Countering Russian Propaganda: NATO’s Role

Countering Russian Propaganda: NATO’s Role

by Barbora Maronkova

The relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia have never been easy. During the Cold War, NATO and the Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact faced each other on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. Soviet propaganda often accompanied this difficult period. Seventy years later, perhaps differently conducted, Russian hybrid actions are once again targeting NATO and its Allies with the objective to distort the truth and seed confusion.

Post-Cold War Prospects for Cooperation

Following the end of the Cold War, the new geopolitical reality initially offered an opportunity for cooperation and partnership between the former foes. Immediately after NATO's London Summit in July 1990, then-NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner made a historic trip to Moscow to convey the Alliance's message of friendship and to voice his personal support for enhanced NATO-Soviet Union cooperation and for the "building of new structures." In 1991, NATO created the North Atlantic Cooperation Council that later became the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, bringing together 50 countries, including Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union. In 1997, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was established to promote closer cooperation between NATO and Russia, paving the way for the creation of the NATO–Russia Council in 2002. 

While NATO and Russia disagreed on a number of issues—such as NATO enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe and NATO’s role in the 1999 air campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—there was also space for cooperation. For example, Russian soldiers served in NATO’s peace-keeping missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and they worked for common training of counter-narcotics personnel in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Even after the brief conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, NATO worked to restore the relationship with Russia and invited the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, to NATO’s Lisbon Summit in 2010 and named Russia a strategic partner in the new NATO Strategic Concept.

Disinformation Amidst Increased Tensions

Fast forward to February 2014. Russia changed the European landscape by annexing Crimea—counter to international law—and providing support to insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Hybrid warfare became a reality on the European continent, mixing traditional military force with asymmetric warfare such as cyberattacks, energy blackmail, and powerful propaganda and disinformation.

Jochen Bittner, political editor for Die Zeit, wrote in The New York Times that the key method of Russian propaganda is to cast doubt on the basic norms of the Western liberal order and its institutions; to distort and thereby discredit the European Union (EU), NATO, and the free market economy; and to erode the credibility of the free press and free elections. NATO and its Allies – but also its partners including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Montenegro – have found themselves under attack from false media reporting, social media “trolling,” faked photos and videos, and cloned websites. Russian media outlets have reported as fact fake stories about a Russian girl allegedly raped in Berlin by refugees, Nazis in Ukraine lynching Russian speakers, and NATO moving 3,700 tanks to the Russian border, to name just a few. 

Fact or Fiction: NATO’s Role in Countering Disinformation   

NATO is determined to counter propaganda not with propaganda, but with facts. In the early days of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian officials denied the presence of regular Russian military in Donbass. Declassified NATO satellite imagery showcased that the reality was the exact opposite. Moreover, NATO’s website now includes a dedicated platform called “Setting the record straight” that collects and showcases relevant facts and figures to counter false claims. In addition, NATO produced a myth-busting factsheet displaying the most frequent Russian myths about NATO and debunking them with correct and verifiable information.

Social media is another area where NATO can strike back against disinformation. NATO officials, such as the NATO spokesperson, are very active on Twitter, often rebutting false information about NATO and pushing for corrections of wrong media reporting and misleading headlines. For example, a recent news story in Russian media featured a false audio recording that allegedly demonstrated a phone call between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. The NATO press office immediately issued a tweet and a statement denying such a phone call ever happened.

NATO attributes great importance to transparency. It is strongly committed to the Vienna Document enacted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, according to which information about certain military exercises must be shared. NATO provides a full overview of its planned exercises on its website. Not only does NATO share information about the exercises, but it also assists journalists with access and organizes press tours to exercises.

In addition to NATO’s continued efforts to counter disinformation in the media and social media space, it continues to attach great importance to public diplomacy. Despite the current difficult political climate, NATO continues to run the NATO Information Office in Moscow. It facilitates public diplomacy projects and provides a platform for civil society dialogue. It organizes visits of Russian academics and students to NATO headquarters and engages with Russian media.

Actions by NATO Allies

In addition to the daily work of the relatively small team at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the Allies conduct their own counter-measures to Russian propaganda. Individual members are now setting up their own offices to monitor and respond to disinformation; for example, the Czech Republic set up a 20-member team on January 1, 2017. Some other countries have banned Russian-language television for spreading disinformation or inciting hatred. In Latvia, a TV station has started airing a new weekly show entitled “The Theory of Lies” to expose Russian disinformation. NATO works closely with its Allies on countering disinformation, and it also cooperates with other organizations which share its values and commitment to facts—most notably the EU, with which NATO holds regular exchanges on counter-propaganda efforts. Many civil society organizations, experts and academics provide insights into false news and fake videos and photos through reports, websites, and blogs displaying the Russian propaganda to the world.  

The Way Forward

U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1946: “the ability to rebuff Russian disinformation depends on the health and rigor of our own society.” Seventy years later, this statement is just as true. If indeed the objective of Russian propaganda is to undermine Western values, institutions, and beliefs, the role of NATO and its Allies is to showcase that these are the best options for prosperity and peace in Europe.

Image "Information" Courtesy Magnus Akselvoll / CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Barbora Maronkova joined the NATO International Staff in 2006 and has since worked in the NATO Public Diplomacy Division. As of March 2017, she will serve as the director of the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kiev, Ukraine. She also currently serves as a non-resident fellow with the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and is the chief organizer of the annual NATO’s Public Diplomacy Forum in Brussels. A graduate of the University of Economics in Bratislava, Ms. Maronkova previously established and headed a Slovak NGO, the Centre for European and North Atlantic Affairs, to contribute to the public and academic debate on Slovakia’s membership to the EU and NATO. 

Note: In writing this article, the author does not represent NATO; the views expressed are the author’s own.

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