How Russian disinformation could derail Finland and Sweden’s access plan

lIn Hungary, the NATO member closest to Russia politically, the largest pro-government news website openly promotes the Kremlin line on NATO expansion.

Zoran Milanovic, president of fellow NATO member Croatia, long considered an ally of the Kremlin, cultivated by business ties over the years, vows to block Sweden’s and Finland’s imminent admission to NATO.

And even in Sweden itself, experts worry that Russian disinformation will take advantage of lingering doubts within the ruling Social Democratic Party about joining NATO.

“No to NATO. No alliance with fascists,” reads an announcement for a protest in Stockholm against NATO scheduled for Saturday.

Turkey remains the biggest obstacle to Finland and Sweden’s aspirations to join NATO in an effort to form a united Western Front against Russia in the wake of the ongoing war against Ukraine.

But Ankara is not the only hurdle.

Across the bloc, in countries where Kremlin stories have been promoted for years through sympathetic media and political figures, doubts are rising. That would complicate plans to quickly integrate Finland and Sweden into NATO within months.

“I was concerned that the entry process itself would create an opening for the Kremlin’s information operations,” said Paul Levin, an international relations specialist at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies.

NATO was formed during the Cold War to counter the Soviet Union. The US-led military alliance is now seen as a way to defend itself against Russia after Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in what is believed to be the first major military land grab by a European country against another country since World War II.

The ongoing attack caused a seismic shift in public opinion in favor of NATO membership in Sweden and Finland. Both fought against the Russian Imperial power repeatedly over the centuries, but remained outside NATO during the Cold War.

(AFP/Getty)

Member states have long expressed concrete concerns about what locking Finland and Sweden into the bloc could mean for their security. Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, has been complaining for years about what it sees as cozy relations between Stockholm and the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the banned Kurdish separatist group.

Ankara was outraged after Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist and several lawmakers met in March with Nasreen Abdullah, a leader of the PKK-influenced Kurdish-led autonomous region in northeast Syria.

But years of Russian influence-building, including building political ties, political lobbying and commercial relations, are paying off in ways that could potentially create other barriers to the Scandinavian countries’ accession to NATO.

Origo, one of Hungary’s largest news websites and largely affiliated with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, this week gave voice to a leading Russian member of the State Duma, former speed skater Svetlana Zhurova, who claimed Helsinki and Stockholm were being taken in. dragged to NATO against their will.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian foreign minister has expressed sympathy for the concerns of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is friends with Mr Orban.

Other government officials in Budapest have dismissed the war on Hungary’s eastern border as a battle between the US and Russia on Ukrainian soil, a favorite topic of conversation by the Russian government’s mouthpiece. Others have described the war as a confrontation between the US and China.

Budapest has already opposed the European Union’s energy sanctions against Russia, with Orban warning that such restrictions would hit the Hungarian economy “like an atomic bomb”.

“People with real power say these things,” said Peter Erdelyi, director of 444.hu, a Hungarian website that detects disinformation. “We do see an escalation. Some of the things said by the pro-Kremlin mainstream media are now also being said by mainstream government politicians.”

Croatian Mr Milanovic, who is commander-in-chief as president, has long been accused of having strong ties to the Kremlin through energy transactions. He has downplayed or denied for months Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine, including bombing of maternity hospitals and attacks on civilians.

When that position became untenable due to mounting evidence of atrocities, he modified his stance to argue that Russia was too dangerous to be provoked and that NATO should exercise “restraint” in adding members.

“I know moralists and those concerned about the fate of every inch of the world will not understand, but I was elected president of Croatia, not a cosmopolitan moralist,” he said.

Defying opposition from his country’s prime minister and cabinet, he now argues that Finland and Sweden cannot join NATO until electoral laws in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, a non-NATO member, are reformed to become friendlier for ethnic Croats.

(PA images)

A study conducted by Pro-Fact, an anti-disinformation project of journalists and scientists in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, suggested that social media in Croatia was awash with pro-Russian posts.

In Sweden itself, the turn towards NATO has been profound for many in the country and may still encounter political hurdles. Stockholm has long seen itself as a bastion of neutrality and peace.

“When the Social Democrats made this traumatic turnaround against NATO, it went against deep-seated identity issues about Sweden’s role in the world as a non-aligned power,” said Mr Levin.

In recent decades, Sweden has drawn waves of mostly left-wing Turkish and Kurdish immigrants who have built their roots in Sweden and transformed the political scene. Among them are members of the PKK or affiliated groups.

Some in Sweden fear that NATO membership could mean joining Turkish-style counter-terrorism laws that make mere membership of a banned group – as opposed to committing or contributing to an act of terror – a crime.

“Swedish anti-terror laws are much less comprehensive than Turkey’s,” Levin said.

Such political dynamics, Mr Levin said, could provide fertile ground for Russian disinformation campaigns in the coming weeks. In Russia, authorities have launched a poster campaign describing Astrid Lindgren, the creator of the child character Pippi Longstocking, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and other prominent Swedes as “Nazis” after Stockholm announced it would seek NATO membership.

In Turkey, left and right political parties have long been suspicious of NATO and the US, viewing Russia as a counterweight to US power. But Kremlin-backed media have long targeted Turkey, often through the popular Turkish-language version of Sputnik, one of the Kremlin’s main international news channels.

Finnish Ambassador to NATO Klaus Korhonen, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Ambassador to NATO Axel Wernhoff at a ceremony marking the application of Sweden and Finland for membership in Brussels

(AP)

The coverage taps into doubts about NATO among Turkish leftists who feel victimized by US support for right-wing governments in Ankara, as well as among right-wing Turkish nationalists who feel the country is being treated unfairly by the west.

“Sputnik has positioned itself so well,” said Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey watcher at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. “When they criticize NATO and the US, they have these messages targeting and exploiting the mistrust between the different factions.”

Sputnik often doesn’t have to do much. One of the most powerful tools, Ms Tahiroglu said, are simple Turkish subtitled video clips of Mr Putin ranting against NATO and the west, which inevitably go viral on social media.

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