By David Mardiste
TALLINN (Reuters) – Estonia’s prime minister says the Baltic state is well placed to resist the kind of “fake news” reports that could proliferate when NATO troops start arriving next month, against a background of heightened tensions with Russia.
Estonia, which borders Russia, won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then it has had more than 25 years’ experience of responding to incidents ranging from false news reports to a wave of digital attacks in 2007 whose targets included the government, companies and banks.
Earlier this month, NATO accused Russia of being behind a false report of a rape by German soldiers deployed to another Baltic state, Lithuania, and said the alliance expected more of this kind of propaganda.
Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said there could be more information attacks when 1,000 troops from Britain, France and Denmark start arriving in March, but the country was ready.
“We are building today much … stronger strategic communications inside here in the government,” he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday, citing as an example the recruitment of more communications professionals.
“These fake stories aren’t a very big influence in our society. I hope and am sure we are ready to stand against these kind of fake stories or fake news.”
Governments everywhere are stepping up defenses against cyberattacks and information warfare after last year’s campaign of hacking and leaks against Hillary Clinton’s presidential election campaign, which U.S. intelligence agencies concluded, despite Kremlin denials, was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ratas’ foreign intelligence service said this month that the country could expect an uptick in Russian activity in 2017 around four main events: the NATO deployment; Estonia’s European Union presidency in the second half of the year; local elections due in October; and Russian military exercises codenamed Zapad (West).
“All of these events may be accompanied by campaigns to spread disinformation in the Russian language and non-Russian-language media and social networks with the purpose of discrediting Estonia and creating tensions in Estonian society and relations with other countries,” it said.
One-quarter of Estonia’s population is Russian-speaking and many of them watch the slickly presented Russian news bulletins broadcast from across the border, which are overwhelmingly favorable to Putin.
Ratas, who is himself learning Russian, said Estonia needed to build up its own programming for this linguistic minority.
“I think both ways, the social media and also traditional media, it’s important to invest more here in Estonia, to give this information also in the Russian language,” he said.
Dmitri Teperik, head of the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security think tank, gave qualified support to Ratas’ comments on Estonians’ resistance to fake news.
“Ethnic Estonians are much more immune than Russian-speakers, and the reasons are many,” he said. “He is right, to an extent, but how you measure it is a another question.”
(Reporting by David Mardiste; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)