Humor is a much more powerful “soft warfare” weapon in Russia’s hands than one might think. This month (March 2017), a team of academics from Latvia and Ukraine, in collaboration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Strategic Communications Center of Excellence (STRATCOM), presented their study on how humor can be used as a tool for strategic communication. The study, “Stratcom Laughs—In Search of an Analytical Framework,” concludes that as a part of its “soft power” toolkit, Russia utilizes humor to undermine the credibility of Western political leaders as well as challenge the values and principles on which the West’s decisions and policies are based (Stratcomceo.org, accessed March 27).
Kremlin-owned TV channels enjoy a near-monopoly on Russian-language coverage in the Baltic States, each with a sizable Russian-speaking minority. Russian television fills “prime time” in the Baltics with glossy talk shows and news reports from Moscow (Aljazeera.com, June 13, 2015).
The Kremlin-hijacked media broadcasting into the Baltic States explicitly taps into local Russian speakers’ shared memories, experiences and emotional attachment to the Soviet past (Stratcomceo.org, accessed March 27). As of 2011, Latvia’s and Estonia’s shares of ethnic Russians in their populations was 26.9 percent and 25.5 percent, respectively; while in Lithuania, the share was 5.4 percent (Foi.se, accessed March 27). Moreover, the proportions of those born during the Soviet era, who are now in their mid–late 30s and older, regardless of their ethnic origin and political preference, make up about 75 percent of Latvia’s population (Csb.gov.lv, accessed March 27). Ultimately, they are all part of the target audience for Russian TV comedy shows and broadcasts.
The STRATCOM researchers of the above-mentioned study conclude that Russian TV entertainment and its beaming into the Baltics is designed in part to help preserve those populations’ Soviet-era mentality. Notably, Russian television programs present anti-Western values, such as by portraying private property as something nefarious and immoral. Russian TV also avoids assigning any value to individuals over the group or the state. The outside world is seen as hostile, not to be trusted. The Russian Federation, just like Soviet Union before it, is depicted on Russian TV as a “fortress” surrounded by hostile forces whose influence must be resisted. But of course, Russian entertainment on television is not all doom and gloom. Often jokes and allusions in Russian TV programming are borrowed from classic Soviet-era songs, books, poems, films, and other elements of the Russian and Soviet cultural heritage. These are designed to take the audience mentally back to the Soviet past and spark memories of the myths and images of that period. This allows the mental construct of the former Soviet space to be maintained (Stratcomceo.org, accessed March 27).
Such a media strategy fits local tastes. According to a study conducted by the Estonian International Center for Defense, Russian speakers in Estonia prefer entertainment instead of news (Icds.ee, accessed March 27). And these preferences are also evident among Russian speakers in Latvia and Lithuania (Szf.lu, accessed March 27).
Over the past several years, authorities in the Baltic States have experimented with various responses to Russian TV propaganda. In April 2014, Latvia for three months suspended Russian state television RTR Rossia’s broadcasts after concluding that Russian media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis was biased in Russia’s favor and constituted a threat to Latvia’s national security interests (Liia.lv, April 10, 2015). In turn, Estonia introduced its own Russian-language TV broadcasts. In September 2015, it launched ETV+, providing an alternative to the propaganda-driven, Kremlin-controlled Russian TV stations (Journal of Baltic Security, Vol 1 Issue 2, 2015). Lithuania, in November 2016, decided to suspend the retransmission of Russian television channel RTR Planeta for three months, in response to hostile on-air statements by Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Delfi.lv, March 28).
A previous study by the Swedish Ministry of Defense argues that the impact of the Russian actions has become more limited, especially in Estonia. For example, only 6.7 percent of Estonia’s population is now “stateless,” down from more than from 32 percent twenty years ago; 53 percent of Russian-speaking Estonians are now also Estonian citizens. In all three Baltic States, a new generation of Russian speakers has now grown up, and they increasingly identify themselves as loyal citizens of their country of residence. Indeed, there are signs of increased and better integration of Russian-speaking minorities into the Baltic societies, for example, in terms of the growing naturalization of citizens in Estonia in particular, but also to some extent in Latvia and Lithuania (see EDM, February 21). In this sense, the Russian Compatriots Policy is a failure. In other areas, such as the energy sector, Russian non-military power has been more successful. But there are signs that the Baltics are coming to grips with that situation as well (Foi.se, accessed March 27).
Russia’s soft power agitation is not successful anymore, said Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis (Diena.lv, January 11). Latvia has learned to respond to information operations and cyberattacks. For example, it has strengthened the Cyber Defense Unit of the National Guard and established CERT.LV, an administrative body charged with securing the country’s information technologies. “But problems still remain—as state media coverage over all of Latvia’s territory is incomplete. The quality of [Latvian TV] broadcasting in Russian could also be improved, to help shift Latvian Russian speakers’ attention away from Moscow’s TV channels,” admitted Vējonis.
According to analysis by the Latvian Institute of International Affairs (LIIA) (Liia.lv, Yearbook 2017), to counter Russia’s soft power and information attacks, Latvia must focus on its own internal strategic communication. Specifically, the Latvian government needs to do a better job of explaining its policies and actions to all members of society and not ignore its Russian-speaking community. According to the LIIA recommendations, Latvia should promote journalistic competence in matters related to security—not only when it comes to covering current national defense and security developments, but also when reflecting on the international environment and its impact on Latvian national security. Coverage of the security environment must be eye-catching and explanatory. Ignoring the Russian-speaking community could deepen societal fragmentation and facilitate potential Russian military operations or any kind of hybrid activities in Latvia.
The STRATCOM study shows that Ukraine had success with countering Russia’s humor attacks by launching its own “laugh offensive.” The Baltic governments and non-governmental organizations (NGO) can draw lessons from this Ukrainian experience and be proactive rather than reactive in their information war with Russia. To paraphrase the famous 1980 Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, Moscow’s laughs should not be trusted in the Baltics.