Early warning for a new surge of Kremlin information aggression against BulgariaThursday, 14 March 2019
False news about the deployment of NATO nuclear weapons in Bulgaria – “The straw man” of the Kremlin hybrid propaganda!
For years Moscow has been trying to divert Bulgaria from the Euro-Atlantic development path and turn it into a captured state, a subservient instrument of Russian politics in the EU and NATO. This the Russian Federation can only achieve if the state is internally divided, its institutions are weak, the rule of law is deficient and as a whole it is poorly integrated into NATO and the EU. One of the Kremlin’s most effective tools for the implementation of this plan are the information operations that use a wide range of tools, from fake news to more refined disinformation, by mixing truths and lies, and events and opinions are taken out of their context and are presented perverted and misleading.
The Kremlin’s hybrid war against Bulgaria has one key feature – as every hybrid war it has never been declared, it is being fought. The countries under attack are often unaware of being a victim of hybrid impact. This is above all a war on perceptions and that is where the first strike is directed. To effectively counter hybrid threats, continuous vigilance and early identification of signs of hybrid impact must be ensured. The Press Center of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria is constantly monitoring the media in the country in order to find such early signals for the information campaigns inspired by Moscow, directed against the Euro-Atlantic choice of our society and state. The analysis of the media appearances of certain individuals in Bulgaria gives us sufficient reason to connect the dots into a whole picture, and ring the bell for this new pro-Russian information offensive.
This time the chosen means of achieving the impact is the idea of “NATO deploying nuclear weapons on Bulgarian soil.”
To subdue Bulgaria and to execute the plan of General Reshetnikov, Moscow works not only to weaken the Bulgarian defence by making Bulgarian armed forces dependent on the Russian military industrial complex thus holding them hopelessly obsolete and operationally incompatible with NATO forces, but also to make sure that the Alliance has no presence in Bulgaria or in the region, especially in the Black Sea. As regards the latter, Moscow is trying in every way to thwart the realization of the decisions taken by the NATO summits in Wales 2014, Warsaw 2016, and Brussels 2018. More specifically, we are talking here about the measures of strengthening NATO’s defence and deterrence posture and, in particular, of NATO’s tailored forward presence in the southeast.
The Kremlin’s strategy is to establish full Russian military superiority in the Black Sea through the militarization of Crimea and the upgrade of the Russian Navy as well as to deny NATO establishing enhanced presence in the region.
NATO can only have more presence in the Black Sea if the allied countries of the region participate actively in the tailored forward presence and implement the agreed measures in the areas of land, sea and air. More NATO in the Black Sea is possible only if the three Member States in the region undertake real actions to host combined Alliance Units (naval, air and land) on their territories. The Montreux Convention imposes restrictions on the stay of military ships of any non-Black Sea country, but there are no such restrictions for deploying NATO land forces and equipment. For example, Bulgaria can continuously host not necessarily warships, but combined joint land formations (e.g. a Multinational Brigade, formed around one of our own brigades) or joint Alliance air bases (for fighter and transport aircraft, aircraft for maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare). The potential of the joint Bulgarian-US facilities that we already have, can be further developed in this direction. Air defence and missile defense systems can also be deployed permanently here, as well as coastal anti-ship missile complexes, etc.
At the moment, out of the three NATO members in the Black Sea region, Romania is the most committed to the cause for more NATO in the Black Sea. Turkey follows its strategic interests, which do not always coincide with those of the Alliance, and traditionally does not allow “more NATO” in the region. Bulgaria with its geographic location can and should play more significant role in this, but some internal factors systematically hinder decision-making for achieving such role. These factors serve not the Bulgarian interest, but the Russian. So willingly or not they become Moscow’s agents for influence.
So far, different tactics have been applied to prevent achieving stronger NATO presence in Bulgaria and in the Black Sea. The idea of refraining from participation in regional NATO formats for cooperation between the Black Sea Member States is illustrated best by the metaphor of “better have yachts and sailboats” [instead of warships], taken from the comment of the Bulgarian prime minister Borisov in 2017 on NATO’s decision for stronger presence in the region], is a factor constantly in use. It is based on, and exploits the pacifist moods in Bulgaria, and is fuelled by fears of escalating the tensions in the Black Sea, which could negatively affect tourism and trade.
Recently, in support of the “yachts and sailboats” thesis, a new narrative appeared in the Bulgarian public domain: the prospects of deploying NATO nuclear weapons in Bulgaria. This is unreal, completely fictional and deeply manipulative. The Alliance never made such proposals to Bulgaria and would hardly consider such an option. The idea behind this information bubble is to create social attitudes not merely against nuclear weapons. The goal is far-reaching and more insidious – to set the public against any strengthening of NATO’s presence in Bulgaria and against any involvement of Bulgaria in strengthening NATO’s role in the region. This will sabotage the building of the Alliance’s tailored forward presence in the Black Sea, and Bulgaria will be used as a NATO member holding positions against further initiatives in this direction. Despite that these will be initiatives that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons.
The nuclear weapons/nuclear bases narrative in Bulgaria has recently being seen in the public debate by people who obviously seem to have opposing views. It has both supporters and opponents. In both cases, however, the result is damaging for Bulgaria and destructive for our interests to be a stronger ally and to have more NATO in the region. Because from this struggle between the “for” and “against” opinions regarding the fictional possibility of nuclear weapons in Bulgaria, such public sentiments will be created, that eventually will bring victory only to those who strive to prevent any stronger NATO presence in the region.
In order to connect all the pieces of the puzzle of this hybrid operation, aimed at shaping the public opinion in support of the Russian strategy, two major points must be taken into account.
Firstly, the topic of deploying nuclear weapons in the country is completely invented and has never being under consideration, neither in Bulgaria or in NATO. It is logical therefore to conclude that launching such a question for a public debate creates a media balloon, serving to divert the public attention from other important topics, as well as to further increase the tension among those in our country, who are traditionally pacifists and with anti-NATO sentiments.
Secondly, the problem is much more complicated, as inflating the topic of nuclear weapons in Bulgaria does not stop there. It has more distant goal and is an integral part of a coordinated information strategy to discredit not only NATO but also the idea of the Alliance to build an enhanced presence in the region, and to obstruct any deployment of any conventional (non-nuclear) Alliance forces and equipment in Bulgaria.
In this way the hybrid campaign is built on inextricably connecting the concocted manipulative idea of nuclear weapons in Bulgaria with the others, standing on the agenda, reasonable and meaningful ideas for building a stronger Bulgarian Armed Forces, closely integrated with NATO, and deploying Alliance capabilities (non-nuclear!) in the region. Thus, the anti-nuclear weapons attitudes automatically become also attitudes against any strengthening of Bulgarian defence and against any strengthening of NATO’s defence posture in the region. And this serves very well the Moscow’s objective of keeping NATO out of the region.
It should be expected that by expanding this logic, the debate would further include challenging the rearmament of the Bulgarian Army but most of all, attacking the acquisition of the new F-16V fighter aircraft. The Russian proxies in Bulgaria still cannot swallow the decision for F-16V, and they will fight to the end to prevent the signing of the contract. They will be looking for any direct or indirect way to fail the deal. Therefore we expect the next manipulative pro-Russian thesis in our public space to be yet another fake news – for example, a false linkage of the acquisition of the new fighters with the idea of nuclear weapons in Bulgaria. Most likely we will soon see circulating the fake idea, that the new Bulgarian fighter aircraft will carry nuclear weapons stored on Bulgarian soil. In this way the artificially created anti-nuclear debate will drag with itself the question of the acquisition of the new fighter-aircraft.
Experience teaches that such disinformation and especially fake news, goes hand in hand with a call for a public action. Such an action conveniently would be a call for referendum. Some politicians have already started this by exactly mixing the nuclear theme with the need to build a stronger defence. Other local political factors are also expected to be included in order to gain pre-election dividends, especially given the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in May 2019. The friends of the Kremlin in Bulgaria will insist on a referendum, which would be both against nuclear weapons (a fictional topic) and against the construction of bases or Alliance forces in Bulgaria (real necessity). The two topics will necessarily go hand in hand, and to use the former in order to effectively compromise the latter, although it has nothing to do with it.
In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, the Kremlin’s political proxies in Bulgaria are expected to use exactly that methodology. This is one of the paths for realising the Russian interference in the Bulgarian elections. Thus these political forces will kill two birds in one stone: gaining electoral success and serving their Russian master.
The use of the idea of nuclear weapons in the country in this case is based on an old proven technique of manipulation called “straw man“. The idea is that someone is assigned a false or distorted statement or intent, and then the opponent refutes it. That’s how one disproveс something that practically doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, the refutal disinforms the society and gains advantage – in the specific Bulgarian case, electoral advantage.
The situation at the moment is that in the public domain the objective and real need to build a stronger armed forces, the need for more alliance integration, and for strengthened NATO presence in the Black Sea deliberately and manipulatively is bound and mixed with the fictitious and non-existent idea of deploying nuclear weapons on the Bulgarian territory. Thus, the hybrid disinformation campaign, whose early signals we have already detected, aims to instil the negative logic that as Bulgaria builds stronger army by modernising its forces and by working to strengthen NATO’s role in the Black Sea, this should also mean that the country wants at the same time nuclear weapons on its territory.
And this is an utterly manipulative insinuation.
Thus created “straw man” attracts all the arrows of the manipulated public dissatisfaction. As a result, together with the unreal idea (nuclear weapons in Bulgaria) to kill all that is meaningful and necessary now – more NATO in Bulgaria and in the Black Sea region, of course only with conventional defence capabilities.
The Press Center of the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria