After the July summit in Helsinki between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Latvia’s Russian-aligned media reported that the friendly relationship between the two leaders showed that the “Baltics are losing their significance and the elites in those countries are panicking.” According to Latvia’s leading Russian-language media, Vesti.lv, “Donald Trump didn’t show himself in the best light.” After the summit concluded, Vesti.lv tweeted an article with the title “1-0 in favor of Putin.”
Two days after the summit, Baltnews.lv published an article in which Russian political scientist Andrey Manoylo commented, “Trump is abandoning the Baltics as an intermediary in relations with Russia.” The expert from Moscow State University said that the U.S and Russia could discuss relevant issues on oil and LNG markets without a third party. “I assume that Russia agreed to give quotas for LNG sale in the European market, and in return the U.S. will support Russia’s oil and gas projects,” said Manoylo. “If such agreement has been reached, the Baltic countries, which the U.S. needed earlier, because they acted as irritators for Russia, could lose half of their significance.” Other articles by Latvia’s Russian media mainly reflected what Russia’s leading media was writing about: Russia’s right to build Nord Stream 2 and the need for equal competition for European markets, the “perfectly staged” scene of Mr. Putin handing a soccer ball to Mr. Trump, and the overall success of the summit.
Meanwhile, Latvian officials were cautious about the summit. “I am not concerned about something hugely changing and the conversation being in some way bad for Latvia. Dialogue is a good thing; the key is to respect the previously affirmed principles,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs told news agency LETA. Similar comments were made by Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis: “The Presidency of the U.S. does not act as a single person. The U.S. is a democracy, the oldest one in the world. I do not think that such a state can radically switch its position in one day. I think that in the coming months we will see if there are any changes. But I don’t think there will be.” The Prime Minister also noted “[t]he good news for Latvia,” which was that “there weren’t any radical proposals [at the summit] that could change something on security matters.” Latvian media outlets mainly reported the outrage of Western media over President Trump’s remarks. For example, leading online media Delfi quoted Politico as saying that “even ‘Fox News’ is outraged” by Trump’s performance.
In its coverage, pro-Russian media in Latvia used exaggeration and over-generalization by dramatizing and raising false alarms. Latvian authorities were not as concerned about the outcome of the Trump-Putin summit as was reported, because no issues directly related to the region were discussed.
The influence of Russian media in Latvia is one of Russia’s most powerful tools, since many Latvians (including many who are not ethnic Russians) speak the Russian language. A recent report by the prominent investigative outlet Re:Baltica (whose work has been quoted by internationally recognized outlets such as the Financial Times and Buzzfeed) shows how the Russian government has been funding “seemingly independent news websites in Eastern Europe to pump out stories dictated to them by the Kremlin.” Among these websites is Baltnews.lv, which raised false alarms about the “Latvian elite panicking” after the summit. The Re:Baltica report also explains that pro-Russian media such as Baltnews.lv have been operating in the Baltics for years, but have “become more intense recently.” According to the European External Action Service East Stratcom Task Force, the “strategic objective is one and the same – to weaken the West and strengthen the Kremlin in a classic zero-sum game approach.”
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
05 September 2018