Why Baltics will never shut up about Russia

1st of November is a public holiday in Lithuania – All Saints’ day, followed by All Souls’ Day, pagan times reaching date to pay respect to the dead and light a candle. It’s a single night in the year which, in a way, brings them back to life.

This year, it brought back something more than light to the darkest (figuratively and literally) place on the surface. A selected group of Lithuanian Members of Parliament, including former Minister of Defence Rasa Juknevičienė, current Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius, former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius and a number of others were chosen as a target for cyber-vandalism. Their email boxes were flooded with requests from thousands of different websites as a part of subscription services and spamming the boxes over and over again. The worst case, as the government’s IT experts say, is that the emails are coming through subscription services, therefore spam filters do not recognise them as a threat and they trespass any security that email providers have. It will take at least a few weeks to control the flood of emails – the receiver has to manually unsubscribe from every single marketer, as most of them are sending automated messages and not only once or twice a day.

It is impossible to track down the ones responsible for this, it can’t even be called an attack, the emails of politicians are public information and can be found one-google-away, but the consequences will last for weeks and the work will freeze for some time. The worst thing is that the flood will keep coming until the emails will be manually deleted from the marketing databases.

It was a strategically targeted, a certain script-requiring attack, as IT experts confirm, but nobody is pointing fingers. It could be scripted in a military dungeon somewhere in China, as well as in a teenager’s room in one of the apartment blocs in Vilnius. There is no way of tracing the actions back.

Interesting note here – all targeted politicians are vocal about Russia and disinformation that its mouthpieces are spreading.

What’s this about?

It is only one of many cases that governments around Eastern Europe have to deal with on daily basis. It became a routine, that somebody gets flooded with spam, threatened, misquoted, trolled online. Around election time, people start to look around – which one of the biggest clowns will start shouting on how “we are poking the Big Bear instead of having it as a friend” and how “sanctions on Russia are bringing country’s economy down”, or “EU is threatening our national identity!” – well, all the usual.

The first extensive cyber attack, making the Global North gasp in surprise and shock, was in April 2007, after numerous botnets launched a series of DDOS attacks on crucial Estonian websites and web services – including banking systems, transportation systems, newspapers, broadcasters, government and military communications, shops, you name it.  The attacks were organised after the Russian minority in Latvia organised protests against dismantling a monument for Red Army soldiers, who died in World War II. It doesn’t take a lot to connect the conveniently placed dots to realise who is behind what.

The DDOS attacks continued until May, severely damaging one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world, in power act that nobody is safe from vandalism. The case resulted in creating a cyber defence unit under NATO in Estonia, called CCDCOE, in 2008. The attack itself acts as a drop of the curtain for what, as security experts would say, was happening always, but not to the scale of real-life consequences.

NATO and the global North braced for cyberwar, sharpening their cyberweapons and putting all efforts to secure, protect, prevent and catch all possible actions against the cyber integrity of the country.

And… nothing happened.

NATO included the protection against hybrid and cyber warfare into its regulations for allies reaction, affirming that “international law applies in cyberspace“, in July 2016, allies “recognised cyberspace as a domain of operations in which NATO must defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land and at sea”. Which means, it can evoke Article 5, or coordinated action of allies against the perpetrator of a violent act. Only a small detail – there is no scale of measurement when a cyber attack is considered to be fatal enough to evoke Article 5. What damage should a hacking, DDOS, vandalism, defacing, etc, have to result in to actually take real-life action? It is still an open question.

Meanwhile, the digital intelligence galiots are developing more advanced ways of exploiting cyberspace in any possible manner, and in the ways, we have not dreamed of. It is quite easy to guess, that security measures, as advanced as it may be, are always behind – you can’t protect yourself from what you don’t know.

How is that related to
the Baltics states?

We have NATO, with (sort of) clear regulation of what is the borderline offence to trigger the allies action, we have (kind of) happening cyber attacks (but kind of not).

It was clear with the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 when Russian military crowd-sourced people to continuously flood and crash the most important digital services in the country, it preceded the military actions, but was clearly connected to the actual war and occupation, which has never ended. Disrupting the most important facilities and setting down a blockade without any military effort.

Cyber advancements made against Estonia were strategic for spreading fear in the region, to actually provoke NATO or other Western powers to react, and they did. But the initial act was so brutal and threatening, that all strategies were prepared for the worst possible action – lockout, blockade, ruined infrastructure, generators, one’s most vicious digital nightmare.

What actually followed, were hoards of trolls and minor vandalism cases, which are not sanctioned by any current legislation. Like vandalising the media and governments’ websites every few years, putting up soviet symbols instead, or threatening messages. Sending DDOS attacks, flooding the emails or Social Media feeds with spam. Those are simple, easy to do and incredibly frustrating attacks, which are impossible to trace back or prove. And they’re happening all the time throughout the region.

But the script-based harm is not the most spread form of cybervandalism in Baltics. The situation is well explained in Buzzfeed News article on a network of Kremlin or Russia mob funded news websites to spread certain level of disinformation to disrupt societies and especially the Baltic diaspora. Sometimes they are minor cases, ridiculous articles on RT or Sputnik, like how every Baltic citizen dreams about having at least three Russian slaves (I will not link it, I’m sorry, but you can Google it – Didžioji baltų svajonė: bent po tris rusų vergus) or how NATO soldiers rape local girls or EU is promoting the kidnapping of children, which are extremely easy to ridicule and prove wrong. Usually, they are minor cases of half-falsified information, half based on sketchy non-existing interviews or people.

The worst non-attacks are not even targetted to the Baltic citizens. They are spread across the internet in English, Spanish, Russian, under the names of Baltnews and RT to look credible (well, that is arguable as well, but let’s leave that point for another time). Exploiting the sensitive historical narratives, which are difficult to explain or verify because of either they are inaccessible, or falsified, or, usually, historians are split on actual explanations. Meaning, all of the history of Soviet occupation for Baltics, all Soviet and post-Soviet history for Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova. Baltics were lucky to get into EU and NATO soon enough after establishing independence, however, not all of the countries were that lucky, and it did not save them from, literally, historical gossiping.

Spreading the mediocre disinformation on Baltic resistance fighters, how Baltics were thriving in the Soviet Union, especially playing on nostalgia for Soviet times and pushing forward the demeaning narratives about the victims of Soviet oppression, they are exploiting loopholes of freedom of speech, information and expression, in order to set distrust in the rhetoric Baltic leaders. The cases are minor, insignificant, and every Baltic citizen knows that they are wrong. But people who are not extensively aware of the Baltic history, Soviet history in general, and even if they are aware, not following the national rhetorics, they can be easily tricked into trusting the false information, thus forming distrust in what Baltics say versus what they read somewhere online.

European Federation of Journalists went on a fact-finding mission to the Baltic states to explore the level of disinformation and informational warfare in the region, or, the actual situation of threats. The mission found out that “Russian propaganda” was not the main problem on the local level for the news environment in the countries, and it actually has an insignificant influence on journalists and news flow. That is an incredible finding, a comforting one, but it does not show the level of influence on non-local people and their perception of countries. Influence on foreign diplomats and politicians.

Those small, insignificant, mediocre acts of disinformation are like small bugs, roaming around the house in summer. Couple of them does not cause an alert, they do no harm and are scattered, incapable of stealing food or poisoning the water. But once they start to accumulate, multiply and cover the floor, only then it raises awareness, that something should be done about it. Which might be slightly after the fact.

If you’ve read this all post, hats off to you! Here’s a reward – a funny bit of disinformation to make your day a bit better.

Stay awake and keep away from the trolls.

Cartoon credits @ John Stringer, Randy Glasbergen

One thought on “Why Baltics will never shut up about Russia

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