Pro-Kremlin Media Capitalize on NATO Soldier’s Blunder

How Kremlin media turned a NATO soldier’s transgression during a military exercise in Estonia into a national affront

(Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Facebook)

Russian media seized on an incident involving a soldier participating in a NATO military exercise on May 6, 2019, in the town of Sillamae, in northeastern Estonia.

Fifty-four news stories on Russian media and just three stories on Estonian media reported that a NATO soldier, grenade launcher in hand, climbed atop a monument commemorating fallen Soviet soldiers while the “Spring Storm” military exercises were underway. Though local police did not determine that the soldier had acted with malicious intent, pro-Kremlin media outlets framed his actions as a deliberate provocation.

The incident occurred close to Victory Day on May 9, a holiday celebrated by the “Russian World,” a Russian state-backed concept intended to foster camaraderie between Russia and its “compatriots abroad.” Sillamae is a former closed Soviet military town that the regime used as a nuclear weapons development site. The majority of the town’s inhabitants are ethnic Russian.

The coverage of the incident demonstrated how eager Kremlin media outlets are to portray NATO soldiers as disrespectful and Russophobic.

Verifying the Incident

Oleg Kultaev, a member of Sillamae’s municipal council, shared two images on Facebook showing a man in military uniform with a grenade launcher on top of the monument. The man was looking through binoculars, suggesting that he was using the monument as a convenient lookout point.

Screenshot of Kultaev’s Facebook post. Translated from Russian: “There is a monument in Sillamae for those who died during World War II. During military exercises, someone decided to climb up onto the monument. It is exceptional rudeness and provocation. At 13:34 UPDATED: Police arrived and said that it is a legally punishable act. Now military police should arrive and sort it out. It appears that a legal case will be initiated.” (Source: Олег Рудольфович Култаев/archive)
Geolocation of the monument for Soviet soldiers who died during World War II. Yellow box shows matching elements of the monument; pink boxes show matching multistory building next to the monument. (Source: Олег Рудольфович Култаев/archive, top; Google Maps/archive, bottom)

The exercise that Kultaev mentioned was the Estonian Defense Forces’ annual large-scale, multinational exercise “Spring Storm.” In 2019, the exercise started on April 29 and continued through May 17. From May 4 to May 10, it took place in Ida-Viru County, home of Sillamae. Estonian mainstream media outlets Delfi.ee and Postimees reported on the part of the exercise that took place in Sillamae’s urban environment among civilians on May 7.

A map of Estonia with Ida-Viru County and the location of Sillamae inset. (Source: @disinformediain/DFRLab via Google Maps)

While the man on the monument was almost certainly a participant in the NATO exercise, his nationality remains unclear.

A Facebook user named Iga Sinine shared the same photos two and a half hours after Kultaev, providing a more detailed version of events. His version corroborated Kultaev’s earlier post.

Screenshot of Sinine’s Facebook post. Translated from Russian: “I’ll tell you what happened. I was walking along our post office and saw this image. It’s enough, I thought — damned, look where we are now. I started to get angry. I started to think what to do. I decided to go to [the shop] Maxima XX, because I saw military police there yesterday, to talk with them and explain that it is bad thing to do, to put it mildly. I walked around, did not find the police, so I turned to two soldiers who spoke Russian, and told them about the ‘spot’ on the monument. They were surprised and said that they did not know that someone was sitting there. The soldiers went to their superiors, and, after 5 minutes, they took him down. They apologized, said that they did not know it was a monument. Then our police came and said that they called the military police and will most likely start a legal case. That is that.” (Source: Iga Sinine/archive)

Kremlin Media Spreads the News

Soon after the photos circulated, Sputnik Estonia published a news story titled “In Estonia, a NATO Soldier with Grenade Launcher Climbed on a Monument for Fallen Soldiers– the Photo Evidence.”

A screenshot of the title of the news story by Sputnik Estonia. (Source: Sputnik Estonia/archive)

The article cited Kultaev, saying “concerned locals saw the rude gesture, interpreted it as a provocation, and called the police.” The article also mentioned that police would likely start a legal case against the soldier, as well as that the soldier did not speak Russian and that his nationality remained unknown.

Sputnik’s story garnered 1,000 engagements on Facebook, two shares on Twitter, and eight other web stories linking to it (backlinks), according to the social media analysis tool BuzzSumo.

Screenshot of BuzzSumo engagement results for Sputnik Estonia’s story. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via Buzzsumo)

The DFRLab also conducted a manual narrative spread analysis via Google Search. The search returned 54 news stories in Russian, four news stories in English, and no stories in Estonian between May 6–8, 2019.

Network analysis of the spread of the story about the NATO soldier who climbed atop a World War II monument with a grenade launcher. (Source: @nikaaleksejeva/DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Russian media outlets most often cited Sputnik Estonia in their coverage of the monument incident. An article from Kremlin-owned news agency RIA Novosti was the second most-cited source.

On May 6, when Sputnik Estonia published its article, 18 other news outlets reported on the case. On May 7, the number of news stories about the case almost doubled to 34. Two media outlets covered the incident on May 8.

The DFRLab identified a few hostile stories about the incident. The Kremlin-owned TV channel Rossiya 1 published a story on its website titled “A NATO Vandal Desecrated a Monument for War Heroes in Estonia.” Another pro-Kremlin media outlet, Komsomolskaya Pravda, published a comment by Member of the Russian Parliament Frants Klintsevich, who claimed “this puppy [the soldier] inspired by Russophobia, climbed onto the monument with a grenade launcher on purpose.” The fringe Russian media outlet Reporter suggested that the soldier “insulted” the memory of the fallen Soviet soldiers. A user on the Russian blogging platform Kont, Andrey Shapovalov, posted a blog entry titled “Insult on National Level. The Baltic States are Fed Up with NATO Jerks.”

On May 7, the Estonian public service broadcaster ERR published a news story in Russian stating that the local police did not intend to bring charges against the soldier, as they had deemed he had not acted in bad faith. Two Russian-language media outlets in Estonia — Stena.ee and Seti.ee — republished the story.

Conclusion

While a soldier did indeed climb atop a monument for fallen Soviet soldiers in Sillamae, Estonia, it was unclear whether he belonged to a NATO member state, as well as whether he was aware that climbing on the monument would offend local residents.

Nonetheless, Russian media characterized the soldier’s actions as malicious and provocative. The fact that other soldiers who had participated in the “Spring Storm” exercise got him down and apologized on his behalf, as well as the fact that the local police could not determine that the soldier acted with intentional disregard for local reverence of the monument, demonstrated that Kremlin media misrepresented the incident to further the recurring narrative that NATO soldiers are disrespectful and unwelcome in the Baltic States.


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

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