German and Lithuanian leaders’ meeting covered differently in Russian media
After a recent meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, Russian state-owned media outlets pushed a unified editorial stance which focused exclusively on a potential wedge between the allied countries.
The coverage overwhelming conveyed that Germany is aligned with Russia in its efforts to complete the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline despite Lithuania’s objections was loudly. The coverage was focused both at domestic Russian audience, but also carried over to internationally focused state-owned outlets.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite met on September 14 in Lithuania. Shortly after the meeting, both the Chancellor’s and the President’s offices released statements emphasizing the strong partnership and cooperation between their states.
The Kremlin’s coverage conveyed the opposite.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will transport Russian natural gas to the European Union via the Baltic Sea through Germany. This is a private project supported by the Russian and German governments, but there is disagreement between some European Union (EU) member states due to worries about energy security.
Lithuania is a strong opponent of the project. After Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country launched a policy to increase its energy independence from Russia. After Lithuania joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, it closed its Ignalina nuclear power plant on the New Year’s Eve in 2009. The plant covered nearly 77 percent of the country’s electricity needs.
Lithuania compensated its energy supply with gas imports solely from Russia until December 2014, when it opened a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Klaipeda. The need for the LNG terminal as a means to diversify gas supply emerged from alleged market manipulation by Russia’s Gazprom.
In 2012, Lithuania’s government filed claim worth $1.9 billion (USD) against Gazprom, Russia’s largest gas company state-controlled, but lost the case. In 2013, the EU launched anti-trust case against Gazprom, which resulted in a list of obligations Gazprom has been expected to comply with since May 2018. Though Lithuania lost, Gazprom lowered its prices for the country until 2018. Russian gas now makes up 54 percent of the total gas import. The rest comes via the LNG terminal, mainly from Norway.
The main investor in the Nord Stream 2 project is Gazprom, along with five energy companies from Germany, France, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Both Russia and Germany called the project strictly business, but in April 2018 Merkel shifted Germany’s approach. During a joint press conference in Berlin with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko she said:
I made very clear that a Nord Stream 2 project is not possible without clarity on the future transit role of Ukraine, […] so you can see that it is not just an economic issue but there are also political considerations.
This is an important message to Ukraine, as transit revenues contribute roughly three percent of the country’s GDP annually.
Germany demonstrated opposition of Russian foreign policy by deploying the NATO Battlegroup in Lithuania as a response to the Ukrainian crisis and events in Crimea. On March 26, Germany expelled four Russian diplomats over Russia’s suspected involvement in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in United Kingdom.
The recent shift in Merkel’s public statements explained, in part, the Kremlin-media’s special attention toward Merkel’s latest comments on Nord Stream 2.
Pushing a Clear Message Out
Neither Merkel nor Grybauskaite mentioned Nord Stream 2 during the official press briefing.
The official YouTube channel of the Lithuanian President did not record the table top discussion both leaders had after the opening speeches. The Chancellor’s official YouTube channel did not publish a video from the meeting. Only Russian media seemed to have a direct quote of what Merkel and Grybauskaite allegedly said about Nord Stream 2. Various Russian outlets referred to Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti as the original source for remarks allegedly made during the meeting.
RIA Novosti quoted Merkel:
I admit that I know about the critical opinion of the Baltic states. In Germany, the energy policy is diversified, we import gas from Norway, the Netherlands, and Russia. Faced with problems in the implementation of climate agreements, our need for gas will actually grow.
RIA Novosti quoted Grybauskaite’s response:
We view this project as geopolitical, not as commercial or energy project. Our view is based, unfortunately, on not very good experience. We know what it means to depend on a single energy source, from Russia.
After meeting with the President of Lithuania and Heads of the Baltic governments, Merkel said on Friday that she understood the criticisms of the Baltic states regarding the development of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, but said it was an economically meaningful project. The German leader also promised Ukraine to remain an energy transit country.
@DFRLab analyzed the narrative’s spread in Russian and Lithuanian languages. The types of media that reported about the meeting were classified as follows:
- Russian language media for audiences in Russia
- Russian language media for audiences abroad
- Russian language media for audiences in Lithuania
- Lithuanian language media
Russian state-owned media outlets were sorted separately to analyze the information space of abroad audiences and the audience in Lithuania. This helped to identify the tone of messages Russian state-owned media pushed abroad.
Russian language media outlets shared a unified message about the meeting for a domestic audience. Most of the media outlets reported Merkel acknowledging the importance of Nord Stream 2.
Some other Russian media outlets pushed different narratives. For instance, RT emphasized Merkel’s quote that gas transit should keep going through Ukraine. Four Russian media outlets made news out of Merkel’s statement that sanctions against Russia will stay until Russia complies with the Minsk Agreements.
The narrative about Nord Stream 2 being important to Germany despite Lithuania’s criticism was the one that Russian state-owned media emphasized to the Russian speaking diaspora in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia (Abkhazia), and Latvia.
Other foreign media that reported about the meeting in Russian focused on Merkel accusing Russia of being aggressive. The relevance of Nord Stream was mentioned by only three foreign media outlets in Russian. Another message that these three Russian language media outlets shared abroad was about Grybauskaite’s statement that the EU needs to take greater responsibility for European security.
The most popular narrative in Lithuanian media in Lithuanian and Russian language was the fact that Merkel visited Lithuania. Three media outlets in Lithuanian mentioned that Merkel emphasized the importance of Nord Stream 2 during the meeting. More focus in Lithuanian coverage was that Merkel complimented Grybauskaite. Three other Lithuanian language media also reported on Grybauskaite stating that EU needs to take more care about European security.
Russian state-owned media in Lithuania portrayed the meeting in a more negative light. Sputnik Lithuania published three stories in total. While in one story Sputnik reported on Grybauskaite saying Lithuania has a very successful relationship with Germany, another column article it published in both Russian and Lithuanian languages mocked Lithuania for thinking it matters to Germany. The article by Rimas Nauyalis, a pro-Kremlin columnist on News Front, Baltnews.lt, and other Kremlin media outlets read:
Unbeknownst to the Chancellor, this thought fell from her lips when she just wanted to say a compliment to Dalia Grybauskaite: “Dear Dalia, you are a very important person in the ongoing discussions in Europe, and I want to thank you sincerely for this.”
“Discussions” is where you, Dalia, are a very important person. But in making important decisions you are not so important.
The article also stated that Grybauskaite acknowledged Lithuania’s dependence on Germany. It read:
Even before Merkel arrived, without having to wait for the first lady of Europe to descend from heaven to Vilnius airport, the Lithuanian President proudly declared: “Germany and the chancellor are those leaders on which the future of Europe depends.”
Not all European countries will depend on it, Europe, the future, but from the “leaders” — from Germany and from the Chancellor … Independence is no longer there. Long live the addiction! From the Chancellor.
The column portrayed Grybauskaite as weak in response to Merkel’s statement about Nord Stream 2. The article read:
Previously, for the internal audience, Grybauskaite have thrown thunder and lightning due to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which is being implemented by Russia, Germany and several other countries. At this time, our president did not dare to object to Merkel. She was not afraid to say only that the gas pipeline had a “geopolitical character”. Of course, who doubts it?
Contrary to Sputnik, Baltnews.lt published a summary of the main points made by the leaders.
Russian media shared very clear narrative to its domestic audience that Germany supports the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project led by Russia’s Gazprom. The message was also clear in Kremlin-owned media outlets in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia (Abkhazia) and Latvia.
The same narrative did not gain much traction in the Lithuanian information space. Sputnik in Lithuania published a column article that interpreted Lithuania as being dependent on Germany and Germany not caring about Lithuania’s opinion.
The case demonstrated Russia’s ability to use media as a tool to push out unified message in the Russian information space and attempts to create an opinion about the relationships between two other countries abroad. The same case also highlighted the first focus of Russia’s information machine: Russians themselves.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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