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Failures and adaptations: Kremlin propaganda in Finland and Sweden

Article by Ben Nimmo

March 21, 2017

Failures and adaptations: Kremlin propaganda in Finland and Sweden

Sputnik goes phutnik

In April 2015, the Sputnik propaganda news agency launched local-language services in all four Nordic nations. Sputnik is a growing arm of Kremlin influence, with content published in 32 languages from Abkhaz to Vietnamese. But its foray into the Nordics was brief: less than a year later, in early March 2016, it shut all four services down.[1]

 

The scale of the failure is apparent from the outlets’ social media followings. Sputnik Sverige, in Sweden, gained 356 followers on Twitter in a year’s operation. Sputnik Suomi, in Finland, did half as well, with 174. Sputnik Danmark only managed 132, while Sputnik Norge, in Norway, gained just 102.[2]

 

Other Russian attempts at influence in the same period also appear to have backfired. Most famously, in June 2015 Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in an interview that Russia would take “military countermeasures” if Sweden were to join NATO.[3] His comment followed a sharp rise in Swedish support for NATO accession, triggered by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014: support had been only 17% in 2012, but jumped to 31% in 2014.[4]

 

Tatarintsev’s threat did not initially have the intended consequences: according to a poll published in September 2015, 41% of Swedes said that they favoured accession, while 39% opposed it.[5] The long-term effect may have been more substantial: by July 2016, support for joining NATO had slipped to 33% of respondents.[6] Moreover, when the Swedish parliament ratified a Host Nation Support agreement with NATO in May 2016,[7] both far-right[8] and far-left[9] MPs argued that a rapprochement with NATO could “increase the tension in our neighbourhood” and lead to Sweden being targeted by “others”, comments seen as referring primarily to Russia and its threats. Nonetheless, the agreement was approved by an overwhelming majority of 291-21,[10] and popular support for NATO in July 2016 remained double the 2012 figure.

 

In Finland, meanwhile, scepticism towards Russia has grown sharply since the 2014 Crimean annexation. A poll released in December 2016 showed that 50% of Finns considered Russia a threat, compared with a figure of just 28% in 2010.[11] Given these diplomatic and communication failures, it is worth examining some of the factors in Sweden and Finland which may have contributed to them.

 

Awareness is the key

One key factor in both Finland and Sweden is a high degree of public awareness of the dangers of disinformation and propaganda. In February 2015, Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro published a report on the so-called ‘troll factory’ in St. Petersburg, a clandestine operation in which employees were paid to work 12-hour shifts posting pro-Russian and anti-Western content online.[12] The social media trolling she received as a result was so aggressive that she became an international figure in her own right,[13] and brought the concept of Russian trolling into mainstream Finnish discourse.

 

A few months later, in June 2015, Finnish research Saara Jantunen published a book titled ‘Infosota’ (The info war), exposing the techniques and practices of Russian disinformation in and around Ukraine.[14] Jantunen was also savaged by online trolls as a result, but the term ‘info war’ became common currency in Finland, and a lively debate arose on how to counter it.[15]

 

A striking example occurred on 4th December, after a Finnish man shot dead three women in the town of Imatra, not far from the Russian border, and a popular destination for Russian shoppers. An anonymous account on Twitter quickly launched the false claim that the shooter had been a neo-Nazi in the Finnish Defence Forces, and his victims had been Russian women. (In fact, all three were Finns.) The account user addressed the claim to a number of news outlets in an apparent attempt to launder it into the media.

 

Within half an hour, Jantunen and other Finnish observers had debunked the claim online, aggressively pushing the rebuttal to the media outlets which had been initially targeted, and labelling it ‘pro-Russian propaganda’. Over the following 24 hours, the anonymous account holder confessed to having staged the fake as a ‘troll test’, then deleted the account. The perpetrator has not been identified and there is insufficient evidence to prove a Russian connection, but the incident does show the awareness to the danger of fake news which is prevalent in Finland.[16]

 

The concept of information war has also penetrated the mainstream in Sweden. One 2016 article in the culture section of Dagens Nyheter was headlined, ‘We have to relate to the fact that we are living in an information war’. The author, Ola Larsmo, wrote, ‘What every thinking person has to relate to is that we live in the midst of an information war; from Putin’s ‘troll factories’ where disinformation is produced industrially for all the world’s comment fields and twitter feeds, to the Swedish racists who clone themselves with thirty different aliases from which they can play ‘each his own public outcry’ and threaten journalists, and to Islamic State’s nicely produced web magazine Dabiq, where terror and genocide are packaged as something attractive and adventurous.”[17]

 

Another leader in tabloid Expressen was even starker, claiming simply, ‘We are under attack by Russian propaganda’.[18] On 11th December, the head of Sweden’s Military Intelligence and Security Directorate, Gunnar Karlsson, said in a TV interview that Russia was the single most visible actor targeting Sweden with disinformation: “The actor above all we see is Russia … It can be about spreading false information, twisting the truth, pushing some arguments more than others to complicate the picture of what is happening.”[19]

 

It is in this context that the failure of Sputnik’s Nordic branches should be seen. Public trust in the mainstream media is high. According to a poll published by Dagens Nyheter on March 31, 2016, over 70% of the population felt a high or moderate level of trust in the national radio and TV stations; around half had high or moderate trust in the main daily newspapers, with just a few percent actively distrusting them (a large number of respondents replied ‘neither trust nor mistrust’ or ‘don’t know’).[20] Sputnik Sverige was widely represented in the mainstream media as a disinformation tool.[21] It was seldom cited, and when it was, it was often presented as a proxy for the Kremlin’s point of view. It was also blatant. According to a magisterial study of its output by Swedish researchers Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg, ‘The most common themes in 2015 were Crisis in the West (705 articles), Positive image of Russia (643) and Western aggressiveness (499). These pervasive categories are followed, in descending order, by the themes Negative image of countries perceived to be in the West’s sphere of influence (424), West is malicious (309), International sympathy and cooperation with Russia (304), Western policy failures (112) and Divisions within the Western alliance (72).’[22] Added to this, Sputnik Sverige was mocked for the poor quality of its Swedish language. Thus its ability to pass disinformation into the mainstream was severely limited. Sputnik Suomi received similar treatment. In effect, the attempt was too obvious to deceive an audience already aware of the potential threat.

 

Adaptation and indirect approaches

However, the closure of the Nordic branches of Sputnik has not diminished the information pressure on Sweden and Finland; according to sources interviewed for this paper in both countries, the emphasis has shifted to more indirect influence, working through local proxies, especially on the political fringes.

 

In Sweden, the name most often cited in this regard is Egor Putilov, a mythical Russian journalist who wrote in Swedish for leading outlets including Aftonbladet, Expressen and Sveriges Radio, and whose blog posts criticising Sweden’s migration policy were regularly cited by leaders of the far-right Sverigedemokrater (Sweden Democrats, SD). In September 2016, Aftonbladet broke the story that there was no such person as Egor Putilov: the name was one of at least five pseudonyms used by a Russian immigrant who worked for the SD in the Swedish parliament.[23]

 

The scandal deepened when Sveriges Radio revealed that ‘Putilov’ had bought a house outside Stockholm from a Russian businessman (and since convicted criminal) for 6 million kronor (approximately £540,000), and sold it two months later for double the price.[24] According to security experts interviewed by the radio programme, this made him a direct security risk.

 

This brought the scandal to SD, because as an SD employee, ‘Putilov’ had been security cleared by SD, not by the parliament’s security services.[25] His link to Russia was seen as particularly significant because SD had a record of voting in support of Russia in the European Parliament, a pattern documented by leading journalist Patrik Oksanen,[26] and had opposed the NATO Host Nation Support Agreement in the Swedish Parliament.

 

In the wake of the Putilov scandal, Oksanen reported a number of other links between senior SD members, the European far-right, and Russia,[27] reflecting a pattern which has been identified across Europe and is seen as a key channel for Kremlin influence.[28] Oksanen called for SD to be excluded from the parliamentary committee overseeing the work of the security police, arguing that “even if an agreement can be reached with SD in other questions, such as the environment and infrastructure, it’s entirely excluded to give the party any sort of influence in defence, security and constitutional questions.” No proof of direct collusion between SD and the Kremlin has been published, but the Putilov scandal has raised questions in Sweden about potential Kremlin influence through the political extremes.

 

Strategic point: Gotland

Another key theme which emerged in 2015-16 was the status of the Swedish island of Gotland, which lies south-east of Stockholm, well out into the waters of the Baltic Sea. This is arguably the most strategically important point in the Baltic, as it sits alongside the main shipping lane between Russia, the Baltic States and the West. It is Swedish sovereign territory and was heavily militarised during the Cold War, but was demilitarised in the peaceful period thereafter.

 

On 20 May 2015, Russian researcher Viktor Kremenyuk argued that Gotland should be a neutral zone, claiming that it had been neutral in the 1920s.[29] The comment provoked alarm in Sweden, where it was seen as both factually incorrect and implicitly threatening,[30] especially following reports that the Russian military had exercised a landing on Gotland that March.[31] Swedish officials say that various Russian commentators have since echoed the theme.

 

The Kremlin media and Russian officials have added to Swedish disquiet. Sputnik’s English service has repeatedly labelled Sweden as “neurotic” and “paranoid” over its Gotland fear[32] – terms often used to denigrate Western criticism of Russia’s aggression.[33] In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the threat of military countermeasures in an interview with daily Dagens Nyheter.[34]

 

Once more, however, the pressure appears to have been counterproductive: in September 2016, in a surprise move, Sweden returned the first military unit to permanent basing on Gotland.[35]

 

Finland – domestic actors

In Finland, the Kremlin’s narrative is supported by a mixture of domestic and anonymous online actors; however, they appear to have had less political impact and are limited to smaller groups. This is partly because Finland’s main anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party, the True Finns, is extremely critical of the Kremlin, closing off a channel of influence which has proven effective in other countries.[36]

 

The names most often mentioned in the context of Russian disinformation in Finland are Johan Bäckman, a commentator who represents the Kremlin-founded Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in the Nordic countries,[37] and scandal-focused tabloid MV-Lehti, together with its chief editor, Ilja Janitskin.

 

Bäckman is a well-known figure in Finland, with a record of making controversial statements. He has, for example, called the Finnish social services’ interventions in child custody cases including Russian parents a “very profitable business”,[38] accused the US and NATO of planning “provocations” against Russia,[39] and called Jessikka Aro a “well-known agent of the American-Baltic secret services”.[40] His statements validate the Kremlin’s narrative to a Finnish and international audience; however, he is sufficiently well known in this role in Finland that his impact is limited.

 

MV-Lehti’s leanings are strongly anti-immigrant, anti-establishment and pro-Russian. It, too, is known for its attacks on Kremlin critics, including Aro. However, in October 2016 the Finnish police issued a European Arrest Warrant for chief editor Janitskin, reportedly on suspicion of aggravated defamation, money collection offences, illegal threats, and copyright offences.[41] MV-Lehti continued publishing, but the scandal has hindered its ability to spread disinformation beyond a core, committed far-right audience.

 

At the same time, Finland serves as the subject of disinformation aimed primarily at other countries. An example of the latter emerged on 1 December 2016, when a Russian blog ran a story that Finland had become the first country to drop EU sanctions on Russia.[42] The story was a twisted version of a Financial Times report on Finnish economic meetings with Russia.[43] A series of accounts began tweeting the story, and continued to do so for days;[44] some of the accounts involved appear to specialise in spreading pro-Kremlin messaging.[45]

The news was false: Finland had not changed its position on sanctions, as the original FT story made clear. Given the language, the main target appears to have been Finland’s Russian-speaking community, and the Russian public more generally. However, the narrative intent appears to have been to undermine the EU’s semblance of unity, using Finland in disinformation, rather than disinformation in Finland.

 

Conclusion: adaptation and flexibility

Thus, Russia’s approach to disinformation and influence in Finland and Sweden is characterised by adaptation and flexibility. The Sputnik experiment was a failure, revealing the deep scepticism in both countries towards Moscow’s direct channels. Since then, evidence has emerged of a more indirect approach.

 

Sweden and Finland are both part of the bigger strategic picture. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the priority appears to be to keep them out of NATO; following that, the imperative seems to be to influence their domestic policies, especially in decisions concerning defence. So far, however, this approach has been of mixed effectiveness. Awareness of the challenge of disinformation continues to grow; defence decisions are taken on the basis of a potential Russian threat. The Kremlin will continue to attempt to exert influence on Finnish and Swedish decision-making, but so far, it has met with limited success.

[1] Trude Pettersen, Sputnik closes Nordic language services, Barents Observer, March 2016, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/society/2016/03/sputnik-closes-nordic-language-services

[2] The Twitter accounts are still online and can be viewed at the handles @Sputnik_Se, @Sputnik_Fi, @Sputnik_Dk and @Sputnik_Norge.

[3] Zachary Davies Boren, Russia warns Sweden it will face military action if it joins Nato, The Independent, 19 June 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-warns-sweden-it-will-face-military-action-if-it-joins-nato-10331397.html

[4] Nearly one third of Swedes want to join NATO, The Local, May 2015, http://www.thelocal.se/20150520/nearly-one-third-of-swedes-want-to-join-nato

[5] More Swedes want to join NATO than stay out, The Local, September 2015, http://www.thelocal.se/20150914/poll-more-swedes-now-for-nato-than-against

[6] More Swedes now against NATO membership, The Local, July 2016, http://www.thelocal.se/20160707/more-swedes-now-against-nato-membership

[7] Yes to memorandum of understanding with NATO on host nation support, Swedish Parliament statement, May 2016, http://www.riksdagen.se/en/news/2016/maj/27/yes-to-memorandum-of-understanding-with-nato-on-host-nation-support-ufou4/

[8] Amendment to motion 2015/16:3375 opposing the Swedish government’s proposal on Host Nation Support, Sverigedemokrater, published by the Swedish Parliament, April 2016, http://www.riksdagen.se/sv/dokument-lagar/dokument/motion/med-anledning-av-prop-201516152_H3023375

[9] Amendment to motion 2015/16:3375 opposing the Swedish government’s proposal on Host Nation Support, Venstrepartiet, published by the Swedish Parliament, April 2016, http://www.riksdagen.se/sv/dokument-lagar/dokument/motion/med-anledning-av-prop-201516152_H3023377

[10] Charles Duxbury, Sweden ratifies NATO cooperation agreement, Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/sweden-ratifies-nato-cooperation-agreement-1464195502

[11] Russia more feared but NATO less popular in Finland, New Europe, December 2016, https://www.neweurope.eu/article/russia-feared-nato-less-popular-finland/

[12] Jessikka Aro and Mikä Mäkeläinen, YLE Kioski traces the origins of Russian propaganda, February 2015, http://kioski.yle.fi/omat/at-the-origins-of-russian-propaganda

[13] See for example Andrew Higgins, Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation, New York Times, May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/31/world/europe/russia-finland-nato-trolls.html?_r=0

[14] The book has not been translated into English, but information can be found online at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27211416-infosota .

[15] See for example the Finnish Wikipedia page Troll (info war), at https://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolli_(infosota)

[16] Ben Nimmo, Donara Barojan and Nika Aeksejeva, Tragedy and the Troll, Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab,  December 2016, https://medium.com/dfrlab/tragedy-and-the-troll-95ae31166dd1#.tv4vdjs23

[17] Ola Larsmo, Vi måste forhall oss till att vi lever mitt i ett informationskrig, Dagens Nyheter,  September 2016, http://www.dn.se/kultur-noje/kulturdebatt/ola-larsmo-vi-maste-forhalla-oss-till-att-vi-lever-mitt-i-ett-informationskrig/

[18] Anna Dahlberg, Vi är under attack från rysk propaganda, Expressen, December 2016, http://www.expressen.se/ledare/anna-dahlberg/vi-ar-under-attack-fran-rysk-propaganda/

[19] Must-chefen pekar ut Ryssland som it-hot, SvT, December 2016, http://www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/must-chefen-den-aktor-vi-framfor-allt-ser-ar-ryssland

[20] Hans Rosén, Högt betyg til mediers trovärdighet, DN, March 2016, http://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/hogt-betyg-till-mediers-trovardighet/

[21] See for example Hemligt grupp ska möta ryskt informationskrig, Dagens Nyheter, 27 October 2015, http://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/hemlig-grupp-ska-mota-ryskt-informationskrig/.

[22] Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg, Russia’s strategy for influence through public diplomacy and active measures: the Swedish case, Journal of Strategic Studies, January 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2016.1273830

[23] Alexander, 34, är SD:s hemliga desinformatör, Aftonbladet, September 2016, http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article23449197.ab

[24] SD-tjänstemannen gjorde miljonvinst med rysk affärsman – “potentiell säkerhetsrisk”, enlight eksperter, Sveriges Radio, 23  September 2016, http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6522899 .

[25] Juan Flores, SD bryter tystnaden om Egor Putilov, Dagens Nyheter,  September 2016, http://www.dn.se/nyheter/sverige/sd-bryter-tystnaden-om-egor-putilov/

[26] Patrik Oksanen, Russia-index: 11 new EU-sceptic parties added, EU-bloggen, January 2015, https://eublogg.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/russia-index-11-new-eu-sceptic-parties-added/

[27] Patrik Oksanen, Därför burde SD genast kastas ut av Säpos insynsråd, September 2016, http://www.dt.se/opinion/ledare/oksanen-darfor-borde-sd-genast-kastas-ut-ur-sapo-s-insynsrad

[28] Anton Shekhovtsov, The far right front of Russian active measures in Europe, blog, August 2016, http://anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.no/2016/08/the-far-right-front-of-russian-active.html

[29] Rysk ekspert: Håll Gotland neutralt, TV4, May 2015, http://www.tv4.se/nyheterna/klipp/rysk-expert-h%C3%A5ll-gotland-neutralt-3181567

[30] Johan Wiktorin, Med lögnen som vapen, Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, May 2015, http://kkrva.se/med-lognen-som-vapen/

[31] ‘Russia rehearsed invasion of Sweden’, The Local, June 2015, http://www.thelocal.se/20150625/russia-rehearsed-military-invasion-of-sweden

[32] See for example Nordic Neurosis: Sweden scared Russia is eager to get Gotland, Sputnik, June 2016, https://sputniknews.com/europe/201606031040736416-sweden-gotland-nato-russia/, and Milking it: Sweden benefits from own psychological warfare, Sputnik, October 2016, https://sputniknews.com/military/201610101046186405-sweden-russia-psychological-warfare/

[33] See for example Sputnik, July 2016, https://sputniknews.com/politics/201607091042700698-nato-summit-moscow-west/

[34] Michael Winiarski, Om Sverige går med i NATO, kommer vi att vidta nödvändiga åtgärder, Dagens Nyheter, April 2016, http://fokus.dn.se/lavrov/

[35] Sweden just created a permanent troop on Gotland to “take responsibility for the country’s sovereignty”, Business Insider Nordic, September 2016, http://nordic.businessinsider.com/swedens-supreme-commander-just-created-a-permanent-troop-on-gotland-2016-9/

[36] Patrik Oksanen, Russia-index: 11 new EU-sceptic parties added, EU-bloggen, January 2015, https://eublogg.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/russia-index-11-new-eu-sceptic-parties-added/

[37] Johan Bäckman, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies website, https://riss.ru/profile/johan-backman/

[38] Seizing children from families is very profitable business, expert says, Sputnik, December 2014, https://sputniknews.com/radio_burning_point/201412161015924326/

[39] US and NATO up for new anti-Russia provocation, this time in the Baltic – expert, RIA Novosti, August 2014, https://en.ria.ru/radio_burning_point/20140805191768221-US-and-NATO-Up-for-New-Anti-Russia-Provocation-This-Time-in-The/

[40] Ruskline, Johan Bäckman:”Many Finnish journalists are recruited by the US-Baltic special services,  September 2014, http://ruskline.ru/news_rl/2014/09/19/johan_bekman_mnogie_finskie_zhurnalisty_yavlyayutsya_zaverbovannymi_sotrudnikami_amerikanopribaltijskih_specsluzhb

[41] Warrant issued for arrest of MV-lehti editor, Finland Times, October 2016, http://www.finlandtimes.fi/national/2016/10/07/30681/WarrantissuedforarrestofMVlehtieditor

[42] Military Review, Media: Finland removes economic sanctions against Russia, topwar.ru, December 2016, https://topwar.ru/104773-smi-finlyandiya-snimaet-ekonomicheskie-sankcii-v-otnoshenii-rossii.html

[43] Richard Milne, Norway and Finland thaw relations with Russia, Financial Times, November 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/269a73e4-b70b-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62

[44] For example https://twitter.com/babuhkatata/status/807680150091563009 on December 2016.

[45] For example https://twitter.com/vegchelovek, an account set up in 2014 and based on the image of the “polite people”, Russian special forces who seized Crimea.

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