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(Un)Powerful Propaganda: Russia’s Ineffective Use of Information Activities Against NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence

  • Published
  • By Wing Commander James Brown and Dr. Robert S. Hinck

Moscow’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea peninsula stunned the West. Through a mix of hybrid and information warfare activities, Russia managed to quickly gain control over parts of a sovereign European nation with minimal violence.[1] Consequently, following the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO announced plans to deploy foreign NATO troops within the three Baltic states and Poland (B3P).[2] The purpose of these enhanced forward presence (eFP) deployments was for NATO to demonstrate its resolve to defend its eastern flank following Russia’s actions in Crimea. 

In response, Russia deployed a multifaced information campaign, this time aiming for an advantage by undermining the eFP forces in the B3P. This included a state-controlled media campaign seeking to undermine NATO credibility; a social media effort aiming to drive a wedge between the Russian-speaking and wider B3P populations; and the constructing of fabricated events to foster cleavages between deployed NATO forces and their host nations. However, this three-pronged approach proved ineffective as Russian propaganda failed to fully encircle its target audience with the messaging failing to align with the target audiences’ lived experiences, especially in light of past Russian disinformation efforts. Russia’s failed information campaign in the B3P offers an illustrative case study of counter-propaganda efforts that can be applied to future strategic considerations in an age of global competition. While propaganda can be a powerful tool for influencing the information environment, it has its limits. 

Understanding Propaganda: Goals, Tools, and Limits

Propaganda aims not to change beliefs or ideas but to provoke action.[3] Propaganda draws upon existing societal thoughts and emotions at specific moments in time by connecting ideas to symbols. This furnishes people with a system explaining the world and offers immediate incentives for action. To be effective, propaganda must resonate with the underlying beliefs of society while encircling its target audience through a variety of media, including both traditional and new media (i.e., social media). These efforts include (1) vertical propaganda, which utilizes traditional mass media, like news networks and public speeches, and (2) horizontal propaganda—messaging that emerges from one’s peers, like discussions on social media or the Internet. Both are required to envelop the audience, isolating them from others and molding them toward the goals of the propagandist. 

As such, propaganda tends to operate within domestic national boundaries more effectively. Nevertheless, globalization and new media technologies have opened greater possibilities for foreign propaganda to take hold abroad. To do so, however, foreign propaganda must overcome three barriers. First, due to the nature of our anarchical international environment, audiences are naturally skeptical of information from an adversarial state. Accordingly, foreign propaganda must link in and align with local political myths to achieve resonance or risk falling on deaf ears. Second, people make sense of their social worlds by interpreting events through the prism of their lived experiences. Global audiences are not blank slates upon which a propagandist can inflict new beliefs; propaganda messaging is easily dismissed if the messaging contradicts what is seen to be true by local audiences. Third, foreign audiences are not passive targets. States whose populations are targeted by adversarial information campaigns can and do employ countermeasures to blunt disinformation’s impact.[4] Given these goals and hurdles, one can better understand Russia’s information efforts in the B3P and why such efforts failed to achieve strategic effect.

Vertical Media and the Construction of Counter Narratives

Russia’s funding of international news networks seeks to augment its vertical propaganda capabilities, especially toward Russian diaspora populations. RT broadcasts in Russian, English, Arabic, and Spanish while Sputnik publishes in approximately 30 languages on its website.[5] In the B3P, the Russian-speaking population relies heavily on Russian-controlled media.[6] Accordingly, Moscow attempted to leverage its vertical media apparatus to contest NATO’s presence in the Baltics by portraying NATO as aggressive, undermining NATO’s credibility, and claiming that Baltic populations' lives would be better under Russian influence rather than European. 

First, Russia used its state-controlled media to construct and project a narrative that NATO’s presence in the Baltics was aggressive. Whereas NATO emphasized the deployment of forces into the B3P as a defensive measure in response to Russian activities in Ukraine and Crimea,[7] Russian-backed media characterized NATO’s actions as a military build-up that undermined regional stability.[8] According to the Russian view, which drew upon past Russian narratives, NATO’s deployment of forces into the B3P was yet another step to threaten Russian security, continuing a pattern of NATO expansion and aggression. 

Second, Russian media tried to undermine NATO troops’ credibility. Following the arrival of Canadian troops in Latvia, Russian media outlets released scathing reports about a former Canadian colonel found to be a serial killer, in addition to stories describing a Canadian policy that stated that barbers had to be employed from Canada vice locally.[9] Additional examples included Russian media circulating stories doubting Belgian capabilities with a report from Sputnik purporting that Belgian troops had deployed without suitable cold-weather equipment despite operating in conditions well below freezing.[10]

Finally, Russian media sought to increase Russian influence and persuade B3P populations that life would be preferable under Russian, rather than European, rule. This messaging targeted Russian “compatriots living abroad” in particular.[11] Cultural arguments made in support of this claim included the supposed moral turpitude of the West posed in contrast to traditional conservative Russian values as well as economic claims that ethnic Russians were ostracized from business opportunities by B3P governments.

Taken together, these narrative strands coalesced into an image of NATO ratcheting the potential for conflict, which threatens conflict for B3P populations as NATO forces are unprepared and harm local populations while aiming to turn ethnic Russians against B3P citizens.

Horizontal Media: Attempted Amplification of Russian Worldviews

Echoing the themes present in Russian vertical media, Moscow utilized social media messaging to further drive wedges within the B3P. Moscow is well known for its social media disinformation techniques, including the usage of unattributable social media accounts, trolls, and bots to spread disinformation. These messages spread amongst Russian-speaking populations, isolating them from non-Russian-speaking populations.[12]

In the case of the B3P, Moscow spread rumors weaponizing Soviet-era nostalgia while cautioning ethnic Russians of the emergence of fascist Nazi movements robbing them of their rights and livelihoods. Such messaging works in stages by, first, victimizing ethnic Russians as targets of local discrimination, before polarizing them to separate from others in society, and finally empowering them to act in demonstrative ways to showcase how Soviet-era beliefs are superior to local government policies and culture. Such efforts utilize social media to create and amplify such false perceptions through fake accounts posing as real Russian people espousing such beliefs. In doing so, this tactic fosters mutual mistrust between linguistic groups.[13]

Taken together, Russia’s vertical and horizontal propaganda efforts proved largely ineffective for a couple of reasons. First, they failed to resonate with the societal currents of the time. Russia’s recent military operations in Ukraine and Crimea offered a clear counter-frame portraying hostile Russian action, which, given the anarchical nature of the international system, prompted greater distrust toward Russian messaging. Hence, the B3P’s already favorable attitudes toward NATO remained, especially given the risk of Russia’s recent aggression and previous information activities in the region.[14]

Second, Russian media was unable to envelop its target audience. The multitude of news sources for non-ethnic Russians living in the B3P enabled alternative sources of information to emerge. Moreover, B3P governments responded by intermittently suspending Russian TV channels found to use fake information to incite hatred. Finally, mitigating horizontal propaganda effects, Estonia developed programs to engage its Russian minority populations[15] while Lithuania experienced a grassroots movement of online “elven” volunteers debunking online Russian disinformation.[16] While Russian-speaking populations’ were more receptive to Moscow’s narratives, the Kremlin’s propaganda failed to sufficiently isolate them from their lived experiences with life still appearing more positive under B3P governance than the Russian alternative.[17]

Fabricated Events and the Creating of a False Reality

The third prong in Russia’s information actions was creating fabricated events to lend further credence to its narratives aiming to polarize B3P society and undermine NATO support. For instance, in 2017, a story believed to have originated from Russia claimed that German soldiers based in Lithuania had raped a local teenage girl. However, the story was strikingly similar to a previous case where Russia had falsely claimed that migrants in Germany had kidnapped and raped a Russian-born teenager. The first accusation in Germany gained some traction. However, authorities quickly investigated and debunked the claims in the Lithuanian case. NATO credited Lithuania with being prepared for this type of information warfare and blunting its effect through preemption.[18] This case shows how the repetitive nature of Russian propaganda undermines its influence over time.[19]


Similarly, a probable Russian event clumsily attempted to discredit British troops in Lithuania. In late 2016, during a deployment to Latvia, two members of the Grenadier Guards became involved in a fight in a McDonald's restaurant in Riga. A prepositioned film crew captured the incident, immediately sending it to a pro-Russian media outlet.[20] Although there was no public confirmation as to whether the incident was a deliberate Russian-backed provocation, UK Defense sources suggested “it may have been a pre-meditated attack to discredit British troops operating in the region.”[21]

Recent experience with Russian-instigated football violence likely helped the UK’s response to this event. The incident described above followed a brawl between English and Russian soccer fans at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. Commentators concluded that the Kremlin sanctioned this violent provocation of English fans[22] while the UK’s Home Secretary stated that the seemingly well-prepared Russian fans had a “heavy responsibility for initiating violence.”[23]

These fabricated events attempted to create verifiable observations for international audiences to be more likely to believe in Russian propaganda narratives.[24] Although propaganda does not worry itself with factual accuracy or logical consistency, it still relies on information as the basis upon which it operates. Propaganda thus exploits pieces of information to generate the problems to which the propagandist pretends to offer solutions.[25] In this case, the problem created by Russian messaging was that of inappropriate Western behavior with the solution being the limiting of NATO forces into one’s country. Although Western militaries are not immune to criminal acts or disciplinary issues, foreign messaging is not immune to inaccuracy. Propaganda thus cuts both ways, operating on the plane of suggestion to which local messaging and beliefs dictate what conclusions are drawn. In the Russian case, with previous attempts to fabricate events already evident, B3P populations sided with their NATO counterparts.


Russia employed a multifaceted propaganda campaign in the B3P, one that spanned Russian state-controlled media, social media, and fabricated events. However, the propaganda campaign had little success. It sought to undermine NATO’s credibility, drive a wedge between the Russian- and non-Russian-speaking populations, and create a cleavage between eFP forces and their host nations. While the ineffectiveness of the information campaign most certainly arises from a mosaic of factors, Russia’s failure to observe key tenets of propaganda theory contributed significantly to the campaign’s poor performance.

Wing Commander James Brown 
Wg Cdr Brown is a Royal Air Force intelligence officer and a 2023 graduate of Air War College’s West Space Seminar. In his early career, he specialized in operational intelligence analysis in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, both from the UK and in deployed roles. More recently, his career has focused on managing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. His most recent position before Air War College was as Deputy Chief of Operations in the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the UK’s response to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. After graduating from Air War College, he will be assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, DC, where he will work as the space desk officer on the Air Attaché’s team.

Dr. Robert S. Hinck
Prof. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Deputy Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: “The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media.” His teaching and research have been recognized for excellence from multiple institutions, including most recently being awarded the Ira C. Eaker Center’s 2022 Educator of the Year.



[1.] Bettina Renz, Russia’s Military Revival (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 176.

[2.] “Warsaw Summit Key Decisions” (NATO, February 2017), 1,

[3.] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (National Geographic Books, 1973), 25.

[4.] Alexander Lanoszka, “Disinformation in International Politics,” European Journal of International Security 4, no. 2 (June 2019): 228–29.

[5.] Todd C. Helmus et al., “Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe” (RAND Corporation, April 12, 2018), 1,

[6.] Helmus et al., “Russian Social Media Influence,” 66–67.

[7.] “Warsaw Summit Key Decisions,” 1.

[8.] Māris Cepurītis, Ivo Juurvee, Austris Keišs, Diana Marnot, Belén Carrasco Rodríguez, and Scott Ruston, “Russia’s Footprint in the Nordic-Baltic Information Environment 2019/2020” (NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2020), 42,

[9.] Chris Wattie, “Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight: Canadian Strategic Communications and Information Operations in Latvia, Operation Reassurance 2019-2020,” Canadian Military Journal 21, no. 1 (2020): 57.

[10.] “Russia’s Footprint in the Nordic-Baltic Information Environment 2019/2020,” 42.

[11.] Rod Thornton and Manos Karagiannis, “The Russian Threat to the Baltic States: The Problems of Shaping Local Defense Mechanisms,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 29, no. 3 (2016): 335–36,

[12.] Helmus et al., “Russian Social Media Influence,” 68–69.

[13.] Benas Gerdziunas, “Baltics Battle Russia in Online Disinformation War,” Deutsche Welle (DW), August 10, 2017,

[14.] Alexander Lanoszka and Michael Hunzeker, “Evaluating the Enhanced Forward Presence After Five Years,” The RUSI Journal 168, no. 1-2 (2023): 4,

[15.] Gerdziunas, “Baltics Battle Russia.” 

[16.] Michael Peel, “Fake News: How Lithuania’s ‘Elves’ take on Russian Trolls,” Financial Times, February 3, 2019,

[17.] Lanoszka and Hunzeker, “Evaluating the Enhanced Forward Presence,” 4.

[18.] Teri Schultz, “Lithuania Pushes Back on Fake News,” Deutsche Welle (DW), February 23, 2017,

[19.] Viktor Denisenko, “Threats of Propaganda and the Information War on Lithuanian Security,” in Lithuania in the Global Context: National Security and Defence Policy Dilemmas, ed. Irmina Matontè, (Vilnus: General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania, 2020), 240.

[20.] Tom Porter, “British Soldiers’ Latvia Brawl ‘Was Set up as Part of Russian Propaganda Sting,’” International Business Times UK, November 2, 2016,

[21.] Tom Batchelor, “British Soldiers Attacked During McDonalds Brawl With ‘Russian Thugs’ in Eastern Europe,” Express, November 2, 2016,

[22.] Franklin Kramer and Lauren Speranza, “Meeting the Russian Hybrid Challenge,” Atlantic Council, 2017, 7,

[23.] “Euro 2016: 150 Russians ‘behind’ Violence,” BBC News, June 13, 2016,

[24.] Richard Szafranski, “Theory of Information Warfare: Preparing for 2020,” Airpower Journal 9, no. 1 (1995): 59–60;

[25.] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (National Geographic Books, 1973).

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