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The NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia. The head of the think tank says Russia has ramped up disinformation campaigns that are playing a significant role in the Ukraine crisis.Steven Chase/The Globe and Mail

The head of a NATO think tank that studies Russian information warfare says the country has ramped up disinformation campaigns that are playing a significant role in the Ukraine crisis, as Moscow tries to refashion the narrative of the conflict.

Janis Sarts, director of NATO’s Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence, based in the Latvian capital of Riga, said in an interview that Russia’s propaganda efforts now lean heavily on the hotly disputed allegation that NATO made a commitment to the Soviet Union in 1990 that the military alliance would not expand.

“This is probably one of the most prominent disinformation pieces they are running through their machinery right now,” Mr. Sarts said.

“A number of audiences have bought into this argument.”

Established in 2014, the NATO Strategic Communications (Stratcom) operation is housed in a squat white building in downtown Riga – a structure that Mr. Sarts noted had served during the Soviet era as a call-up centre for Red Army recruits. A Canadian flag flies outside, along with flags of other NATO allies who fund the centre, where about 45 people from 16 countries work.

“A big part of the Ukraine crisis is happening in the cognitive domain,” Mr. Sarts said of the battle for hearts and minds as Russia tries to create conditions that justify its ongoing interference in the affairs of its smaller neighbour.

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Mr. Sarts said Moscow’s messaging on NATO expansion is meant to reinforce the idea that Russia was wronged by a broken promise – an argument that redirects attention from the 100,000 troops Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed on his country’s border with Ukraine. Many countries once affiliated with the Soviet Union have since joined NATO, but Ukraine has not.

Mr. Sarts noted that former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev said in a 2014 interview that NATO hadn’t pledged to refrain from enlarging itself. Mr. Gorbachev did, however, complain that the alliance’s expansion violated the spirit of “statements and assurances” made in 1990, and in 1993 he protested talk of expanding NATO.

Like any successful disinformation campaign, Mr. Sarts said, the Russian effort to cast suspicion on NATO expansion is based on fact – a 1990 conversation between then-U.S. secretary of state James Baker and Mr. Gorbachev – that has been wrapped in spin.

“This is a powerful case of disinformation. You have one fact: there was a talk between Baker and Gorbachev – but you add on lies so it seems more credible,” he said.

Mr. Sarts noted that in February, 1990, Mr. Baker and Mr. Gorbachev discussed a commitment not to station NATO troops in the territory that was then East Germany. The American offered guarantees that NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward. But Mr. Baker later retracted this after objections from the White House, and no such pledge was part of any formal treaty, Mr. Sarts said.

The Brookings Institution and the New York Times, drawing on U.S. government documents and interviews, have also studied the matter and concluded no such promises were made.

Russia’s embassy in Canada told The Globe that Moscow’s government archives contain transcripts of early 1990s conversations between Soviet officials and American, West German and French politicians – discussions the Russians say confirm their claims.

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Mr. Sarts said there has been a significant rise in disinformation on Russian-language media platforms, including the country’s Facebook equivalent, VKontakte, as tensions over Ukraine have risen. And he said while Moscow often uses proxies to spread its messages, in recent months Russian government entities have been more overt sources of propaganda.

A less straightforward method Russia uses is what the Stratcom director calls “information laundering,” which happens when friendly analysts in the West offer proposals that fit the Kremlin’s line. For example, an analyst might argue that NATO should remove the Baltic States from its ranks to resolve tensions over Ukraine. Russian disinformation could use a statement like that to spread the message that “Western analysts say Baltics should be kicked out of NATO,” Mr. Sarts said. “This is aimed at the Baltic states, and the message is, ‘nobody is going to stand up for you.’”

Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on disinformation. Moscow is fond of reminding its critics that the United States led a coalition of countries into invading Iraq in 2003 on a false premise: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

But, Mr. Sarts said, in the West the free press often serves as a corrective mechanism. That’s not true in authoritarian Russia, where Mr. Putin has quashed or driven out independent media outlets.

Sometimes, disinformation lacks nuance and is simply “very loud,” Mr. Sarts noted. For instance, a recent campaign on Twitter by what appeared to be Russian-backed actors spread false information that Russian embassy staff were being evacuated from the Baltic countries: Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

The NATO Stratcom centre has drawn Moscow’s ire.

Russian Defence Minister General Sergey Shoygu, in comments reported by state-owned news agency RIA Novosti in June, called the Riga organization an anti-Russian propaganda centre. In comments published in a Russian defence department publication in 2019, he called Stratcom a weapon wielded against Russia.

The NATO centre has been targeted by cyber attacks several times. Mr. Sarts said a computer assault on Stratcom in 2016 was carried out by the same group that targeted the U.S. Democratic Party in 2016 – an incident the U.S. intelligence community blamed on Russia.

He said Russia’s foremost target for disinformation is its own people – “a survival tactic for the Kremlin to keep power” – and that Mr. Putin’s biggest fear is neighbouring Ukraine “becoming a vibrant democracy” and the appeal of this style of government spreading to Russia next door.

Simple disinformation campaigns sometimes work best, he said.

There has been concern for years about “deepfake” technology – computer software that can be used to create video footage of people doing things they never actually did – being used to fabricate false narratives.

But Mr. Sarts said there’s no need to go to the trouble of creating deepfake deceptions when simpler techniques that exploit societal division are available. This gets easier in societies that have grown more polarized.

“If you understand what people are prone to believe, you don’t need elaborate lies. … You just have to understand what they want to believe.”

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