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'May 9th is celebrated by the victors' and other pillars of pro-Kremlin disinformation

As the commemorations of the Victory Day rolled over Russia, elaborate parades showcasing the military might and accusations of the rise of neo-Nazism in the former Soviet republics went hand in hand. Pro-kremlin media coverage heavily focused on people in the Baltics being allegedly prosecuted for different beliefs and claiming that neo-nazism is on the rise in these countries.

Before discussing communications surrounding the end of the World War II, it is important to look at the current context. In a recent move, a legal ban on comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany has been proposed by the Russian President and lawmakers. The proposed bill also aims at banning any attempts to deny the ‘humanitarian mission of the USSR in liberating the countries of Europe’.

However, the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in 2019 pointed out the responsibility of both Soviet and Nazi regimes for the outbreak of World War II. Notably, it stresses that the end of World War II did not bring liberation and peace to some of the European countries, which remained under direct Soviet occupation or influence.

Meanwhile, 54% of those polled by an independent Russian polling organization Levada Centre in May 2021, considered the liberation of European countries from Nazi occupation being one of the main results of the victory in the World War II, in parallel to 7% of the respondents naming the expansion of the sphere of influence of the Stalinist regime onto the countries of Eastern Europe.

It is also important to remember that in April, the Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that increased penalties for justifying Nazism and introduced punishment for "public dissemination of knowingly false information" about the veterans of World War II. This bill was passed by the Russian State Duma in March, soon after a judge ruled that the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was guilty of defaming a World War II veteran. Offenders could now be facing possible sentences of up to five years in jail. Moreover, as proposed by the Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, the regulation should be considered as model for the CIS members and Tashkent Treaty countries.

Under Russian federal regulations, those, who ‘took part in military operations to eliminate the nationalist underground in the territories of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from January 1, 1944, to December 31, 1951,’ are eligible for the status of veteran. Notably, in Lithuania, a part of traumatic and complex history of occupation - the struggle by Forest Brothers and armed resistance against the Soviets, is heralded as the leading force in the struggle for freedom.

So how do these latest developments translate into the false and misleading claims pursued by pro-Kremlin media and fit into the larger picture of cascading official Moscow’s narratives?

Daily dynamics of disinformation, data
Daily dynamics of disinformation, data

On April 27 - May 10, 2021, spotted and analysed 82 cases of disinformation on the Victory Day (May 9) celebration in relation to Lithuania. These hits in Lithuanian and Russian languages, 17 and 65 hits, respectively. In 2020, team found 102 articles with false and misleading content.

The decrease in scope was accompanied by a lesser focus on Lithuania within the pro-Kremlin media coverage: it was more often mentioned in a passing manner rather than being the main object of disinformation, except for the hits that were published by the Kremlin mouthpieces specifically targeting the country, namely the Lithuanian branches of Sputnik and Baltnews.

Whilst Lithuania was out of the focus, it was Ukraine and Latvia to take the blow of disinformation: the former amidst escalating conflict with Russia overall and in reaction to the Embroidery March in Kyiv, and the latter because of the words by the Latvian President Egils Levits that World War II was not Latvia’s war as it did not take part init and the fact that the police fenced off the area surrounding the Victory Monument in Riga on May 9.

In 2020, which marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, roughly half of the articles targeting Lithuania in relation to the Victory Day were published on May 8th. Most of them were a reaction (by experts and Russia’s top officials, including the Russian President Vladimir Putin) to a joint declaration by the presidents of the Baltic countries calling for truth and justice in Moscow's responsibility for the outbreak of the war and the brutal incorporation of the three states into the USSR and the subsequent terror of the totalitarian regime.

The statement was echoed in several articles this year as well. Such publications contravened the Putin regime’s endeavour to appropriate the memory of the World War II and to make it a tool of both domestic and internationally oriented propaganda. To achieve such effect, parallels are drawn between the Soviet victory and current Russian foreign politics, military power, exceptionality, and the role of ‘liberator’.

This year, the spike of the articles on celebrating the Victory Day in relation to Lithuania came on May 9th, as the hits were published on dedicated leftist Facebook groups and pro-Kremlin media to remind of/commemorate the day and to reflect on how it was celebrated in the country. Such content included mentions of Lithuania as a Baltic state in generalising claims projected from the speech by the President of Latvia.

Top narratives and subnarratives by articles, data
Top narratives and subnarratives by articles, data

Attempts to erase the memory of the Victory Day was the leading narrative in terms of articles, with the subnarrative The memory of WWII in Lithuania is blurred being the largest generator of hits classified under this category of messages. The narrative was actively promoted by Sputnik via a number of articles dated April 28 to May 9. Publications used the very same quote in Russian and Lithuanian (although translation came in slightly differing versions) by the Deputy Director of the Institute of History and Politics of the Moscow State Pedagogical University Vladimir Shapovalov that the memory of WWII in Europe, including the Baltics, has been blurred. The appropriation of the same quote may evidence lower importance and fewer efforts attached to Lithuania and Victory Day this year, on the contrary to Latvia and Ukraine.

In addition, the narrative pursued within problematic information directed at Lithuania since the very regaining of independence was a leading one within the analysis as well, namely Lithuania and other countries expanded their territories with the help from the Soviets. The messages included traditional claims of the Soviets giving Vilnius and Klaipėda to Lithuania as a gift.

Top narratives and subnarratives by reach, data
Top narratives and subnarratives by reach, data

Attempts to erase the memory of the Victory Day was the leading narrative in terms of DebunkReach®, just as it did by articles. However, it was Demolishing/desecrating of monuments to soviet soldiers that took the lead. In addition, it reflects the trends highlighted by the Lithuanian Security Department (VSD) in their latest National Threat Assessment: Russia has been recently pursuing a historical policy which increasingly relies on weaponising legal norms and advancing their extraterritorial application, as in the case of amending the Russian Criminal Code foreseeing criminal liability for destruction or damage to graves or statues of Soviet soldiers in 2020.

Russophobia was the most often used word accompanying the false and misleading coverage regarding the Victory Day and Lithuania. Russophobia - the cornerstone and the carte blanche of Kremlin propaganda - allows dismissing any critique towards the Putin regime as irrational hysteria, hatred and oppression of the different-minded.

The phrase that The memory of World War II was blurred was the second most pronounced association with the object of analysis, followed by two closely related phrases: Idolisation of false heroes and Rebirth of Nazism.

Top phrases used in articles about the Victory day, data
Top phrases used in articles about the Victory day, data

The use of those narratives is clearly showcased in the examples found throughout the monitored period.

Case №1 Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Europe

During the Victory Day parade on May 9, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about ‘gatherings of unbeaten punishers, their followers, attempts to rewrite history, to justify traitors and criminals, on whose hands is the blood of hundreds of thousands of peaceful people’. It was the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov who gave some specifics on who the ‘unbeaten punishers’ were: “It is not a secret for anyone that neo-Nazis are increasingly raising their heads in European countries, and Europeans are fighting them. Of course, this is unacceptable for our country. In Ukraine, in some Baltic countries, indeed, we see those neo-Nazis”. (Rubaltic, 10/05/2021)

Within this particular article, Latvia was in focus, as it was stated that by fencing off the area surrounding the Victory Monument in Riga, a cynical provocation aimed at showing the Russian speaking population as barbarians was staged. Thus, the article goes, Latvia is labelled as ‘the followers of unbeaten punishers’ justly.

Despite stating further in the text that in Lithuania and Estonia commemorations went smoothly, the headline of the article suggests that Mr. Putin ‘congratulated’ the three Baltic states (indicating the use of Clickbait technique), just as Mr. Peskov’s details may be appropriated to make claims against any of the three (a generalising statement, Hyperbolization technique).

As the relations of European Union and Russia have become increasingly strained, the EU is targeted for the ‘rising neo-Nazism,’ yet the Kremlin spokesman is more cautious towards the Union, claiming that the Europeans are fighting the neo-Nazis, singling out the Baltics and Ukraine, as it has been continuously done by Kremlin propaganda. For example, the three have been labelled as the most ardent Russophobes in the EU by the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said back in February that the EU turned anti-Russian after 2004 accession of ‘immature’ Baltic nations and other states with historical grievances.

Case №2 Glorification of Nazism in Lithuania

What was claimed:

Although political elites of the Baltic countries claim there is no rehabilitation of Nazism in Europe, it is just the Kremlin propaganda speaking, Lithuanian functionaries are hanging out memorial plaques to the Nazi executioners [Kazys] Škirpa, [Juozas] Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, [Jonas] Noreika. ‘Correct’ books and films are being made about Nazi accomplices in the Baltics. Videos about the ‘Forest Brothers’, who are ‘waging a bloody war against the Soviet troops occupying their countries’, are published on the official page of NATO. The winners of the war and their descendants, however, have the immunity to Nazism: anti-Nazi ethics formed by generations that should be preserved through the Victory Parade and the Immortal Regiment. (Baltnews, 28/04/2021)

Our verdict:

Disinformation does not consist solely of fabricated news stories, photoshopped images or wild conspiracy theories. It is often more nuanced, sophisticated, and effective than we realise. As in this case, conflicting memories and controversies within the Lithuanian society concerning ill-considered memorials are used to make assumptions about rehabilitating Nazism in Europe. These are also used to discredit Lithuania and its historic memory via maintaining, just as in the Soviet times, that all of those fighting against the Red Army/Soviets were Nazis, hence the same goes for the Lithuanian post-war guerrilla warfare (as evidenced by the Russian federal regulations on the status of veteran, which include those who fought against the local insurgents). The article supports the narrative of Russian exceptionality in fighting Nazism, as it is claimed in the headline: ‘Russia has got a vaccine against Nazism, and its citizens have immunity to it.’

Case №3 Celebrations of the Victory Day are banned

What was claimed:

In some former Soviet republics, the authorities prevent residents from celebrating the Victory Day. This is especially noticeable in Ukraine and the Baltics. In the latter, the only way to express your cautious disagreement with the policy of the authorities is to lay carnations at the monuments to Soviet soldiers, the expert claims. According to him, ‘quite deliberate terror’ is taking place in the Baltics: ‘In the same way, as in the summer of 1941, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian fascist gangs hunted down patriots of the Red Army and Jews. Since then, practically nothing has changed, except that people try not to kill, but simply suppress dissent.’ (Vzglyad, 09/05/2021)

Our verdict:

The article uses the technique of Hyperbolization and Selection, when it is being claimed that the only way to express a different than official position in the Baltics is to lay flowers at a monument for Soviet soldiers. Although Lithuania continues to be classified as a flawed democracy (42nd spot among 167 countries ranked) in terms of the Democracy Index compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit, flaws associated with not having the status of full democracy (such as underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics etc.) stem from the long period of soviet occupation. In addition, on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Lithuania ranks 28th among 180 states. The claims that practically nothing has changed since 1941 when ‘fascist gangs hunted down patriots of the Red Army and Jews’ is not even an exaggeration, it is a groundless claim aimed at evoking strong emotional response rather than allowing for objective interpretation of complex and traumatising events within the historical frames of World War II.

89% of the false and misleading coverage concerning Lithuania with regards to the Victory Day was negative. Majority of the articles that portrayed Lithuania in neutral tonality were classified under the narrative Lithuania(ns) should be thankful for the liberation by the Soviets, which included the claims that Lithuania and other countries expanded their territories with the help from the Soviets, as well as allegations that if not for the Soviets, the Nazis would have annihilated the residents of the Baltic countries.

Share of media sources by articles and reach, data
Share of media sources by articles and reach, data

Measured by articles, Sputnik and Baltnews, Kremlin-funded propaganda mouthpieces, aimed at extending Russia’s influence within Lithuania’s information space (as acknowledged by the State Security Service) topped the list of media sources. The Russian language platform, which was used in a large-scale malign information operation run by a professional team, possibly associated with the Russian intelligence community, as discovered in 2019, ranked close.

Measured by DebunkReach®, the state-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti made the greatest impact with regards to false and misleading news on Lithuania with regards to Victory Day commemoration. RIA Novosti, just as Sputnik and Baltnews, is controlled by the Russian government’s Rossiya Segodnya media holding, headed by the EU-sanctioned propagandist CEO Dmitry Kiselyov. It was followed by RIA FAN, a news agency linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin behind the troll farm in St Petersburg. analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:

  • DebunkEU analysis platform

  • CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.

  • Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.

  • TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.

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