Author: Nino Chanadiri


In the two years since Russia started its war in Ukraine, the influences of the war, both existing and potential, have been discussed in numerous directions, among them the broad security, economic and political implications have been analyzed. However, little attention has been paid to Russia’s ethno-political leverage, which it uses against European societies, especially those with significant Russian-speaking minorities. The attempts to use the Russian-speaking groups against those societies stems from Russian propaganda mechanisms that draw negative images of the countries of settlement and, in response, encourages polarization. This is something the Baltic states have been experiencing and are trying to develop coping mechanisms against. As other countries near Russia are currently also hosting Russian migrants, we are witnessing a tendency of somewhat autonomous societies being created within societies. As such, the experiences of Baltic states are especially in need of analysis.

This blog first discusses the role of Russian narratives in shaping opinions in Russian-speaking communities, with a focus on the Baltic states. Later, we analyze the experiences of propaganda in the Baltic states in parallel with the war in Ukraine, and its influences on Russian-speaking communities in those countries. Finally, a spotlight is put on strategies to cope with this, and why the Baltic experiences are important for other countries hosting Russian migrants.

The Role of Russian Narratives

Before discussing the role of Russian narratives in shaping the opinion of Russian communities abroad, it is important to note that engaging with “compatriots” abroad and protecting their interests has had a significant role in Russia’s foreign policy and continues to do so in the new foreign policy concepts it released last year.

The Baltic states and its Russian-speaking population have long been targets for a Russia seeking to influence public opinion and political developments, and to spread false images and narratives that affect the internal relations in the countries where Russian minorities are settled. In many cases, Russian-speaking communities have little to no knowledge of the local languages and have weak social connections with titular groups, thus information sources for them are often uniquely Russian. This is taken advantage of by Russia, which inserts Russian propaganda messages into Russian social media and traditional media channels that affect these communities. This is especially relevant in the case of Latvia and Estonia, which both boast significant numbers of Russian minorities.

Russia has been building narratives against the Baltic countries for years. One of the most noteworthy examples has been the narrative of the Baltic countries being Nazism supporters. This has been supported by Russian media channels periodically portraying different demonstrations in Baltic countries as Nazi demonstrations. There have been accusations towards the Baltic countries of their being Russophobic and discriminating against the Russian minorities living there.

The Nazi narrative has an important meaning in Russia, as Russia portrays itself as historically against this ideology. Nazism has been used by Russian authorities to justify its attack on Ukraine. Such a narrative has two roles: First, internal, for Russian society to build images of the enemies who “besiege Russia” and threaten them; and external, for Russian communities abroad, and in this case in the Baltic countries, so as to estrange them from their local communities and governments, to shape pro-Russian views, and to support Russian political interests in these countries.

Effects on Russian-Speakers

Russian propaganda has been targeting the Baltic states as a response to the unified Baltic support of Ukraine at all levels during the war. Traditional Russian propaganda messages have also been used throughout the Baltic region on Russia fighting the US and NATO in Ukraine, and to share claims that the US is as much of an aggressor as Russia, that Ukrainian soldiers are being inhumane towards civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk, and so on.

Common practice sees the spreading of narratives based on undefined sources, containing the potential to strengthen societal distrust. Examples include Estonia, where there has been unclear information spreading about a potential NATO military base in Narva. Narva is a predominantly Russian-speaking town in Estonia. Not long ago, in 2022, when the Estonian government decided to remove the well-known Soviet tank monument from Narva, the town experienced tense protests from the local population, as Russia and Soviet related topics tend to ignite great sentiment among significant parts of the population there. Russia used the situation once again to blame the Baltic country for mistreating the Russian-speaking population. Such false information used for political means can easily lead to fear and distrust in such difficult political and social contexts, and can cause unrest such as that seen in Narva.

Another example is the anti-Ukrainian sentiments that Russian propaganda has been spreading, including claims that President Zelensky is a dictator. These messages have affected the views of the local Russian-speakers and shaped their attitudes. Last year, there was a campaign in the Baltics, which led to Russian-speaking residents starting to demonstratively use provocative stickers labeled “I am Russian”. In social media dialogues and chats, it became clear that the campaign was directly associated with anti-Ukrainian views. The Latvian security services soon became interested in the campaign, as it was potentially dangerous “for the peaceful co-existence of Latvian citizens”, and began closely monitoring the situation.

These influences are seen in the important differences between perceptions on Ukraine-related topics. In the Estonian case, while the vast majority of Estonians are supportive of Ukraine, a quarter of the Russian-speakers there believe the war is justified, and half do not support the sanctions. In the recent Russian presidential elections, Putin won in Tallinn with 75% from those residents who still have Russian citizenship, which can be seen as evidence that being under Russian information influence has consequences.

Lessons for Russia’s other neighbors

The propaganda mechanisms used by Russia in the Baltic countries are a security challenge that has the potential to fuel tensions in these societies based on growing uncertainty, distrust, and fear among different societal groups that live side by side. These countries are trying to fight Russian propaganda by different means, including by limiting the influence of Russian media, and, in some cases, by restricting Russian propaganda channels, as happened in Estonia and Latvia.

The mechanisms also include focusing on building societal resilience based on the vision that propaganda is a long-term threat that needs to be addressed systematically, in different sectors- not only from the prism of defense forces, but also within the public, economic and energy sectors, as was seen in Lithuania.

International cooperation and close coordination with NATO (e.g. the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga) also plays a role in assessing the risks associated with propaganda and false narratives.

It is important that other countries at risk learn from these experiences, and use the cooperation opportunities on offer in order to share expertise. Russia’s neighbors, including Georgia and Armenia, have become among the biggest host countries for Russian migrants since the war began in Ukraine. To focus on the Georgian case, according to studies conducted within the migrant group, Russians are in contact mostly with other Russians, are not planning to study the local language, and see the need to create a “Russian community” in their host country. As the Baltic experience shows, such distancing tendencies within such a group provide a good source for the realization of Russian state goals through the use of this group for its political ends; mostly through fueling tensions. As discussed above, propaganda and false narratives play a role in this. Thus, pre-assessing the risks, and monitoring what kind of information those groups are exposed to, can be important to limiting the effects of Russian informational influences. As Georgia has a history of good relations with the Baltic states, their experiences and cooperation can help Georgia learn from these experiences and is an opportunity worth grabbing.


As discussed, Russian-speaking communities have been used as leverage by Russia against the countries in which they have settled, in this particular case, the Baltic states. The propaganda that Russia is using to shape opinions in targeted communities that serve Russian interests has had a role in this. This leverage is also used in parallel to the war, with propaganda mechanisms being actively engaged to create tensions. The Baltic countries are an example of those who have strengthened their actions to build resilience to such propaganda.

As Russia’s other neighbors have also hosted Russian migrants during the war, this change in society must be adequately assessed for the risks it presents. It is important that the Baltic experiences be taken into consideration, both in terms of the Russian strategy of using its “compatriots” as leverage against other countries, and also in trying to find ways to deal with the propaganda mechanisms targeting these communities, so as to better ensure societal stability.