by Adam Sybera and Lenka Struzinska
Russian smoke and mirrors
Even though the Polish authorities have reported fewer attempts to cross the border from Belarus in December, the humanitarian crisis has claimed 7 more lives. Lukashenka’s regime continues to create tensions and use stranded migrants (in many families with children) in Kuznica as a coercive tool in the ongoing hybrid conflict between Kremlin, its allies and the West.
Furthermore, pro-Kremlin media began to spread false narratives accusing the Polish authorities to be the main initiator of crimes against humanity. Titles such as “Human Rights? Yes, but not in Poland” and “Here is Poland, forget about human rights” appeared in both local and international pro-Kremlin platforms and social media. This effort was intensified using digital technology and artificial intelligence, minimizing the possibility of detection. For instance, several fake profiles impersonating existing journalists and activists served to confuse and manipulate public opinion. Despite this, Meta (Facebook) engineers have successfully uncovered the source of the Russian disinformation and identified links with the Belarussian KGB. Meta made an official statement stating “fictitious individuals posted criticism of Poland in English, Polish and Kurdish, including photos and videos of Polish border guards allegedly violating migrants’ rights”
In addition, the Russian disinformation campaign repeatedly made a baseless claim, insinuating that the Polish border patrol is organizing “hunts” for migrants stranded in the woods. The official website of Aleksander Lukashenka’s shamelessly fueled these narratives by publishing a headline claiming one of these “patrols” even dumped bodies of dead migrants on the Belarussian side of the border.
These narratives play into the constant effort of the Kremlin to undermine European integrity, cooperation and present the Union as a corrupt and hypocritical entity as well as to break the economic and military alliance of European states.
All Slavs are equal, but some are more equal than others
After the Russian leader Vladimir Putin amassed over 120.000 troops of the Russian army on the Ukrainian contact line and proceeded with further naval operations in the Black Sea, the central European information space has experienced a spike in disinformation attempting to delegitimize Ukraine as a sovereign state. Specifically in Slovakia, platforms known for spreading fake news, repeated narratives presenting Russia as the guardian of “friendly Slavic nations”. Pan-Slavism is a repeating leitmotif in Kremlin propaganda, broadcasted with the intent to artificially create a common identity that belongs or at least spawns of a common history within the USSR. The Kremlin considers the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and uses this narrative to create common grounds in European criticism.
Another justification attempt within the disinformation campaign continues to spread false information regarding the Russian army operations, excusing them as “defensive measures” the Kremlin must take to face “Ukrainian aggression.” Through this, Kremlin is constructing a reality within the Czechoslovak informational space for a “self-defence” argument in case of open war. These claims are supported by narratives presenting the superiority of the Russian military, insinuating that any resistance towards it is effectively pointless. In a situation concerning the geographical security of Eastern European states, as well as the general safety of the local population, these narratives, and the incentive behind their dissemination, strike as particularly alarming. In fact so alarming, that Ukraine has decided to implement a countermeasure, passing a law that makes it possible to fine entities publicly denying Russian aggression toward the country.
In this theme, the Kremlin disinformation campaign continues to depict countries from Eastern Europe as countries exploited by the West, and in need of Russian aid. The narratives of the campaign generally justify the Russian annexation of Crimea, making historically revisionist claims, such as Crimea has “always been Russian”. In essence, this completely renders the theory of “Pan-Slavism” (a recurring aspect of Kremlin propaganda), into an oxymoron. As one of the protagonists of the Czech National Revival movement of the 19th century Karel Havlíček Borovský fittingly said; “Russians like to call everything Russian Slavic, so later, they can call everything Slavic Russian”.
COVID, lies and deception
The common denominator of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant and Covid related misinformation in Central Europe is the rapid dissemination of the public space. Despite the capacities of intensive care units running low, numbers of infected spiking and death count steadily rising, the discrepancy regarding the situation within the region seems to be outdoing itself from the initial wave of the pandemic.
On the 24th of November, the National Security & Defense Council of Ukraine released a statement warning about a psychological operation to minimize the vaccination coverage of the country. Unfortunately, after examining the latest disinformation narratives in the region, there is little reason to think Russia is not applying a similar strategy to other countries, namely those who Kremlin considers belonging to their “sphere of influence”. The statement was issued around the same time an “anti-vaxx” demonstration took place in Kyiv, during which demonstrators held signs containing QR codes referring to the official website of United Russia, which is the ruling party of Russia and the strongest force in the state Duma.
The ”anti-vaxx” narratives are also a recurring manipulation tactic in the Czech Republic. To show insights regarding Covid-19 related disinformation, the “Czech Elves” initiative, which focuses on the detection and dissemination of Kremlin disinformation, released a database of intercepted emails. These were primarily targeted at the senior community and amplified on various disinformation platforms, known to push baseless narratives attempting to delegitimize “western vaccines”, attacking the professional public, and suggesting that the pandemic has been planned and scheduled. This tactic both deflects attention from the Russian “Sputnik V vaccine” failure as well as builds on the general undermining of anything “western” and is part of the widespread operation to weaken the defensibility and integration of Eastern and Central European countries.
As part of its foreign policy and the Gerasimov Doctrine, Russia is deliberately escalating tensions on the European borders as part of a complex military operation, designed to achieve its demands and further establish Kremlins’ sphere of influence.
The European Union should be prepared to demonstrate its integrity. As such it should encourage all of the member states to declare support both to Ukraine, which faces a threat of military invasion, as well as Poland and Lithuania who are in the first line of defence toward the hybrid threat of forced migration by the Lukashenka regime.
This support may include military aid of member states by providing both instructors and personnel to participate in tactical training, creating a deterrence effect. Furthermore, member states could provide ammunition and military equipment with a declaration of support as well as imply the termination of international agreements and bi-lateral treaties with Russia in case of further escalation.
Finally, European Commission should offer additional funds to aid the purchase of border defence equipment including surveillance and monitoring equipment to help face increasing disruptive cyber operations.