December 3, 2019
A broad disinformation campaign of fake news and other tricks aims to turn the Baltic nation’s public against the alliance.
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina — The Russian effort to smear NATO’s reputation in Lithuania is broader than previously revealed, and is likely a harbinger of future disinformation campaigns in the country, throughout the alliance and across the Atlantic.
The tip of the iceberg was an October rumor, started by Russian operatives and covered by a handful of media outlets, that the United States intended to move nuclear weapons from Turkey to Lithuania. But that effort to sow social division and erode public support for NATO was preceded by another that almost no one noticed, and the country is bracing for yet another this month, a senior Lithuanian military official told an audience of special operators here last week.
On Sept. 25, Russian operatives posted online a fake news story that claimed that German soldiers, operating as part of NATO, had desecrated Jewish gravestones with swastikas in Kaunas. The publication was timed to a meeting between Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda and members of the U.S. Jewish community, as well as a meeting between the Lithuanian foreign minister and members of the Lithuanian Jewish community (in anticipation of the Sept. 29 Jewish New Year).
The following day, the operatives emailed the fake story several English-language news sources, including The Jewish Press, Jewish National News, and Infos Israel News; and even contacted Nausėda’s office, pretending to be Lithuanian journalists. The former removed the material after it was contacted by the Lithuanian government but the damage was already done.
Finally, the operatives hacked into a genuine news organization, kasvyksta.lt, and posted about the fake story on Sept. 26 and 27, according to Eugenijus Lastauskas, who runs the Lithuanian military’s Strategic Communication Department.
This entire multi-pronged campaign at the end of September served as a sort of dress rehearsal for a bigger attack in October.
On Oct. 17, Russian operators again broke into kasvyksta.lt and posted a new story about purported U.S. plans to move nuclear weapons to Lithuania. They also sent fake emails purporting to be from known journalists to Nausėda’s office and other officials, looking for official comment on the fake story. Back in Russia, the story was circulated widely across social media channels. The next day, hackers again targeted legitimate media outlets to deface them in order to carry false news. Journalists well outside of Russia were targeted with emails made to look like they were from members of the Lithuanian government.
The attackers even drew up a fake tweet from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomepo “congratulating” the Lithuanian president on the news of the move of the nuclear weapons, despite U.S. policy not to disclose the location of nuclear weapons outside of the United States.
What was the context for the attack? In part, the growing friction between the United States and Turkey on Turkish operations in Syria; in part, real U.S. plans to deploy a U.S. tank battalion to Lithuania to deter Russian aggression. The objective, said Lastauskas, was the convince Lithuanians that they would be targets for Russian nuclear retaliation if hostilities break out.