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.

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.