Information technology has changed the means and weapons of warfare. How to defend against a weapon that is, much like a poisonous gas, invisible and slow, but has a lethal effect?
When Russia used its energy resources to manipulate its neighbours, Lithuania was one of the first NATO countries to notice and begin talking about it with a loud voice.
At that time, many ignored our warnings, even mocked them, claiming that we were struggling to get rid of our Russophobic habit. Nevertheless, energy security has become essential to the European Union and part of the NATO countries’ national strategy.
There is a similar case for information warfare. It took the Crimean annexation, the US elections and Brexit for our partners to hear what we wanted to tell them about Russian manipulation. However, the methods and tactics of information warfare have already changed. Does Lithuania still have momentum in the ever-changing information warfare battlefield?
Resilience at home
Thanks to constant interactions with foreign colleagues, I can say that with certain exceptions, Lithuania has managed to develop resistance to information attacks from the East. Kremlin TV channels are still rather popular in Lithuania, but together with a decreasing level of Russian language proficiency, their influence and popularity are in a steady decline.
While some interest remains in learning the Russian language, the youth no longer has a link that is maintained through the Kremlin’s TV channels. The various “Sputniks” that have been created are little known in Lithuania and struggle to shed their status of “niche” information outlets.
Our journalists deserve particular praise – regardless of us working in different publications and outlets and being competitors for the public’s attention. There are red lines that are not overstepped.
In Lithuania, journalists become a single unit when it comes to working to repel information attacks from the East.
The political, economic and cultural establishment in Lithuania demonstrates resilience against such information attacks, though of course, as everywhere, there are exceptions. In such cases, journalists and media personalities are quick to report on it. And if this fails to help, the annual States Security Department report amply performs its preventive duty.
The formula of Kremlin information warfare against the Baltic States has always been more or less clear: the three F’s – failed states, fascist and friendless.
While there have recently been information attacks against Lithuania (the last being on 18 October, with a fake news story about a planned NATO base in Lithuania), the impression is that Lithuania has somewhat been “forgotten”. Either this is a mistaken impression or a change in Kremlin tactics.
Since more than a decade ago, the West has been living under conditions of a permanent crisis. A massive economic depression was followed by a crisis of values, which has infected the political system.
One could argue that this is a film we have seen once before, namely in the seventies when the West also faced a crisis of values. There were worries that the Soviets would soon win the Cold war, yet, these never materialised.
The current crisis in the West, however, is unique in the fact that revolutions in media and information have granted compelling tools to exploit uncertainty and manipulate weaknesses in part of the world.
The value crisis is in full swing and there are several looming factors that are a cause for concern. Heated political discussions, whether it is Brexit or Trump, lead to an increased antagonism and a polarisation in Western society. Particularly in the US and the UK there is no end in sight to resolve major societal disputes.
Even without a re-election of President Trump for a second term, it is reasonably naïve to believe that passions will settle down after the 2020 presidential election in the US. Brexit has already split the UK into two antagonistic parts without the actual departure from the EU having occurred.
We have a waning influence in the world, set against the rise of the rest. They are eager to dismantle a Western-dominated world order.
Meanwhile, we already see the first signs of another economic slowdown, which will impact our citizens – and most importantly – and voters.
In this context, the tools of the information revolution grant unprecedented opportunities for those politicians that seek to “drain the swamp”.
The current world order is not only unappealing to the Kremlin, but also to those in Europe and elsewhere who dislike liberal democracy.
Draining the swamp together
The current informational environment means that third countries have an unprecedented number of instruments to influence democratic processes and put those into government that with their decisions seek to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy.
They would dismantle the existing world order, including the inseparable elements of NATO and the EU.
In circumstances where every vote counts, they polarise our citizens with the very tools that were created to unite communities. Social media channels become the most powerful tool in the hands of those who claim the drain the swamp, aided by the Kremlin.
Facebook and Twitter enable people to gather the crowds and topple down dictators, but also give power to disruptive actors who split communities and influence swing voters. We already know about Cambridge Analytica, but how many similar or even more advanced tools are out there we do not know about?
The Kremlin understands well that in the era of information technology it is possible to support politicians, whose values and ideology align with the Kremlin’s long term goals without them even being aware of this, or there being any conscious collusion.
In our era of information technologies, it is possible to manipulate the emotions and minds of voters in foreign countries.
Information technologies has permitted the creation of new means and weapons for warfare. While we occasionally see bullets flying and shells exploding on the battlefield of information, we pay ever less attention the changed weaponry.
Bullets and shells are being replaced by far more lethal weapons: information warfare can only be compared to a poisonous gas, which is many times more effective and has long-lasting consequences for opponents.
The Kremlin makes use of these means of influence because they work, in part because liberal democracies frequently make mistakes. Widening inequality and a growing digital divide in the Western world still has not been properly addressed yet, even though many signs are indicating that a next economic crisis is just around the corner.
The Kremlin and the new “swamp drainers”, while not aware or not declaring that they work together, complement one another perfectly in dismantling the consensus that was prevalent in Western societies.
Recently, when I had the opportunity to speak to colleagues from the Visegrad region about information warfare and fake news, I was surprised to hear how disinformation is being spread from public outlets in Bulgaria and Romania.
An autocratic style of governance has gained ground; the institutions of the rule of law are waning, as is the news media.
Short term populist decisions will come at a high cost in the long term. Meanwhile, EU structural funds helps those in power to win one election after another.
The Visegrad countries (V4) are drawing ever closer to the East in terms of values. This process has gained so much momentum that for citizens from the region it is hard to grasp, what is a Kremlin troll, what is a Kremlin narrative and what is the poisonous gas released by those who claim to drain the swamp.
Lithuania and the Baltic countries, in general, continue to carry the torch of liberal democracy. We still keep our red lines, which no one dares to cross. We carry this torch with all of the troubles of parliamentary democracy and continue to declare that Western values are closer to us than those propagated by the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, we must actively seek antidotes for the information attacks that are floating around, even among our politicians.
We must monitor and defend the independence of the judiciary. We must be watchful of the government’s desire to reduce the dependence of our national broadcaster (LRT).
Monika Garbačiauskaitė, who directs the LRT, noted that candidates for its board “would be chosen by a government commission, which would be formed out of ministry and cabinet officials, making these individuals directly delegated by politicians. In our opinion, this is a threat to independence.”
There is always the first step, and when it does not face opposition, there will be a second and a third. Let us study the examples of the V4 and try to find out why it is that some of them turned onto the path laid out in Kremlin narratives.
Let us prepare for information attacks at a different level and, while the individual bullets whizz by, let us watch not only for them but also the slow, poisonous gas that is information warfare.
Only media sovereignty and independent institutions that uphold the rule of law can help in this challenging fight. Those who claim they drain the swamp also are coming to Lithuania, let us prepare and learn from the mistakes of others.