The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was once mighty and vast. Formed in the 13th century, it rose to be largest state in Europe after Vytautas the Great vanquished an army of Teutonic knights in 1410.
Yet today, Kremlin ideologues argue that the Lithuanian empire was effectively Belorussian all along — and that modern-day Belarus, a close ally of Moscow, is the legitimate heir to the Grand Duchy’s august legacy
This narrative enrages many Lithuanians — including those who sit on the Lithuanian military’s STRATCOM (or, strategic communications) team, the body tasked with running “counter-propaganda” programs in the country. “The Middle Ages is a very important and sensitive question here,” one Colonel, who leads STRATCOM’s efforts in Vilnius, told me. Russia-backed academics “create ‘truth’ about how Slavs created the Lithuanian state… They are trying to create a pool of youngsters who will finish school… and then, if Lithuania is invaded, will speak not of occupation but of reconquering. Like in Ukraine.”
On a recent Monday, I visited the Colonel’s office at Lithuania’s Ministry of Defense building in central Vilnius, which once served as a school for Jesuit monks. Inside, his desk was layered with yellowing books — volumes of old military ballads, Polish cartoons about the Middle Ages, and bulky tomes on the history of Russian propaganda. The Colonel greeted me in full military regalia: camo jacket, cropped hair and crippling handshake. He said he was glad that I had come — glad that someone outside the Baltic region was paying attention.
“The battlefield is transforming,” he began, handing me a sparkling water and sitting me down before a laptop, which displayed the first slide of a PowerPoint presentation in all capital letters: “ENEMY DESIRED END STATE: WILL TO RESIST IS BROKEN!”
“The  Battle of Trafalgar led to a clear understanding that you can win a war by sea,” he said. Today, the Colonel continued, Lithuania in engaged in a “post-modern war,” in which “the same importance is given to informational influence as to weapons.”
The Ministry of Defense’s STRATCOM division was formed at the end of 2009. Since then, and especially since events in Ukraine, Vilnius has devoted ever more attention to its “information war” with the East.
My meeting with the Colonel came at a critical moment: Lithuania, a former Soviet state, is turning to the weighty task of hardening defenses against Russian messaging. In September, the country’s State Security Department warned citizens to be “remain vigilant” in the face of an “extensive propaganda campaign” orchestrated by Moscow. Be on guard, it warned, against Putin’s arsenal of Russian-language “articles, reports and announcements defaming Lithuania.” In March, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told the BBC that her country is “already under attack.”
Last month, Lithuania’s media regulator suspended the Russian-language TV channel RTR Planeta for three months on the grounds that the network was disseminating Kremlin “propaganda” to the reported 14 percent of Lithuanians who regularly watch Russian TV, “inciting discord, warmongering, spreading biased information.” Controversially, military officers were the ones who advised the regulator to take action.
The drive is part of a broader push by Lithuania to anticipate and mobilize against the sort “hybrid warfare” tactics that are on display in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions — foreign-backed riots, shadowy rebel gatherings, and sabotage attacks from within — and, with any luck, avoid the fate that has befallen Kiev.
Earlier this month, VICE News embedded with the Lithuanian Army as it carried out Operation Lighting Bolt, a nationwide war games drill that pitted Lithuania’s new Rapid Reaction Force against shady insurgents from the fictional nation of Udija. According to the premise of the drill, the Udijans had pre-empted their kinetic aggression by sending out a barrage of pro-Udija propaganda.
This new preoccupation with what some call the “weaponization of information” extends beyond the Baltics. In America, the chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee ispushing legislation that would increase support for Voice of America (VOA) — a US government-funded broadcaster — and charge it with “act[ing] as the free press in repressive societies like Russia.”
‘They are trying to create a pool of youngsters who will finish school… and then, if Lithuania is invaded, will speak not of occupation but ofreconquering.’
In March, at a meeting in Brussels, the European Council agreed that the Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini should prepare, by June, a campaign plan to resist Russian propaganda. The same month, NATO’s supreme commander Gen. Philip Breedlove saidWestern countries should do more to counteract “false narratives” emanating from the Kremlin. “We need a western group of nations or an alliance to engage in this informational war.” Countries such as the UK and Denmark have called for the EU to fund of Russian-language TV channels.
In March, a NATO Parliamentary Assembly draft report entitled “The Battle For The Hearts And Minds: Countering Propaganda Attacks Against The Euro-Atlantic Community” noted, “It is plausible that… Moscow is increasingly relying on its propaganda machine to advance its foreign policy agenda.”
That events in Ukraine have inspired this info call to arms is no secret. Ever since Russiainvaded the Crimean peninsula last February, Russian language networks have been pushing revisionist accounts of the Ukraine conflict: that Ukraine is run is by fascists, that Russian speakers are not safe in Kyiv, that the Maidan revolution was a neo-Nazi coup, that Crimeans kicked out the Ukrainian government on their own initiative, that Russian soldiers haven’t set foot in Donetsk or Luhansk.
In response, Lithuania’s STRATCOM Colonel has taken a hawkish line. Back in his office, he argued that offensive information strategies are required. Lithuania, he said, must create and disseminate its own narratives in order to boost patriotism and stave of the kind of defections and turncoat activity that the Ukraine military has endured.
Yet in this charged environment, some critics have accused Vilnius of indulging in anti-Russia hysteria and talking tough to little effect. Lithuania, these skeptics note, is in a less precarious position than the other Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, which boast much larger Russian populations and thus play more readily into President Vladimir Putin’s narrative of a pan-Slavic society under Moscow’s protection.
When I asked the Colonel whether shutting down Russian-language TV stations was an affront to free speech, he bristled: “Like Goebbels? Mein Kampf? He could just say: ‘That’s just my opinion!’ If Nazi propaganda is wrong, why is chauvinistic Russian propaganda fine?” Later, the Colonel explained, more calmly, that Russian-language TV channels have violated European law.
What is clear is that the Colonel’s approach is deeply shaped by history. One of his PowerPoint slides — filled with excited CAPS LOCK and red font and exclamation points — showed images from 1795 and 1940, two years in which Lithuania endured Russian invasions, first by Tsarist forces and then by the Soviets. “Why has Lithuania twice lost statehood without a single shot [being fired]?” he charged. “How has the enemy twice enslaved our government?”
The answer, said the Colonel, is not military unpreparedness. Rather, Lithuania’s leaders were manipulated and their citizens rendered idle — by misinformation.
In the eyes of the Colonel, Russian propaganda is bountiful and varied. Seated in his office, he guided me through a list of subjects that Russia has purportedly targeted for propaganda purposes.
Target 1: History of Lithuania
Target 2: The Lithuanian Armed Forces. “They are trying to deny our capability in the eyes of our society… that the tiny Lithuanian army will lose in the first 10 minutes!”
Target 8 was listed as “Sport.” The Colonel argues that Russia is aggressively recruiting Lithuanian athletes to play in Russian sports leagues — and that this must be stopped. “We talked to the Scandinavians and we said: Maybe we can create a Northern League here. You can teach us to stay on the ice and we can teach you to play basketball. They chickened out.”
Yet another target is “Culture.” The Colonel spoke at great length about a Russian animated children’s show called Masha and the Bear. Sometimes, he said, aghast, “Masha wears the hat of a Red star cadet officer! Or a Russian tanker helmet! … Animation is the easiest way to do propaganda.” The Colonel said that if Russia wanted to host a music or arts festival in Lithuania, he would advise the government to forbid it.
The primary concern, the Colonel explained, is Lithuania’s “Lumpenproletariat that doesn’t have critical thinking,” and thus can easily be convinced that “Lithuanians are fascists.”
The Colonel’s general contention that Russia’s propaganda strategy has shifted decisively since the Cold War — and that Russian propaganda outlets are operating with more sophistication — is increasingly shared by Kremlin watchers.
This change is evidenced most patently by RT (formerly Russia Today), the TV channel founded by Putin in 2005 that now broadcasts in a variety of languages, including English, German, and Arabic. Unlike Russian news outlets of yore — which tirelessly, and overtly, pushed official party lines — RT positions itself more broadly as a global and alternative media voice that is healthily skeptical of America and Western orthodoxy.
Importantly, RT rarely takes a single, anti-Western media line on any given story. That would be too obvious. Instead, RT journalists present gaggles of competing and contradicting narratives which together create the impression that the truth is indecipherable — or that, in the words of former Russian TV producer Peter Pomerantsev, “nothing is true and everything is possible.”
But according to Nerijus Maliukevicius, a scholar of Russian information war at Vilnius University, countering propaganda is not, in itself, a sufficient information strategy for Lithuania. Neither is it enough to offer Russian-language news alternatives, as countries like Britain have proposed. Rather, said Maliukevicius, over a recent coffee in Vilnius, “you have to make alternatives that are attractive… The challenge is to be interesting.”
RT, after all, and for all of its many flaws, is wildly interesting, beautifully shot and packed with high-budget thrills.
In the meantime, Maliukevicius thinks countries like Lithuania should invest more heavily in media literacy courses, especially in Russian-speaking schools. They might also fund training courses for Russian-speaking journalists, just as Russia has financed journalism schools abroad.
The 2014 NATO Parliamentary Assembly draft report on countering propaganda hasproposed some other solutions. The Alliance might launch “a commonly-funded Russian-language TV station.” It could apply travel sanctions “against the most active propagandists and political technologists.” It could consider legislation that imposes fines for “clear disinformation.”
Some of these proposed alternatives will sit uneasily in Washington and Brussels with those who would eschew NATO’s involvement in strategic anti-Russia messaging. One draft report proposal, for instance, proposes that the Euro-Atlantic community develop “a more coherent narrative and a set of arguments refuting myths cultivated by Moscow.”
But if they do manage to hammer out that narrative, says Maliukevicius, they should make sure to keep it flashy.
Old Soviet propaganda was so “boring, so official,” he insists. The result was that “any alternative — like [US-funded] Radio Free Europe, jazz music channels from Luxembourg, and so on — everything seemed interesting” and persuasive.
Now, the tide has turned. NATO’s messages have dried up. “And suddenly, Putin’s virtual Soviet project has become quite sexy. No Siberia, No Stalin anymore.”
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart