Latvia in the Crosshairs: Russian Information Warfare and Appropriate Countermeasures

Latvia in the Crosshairs: Russian Information Warfare and Appropriate Countermeasures

Corey M. Collier

The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent surge for independence among the republics once dominated by communist leadership ushered in an era that many believed spelled the end of tensions between Russia and the West.[1] Unfortunately, this ship of dreams shattered on the rocky shoals of reality. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin Russia experienced a new tide of nationalistic fervor, casting its old nemesis, the United States, as the raison d'être for nationalistic security concerns and citing NATO as a prominent example of U.S. encroachment.[2] Over the last decade, Russia has increasingly tested the resolve of Europe and the West, inciting and then intervening in manufactured crises in Georgia and Ukraine.[3] The Baltic States, particularly Latvia, could be the next target of Russian enlargement, a move that represents a direct threat to the alliance of NATO.[4] Latvia’s strategic geographic position, large ethnic Russian population, small professional military, and distance from major NATO countries like Germany and France present unique challenges to the state. However, it is possible for Latvia to survive this storm, by understanding how Russia uses information warfare in combination with economic pressure and energy dependence to create tension. Likewise, it is important to recognize how Russia could change its approach to undermine Latvian independence due to Latvia’s NATO membership. Finally, by implementing a few specific strategic initiatives, Latvia can effectively counter these destabilizing forces and strengthen its position with regard to its Russian neighbor to the East.     

A study of the events leading up to the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine provides insight into Russian strategy and understanding of what can happen without an effective counterplan. After the Ukrainian president took steps that would distance the country from the West and realign the country with Russia, popular unrest broke out, leading to the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovich.[5] Using disinformation as part of a hybrid warfare strategy to destabilize Ukraine, Russia manufactured unrest further by sending plainclothes soldiers, later referred to as “little green men,” across the border into Ukraine to seize key locations and act as instigators among the local ethnic Russian population.[6] After annexing Crimea and as tensions rose, Russia used the unrest as a pretext to invade, claiming an obligation to protect ethnic Russians.[7] Today Russia continues to provide thinly veiled support to separatists in the Eastern region of the country in a struggle that has no clear end in sight.[8]

In a controversial 2014 study of Russian strategy, authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev describe how Russia has redefined the use of information as a key component of its hybrid warfare strategy.[9] According to the authors, Russia long ago abandoned the Cold War method of releasing information to counter the message of the West. Russia now exploits the freedom of speech its former republics enjoy to implement an intricate blend of disinformation using television, social media, and nongovernmental organizations.[10] Using every medium available, Russia creates confusion, sows discord between ethnic Russians and other ethnicities, undermines political initiatives, and infuses doubt about the intentions of state governments while extolling Russian pride.[11] Russia used these techniques leading up to the 2014 incursion into Ukraine, and many of them are evident in Russia’s strategy with other states today.[12] A look at recent history in the region bears witness to this reality, from the 2007 riots and cyber-attacks in Estonia to the recent but limited internet campaign calling for independence in the Eastern Latvian region of Latgale.[13]

Although the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are European Union and NATO members, there is growing concern they are the newest targets for Russian expansionism.[14] Due to its geographic location, Latvia represents an especially lucrative objective. Reestablishment of Russian dominance in Latvia would effectively isolate Estonia and bring Kaliningrad closer to the Russian mainland. Once achieved, Estonia and Lithuania, virtually surrounded by Russia’s influence, would have little choice but to reconsider NATO membership and economic alignment with the European Union. Although Lithuania’s position would be tenuous, the country’s shared border with Poland would provide contiguous connectivity with other NATO nations. Estonia would become a veritable fortress, and economic benefits the country may enjoy otherwise would be consumed with military expenditures to defend the surrounded state.

Latvia’s social makeup provides fertile soil for Russian information operations to take hold.[15] Caught between imperial powers, the Baltic States spent most of the last century consumed by competing world powers.[16] Accordingly, Latvians tend to view each other as either pro-Russian (with all the communist baggage that comes with it) or as pro-Western (which to ethnic Russians means either sympathetic to Nazism or NATO aggression).[17] Latvia has a small population of only 2 million people, but one third of that population identifies themselves as ethnic Russian. Ethnic division carries with it social division, creating enclaves of predominantly ethnic Russian people.[18]

After independence, in an effort to shake off the yoke of their former domination by communism, Latvia took measures to establish their national identity that added to these ethnic tensions. To gain citizenship in Latvia, ethnic Russians must pass an exam that tests their knowledge of Latvian history and their proficiency in the Latvian language.[19] Many ethnic Russians have neither the desire nor the skills to pass the exam. Compounding the matter, the Latvian government rebuffed efforts in 2012 to establish Russian as the country’s second language and removed Russian language from the classroom throughout the education system, further dividing the population.[20] Latvian efforts designed to distinguish the country and its people as unique from Russia resulted in a large disaffected ethnic Russian population without citizenship, the ability to vote, hold public office, or even apply for a passport. Many ethnic Russians in Latvia view these initiatives as discriminatory.[21]

Russian news media, easily accessed via the internet and satellite television, pounced. Seeking to exploit the opportunity and reinforce the idea that Russia is the only state that cares for the concerns of Russians at home and abroad, the Russian news message resonates well with many of the Russian diaspora in the region. Throughout these communities, Russian news stations portray state policies as an attempt to diminish Russian ethnicity while portraying Russian policy, and specifically Russian leaders like Putin, as protectors of Russian citizens and their rights.[22]

Bolstering this message, Russia offers counterproposals. Ethnic Russians—even third-generation Latvian-born ethnic Russians—can acquire Russian citizenship, Russian passports, and retire on a Russian pension years earlier than Latvian citizens.[23] The effects of these efforts are tangible, as demonstrated by the opinion polls of ethnic Russians in the Baltic States. The preponderance of ethnic Russians in the region view Russian actions in Ukraine as acceptable to protect Russian citizens; view sanctions by the West against Russia for actions in Ukraine to be unacceptable; and express greater kinship with Russia than the Baltic States in which they live.[24] The rise of social activist groups and nongovernmental organizations promoting Russian views provides another venue for Russian information to flow. Fueled by Russian money and acting as spokespersons for Russian initiatives in the Baltics, numerous groups, like the Fund for the Support and Defense of Compatriots Abroad, act as a proponent of Russian policy and provide a voice to ethnic Russians throughout the Eastern European area.[25] Using the freedom states like Latvia savor as representative of their nascent independence, these organizations, many of which are Kremlin-funded, exploit the hard-won freedoms of fledgling democracies to undermine common unity and exacerbate differences among ethnic groups.[26]

Information is not, however, a unilateral approach in Russia’s strategy, but is used in conjunction with other instruments of power. After the world reacted to Russian aggression in Ukraine with sanctions on Russian oil production, Russia reacted by emplacing an embargo on foodstuffs imported from the EU, an action that put further economic strain on the economies of the Baltic States and their political leadership.[27] Another key issue the Baltic States recognized as key to future security after Russian actions in Ukraine is increased independence from Russia in the energy exchange market.[28] Thus far, their efforts have produced limited success.

In all of these efforts, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia recognize the need to bolster their ability to provide for their collective security. Although the Baltic States share a common concern of Russian incursion and violation of sovereignty, cooperation has been slow in developing.[29] As if the destabilizing actions of Russia were not enough, the Baltic States are also concerned with the validity of NATO promises to respond if threatened.[30] Even if Georgia and Ukraine were NATO members, the strategy of instigation and misinformation used by Russia to intercede never rose to the level that would have triggered a NATO collective defense response until it was too late. Under the distracted eye of the world, Russia pulled the levers of national power to manipulate events until intervention seemed to carry too much risk for the West. Although Latvia recognizes the need to provide better security, economic strain continues to hinder the state’s ability to enact change. Latvia’s 2015 defense budget measured a paltry 1% of GDP.[31] Likewise, with conscripted service no longer required the number of active and reserve soldiers in the Latvian military rests at just over 13,000 soldiers in all.[32]

Although the Russian model of incursion previously used would have to be modified given Latvian NATO membership, a different avenue for Russian influence in Latvia exists—one that Latvia’s own constitution allows. With political party divisions and strong ethnic Russian unity, the possibility exists for Russia to use its information instruments to influence election results and empower pro-Russian leadership in the highest political offices.[33] With divided Latvian political parties unable to counter this threat by forming effective coalitions, a pro-Russian Party could form the government and be able to turn Latvian politics away from NATO and the EU. Unrest in the same vein as what occurred in Ukraine could result, opening the door for Russia, poised at Latvia’s doorstep and proclaiming its obligation to protect ethnic Russians, to become involved and leaving the U.S. and NATO to decide if intervention and possible escalation is worth the cost.

Nevertheless, there is still time to create an effective response to this threat, but serious steps must be taken soon. First, Latvia must find a way to close the gap of ethnic division in the country. Regardless of the country’s dark history over the last century, ethnic Russians will only feel more animosity and further disassociation with the country until they are embraced as part of the social makeup of a united Latvia. There is danger in making this move too quickly, because ethnic Russians gaining citizenship also immediately transition to voting constituents, and could empower pro-Russian political parties. However, this move immediately counters the pro-Russian information campaign and undermines the message that only Russia is the protector of this large ethnic group.[34] Secondly, permanent NATO forces should be stationed in the Baltic region.[35] This move would strengthen the legitimacy of NATO in the region and provide an immediate counter-response to tensions and potential Russian incursions of “little green men.”[36] This move would immediately overcome the tyranny of distance in NATO’s ability to respond to a threat in the region.

A third  course of action must include a dedicated increase in the defense forces of each Baltic State, and a serious effort on the part of each to develop and exercise a unified defense plan that combines their forces as one in times of need.[37] This move would require regional cooperation and serious consideration for reinstituting compulsory service in order to provide an immediate improvement to the collective defense of the region. A fourth course of action includes an effective counter to Russian disinformation.[38] This effort must extend beyond the Baltic region to all of NATO and the EU in order to present a unified information campaign that presents a unified message of resolve and collective security while removing the ambiguity and divisiveness of the Russian message. The establishment of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence is a good first step, but more must be done to unify the message and the effort.[39] To be effective, Baltic States like Latvia must ensure this message is presented in Latvia in the Russian language to the ethnic Russian population to effectively counter Russian propaganda and create a national identity that conveys understanding while building unity. A final course of action must include continued progress in the area of energy independence throughout the Baltics. A plan for continued development must include more energy sharing with EU partners while further integrating the Baltic economies with Western Europe and Scandinavia to remove threats to energy resources as a way for Russia to intimidate Latvia and the Baltic States.[40]

End Notes

[1] Robert Jervis, “Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace Presidential Address,” American Political Science Review 96 no. 1 (2002): 1-14

[2] Daniel McLaughlin, “Putin's Pride at 'Returning' Crimea to Russia Still Costing the Country Dear,” in Irish Times 2015.

[3] Ariel Cohen, and Robert E Hamilton, “The Russian Military and the Georgian War: Lessons and Implications,” in Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe 28 no. 43 (2013); Alexander Lanoszka, “Russian Hybrid Warfare and Extended Deterrence in Eastern Europe,” in International Affairs 92 no. 1 ( 2015) 175-95.

[4] Michael Birnbaum, “Russia Bears Down on Nervous Baltics; In Latvia, Citizens View Events in Ukraine with Growing Unease,” The Ottawa Citizen 2014.

[5] Neil Buckley and Roman Olearchyk, “Hunt for Yanukovich as Tymoshenko Pushes for New Coalition,” FT.Com 2014.

[6] Steven Woehrel, “Ukraine: Current Issues and U.S. Policy,” Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe 29 no. 2 (2014): 305.

[7] Transcript: “Putin Says Russia Will Protect the Rights of Russians Abroad,” The Washington Post 2014

[8] Anton Bebler, “The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict Over Crimea,” Teorija in Praksa 52 no. ½ (2014): 196.

[9] Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev, “The Menace of Unreality. How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money,” The Interpreter, November 22, 2014. Accessed January 29, 2016. http://www.interpretermag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Menace_of_Unreality_Final.pdf.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Anonymous, “Notable & Quotable: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Culture,” Wall Street Journal (Online) 2014.

[12] A Yakovenko, “Information warfare: The Ukraine Crisis from a UK Angle,” International Affairs 61 no. 3 (2015): 118.

[13] Andrew Whiggins, Latvian Region Has Distinct Identity, and Allure for Russia. New York: New York Times Company. Carol Williams, “Latvia, with a Large Minority of Russians, Worries About Putin's Goals: Russians,” LosAngeles Times, May 2, 2015, accessed January 27, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-latvia-russia-next-20150502-story.html.

[14] Tal Kopan and Jim Sciutto, “U.S. Deploys Predator Drones to Latvia,” CNN, August 31, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/31/politics/u-s-deploys-predator-drones-latvia/.

[15] Matthew Luxmoore and Jim Sciutto, “Latvia Struggles with Restive Russian Minority Amid Regional Tensions,” AlJazeera, June 13, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/13/latvia-resists-russian-soft-power.html.

[16] Damien McGuinness, “Crimea Crisis Sharpens Latvia Ethnic Tensions,” BBC News, March 26, 2014, accessed January 27, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26720549.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Olga Pisarenko, “The Acculturation Modes of Russian Speaking Adolescents in Latvia: Perceived Discrimination and Knowledge of the Latvian Language,” Europe-Asia Studies 58 no. 5 (2006): 751-73.

[21] The Central Election Commision of Latvia. “Referendum Procedure.” Accessed January 28, 2016. https://www.cvk.lv/pub/public/28029.html.

[22] Paul Shinkman, “Russia’s Round 2: A New Conflict in Eastern Europe?,” U.S. News and World Report, April 9, 2015, accessed January 31, 2016, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/04/09/russias-round-2-a-new-conflict-in-eastern-europe.

[23] Higgins, Latvian region has distinct identity,”.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Matthew Luxmoore and Jim Sciutto, “Latvia Struggles with Restive Russian Minority Amid Regional Tensions,” AlJazeera, June 13, 2015, accessed February 1, 2016, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/13/latvia-resists-russian-soft-power.html.

[26] Agnia Grigas, “Legacies, Coercion and Soft Power.” Chatham House, August 2012. Accessed January 28, 2016. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Russia%20and%20Eurasia/0812bp_grigas.pdf.

[27] Joanna Hyndle-Hussein, “The Baltic States On the Conflict in Ukraine.” The Center for Eastern Studies, January 23, 2015. Accessed January 29, 2016. http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2015-01-23/baltic-states-conflict-ukraine.

[28] Margarita Mercedes Balmaceda, The Politics of Energy Dependency: Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania Between Domestic Oligarchs and Russian Pressure. Vol. 40. London: University of Toronto Press

[29] Hyndle-Hussein, “The Baltic States On the Conflict in Ukraine”.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Peter Baker and Steven Erlanger, “Russia Uses Money and Ideology to Fight Western Sanctions,” New York Times, June 7, 2015, accessed January 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/08/world/europe/russia-fights-wests-ukraine-sanctions-with-aid-and-ideology.html?_r=0.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Hyndle-Hussein, “The Baltic States On the Conflict in Ukraine”.

[36] Maksymilian Czuperski, John Herbst, Elliot Higgins, Alina Polyakova, and Damon Wilson. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin's War in Ukraine.” Atlantic Council (October 15, 2015): 1-40. Accessed January 28, 2016. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/hiding-in-plain-sight-putin-s-war-in-ukraine-and-boris-nemtsov-s-putin-war.

[37] Paul Symanski, “The Baltic States' Territorial Defense Forces in the Face of Hybrid Threats.” The Center for Eastern Studies (March 20, 2015): 1-8. Accessed January 28, 2016. http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2015-03-20/baltic-states-territorial-defence-forces-face-hybrid-threats.

[38] Frederik Van Lokeren, “Countering the Information War in the Baltic States.” Baltic Defense (blog), April 2, 2015. Accessed January 28, 2016. http://balticdefense.blogspot.com/2015/04/countering-information-war-in-baltic.html.

[39] NATO Strategic Communication Center of Excellence. “Nato Strategic Communication Center of Excellence.” Accessed January 29, 2016. http://www.stratcomcoe.org/.

[40] European Dialogue. “Energy Independence - Common Goal of the Baltics.” Accessed February 1, 2016. http://www.eurodialogue.eu/energy-security/Energy-Independence-Common-Goal-Of-The-Baltics.

 

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Comments

As the article admits, the Latvian attitude towards its Russian minority is quite extreme. So I believe that we should be very careful not to encourage such behavior. I don't believe we should repeat the 1990s when we encouraged the nationalist Croats in their desire to cleanse their Serbian minority - what was an important reason why the conflict went out of hand.

The article exaggerates the Russian threat. Russia has been in South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s and its initial involvement came from well justified care about the way Georgia's nationalist militia's treated its minorities. At that time is was also well supported in the region. Since then Georgia has blatantly refused to try to make up with the Ossetians and Abkhazians. On the contrary, their only approach has been to "punish" them into submission. If they had thought one second they would have known that Russia couldn't and wouldn't sit passively when they attacked it.

The history of the "Maidan revolution" still needs to be written. But I fully share the Russian disgust about how some European and American politicians violated the "non-interference in internal affairs" principle that is at the foundation of international law and relations when they encouraged protesters.

Before Russia annexed Crimea it did opinion polls there to find out how the population would react. Russia isn't interested in absorbing hostile populations.

Azor, I agree, even a cursory analysis of Putin’s statements and actions since 2008 reveals that his credendum is anti-NATO, anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Democratic, and anti-EU. See Timothy Snyder’s concluding chapter of BLACK EARTH for a depth analysis of where Putin derives his political model. Putin can be both anti-EU and anti-NATO, by virtue of the fact he's virulently anti-Western and anti-democratic.

The Colonel’s article is an excellent piece of strategic and socio-political analysis that offers practical, detailed, highly intelligently useful recommendations for countermeasures. NATO leadership should read this article, cleave to its insights, implement its recommendations. Colonel Collier clearly knows what’s at stake in the Baltic region. Why it needs defending. And how.

I am deeply grateful for this article. It helps me organize my own experience of the region.

I'm afraid I couldn't disagree more: from Georgia to Ukraine, and Tajikistan to Moldova, Putin seems very aware of the distinction between aligned (i.e. NATO) and non-aligned states.

If his grievance was solely with NATO, he would have handled the ousting of Yanukovych more deftly; his real adversary is the EU, which is an alternative integration project to the "EEU" and which challenges Russia's mafia state by its sheer economic success.

Putin is very interested in containing both the EU and NATO, yet a Baltic incursion would offer little reward for potentially existential risk.

Who's next you might ask? Ask Astana and Minsk...