Last week, the Seimas hosted a conference, entitled “Information Warfare Against Lithuania,” which looked at ways to counter such attacks instead of ignoring and pretending nothing was happening.
Defence analyst Aleksandras Matonis, one of the speakers at the conference, notes that a lightning bolt hit Lithuania this spring, followed by several “miraculous recoveries” and even more “miraculous conversions.”
Rehabilitation after paranoia
The lightning bolt that Matonis refers to was a cyber attack of unprecedented intensity directed at one of Lithuania's online news portals last May. According to the expert, the incident forced the State Security Department and the Ministry of Defence to update their security reports and draft a more precise assessment of threats to Lithuania.
“You see in front of you a man who has recovered from paranoia. Until now, myself and everyone else, who had been talking publicly about the threats of information warfare, were looked upon as paranoiacs or people who'd lost touch with reality. Besides, I've noticed a conversion of people who had previously denied or understated informational operations directed against Lithuania over the past decade. Now, the threats are accepted and explicitly acknowledged in official documents,” Matonis says.
Until now, myself and everyone else, who had been talking publicly about the threats of information warfare, were looked upon as paranoiacs or people who'd lost touch with reality.
He underscores that information attacks against Lithuania are not a new phenomenon – one can recall the turmoil following Lithuania's declaration of independence in 1990, when the country's Communist Party in cooperation with the KGB conducted a well-coordinated campaign to influence the public.
“It included operations of information and disinformation. They used both centrally-run Soviet mass media as well as local Lithuanian outlets seized during the January 1991 events. The capacities were employed to carry out specific informational operations, aimed at undermining loyalty of Lithuanian citizens,” Matonis recalls two-decade-old events.
He then moves to the year 1993, when the last troops of the Russian army left the territory of Lithuania. Moscow's information campaigns, however, did not abate: “We noticed specific attacks, primarily related to Lithuania's declared interest in joining NATO. The process was a long one, with continual and consistent attempts to discredit it.”
Origins of modern information attacks
Another key period, according to Matonis, was 1999-2000, when Lithuania decided to privatize Mažeikių Nafta (Mažeikiai Oil), its key oil refinery. Using traditional mass media, Russia tried to influence both decision-making politicians and the Lithuanian society, to turn public opinion against the chosen strategic investor from the US, Williams International. Moreover, Matonis says, various methods were employed to influence the Lithuanian media and interest groups.
“What was the biggest obstacle to the spread of Russian information campaigns in Lithuania?” he asks rhetorically. And gives a reply: internet reach at the time was negligible, very few people used email, while the traditional media was run with relatively responsible editorial policies. Moreover, broadcasts of Russian TV and radio channels had been discontinued in the late 1980s – the niche was later taken over by cable TV, though its reach expanded very slowly and gradually.
“This is when the notion of soft power came into existence and grew stronger with time,” Matonis underlines.
He thinks that the a stage of modern information warfare against Lithuania began on 15 September 2005. On that day, Russian military aircraft Su-27 crossed the border of NATO-protected Lithuanian airspace. The aircraft allegedly lost orientation after flying into Lithuania, ran out of fuel, the pilot abandoned the plane and it crashed.
It was one of the cases of a targeted, well-organized hostile information campaign, aimed at undermining public trust in NATO, the Lithuanian government and state, discredit political and economic decision making.
“What happened right after the accident?” Matonis asks. At first, Russia seemed perfectly benevolent and willing to cooperate in investigating the catastrophe and its causes.
“However, on the fourth or fifth day, we observe a radical change – Russian media channels launch a massive pressure campaign, alleging that Lithuania is incapable of conducting the investigation independently and, in general, trying to discredit Lithuania's NATO policies as well as those of the alliance as a whole. The Lithuanian political leadership was completely unprepared for such a sudden shift in rhetoric. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued contradicting messages; for instance, one said that the remains of the aircraft would be handed over to Russia, while the other claimed they would not. It wasn't until several days later that both ministries formed a joint team which took control of external communication,” Matonis relates.
However, another complication came in the figure of a Russian air force general who, without having access to any data about the investigation, liberally shared his views and positions on the matter with the media.
“It was one of the cases of a targeted, well-organized hostile information campaign, aimed at undermining public trust in NATO, the Lithuanian government and state, discredit political and economic decision making,” he summarizes.
Parallels between Williams International and Chevron
According to Matonis, Lithuanians' minds and emotions remain a target of information warfare, employing a wide range of techniques.
“One of the clearest examples – energy. Weird coincidence that during the time when Lithuania was holding a referendum on a nuclear power plant, one environmental organization was staging anti-nuclear protest actions in Vilnius and, as a matter of fact, Riga. YouTube filled up with videos of burning water running from taps, etc. Besides, black PR technologies were used to mobilize certain groups of the society that triggered a wave of protests near state institutions.
“One can wonder: can it be an attempt to degrade one of Lithuania's strategic partners, the United States, and its role in our economy? One can see parallels between Williams International and Chevron,” Matonis compares.
He also believes that Lithuania's identity has been a constant target of information warfare ever since the Independence. Attempts are made, he says, to erase the significance of the Grand Duchy in Lithuania's history, cast doubt on the contribution of post-war freedom fighters.
“For instance, Christian Orthodox press here interprets facts of the Lithuanian history very liberally,” Matonis notes. He adds that other fronts of information warfare include readers' comments underneath online news articles and Russian-language TV programmes.
Is there danger in Soviet nostalgia?
Matonis would also like to include more innocent-sounding things into the list, like performances of Russian ballet companies in Trakai; a theatre festival in Druskininkai, attended by several dozen professional theatre companies from Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, and Moldova; Lithuanian basketball teams participating in VTB United League matches (the league features clubs from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine), etc.
Curiously often, he says, Russian performing artists schedule their concerts on Lithuanian national state holidays. The same goes for marketing of “Soviet” brands – for example, on 13 January, the Freedom Defenders' Day, shoppers were offered to buy two “Soviet” sausages for the price of one.