As the fog of war is always thick with lies and half-truths, it is useful not just for high-ranking decision-makers but also for regular citizens to maintain their practical sense of resilience against harmful disinformation. We must remain pragmatically calm in our everyday behaviour and see problems not just in terms of their immediate impact but also in relation to longer time frames and the variability of predictable consequences.
Russia’s brutal war challenges Ukraine’s national resilience in many ways at different levels. It also offers us an opportunity to re-think the Estonian (and to some extent, the Baltic) experience in terms of democratic resilience at operational levels. To re-evaluate the known strengths and studied vulnerabilities against practical knowledge about an aggressive Russia. Since Baltic societies have learned many important lessons from recent history, there is no room for naivety in our understanding of Russia’s motives, abilities, capacity and willingness to project its hard and soft power abroad. While Russia’s hard power can be effectively confronted with credible deterrence by denial and strong military capabilities, its soft power should be neutralised with a set of cognitive abilities, soft skills, attitudes and perceptions. Awareness, vigilance and early warnings are practical keywords for building resilience against malign foreign influence.
Furthermore, one of the basic skills for building resilience is distinguishing our own values and customs, symbols and principles, norms and standards from those alien to us. Another important attitudinal skill is the willingness and functional ability to defend your physical environment as well as information and cognitive space against foreign forces. And the third set of vital skills is to develop and maintain your own credo – a positive outlook for a better future for generations to come.
In general, Estonia has been relatively successful in explaining to its people why these skills are essential for national resilience and how to obtain them either personally or collectively. The furious resistance of many brave Ukrainians clearly indicates that during the last 7–8 years, they have also been scrupulously learning and adopting the basic principles of resilience in their lives, not just personally but also institutionally. Just look at their coping skills, horizontal communication, coordination and cooperation at various levels from local to international. The Ukrainian state and its citizens have been withstanding this brutal aggression for over a month. As they refine their skills during this war, our societies in the Baltics should be reminded of the importance of community resilience, which is based on credibility – for example, trust in local and national authorities, trust in an independent media, trust in opinion leaders within the community, and trust between various societal groups.
The expert community in the Baltic states, and across free Europe, should continue educating politicians and government officials on how to benefit more effectively from the practical aspects of resilience. It is not enough to adopt this buzzword in their everyday vocabulary. Strengthening resilience means adopting a practical approach to and a combination of simultaneous steps towards better preparedness in various spheres of life: security, public safety, diplomacy, healthcare, education, media, environment, critical infrastructure etc. It is impossible to increase the resilience of any society without skilful citizens, strong institutions, transparent algorithms and procedures as well as proper contingency planning.
Blurry Vision and Reactive Mode as Weaknesses
Resilience also means acknowledging your vulnerabilities and working hard to minimise them. In this regard, there are still many challenges present in open democratic societies. One general vulnerability relates to the disinformation domain, where short-sighted assessments of the adversary’s intentions and actions still prevail. Without proper prognostics, our societies react to ever-evolving disinformation without the option to proactively shape the information agenda and predict the next moves of hostile actors.
In short, the problem can be described as follows. Looking at the plausibility of various assertive scenarios, decision-makers and officials have a strong tendency to anticipate just some possible outcomes but not the larger consequences. For many decades, this short-sightedness has been fuelled by wishful thinking, naivety, arrogance, and ignorance – not to mention greed and corruption. As a result, the general level of preparedness to neutralise disinformation remains low, as happened just recently.
The predictability of Russia’s war against Ukraine was already relatively high last spring and even higher last autumn, in late 2021. Back then, some experts were alarmed about the potential large-scale consequences for Europe, including the vast numbers of war refugees. Looking at the actual picture now, we should ask: how well prepared was Europe for this eventuality? Not particularly well. Another wave of anti-refugee, anti-Ukrainian disinformation campaigns launched and orchestrated by Kremlin proxies and sympathisers across Europe could have been anticipated. The right moment is gone now, as our societies are again in reactive mode, trying to debunk lies and fakes about Ukrainian refugees in various countries. It is worth noting that the experts are observing very similar patterns with these lies, but this debunking does not work because it is slow, takes a lot of resources and ultimately does not have the desired effect. The presentation of facts cannot change the emotionally shaped perceptions of informationally vulnerable groups or those whose media consumption differs drastically from the mainstream.
Sectarian Information Disorder
This is a syndrome of psychopathology, where people reject proven facts and all other solid evidence at the basic level of perception, as they build all their conjectures and conclusions solely on faith and some persistent misbeliefs. In its essence and structure, this faith is no different from that observed in totalitarian sects. Brainwashed by persuasive propaganda, these people sincerely believe in the infallibility and righteousness of authoritarian power and do not question its words, decisions, actions. On the contrary, they find even more arguments to explain it. No matter how many facts or how reliable the evidence, nothing can break down their mental protective shield. The more attempts are made to convince these people with the help of facts, the more fanatical they will become in defending their positions and assumptions, which seem to us a huge delusion, but which they believe to be the truth. A logical approach and common sense are powerless against strong emotions. Debunking fakes will not work because rational reasoning has no effect. Members of a sect with distorted information live in their own paranormal reality. The best action in the short term is to isolate these people from toxic sources of information, change their information environment, diversify their communicative surroundings and not force them to make a binary choice.
Battle of Narratives and Power of Prevention
Being often late in combating disinformation campaigns means allowing harmful narratives to go wild in your own information space, polarising societal groups with extreme views. Moreover, adopting a reactive mode shifts precious attention and resources from urgent issues to artificially highlighted topics, which become difficult to ignore because of their controversy and sensitivity in the eyes of some citizens. A dangerous mix of reinforcing narratives (anti-Ukrainian, anti-refugee, victimisation and vindication of “regular” Russians, anti-establishment etc.) can be observed nowadays in the media and social media across the Baltics. This is how such an approach focused on debunking and reacting to disinformation can potentially undermine another important prerequisite of resilience, namely societal cohesion, which is still fragile due to COVID-19, the consumer shock from energy price hikes and other polarising issues from recent years. It would be too short-sighted to believe that Russia’s war against Ukraine has generally unified all Baltic societies; of course, it has to some extent, but it also has had a divisive effect.
Fatigue from war emerges easily and is then spread and exploited by disinformation, especially among cognitively unprepared politicians, entrepreneurs and other decision-makers in the western part of free Europe. As undermining internal and international solidarity will remain a high-value target for both domestic and foreign-led disinformation campaigns, a practical way to overcome the vulnerability of short-sightedness requires a telescope to see beyond the convenient horizon, which means investing more in disinformation prophylaxis, elaborating more preventive measures anticipated by predicting plausible scenarios. Basically, each political force in the Baltic states and other like-minded countries that take national security and independence seriously should reflect concrete steps in their electoral programmes and coalition plans for building community resilience through the strong engagement of civil society to increase our preparedness for future crises – truly a whole-of-society approach to all aspects of national security.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).