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Russia launches information operation to present NATO defense exercise as provocation: analysts warn of threat

Lilia RagutskaWorld
The Kremlin is trying to make NATO exercises look like a provocation

Russia is trying to portray NATO's Steadfast Defender 2024 defense exercise, which begins this week, as a provocation and aggression. The aggressor country's foreign ministry accused NATO of continuing a "show of force" on Russia's "doorstep."

The Kremlin needs such an information operation to divert attention from Russia's recent aggressive statements and actions against NATO countries. These are the conclusions of analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

NATO's Steadfast Defender 2024 exercise will start soon and will last until May 2024. It will involve 90,000 military personnel from all NATO member states, as well as Sweden, which is about to join the defense alliance. More than 50 ships, 80 fighters, helicopters and drones, and at least 1,100 combat vehicles, including 133 tanks and 533 armored personnel carriers, will be involved.

According to Supreme Allied Commander Europe Christopher G. Cavoli, NATO will "demonstrate its ability to strengthen the Euro-Atlantic area through a transatlantic movement of forces from North America... in a simulated evolving conflict against a nearly equal adversary".

This is happening against the backdrop of growing concern among NATO's leadership and member states' leaders about Russia's possible aggression against the Alliance in a few years.

Instead, Russia has launched a powerful information operation aimed at presenting NATO's defense exercise, which is a response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine and Russian threats against the Alliance, as provocative.

Moscow's first reactions to the planned large-scale exercise were voiced by the Russian Foreign Ministry back in September when Steadfast Defender 2024 was first announced. Back then, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the Alliance's exercises were "increasingly provocative and aggressive." Diplomats of the state that unleashed a bloody full-scale war in the center of Europe agreed that NATO continues to stage show of force on Russia's doorstep.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that Russia has allegedly regularly proposed de-escalation initiatives to NATO, called on NATO to "abandon provocative actions" and moved Russian military exercises inland.

Russian officials, according to ISW, also claimed that the Alliance was using the exercises to "incite" the Baltic states to prepare for war with Russia. Therefore, Russia said, the NATO exercises are a "series of provocations."

On January 17, Yulia Zhdanova, a representative of the Russian delegation to the OSCE plenary, repeated the narratives, saying that NATO exercises on the Russian and Belarusian borders "provoke concerns" and "further tighten the escalation spring."

Meanwhile, so-called "military bloggers" affiliated with the Russian presidential administration also joined the Kremlin's information operation. One of them began to deny the statements of German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius about a possible future Russian attack on NATO countries. According to the propagandist, European officials regularly make statements about the "concept of the 'Russian threat'" and that few Germans actually agree with these statements.

Moreover, the Russian propagandist hinted that the German government is trying to artificially create a threat from Russia that does not actually exist by paying experts to "say the right words."

"The Russian information operation aimed at portraying NATO's defensive actions in response to real Russian aggression on NATO's eastern flank as provocative is used to divert attention from Russia's recent aggressive rhetoric and behavior towards NATO," ISW believes.

The analysts reminded that Russian officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself have recently made threats against Finland and NATO in general. In one of his speeches, the Russian dictator called the West Russia's "enemy" and hinted that Russia is fighting in Ukraine to defeat it.

"Kremlin officials and Kremlin-affiliated individuals have also repeatedly attempted to create information basis for future aggressive actions against NATO member states and their neighbors. Russian electronic warfare (EW) exercises in Kaliningrad could have caused unprecedentedly high levels of GPS interference in northern and central Poland and the southern Baltic region on December 25-27, 2023, and January 10 and 16, 2024," the analysts added.

The ISW also recalled its previous conclusions that Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022 not to protect Russia from a non-existent threat from NATO but rather to weaken and ultimately destroy NATO. Analysts are convinced that he is still pursuing this goal.

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