The (In)significance of Latvia in the Battle Between Good and Evil

From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”

Photo by Ines Zgonc, licensed under CC BY.

After a moment of fame due to its resistance to Soviet power in the late 1980s, Latvia retreated into oblivion. The blank stares that one encountered at the mention of Latvia anywhere outside the former Soviet state created an uncanny sense of nonexistence. There was not even a generic trope, such as the Central Asian -stan, through which Latvia could be rendered intelligible. In global popular culture, if it appeared at all, Latvia was an obscure place. Latvians, in turn, were empty vessels that could be filled with a combination of bizarre characteristics that, taken together, stood for backwardness spatially located somewhere between Europe’s East and West.

Recently, though, Latvia has become significant again. Along with Estonia and Lithuania, it is said to be an exemplary site for observing Russia’s political technologies in action. “If you want to see Russian information warfare at its worst, visit these countries,” wrote one columnist for the Washington Post. Western liberal media and Baltic scholars at recently established or repurposed research centers report that efforts by Kremlin-friendly news outlets and Internet trolls to destabilize local politics include tactics like circulating exaggerated reports about the bad economic situation or, more outlandishly, luring NATO soldiers with Russian women and then using their (mis)behavior in disinformation campaigns. In turn, local scandals that depict Latvia in a negative light, such as the recent corruption allegations against the director of Latvia’s central bank, are attributed to “a massive information operation from outside” even before investigation.

Experts agree that Russian information warfare, including the “use of corruption as a tool of coercion and influence around the globe,” is detrimental to Latvia’s sovereignty and security. However, according to media consultant Magda Walters, defending against this information warfare is a challenge insofar as “we cannot manufacture our own fake stories, our own lies, because that’s against all that we stand for. Our best defense is truth.” But how does one recognize truth? According to Walters, truth is a matter of infrastructure. It must be “disseminated by institutions and people . . . that have the trust of the public.” The problem for defenders of truth, however, is that some portion of the public remains beholden to Russian-influenced media outlets. The work of truth, therefore, requires discrediting individuals and institutions that should not be trusted and thus reorienting the trust of duped publics.

A common method of discrediting is showing that disagreeable media outlets, individuals, or organizations receive funding from the Kremlin. Actual or suspected connections to Russian government-related funding are expected to discredit entities in ways that connections with U.S. or EU sources of funding are not. In fact, while connections with the Kremlin are supposed to make someone look bad, connections with the U.S. State Department render one trustworthy. Moreover, connections with politically and morally acceptable sources of funding place the recipient in relations of obligation to propagate liberal worldviews and to defend the liberal order of things. Thus, for example, an Oxford academic writing for the Guardian shamed Victor Orbán by pointing out that Orbán took open society advocate George Soros’s money and went to Oxford where he learned about democracy, only later to betray his supporters and teachers. Meanwhile, voices in Russia, Orbán’s Hungary, and beyond take funding from Soros as indicative of support for a post–Cold War version of American imperialism.

Latvia’s quest for significance vis à vis an external enemy reveals the international liberal order to be a matter of faith and empire as much as fact and security. The Baltic frontier is military, geopolitical, and moral.

Most Baltic and Eastern European scholars, intellectuals, and organizations, including the research centers that monitor Russian disinformation campaigns, do receive some external funding. The difference between sources is, in short, a matter of geopolitical and moral alliances. Indeed, Latvians admit as much. At a conference organized by NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence and the U.S.-based Center for European Policy Analysis, Ilmārs Lejiņš, the Latvian military commander, referred to Vladimir Putin as “the Dark Force.” The Dark Force, of course, has its dark infrastructure. Internet trolls who work for the Dark Force are also immoral, because they can be bought. The Lithuanian public-relations expert Karolis Zukauskas has observed that recruiting for trolls quickly turned up a large number of applicants with impressive credentials, all of whom wanted to be paid in euros. Baltic journalists and public intellectuals are also paid in euros, but their funding sources, such as the Open Society Institute, the U.S. State Department, and various foreign embassies, are taken to be moral and benign.

It thus seems that Latvia’s recent claim to fame may be misleading. Latvia has become significant again not because it is a particularly good site for observing Russian political technologies, but because it is a frontier in the renewed confrontation between the so-called international liberal order and Russia. Viewed from the Latvian—and Baltic—frontier, it becomes apparent that neither side of the confrontation is driven by a higher ideological goal. In the post–Cold War and postideological world, Russia claims geopolitical pragmatism, while the West, as the steward of the international liberal order, claims truth and thus the moral high ground.

Truth has always been paired with virtue. Yet prior to the current shifts in the global political landscape, Western political liberals tended to attribute moralizing to illiberal opponents while claiming reason for themselves. Latvia’s quest for significance vis à vis an external enemy reveals the international liberal order to be a matter of faith and empire as much as fact and security. The Baltic frontier is military, geopolitical, and moral. Therefore, one should look to Latvia and the Baltics not to see Russian information warfare in action, but to see a battle between a self-proclaimed world of goodness and a rogue power that has lost its imperial credentials with the end of the Cold War.