Russian disinformation up close in the Baltic

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Russian disinformation up close in the Baltic

BAL­TOPS 2019 par­tic­i­pants in Kiel, Germany

While the run-​up to the Demo­c­ra­tic Party Debates and the cri­sis in the Per­sian Gulf with Iran has cap­tured the news cycle, I’ve spent the past few weeks as part of the BAL­TOPS exer­cise. BAL­TOPS is an annual exer­cise that the US has lead in the Baltic Sea for the past 47 years. It’s pri­mary focus is to ensure we can oper­ate with other NATO and non-​NATO nations in the region. It also stokes the ire of Rus­sia, and this year’s Russ­ian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign to tar­get BAL­TOPS was ramped up for our presence.

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​u​x​N​K​o​I​W3JPU

This year was a bit dif­fer­ent for Rus­sia. The team at Sec­ond Fleet came in ready to fight, and started releas­ing BAL­TOPS related mate­ri­als before the exer­cise. This is impor­tant because it pre­vented a com­mon tac­tic by Rus­sia to flood the news cycle early with pro-​Russian nar­ra­tives. Older arti­cles have more time to be shared, which increases the num­ber of links by other sites to these arti­cles. More links equals a higher chance of appear­ing ear­lier in a Google search, since more links typ­i­cally means a story is more rel­e­vant to a search entry.

Span­ish and Nor­we­gian BAL­TOPS participants.

But Russ­ian oper­a­tives weren’t deterred. Rus­sia plays a long game. Infor­ma­tion oper­a­tives focus on break­ing apart the NATO alliance. They do this by tag­ging every­thing to NATO and the US, both of which res­onate neg­a­tively with the Russian-​speaking pop­u­lace. When the British con­ducted com­bined oper­a­tions with other nations in the Baltic as part of the Joint Expe­di­tionary Force Mar­itime (JEF-​M), Rus­sia was quick to tag it as a NATO action, de-​emphasize the British part, and then feed it into their nar­ra­tive. When­ever a US press release listed par­tic­i­pat­ing units, Rus­sia would cite this source and only list the US units, selec­tively leav­ing off the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions from the UK and Spain, both of which sent larger war­ships than the US this year.

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​n​V​K​W​9​A​74iaU

It’s not enough to link every­thing to NATO or the US. The other point is to hide any con­tri­bu­tion from small, for­mer Soviet coun­tries. BAL­TOPS 2019 fea­tured exten­sive mine clear­ing oper­a­tions, includ­ing clear­ing actual mines from World War 2. Most of the mine clear­ing was done by ships from the Esto­nia, Lat­vian and Lithuan­ian navies. None of those made news in Rus­sia. Worse, Russ­ian news sources are quick to point out when for­mer Soviet coun­tries don’t per­form well. When the Pol­ish LST Gniezno struck an uncharted rock and had to leave the exer­cise early, Russ­ian news was all over it, specif­i­cally iden­ti­fy­ing how the Pol­ish couldn’t oper­ate with NATO and had been bet­ter served under the Soviet Navy.

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​3​Y​J​M​T​e​DXyDk

Two things really seemed to “poke the Russ­ian Bear” dur­ing BAL­TOPS this year. The first was high end war­fare. This year we con­ducted elec­tronic jam­ming, which hadn’t been done in a long time (per­haps ever) in a BAL­TOPS exer­cise. The jam­ming was focused on nav­i­ga­tion radars, so we lim­ited it to spe­cific areas and put out a Notice to Mariners in advance. We also setup a spe­cial line to call should a com­mer­cial ves­sel have nav­i­ga­tion issues and need us to stop. Dur­ing the exer­cise, we never received a call, and our con­tacts in the com­mer­cial sec­tor were extremely happy that we worked hand-​in-​hand with them to keep com­mer­cial mar­itime traf­fic safe.

Rus­sia was not happy. First it announced that it was mon­i­tor­ing the “sit­u­a­tion” in the Baltic to “ensure safety of nav­i­ga­tion.” After that didn’t get much atten­tion, the Russ­ian Min­istry of Defense tweeted:

In order to respond rapidly to the pos­si­ble emer­gency sit­u­a­tions and threats to the civil nav­i­ga­tion safety in the Baltic Sea, the Russ­ian #BalticFleet’s assets estab­lished con­trol over the @NATO Com­bined Mar­itime Forces’ #Baltops2019 exercise

Russ­ian tweets com­pared in Eng­lish and Russian

In actu­al­ity, Rus­sia never con­tacted Sec­ond Fleet about con­trol­ling our exer­cise. Their Baltic Fleet, lead by Admi­ral Alek­sandr Nosatov, never reached out to talk about our new com­mand and con­trol sit­u­a­tion. On the staff, we had more than a few jokes at Russ­ian expense about our new “over­lords” in the Baltic Fleet. The tweet was widely shared in Russ­ian pop­u­lace, but then again, so are cat videos and other click-​bait.

The other things that caught atten­tion was Russ­ian trans­la­tions of US news. The US does a bad job of push­ing out news in Russ­ian. One of the inter­views with VADM Lewis (Com­man­der, Sec­ond Fleet) was trans­lated by a Ger­man news source into Russ­ian. It caused a huge spike in BAL­TOPS traf­fic in Rus­sia. We looked at the com­ments, and were sur­prised to find that the com­ments in Russ­ian were over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. Russ­ian cit­i­zens thought Admi­ral Lewis was a “gen­tle­man” and a “real war­rior.” Many pointed out that he was bet­ter spo­ken than their own Russ­ian commanders.

https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​7​K​87​k​u​MPqzk
Inter­view with VADM Lewis, trans­lated into Russian.

The pos­i­tive nature caught me by sur­prise, but look­ing back, it shouldn’t have. Peo­ple are peo­ple, no mat­ter their lan­guage or back­ground. They know when they are being lied to, and the Russ­ian peo­ple are no excep­tion. They likely rec­og­nize pro­pa­ganda, but because the US does a crap job of giv­ing them some­thing alter­na­tive to digest, they soak in Russ­ian dis­in­for­ma­tion all day. Once they get some­thing in Russ­ian that isn’t pro­pa­ganda, they rel­ish it.

That’s the point I want to end on. Rus­sia seems to “win” in the social media realm by push­ing a nar­ra­tive. They have less rules to fol­low, and many in the mil­i­tary think we can’t fight them here. But it isn’t true. The US and NATO have a bet­ter, more pos­i­tive mes­sage, and when we adjust a bit, it’s hard for Rus­sia to counter. It doesn’t require us to use dirty tac­tics or sink to their level. The sooner we fig­ure that out, the sooner the Russ­ian Bear will fear our mes­sage even more.

This post rep­re­sents the views of the author and not those of the Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Navy, NATO, or any other gov­ern­ment agency.

BALTOPS 2019 participants in Kiel, Germany

While the run-up to the Democratic Party Debates and the crisis in the Persian Gulf with Iran has captured the news cycle, I’ve spent the past few weeks as part of the BALTOPS exercise. BALTOPS is an annual exercise that the US has lead in the Baltic Sea for the past 47 years. It’s primary focus is to ensure we can operate with other NATO and non-NATO nations in the region. It also stokes the ire of Russia, and this year’s Russian disinformation campaign to target BALTOPS was ramped up for our presence.

This year was a bit different for Russia. The team at Second Fleet came in ready to fight, and started releasing BALTOPS related materials before the exercise. This is important because it prevented a common tactic by Russia to flood the news cycle early with pro-Russian narratives. Older articles have more time to be shared, which increases the number of links by other sites to these articles. More links equals a higher chance of appearing earlier in a Google search, since more links typically means a story is more relevant to a search entry.

Spanish and Norwegian BALTOPS participants.

But Russian operatives weren’t deterred. Russia plays a long game. Information operatives focus on breaking apart the NATO alliance. They do this by tagging everything to NATO and the US, both of which resonate negatively with the Russian-speaking populace. When the British conducted combined operations with other nations in the Baltic as part of the Joint Expeditionary Force Maritime (JEF-M), Russia was quick to tag it as a NATO action, de-emphasize the British part, and then feed it into their narrative. Whenever a US press release listed participating units, Russia would cite this source and only list the US units, selectively leaving off the significant contributions from the UK and Spain, both of which sent larger warships than the US this year.

It’s not enough to link everything to NATO or the US. The other point is to hide any contribution from small, former Soviet countries. BALTOPS 2019 featured extensive mine clearing operations, including clearing actual mines from World War 2. Most of the mine clearing was done by ships from the Estonia, Latvian and Lithuanian navies. None of those made news in Russia. Worse, Russian news sources are quick to point out when former Soviet countries don’t perform well. When the Polish LST Gniezno struck an uncharted rock and had to leave the exercise early, Russian news was all over it, specifically identifying how the Polish couldn’t operate with NATO and had been better served under the Soviet Navy.

Two things really seemed to “poke the Russian Bear” during BALTOPS this year. The first was high end warfare. This year we conducted electronic jamming, which hadn’t been done in a long time (perhaps ever) in a BALTOPS exercise. The jamming was focused on navigation radars, so we limited it to specific areas and put out a Notice to Mariners in advance. We also setup a special line to call should a commercial vessel have navigation issues and need us to stop. During the exercise, we never received a call, and our contacts in the commercial sector were extremely happy that we worked hand-in-hand with them to keep commercial maritime traffic safe.

Russia was not happy. First it announced that it was monitoring the “situation” in the Baltic to “ensure safety of navigation.” After that didn’t get much attention, the Russian Ministry of Defense tweeted:

In order to respond rapidly to the possible emergency situations and threats to the civil navigation safety in the Baltic Sea, the Russian #BalticFleet’s assets established control over the @NATO Combined Maritime Forces’ #Baltops2019 exercise

Russian tweets compared in English and Russian

In actuality, Russia never contacted Second Fleet about controlling our exercise. Their Baltic Fleet, lead by Admiral Aleksandr Nosatov, never reached out to talk about our new command and control situation. On the staff, we had more than a few jokes at Russian expense about our new “overlords” in the Baltic Fleet. The tweet was widely shared in Russian populace, but then again, so are cat videos and other click-bait.

The other things that caught attention was Russian translations of US news. The US does a bad job of pushing out news in Russian. One of the interviews with VADM Lewis (Commander, Second Fleet) was translated by a German news source into Russian. It caused a huge spike in BALTOPS traffic in Russia. We looked at the comments, and were surprised to find that the comments in Russian were overwhelmingly positive. Russian citizens thought Admiral Lewis was a “gentleman” and a “real warrior.” Many pointed out that he was better spoken than their own Russian commanders.

Interview with VADM Lewis, translated into Russian.

The positive nature caught me by surprise, but looking back, it shouldn’t have. People are people, no matter their language or background. They know when they are being lied to, and the Russian people are no exception. They likely recognize propaganda, but because the US does a crap job of giving them something alternative to digest, they soak in Russian disinformation all day. Once they get something in Russian that isn’t propaganda, they relish it.

That’s the point I want to end on. Russia seems to “win” in the social media realm by pushing a narrative. They have less rules to follow, and many in the military think we can’t fight them here. But it isn’t true. The US and NATO have a better, more positive message, and when we adjust a bit, it’s hard for Russia to counter. It doesn’t require us to use dirty tactics or sink to their level. The sooner we figure that out, the sooner the Russian Bear will fear our message even more.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, NATO, or any other government agency.