Defense ministry mindful of anti-NATO Baltics COVID-19 misinformation cases

Main Battle Tank in Canadian service in action on the firing range at Ādaži, Latvia. Source: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia Social Media page

A recent misinformation campaign targeting the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroup in Latvia focused on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and claimed that the battlegroup had been particularly hard hit by the virus, claims which were rejected as wholly untrue. Estonia's Ministry of Defense has highlighted the need to remain vigilant even as the emergency situation in the country expired early last week.

The NATO eFP in Latvia is Canadian-led, and comprises a larger number of allied nations at any one time - Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain are also involved, as well as Latvia itself of course – than the U.K.-led eFP based at Tapa, east of Tallinn, which typically has personnel from two or three allied nations, in addition to those of Estonia and the U.K., at any one time.

The Latvian battlegroup is based at Adaži, near Riga, with the online disinformation campaign, reportedly of Russian origin, claiming that the camp had experienced a high number of cases of coronavirus, according to a report on Canadian public broadcaster CBC's website.

"That [coronavirus outbreak claim] was definitely not true," said Col. Eric Laforest, commander of Task Force Latvia, in response to the claims.

NATO itself quickly rejected claims that a coronavirus outbreak had hit the base; NATO troops had been involved in a major exercise, known as Exercise STEELE CRESCENDO, similar to Estonia's annual Spring Storm, with personnel using surgical masks and maintaining the 2-meter distancing rule in addition to their normal encumbrances.

Estonia's Ministry of Defense noted that so far, disinformation on that scale had not affected the country throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the emergency situation the government imposed March 12-May 17, though noted that early on in the crisis, some online misinformation had appeared suggesting that Tallinn would be placed on total lockdown.

"We're aware of the attempts to spread disinformation in Latvia and Lithuania; fortunately nothing on this scale has taken place in case of Estonia," defense ministry International Communications Adviser Helmuth Martin Reisner told ERR News Monday afternoon.

"There was, however, a short instance where misinformation spread online in the beginning of the crisis, claiming that a curfew would be placed on Tallinn. This was quickly refuted by a government press release to the effect that there were no such plans," Reisner went on.

Last month, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis received a fake email purporting to be from NATO leadership and claiming that the alliance's troops would be withdrawing from the country, the English-language page of Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT reports.

Lithuania's eFP is German-led, with neighboring Poland's being U.S.-led.

When the online reports regarding Latvia surfaced late in April, that country's defense ministry also moved to counter the misinformation campaign, seen as particularly insidious given the extent to which people were already on edge in the pandemic and accompanying restrictions and economic fallout.

Going forward, the ministry says that the crisis has brought into even sharper relief the question of misinformation.

"The attempts to spread disinformation regarding NATO's presence in the Baltics and Poland has clearly illustrated the necessity of close-cooperation and monitoring of disinformation attacks from Russia," said Helmuth Martin Reisner.

"In times of crisis, where there is a high volume of information, it's important that the public has a high level of media literacy, specially towards dubious sources. Since 2010 this has been part of Estonia's integrated defense policy with an emphasis on building societal resilience towards all sorts of hybrid and conventional threats."

Members of the volunteer Defense League (Kaitseliit) operate a website in English which carries up-to-date examples and case studies of misinformation, primarily online and mostly Kremlin or Kremlin-slanted in origin.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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