab identified before. The stories had different traction results and dissemination patterns.

The Sputnik Latvia story succeeded in targeting the local Russian language community. The story garnered significant engagement and triggered anti-NATO comments.

The story about NATO attacking Russia’s Kaliningrad had the most persistent media dissemination pattern that increased the time it circulated in the Russian language information space.

Finally, the story that Lithuania gave away its territory to NATO did not reach wide audiences, but used the opportunity to present the territorial unity of NATO member states as a threat to national sovereignty.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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