FORT BRAGG, North Carolina — The Russian effort to smear NATO’s reputation in Lithuania is broader than previously revealed, and is likely a harbinger of future disinformation campaigns in the country, throughout the alliance and across the Atlantic.
The tip of the iceberg was an October rumor, started by Russian operatives and covered by a handful of media outlets, that the United States intended to move nuclear weapons from Turkey to Lithuania. But that effort to sow social division and erode public support for NATO was preceded by another that almost no one noticed, and the country is bracing for yet another this month, a senior Lithuanian military official told an audience of special operators here last week.
On Sept. 25, Russian operatives posted online a fake news story that claimed that German soldiers, operating as part of NATO, had desecrated Jewish gravestones with swastikas in Kaunas. The publication was timed to a meeting between Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and members of the U.S. Jewish community, as well as a meeting between the Lithuanian foreign minister and members of the Lithuanian Jewish community (in anticipation of the Sept. 29 Jewish New Year).
The following day, the operatives emailed the fake story several English-language news sources, including The Jewish Press, Jewish National News, and Infos Israel News; and even contacted Nausėda’s office, pretending to be Lithuanian journalists. The former removed the material after it was contacted by the Lithuanian government but the damage was already done.
Finally, the operatives hacked into a genuine news organization, kasvyksta.lt, and posted about the fake story on Sept. 26 and 27, according to Eugenijus Lastauskas, who runs the Lithuanian military’s Strategic Communication Department.
This entire multi-pronged campaign at the end of September served as a sort of dress rehearsal for a bigger attack in October.
On Oct. 17, Russian operators again broke into kasvyksta.lt and posted a new story about purported U.S. plans to move nuclear weapons to Lithuania. They also sent fake emails purporting to be from known journalists to Nausėda’s office and other officials, looking for official comment on the fake story. Back in Russia, the story was circulated widely across social media channels. The next day, hackers again targeted legitimate media outlets to deface them in order to carry false news. Journalists well outside of Russia were targeted with emails made to look like they were from members of the Lithuanian government.
The attackers even drew up a fake tweet from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomepo “congratulating” the Lithuanian president on the news of the move of the nuclear weapons, despite U.S. policy not to disclose the location of nuclear weapons outside of the United States.
What was the context for the attack? In part, the growing friction between the United States and Turkey on Turkish operations in Syria; in part, real U.S. plans to deploy a U.S. tank battalion to Lithuania to deter Russian aggression. The objective, said Lastauskas, was the convince Lithuanians that they would be targets for Russian nuclear retaliation if hostilities break out.
The Lithuanian government uses a variety of tools to spot Russian disinformation campaigns, Lastauskas said. “There are certain attacks where they are provoking a reaction,” he said, declining to go into detail out of operational concerns.
“Once we’ve identified that there is fake information… that could potentially harm our interests, we deconstruct it. We try to kind of identify, is it really fake? How was it created? What is the target audience it is trying to connect [to], and then there is a discussion between the different ministries where we identify what needs to be done next,” Lastauskas told Defense One.
The Russian government pursues disinformation campaigns along several lines of effort. “The first line is basically… to show that the state is failing, not delivering as the people would expect,” he said.
In terms of politics, “that gets inflated to an enormous level,” he said. It “goes as proof of state ineffectiveness…Your past is criminal, your present is miserable, no future.” The ultimate objective is “to show the state is not worth it.”
But another line of effort is far more targeted directly at NATO. It “portrays NATO forces as a threat to society, a threat to civilians,” he said.
NATO itself is more limited in its ability to respond to Russian disinformation aimed at the alliance as a whole or at a single country such as Lithuania.
“We’re aware of this but the responsibility for combating it inside a nation is with the nation itself,” a senior NATO official told Defense One. “As it happens the Lithuanians are amongst the most active players in this field and usually tell us what’s going and are active in combating it…I think overall most NATO nations are far more aware that they used to be and putting more resources into it, with great cooperation between them. But ultimately it remains national business.”
Lithuania is not a country most Americans are familiar with, but its NATO membership and location make it a key site for the future defense of Europe from Russian aggression. It borders Poland, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and Belarus, a Russian vassal state with deep connections to the Russian militarily. A 65-mile corridor separates Belarus from Kaliningrad along the Polish, Lithuanian border called the Suwalki Gap. Many observers have pointed out that if Russia were to seize control of that gap, they could essentially cut Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia off from reinforcements. It’s one reason the U.S. and NATO have been conducting more exercises in the area and bolstering their presence there.
As a “national business,” fighting disinformation is booming. Said Lastauskas, “To be frank, we are waiting for something, something in December.”