A joint investigation in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland show striking similarities in pro-Kremlin messaging perpetuated by marginal politicians, activist, and self-described journalists, Lietuvos nacionalinis radijas ir televizija report.
Different countries, different actors, but identical pro-Kremlin messages. The LRT Investigation Team in Lithuania, along with Newsweek Poland and TVnet in Latvia, looked at sources in each country that spread pro-Russian messages amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
These messages insist on US and NATO participation in the war or highlight their involvement in past military conflicts. Ukrainian refugees are demonised, with claims that they receive preferential treatment.
Moreover, the Ukrainian military gets accused of violence against civilians perpetrated in Donbas since 2014. Russia’s alleged success in its “special military operation” in Ukraine is also celebrated.
The investigation focused on five to eight people in each country, known for spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda. The analysis covered several thousand posts on social media – personal accounts as well as Facebook or Telegram groups and Youtube channels – between the first day of the war, February 24, and September 1.
In Lithuania, pro-Kremlin messaging is centred around Algirdas Paleckis, a controversial former politician who is now serving a prison sentence for spying for Russia. His associates continue to actively post videos on Paleckis’ Youtube channel and elsewhere.
Algirdas Paleckis and Eduardas Vaitkus / E. Blaževič/LRT
While in prison, Paleckis managed to set up an NGO, the International Forum for Good Neighbourhood (TGKF), which is now being dissolved by the court.
The most active disseminators of pro-Kremlin messages are also linked to Paleckis’ other organisation, the Dawn of Justice.
The group of Paleckis’ associates include Erika Švenčionienė, chairwoman of the TGKF; Kazimieras Juraitis, a TGKF member who appears on the PressJazz TV internet channel, manages several Youtube channels and the website kazimierasjuraitis.lt; Audrius Nakas, a former parliament member who is also linked to PressJazz TV and runs the website ekspertai.eu; Kristoferis Voiška, an associate of Paleckis and a former member of the Dawn of Justice movement; as well as Vaidas Lekstutis-Žemaitis, Eduardas Vaitkus, and Jonas Kovalskis, who are among Paleckis’ supporters.
These people are active posters, producing several to a few dozen posts per day on different channels. When Facebook blocked them for spreading disinformation, most of them moved their communications to the encrypted correspondence platform Telegram.
Kazimieras Juraitis / E.Blaževič/LRT
The most active is Kovalskis, who claims to be a lawyer and administers several personal accounts as well as the group titled Pilietis (Citizen) on Telegram and Facebook.
When asked about his social networking activities, Kovalskis said that he works alone: “I read a lot, I’m interested in things, and since I was slandered by the ‘conservative’ degenerates 11 years ago, I have a lot of time and skills to work with information.”
The analysis of thousands of social media posts shows that the main pro-Kremlin themes were quite similar in Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania:
1. Russia is actually fighting the US and NATO in Ukraine
2. The US is as much of an aggressor as Russia, as evidenced by Washington’s involvement in conflicts in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere
3. The Ukrainian military has been killing civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014
4. Russia is winning the war; Moscow’s “special military operations” is going according to plan
5. Ukrainian refugees are causing problems in host countries
Russian President Vladimir Putin on a screen / AP
Messages that Russia is really fighting a war against the US or NATO in Ukraine started to spread in the early days of the war. The US is accused of being involved in the war in Ukraine (“Yankee trainers trained the Ukrainians”, “Ukraine is just a US/NATO colony”), and there are also reports that the US is benefitting from the situation in Ukraine (good for the American arms industry) and is trying to destroy Russia economically. This narrative is also supplemented with messages about NATO’s aggressive expansion (“Russia had no choice but to defend itself”).
These five narratives were first broadcast on Russia’s own media, some of them well before the invasion.
For example, back in autumn 2014, Russian media claimed that the war in Ukraine was started by the US and Israel, supposedly to eradicate the Slavs. Last summer, discussions unfolded about what would happen to Russia if Ukraine were to join NATO, in which case Kyiv would use force to take back control of Donbas and Crimea. A year ago, Russian propaganda channels (PBK, Sputnik, Vesti, etc.) were reporting about NATO missiles deployed in Russia’s backyard, claiming that Ukraine had become a large NATO base.
In the first weeks of March, after Russia had already attacked Ukraine, Russian media claimed that Kyiv, under NATO control, had been planning to launch its own attack on Donbas on February 24-25 and Russia was therefore obliged to defend itself.
“The Kremlin’s public rhetoric is simply deflecting from an unsuccessful military campaign by claiming that the fight is not with the Ukrainians, but with the US and NATO. Obviously, it is easier to lose to a big power rather than to Ukraine,” comments Nerijus Maliukevičius, an expert on information warfare at Vilnius University.
In the first days of the war, another message was also circulating on social media: “Russia is the aggressor, but is the US/NATO any better?” It was accompanied by photo collages illustrating US or NATO military involvement in conflicts in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
Messages about US/NATO involvement in military conflicts have also been picked up by Russian-speaking media since 2017.
In September 2021, a Russian online news outlet claimed that “the US has been involved in 81 percent of the world’s military conflicts between 1945 and 2001”. Interestingly, on March 9, Kovalskis shared a post from the Chinese Embassy in Russia and quoted the same figures.
Another narrative claims that Ukrainian troops have been killing innocent people in the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. “Why didn’t the world care about children then?” they ask.
Such claims that Ukrainians are killing their own civilians are not new. According to the analysis, they were used in the Russian media as early as autumn 2014 after the annexation of Crimea (“What Ukraine is fighting for by killing people in Donbas”, “Evidence of mass killings by Ukrainians”, “Ukraine’s Nazis are killing people in Mariupol” etc).
“There is a template that we have seen repeatedly used against us. […] This propaganda motif is applied to a variety of situations. For example, during Euromaidan, in 2013-2014, when it was said that people had been shot by Ukrainian snipers in Kyiv, and sometimes it was even twisted to say that Georgian snipers did it,” says Maliukevičius.
Another popular claim is that Russia is winning or will win the war in Ukraine. The “special military operation” is allegedly going according to plan; social media posters are sharing the Russian Defence Ministry’s reports of captured towns and defeated Nazis. It is claimed that Russia is using the most sophisticated weapons, while NATO and the US cannot match them.
The fifth narrative, which has been widely circulated in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, is that of Ukrainian refugees. Interestingly, this line is pursued more subtly in Latvia and Lithuania than in Poland. In Lithuania, the emphasis is on “Ukrainians taking over Lithuanian jobs” and enjoying privileges denied to locals. Anonymous stories are shared about Ukrainian women seducing Lithuanian men, failing to show gratitude (“All they care about is nail extensions and eyelashes”). There are also messages resenting the prevalence of Ukrainian flags (“Foreign flags everywhere, is Lithuania occupied by Ukraine?”).
In all three countries, messages about “ungrateful refugees” from Ukraine started spreading in the first week of March, at the same time as in Russia. Throughout the month, different Russian news channels were publishing stories that host countries – Moldova, Poland, Latvia, and others – were shocked by the behaviour of the Ukrainians. Among the most absurd is the one that appeared on 360tv.ru on March 18, alleging that Germans were being terrorised by Ukrainians. On March 21, the news agency ANNA news wrote about Ukrainians allegedly harassing children and the elderly in Latvia.
Other less popular pro-Kremlin narratives spread in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland included:
1. Sanctions are ineffective and harmful to the EU/US
2. Russia is fighting Nazism in Ukraine
3. Restrictions on pro-Russian propaganda represent attacks on free speech
4. NATO/Lithuanian politicians are escalating the situation to a potential world war three
5. Taking down Soviet monuments is fascism
6. Ukraine hosts secret US biolabs
Nerijus Maliukevičius / E. Blaževič/LRT
Visits to Belarus and Russia
Last month, the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s Office carried out searches in the homes of TGKF founders as part of an investigation into the organisation’s activities and affiliations. Law enforcement authorities are also conducting a separate pre-trial investigation into how Paleckis was able to set up the organisation from jail. The Prosecutor’s Office is asking a court to dissolve the TGKF.
TGKF members have attracted attention following their visits to Belarus and Russia this year. Juraitis also visited an OSCE human rights event in September, while Švenčionienė planned to go to Donbas to observe sham referendums, but never went.
The LRT Investigation Team sent enquiries to Paleckis, Juraitis, Voiška, Nakas, but had not heard back as of the day of publication.
Švenčionienė responded to requests for comment by saying that she would only speak on live air.
Erika Švenčionienė / I. Gelūnas / BNS
Vaitkus, when asked why he was spreading Kremlin disinformation, said that he was proposing to cooperate with Russia and to agree on peace terms in order to put an end to the military actions on Ukrainian territory. “My reward for it is the knowledge that I am trying to stop the war and make Lithuania better off,” he said.
Asked about his social media activities and multiple accounts, Kovalskis said: “When you have to deal with such degenerates, you have to play tricks, create backup accounts. Your Yorkshire dogs have 20 or more accounts. You have to draw on their experience in dealing with them.”
When contacted by phone, Lekstutis-Žemaitis scolded the LRT reporters before hanging up.