Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, June 13, 2017 10:00PM EDT
More Canadian troops will arrive in Latvia next week, fulfilling Ottawa’s commitment of 450 personnel to the multinational battle group tasked with deterring any potential military action by Russia.
While the show of NATO-led “hard power” may convince the former Soviet superpower to respect its neighbour’s physical borders, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is already hard at work, launching digital salvos deep into Latvian territory.
Many in the region say the steady stream of disinformation aimed at manipulating public opinion and undermining Latvian society represents a more clear and present danger than an actual Russian military incursion.
“We are under constant attack here, trying to say that we are a failed state, that liberal democratic order has failed, that Russia is doing something really great by providing world order,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. “That is a battle for our hearts and minds.”
Moscow-generated fake news is constantly broadcast into Latvia over the airwaves of Russian radio and television, and paid Kremlin operatives with multiple online identities flood social media platforms with a steady stream of false pro-Russia information every day.
Rinkēvičs said the Russians even hacked into a legitimate news agency’s website a few weeks ago to plant a false story claiming American soldiers were once poisoned by chemical weapons in Latvia.
NATO will deploy four battle groups to the Baltics and Poland as part of Operation Reassurance. The Latvia group will include military personnel from Canada, Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain. The group is hoping to deter Russian troops from entering Latvian towns like Karsava, which is close to the Russian border and has a large Russian population.
While Latvia is fiercely nationalist, the country has a large Russian-speaking population and historically stronger ties to Moscow than its Baltic neighbours.
Russia’s annexation of the largely Russian-speaking Crimea region of Ukraine more than three years ago has NATO leaders determined to prevent a similar scenario from playing out elsewhere in eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, the dangers of Moscow’s subversive political messages gaining traction with everyday Latvians continues to weigh heavily on the minds of the country’s leaders.
“The big danger is in the hybrid war. It’s what they’re trying to do in the West. It is to subvert democracy,” said former Latvian parliamentarian Valdis Liepens. “I don’t think they want physical control. I think they want control in the political sense.”
Elves vs. trolls
The buildup of NATO boots on the ground has little capacity to put a wrench in Russia’s online propaganda machine. That job falls to groups like the so-called Latvian “Elves,” a grassroots collective of volunteers dedicated to discrediting Russian online trolls.
Like the foreign soldiers tasked with keeping the border intact, they believe their mission could also decide the fate of a nation.
“(With) this information influence, you can actually do bad things for Latvia and probably good things for the regime in Moscow,” said Elves founder Ingmars Bisenieks.
With a report from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson in Riga, Latvia