Russia Undermines the European Order
Poland, Europe, and NATO have all been targeted by Russian information attacks. Moscow has been mastering the methods of covert aggression for years, bringing down the levels of security in many European countries, and particularly in the Central and Eastern European countries (CEE). The strengthening of NATO’s Eastern Flank would serve to curtail Russia’s influence over the region. Therefore, the Kremlin has intensified its aggressive activities. This was particularly visible during this year’s edition of the Anakonda military exercise, a key training event for Polish Armed Forces with a high participation of allied countries and organizations.
Several conclusions can be drawn from analysis of the activities Russian propaganda has taken against ANAKONDA-18. Russia sows fear by trying to convince public opinion in Poland that if a conflict between Russia and NATO broke out, our country would be doomed (it threatens us with a nuclear attack, puts forward hypotheses that Poland is in the gunsites of Russian missile launchers, pushes claims that “Poland will serve as a training ground for U.S. and Russian nukes”). The Kremlin would like to see the Poles feel threatened and bound to fail should there be a confrontation with Moscow. Therefore, Russia portrays the Polish Armed Forces as unable to conduct defensive operations, with low morale and far less training and skill than their Russian counterparts. In the same vein, NATO is depicted as an “empty” alliance that does not offer any guarantees. Moscow’s propaganda fabricates negative opinions about the Polish Armed Forces and puts them in the mouths of both Polish and allied soldiers and commanders. At the same time, the capabilities of the Russian army are lauded, in terms of modernization of the military equipment and the capabilities of troops.
The campaign of fear targeting Poland is aimed at paralyzing the minds and the will to act of our soldiers, but also our countrymen and decision-makers, in order to prevent our country from defending its interests effectively. Russia also tries to spread a false picture of NATO’s activity on its Eastern Flank, suggesting that the Alliance takes aggressive actions that Russia is forced to neutralize (according to the Kremlin propagandists, the USA and NATO want to clash with Russia, with ANAKONDA-18’s utmost goal being to exercise aggressive operation against Russia and Belarus). The Russian narrative is also about accusing Poland and other NATO members of being irresponsible. If you went by pro-Russian media, you would read that given the number of soldiers and the amount of equipment, ANAKONDA-18 might spark off an armed conflict. The same media presented a manipulated scenario of the exercise and lied about the number of troops. The alleged “100,000 soldiers” who were to take part in the exercise and pose a serious threat to Russia, turned out to be just 17,500 in reality. At the same time, Moscow accused the Alliance of covering up its activities and failing to comply with transparency requirements, which are, by the way, two things Moscow itself always does. The strategy of manipulating the facts about the activities of NATO has become a permanent tool of Russian propaganda where the Kremlin’s aggressive policy is portrayed as a response to the alleged aggressive posture of the West.
Information campaigns against ANAKONDA-18 are implementations of Moscow’s multidimensional goals. By disseminating this message, Russia seeks to trigger anti-NATO sentiments in Poland, undermine the morale of Polish people and servicemen, diminish their trust in their allies and military alliances (for example by claiming that due to the cooperation with the USA our country has become vulnerable to attacks by Russia and ISIS, and any guarantees given by NATO are empty). Further, it tries to weaken political decision-makers in order to impair or even immobilize the abilities of the Polish state to launch a defensive military operation against a potential kinetic military action (Russia suggests that Polish Ministry of Defense is torn by conflicts and that the society does not accept the policy of the current government). Russia undertakes similar actions in other countries of our region, with special focus on Ukraine, where Russia makes tensions skyrocket, but also in the Baltic states. By acting in line with the hostile influence theory, Russia strongly believes that it will be able to paralyze the activities of NATO members, particularly on the Alliance’s Eastern Flank, in order to push its own agenda. Russia uses a permanent disinformation campaign to pave the way for further steps, namely intimidation of opponents and immobilization of defense capabilities.
The aim of information offensives is to render the audience vulnerable to Russian influence to take for granted a distorted picture of reality. To achieve this, Russia uses very simple tools, namely it publishes false information, manipulates the content posted to credible media, and attributes fabricated words to authority figures. Websites that spread pro-Russian propaganda contain interviews with Polish and international military officers, scientists, and journalists during which they say things that sound as if they were taken directly from Russian instructions. But those interviews either never happened or were fabricated. Opinions presented by the interviewed were tampered with or completely made up. Due to the fact that those people really exist, such fake interviews appear quite credible. Not only words, but also images are found in the Kremlin’s propaganda toolkit. Pieces published in support of pro-Russian disinformation come quite often with photos taken at a completely different time and in a completely different situation.
Another strategy employed by Russian disinformation websites is to interpret texts posted to credible news websites in such a manner that their meaning is heavily distorted. This way pro-Russian disinformation platforms appear more trustworthy, as the readers are not expected to check facts. The activity of Russia is characterized by long-term goals, with the “endstate” being to permanently distort the way the whole social groups think. Ultimately, the target audience is supposed to draw conclusions that are in favor of the aggressor and take actions in favor of the Kremlin. The analysis of news regarding the ANAKONDA-18 exercise spread by Russian propaganda outlets has shown that pro-Russian content is actively promoted.
Attacking Poland has become a permanent measure employed by Moscow. Any change with in Moscow’s behavior with this respect is rather unlikely. Russian operations against Poland will continue, as now they have gained a strategic importance. Currently, Poland and the USA are working to strengthen their political, energy, and, most of all, military cooperation. An enhanced U.S. military presence in Poland, or maybe even a permanent military base, is on the table. This strategic project is of utmost importance not only to our country, but also to the whole of Europe and NATO. If negotiations between Warsaw and Washington conclude successfully, this will be a serious blow to Russia’s abilities to conduct subliminal operations in CEE. And Poland is the key country for the security of the NATO’s Eastern Flank. With an increased troop presence in Poland, the USA will contribute significantly to the enhancement to Europe’s resilience against hybrid activities undertaken by Russia. If a decision to set up a U.S. military base in Poland is taken, this will be a major breakthrough for the security of the whole Alliance. For this reason it is highly likely that one of the goals of the current Russian policy towards Poland is to paralyze decision-making processes that could lead to shifting the NATO’s strategic area of defense in the East towards the territory of Poland. The Russians are determined to prevent the NATO’s Eastern Flank from increasing its defense capabilities, as this would impair the Kremlin’s operations in Europe. Therefore, the disinformation campaign against “ANAKONDA-18” should be understood as only one of many elements of Russian policy against the interests of Poland and the whole Alliance. For Russia, an enhanced defense potential of Poland and a U.S. military presence in our region will be a serious operational impediment. For our country and for NATO it should be clear that Russia is playing here a strategic game.
Stanisław Żaryn is the Spokesman for Poland’s Minister-Special Services Coordinator