By EUvsDisinfo

As Finland and Sweden joined NATO, Kremlin disinformation campaigns ramped up, deploying classic rhetorical tactics to undermine their decisions.

Soon after Finland joined NATO in April 2023, it realised the true costs of membership in the Atlantic Alliance. Life was getting worse for its citizens as the country was ‘sinking’, and its unemployment rate skyrocketing.

The cause for all this misery? Finland’s leadership had ‘surrendered’ the country to ‘NATO slavery’, turned it into a ‘colony of the Empire’, and was ‘trying to start a world war’ – and all this without asking ordinary Finns.

Similar stories appeared when Sweden joined the Alliance in March 2024.

As is usually the case with pro-Kremlin disinformation, not a single bit of these narratives is true. The only truth in these claims is what they tell us about the deranged mindset in the Kremlin.

Shifting moods

Russia’s unprovoked attack against Ukraine of 24 February 2022 prompted the mood in Finland and Sweden to shift. Ordinary citizens and political leaders alike quickly concluded that traditional militarily non-aligned status was not the right solution against Russian imperialism and military aggression.

When the two Nordic countries applied for NATO-membership in May 2022 (Finland would join in April 2023, Sweden in March 2024), the Kremlin propaganda machine went into overdrive.

Russian state-controlled media and officials, pro-Kremlin outlets elsewhere, and various ‘independent experts’ and ‘analysts’ peddled Kremlin talking points about the apocalyptic effects NATO membership would have for the two Nordic countries, for Europe, and of course, for the world.

Waves of narratives

The first wave of messaging seemed intended to dissuade Finland and Sweden from applying to join in the first place, and subsequently to scare them from actually joining NATO.

Often threatening in tone, these narratives claimed that Finland was preparing armed aggression against Russia, even a ‘world war’. Finland would ‘repeat the destructive experience of the Baltic countries and Poland’ and ‘inevitably turn into an anti-Russian springboard for the deployment of foreign troops’. Most Finns, the story went, understood that ‘neutrality’ was the key to Finland’s security, and as a result most Finns were against NATO membership. So called ‘NATO elites’, however, were preventing them from expressing their views in a referendum.

More broadly, NATO enlargement was routinely framed as ‘expansion’, removing agency from Finland and Sweden and attributing the Alliance’s enlargement not to their wish to join but to NATO’s determination to encircle Russia. Moreover, in the Kremlin false narratives NATO broke the promise it made at the end of the cold war not to expand ‘one inch to the east’, and claim that this was the reason for ‘the current bloodshed in Ukraine’.

Shifting messages

After Finland and Sweden submitted their application, Kremlin narratives were deployed in an attempt to halt or delay the process. Pro-Kremlin media reported with glee on the reservations of some NATO members to admit Sweden in particular, predicting it would never manage to join.

Once Finland had joined, the Kremlin propaganda’s tone shifted again. The country would not remain in NATO for long, because the Finnish citizens had not been allowed to express their views, it was now claimed. According to the Kremlin disinformation, Finland was also already feeling the negative economic impact of its newly acquired membership.

This final group of narratives focused on the security implications of Finland and Sweden’s membership for both countries and Europe, emphasising the countermeasures that Russia threatened to implement.

In summary, messaging against Finland’s NATO membership initially sought to dissuade the country from applying; once it had applied, to stop its joining; and once it had joined, to paint the implications in the darkest possible colours.

This pattern repeated during Sweden’s accession, which took a year longer than Finland’s. “Why wasn’t there a referendum?” pro-Kremlin media asked when the country submitted its application to join. For the Kremlin disinformers, the answer was clear: because the Americans decided for the Swedes.

The rhetoric of reaction

In his study ‘The Rhetoric of Reaction’, political economist Albert O. Hirschman identified three basic rhetorical arguments in reaction to social change: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. Even though Hirschman’s classic was not concerned with international relations, these three modes capture Kremlin talking points about NATO enlargement rather well.

‘According to the perversity thesis’, Hirschman writes, ‘any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy’.

Thus, Sweden and Finland sought to strengthen their security by joining NATO – but NATO enlargement would in fact create instability, according to the Russian narratives: ‘By declaring their intention to join NATO, Finland and Sweden have drastically undermined their national security. […] Every Finn and Swede should now understand that they have a target painted on their forehead.’ Indeed, NATO membership would be ‘suicidal’. The Kremlin response fits the perversity thesis like a glove.

The second category Hirschman posits, the futility thesis, ‘holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent”’. A variation on this theme is the story line that predicted that Finland and Sweden would not have been quick enough to join the Alliance before its expected collapse.

Hirschman’s third thesis – jeopardy – ‘argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment’. In line with this argument, another key Kremlin narrative holds that most Finns and Swedes do not support NATO membership because they understand it would threaten their countries’ hard-won prosperity: ‘Military expenditure is expected to rise while social spending is expected to be slashed. Well-being will decline.’ By abandoning the militarily non-aligned status that had served the two Nordics so well for decades, they would threaten not only peace but also prosperity.

The Kremlin’s manipulative reactions to Sweden and Finland’s decisions to join NATO, in the face of Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine, exemplify well Hirschman’s theses of perversity, futility, and jeopardy. The Kremlin responses are classic attempts to discredit a rational decision made by two Nordic states in the face of existential threats from an aggressive neighbour.

The next wave of messaging

Just as the Kremlin disinformation machine did with Finland and Sweden, it will do with other countries seeking to join NATO.

Already last year, Russian state news agency TASS warned against a ‘dangerous’ call by Moldovan leaders to join the Alliance. The citizens of Moldova want calm, peace, and neutrality, Russian state mouthpiece TASS asserted – but just as in Finland and Sweden, they will not have a chance to express their opposition against NATO membership at the ballot box, TASS continued its manipulation.

Our very first case in the database about NATO from March 2015 had a similar theme about a so-called massive rally against NATO membership taking place in Bratislava. The photo of the so-called rally, which turned violent, was a fake.

To date, EUvsDisinfo has over 3,300 cases about NATO and we will continue to monitor and expose any disinformation efforts that seek to undermine the alliance and spread false narratives.

By EUvsDisinfo