STRATCOM BLUES (Politico 3/16/17)

RIGA, LATVIA. For an institution that is supposed to be a think tank, the sullen-looking, three floor headquarters of StratCom, the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, with its deep-set windows, piked gates and guardhouse, more closely resembles a fortress.

So it’s not surprising to learn that in its previous life, when the Republic of Latvia was the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic, StratCom’s martial-looking headquarters on Kalcniema Street, was a recruitment center for the Soviet Army.

That was then; this is now. Today StratCom is on the front lines of the new, so-called “information war” taking place in the Baltic states, as the Kremlin ratchets up its efforts to destabilize the three fragile democracies–Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania–which have replaced Moscow’s former colonies there.

And, as the NATO pennants briskly flying in the wind outside demonstrate, the sympathies of StratCom’s thirty strong staff are very much on the Western side of the former Baltic Curtain.

Like its Baltic counterpart in Tallinn, the NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, StratCom is also drawing an increasing amount of fire from Kremlin outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today, which have accused the research facility of being a “Western spy station” and “creating false social narratives.” The charges at once amuse and infuriate the academic-minded staff.

There is some confusion about all of NATO’s two dozen “centers of excellence,” says StratCom spokesperson Linda Curika. “With us is more intense because of the Russian media. Nevertheless we are very clear about our mission is.”

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To be sure, StratCom’s mission has shifted somewhat since the Latvian government first proposed establishing a research center in the emerging discipline of military strategic communications in 2012, a shift which parallels the dramatic alteration in the European security landscape. Strange as it is to recall, Russia was still a NATO partner at the time.

As Antti Sillanpaa, the Finnish head of StratCom’s scientific and technical branch puts it, “There was a feeling that strategic communications was the coming thing and that it could also be Latvia’s way of contributing to NATO. Russia wasn’t such a problem them.”

If anything the then rising Islamic State, with its chilling snuff videos, which doubled as jihadist recruitment films, was considered the more immediate problem for the alliance. Russians were even welcome, at least at first.

Then, in spring 2014, several months after the new-fangled institute opened, Russia annexed Crimea, with the aid of a sophisticated media manipulation campaign. Several months later the “little green men” invaded the eastern Ukraine, to the accompaniment of an effective disinformation campaign, and StratCom began to train its analytic sights more on the “information chaos” the Kremlin’s political technologists were trying to wreak around Europe, including the immediate neighborhood.

StratCom’s formal opening in August 2014, its brown Soviet-era exterior sheathed in a brand new coat of white paint, was a gala affair. Amongst those who came to laud NATO’s new set of academic eyes on the Kremlin was America’s most prominent Cold Warrior, Senator John McCain.

Meanwhile, the roster of NATO members or partners actively sponsoring or participating in the center’s research and educational activities—now up to ten, including NATO partner Sweden, which joined last month—has continued to expand, as have its activities. Last year StratCom staff contributed on-site support to a number of NATO exercises.

It also holds frequent classes and seminars on strategic communications, which has been described as the fine art of weaponizing information and defusing disinformation. Classes, which are open to all NATO staff, are generally packed.

However, like most think tanks, StratCom’s principal activity consists of producing white papers. It also publishes its own academic journal, Defense Strategic Communications. The major difference is that it does these things inside a fortified compound.

Meanwhile the thousands of Latvians who daily drive by StratCom, which is located on the main road into town, and whose tax dollars support the mysterious facility, are left to imagine what takes place inside its reinforced walls. As one passer by put it, “All I know is that it has something to do with Russia.”

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For the record, StratCom’s “vision statement”–”to understand and use state of the art methods that address challenges in the information environment that NATO and NATO countries face”–remains broad-based.

StratCom researchers are still very interested in ISIS, or Daesh, as they call it. Copies of the think tank’s 2016 “Study on Daesh Youth and Neophyte Recruitment Mechanisms in Europe” are prominently on display at the Riga facility, for visitors to see, once they clear security.

However, today its principal focus is unquestionably on the information war–or information confrontation, as StratCom prefers to call it, in its own less bellicose phraseology–between NATO and Russia. The Russian emphasis is borne out by a quick look at the list of white papers the think tank is publishing this year.

Forthcoming titles include “Comparative study of Russian information in Nordic-Baltic countries” and “Interpretation of WWII events in Russia’s narratives, actions and politics.”

At the same time, StratCom staff emphasize, Russian propaganda to the contrary, the center itself is only an observer of that accelerating war/confrontation, not a participant.

“As we have revealed some of the tactics the Kremlin is using, we have been associated as a participant in this information campaign,” says Antti Sillanpaa, whose unit specializes in studying social media. “However we do not see our role as such. We are not doing strategic communications. We study strategic communications.”

“StratCom’s mission is a broad one,” says Sillanpaa’s British colleague, senior expert Ben Heap. “Obviously, taking into account everything that has happened recently in Europe, including Russia’s more increasingly aggressive disinformation campaigns, this part of our analysis and studies has recently gained in importance.”

The ex-British Army captain points to a study of pro-Kremlin’s trolls’ activities in Latvian media he contributed as a good example of what StratCom does. Of course, he adds, “we don’t do any trolling ourselves!”

Heap agrees that the situation in the Baltic states, particularly Estonia and Latvia, are particularly vulnerable to the ramped-up Russian information assault, both because of their small size and large Russian speaking populations. “In the Baltic states, ethnic tensions involving different minorities, and in particular the Russian speaking population of these countries, constitute a fertile ground for Russian propaganda and disinformation.”

“Numerous Russian language media, especially in Latvia and Estonia, draw information directly from Russian information agencies and media,” he continues. Unfortunately, “ the relatively weak national media are not able to constitute an adequate counterweight.”

Nevertheless Heap isn’t especially worried. “The Baltic societies are not as easy to destabilize as some people think,” he says.

Anti Sillanpaa also has a detached, essentially upbeat view of the local political situation, dismissing talk of a possible Russian invasion as “so much noise.”

“For me the idea that the Russians would actually invade seems a distant idea,” he says. “However,” he allows, “I know several people who are more concerned.”

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One respected outside observer who is more concerned about a Russian invasion–not a literal invasion, but an invasion of the Latvian information space–is Andis Kudors, executive director of the Center for East European Policy Studies at Riga University.

“We are in an asymmetrical situation in all fields of battle with Russia,” says Kudors, including and especially the information and media front.

“The fact is, the Russians have invaded already, not by land but by cable.”

Noted journalist Otto Ozols is also alarmed by the recent inroads of the Russian media. “85% of television viewers in Latvia use cable networks, and the Russia has insured that there are no packets of programs that do not include Russian channels,” Ozols asserts. Every Latvian resident who buys cable TV services automatically is forced to subscribe to Russian television channels.”

Ozols is even more alarmed by the rise in popularity of Harmony, the Russian language party headed by Riga’s popular mayor Nils Usakovs, now the largest party in the Saeima, the Latvian parliament. Ozols worries that Usakovs and his Moscow-friendly colleagues will be able to form a coalition government after the forthcoming 2018 parliamentary government, in which case a Harmony-led government may eventually try to take Latvia out of NATO.

“The truth of the matter is, StratCom’s days may be numbered,” says Ozols.

David Holahan, the former Marine attache at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, wouldn’t go that far, nevertheless he also is worried by the fragile state of the Latvian commonweal, in part because of the inroads by the increasingly lavish and popular Russian commercial media, as well as Kremlin propaganda outlets.

Holahan, who is friendly with numerous StratCom staff, would also like to see the rarefied facility become more aggressively involved in the NATO counter-propaganda effort. “Whether you call it ‘information war’ or ‘information confrontation the fact is there is a battle going on for the hearts and minds of the people of this city, and we must get more involved, or accept the results.”

Rihards Kols, a member of Unity, one of the two parties in the current center-right coalition government and vice chairman of the Saeima’s committee on foreign policy, agrees. “In order to combat the Kremlin’s disinformation we as an endangered democratic society need to do more, including weaponizing StratCom itself.”

Will StratCom ultimately fall victim to the same information war/confrontation its staff members are writing about?

Time will tell. In the meantime, its staff are pleased to continue to hone and share their insights and expertise into that war with the larger NATO community, not participate in it.

As Antti Sillanpaa says, “We don’t do strategic communications. We study it. That is our job and that is our mission, and we are proud to execute it.”

Gordon F. Sander is a journalist and historian who frequently writes about the Nordic and Baltic regions. His most recent book is “The Hundred Day Winter War,” about the 1939-40 Soviet-Fenno Winter War.

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