Accessibility links

Breaking News

Psyops, Mind Games, And Madmen

Does he want us to think he is crazy?
Does he want us to think he is crazy?

His proposal was slapped down by the Kremlin, dismissed by the Foreign Ministry, and ridiculed by prosecutors. But Yevgeny Fyodorov persisted nevertheless.

Just hours after the Prosecutor-General's Office said that Fyodorov's appeal for an investigation into the legality of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence "had no legal prospects" and was "devoid of common sense," he was on television insisting he was right.

Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, told Rossiya-24 television on July 1 that the Baltic states were "illegitimate" and "sooner or later" their independence will be challenged.

"Everyone understands that a state crime took place 25 years ago," he said. "There is a principle of inevitability of punishment. Otherwise, crimes will continue forever."

So Fyodorov is just a loose cannon, right?

Wrong. He's right on message and he's playing his role perfectly. You don't put loose cannons on state television, after all, unless they're tightly scripted.

And the whole little drama about Baltic independence looks increasingly like a carefully choreographed head game.

"It's Yevgeny Fyodorov's job to do this crazy stuff. This is a psyop," Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"They do this all the time in the Baltics. The Russians say things like 'we'll reinvade' and 'we can take Tallinn in five seconds,' people in the Western media start repeating it, and markets start to slide in Estonia and Latvia. This is a way to bully the Baltics so people think they are unstable."

Ok, so it was a psyop; a big mind game played out over a couple weeks.

Back in mid-June, United Russia lawmakers Fyodorov and Anton Romanov sent a request to prosecutors calling for an investigation into the Soviet Union's decision to recognize the Baltics' independence -- which they claimed "caused enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and defense of the country."

Nobody paid much attention until two weeks later, on June 31, Interfax cited an unidentified official in the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying that an investigation would indeed be opened.

Cue alarming headlines.

The Baltics get jittery. The Kremlin plays dumb. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acts dismayed. And the next day, the Prosecutor-General's Office announces the whole thing is a non-starter. And everybody is left scratching their heads, albeit relieved that World War III isn't iminent.

So mission accomplished.

Active Measures In The Baltics

But here's the thing. Russian psyops are rarely one-off affairs. Each tends to fit into a larger mosaic geared to a specific goal.

And this one we just witnessed was part of a dizzying montage of what the Russian security services call "active measures" aimed at the Baltics.

Russia, for example, has launched criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided serving in the Red Army -- and even asked the authorities in Vilnius to assist in locating them.

Two pro-Kremlin groups in Riga -- the Association Against Nazism and Eurasian Union -- appear to be trying to stir up trouble between Latvia and Lithuania.

The groups launched a petition demanding that Lithuania return the territory of Palanga to Latvia and for the two countries to renegotiate their border. It also calls on the Latvian authorities to take the matter to the European Union.

There are also widespread suspicions that Russia is trying to instigate tensions between Lithuania and its ethnic-Polish minority -- and by extension between Vilnius and Warsaw. Earlier this year, a Facebook page for the People's Republic of Vilnius appeared, and called for Polish "little green men" to liberate the Lithuanian capital.

And in Estonia, pro-Moscow activist Dmitry Klensky has appealed to that country's Russian minority to rise up in support of allegedly oppressed Russians in Latvia.

Klensky noted that Russian civic organizations in Estonia have been silent on the issue and suggests they have either been bought off or repressed.

There are also small projects like the Facebook page for Respublika Baltiiskaya Rus, or the The Baltic Republic of Rus, which it claims encompases much of eastern Estonia.

And all these little psyops and active measures come amid a series of menacing overflights, border provocations, and, of course, the abduction of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver.

Writing on his blog, veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble noted that this all suggests that the Kremlin is "laying the groundwork for a more aggressive stance against the Baltic states."

Operation Madman

But threatening, intimidating, and destabilizing the Baltic states are just one step in what the Kremlin is trying to accomplish.

If nothing else, the past year has illuminated the degree to which Vladimir Putin is determined to revisit and re-litigate the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

This isn't just posturing. It isn't just a talking point. He's serious.

"You have a general pattern where in virtual terms Russia is trying to replay what happened from 1989-91. Russia is arguing that there was no post Cold War settlement, no negotiated end to the USSR," Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

And as the Kremlin rolls this out in the form of psyops, active measures, and threatening gestures, many in the West are left wondering whether the Russian leadership has lost its collective mind. And that's precisely the point.

"They want us to think they are dangerous, that they are prepared to contemplate a nuclear strike," Wilson said.

"They want to be the villain who is thought to be dangerous and who gets his way because we don't want to escalate or provoke him."

In his interview with Rossiya-24, Yevgeny Fyodorov asked whether the West would really be willing to risk nuclear war over Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

"Listen, you and I understand perfectly well that the Americans will not put their cities - Washington, New York and the rest - in danger because of some Baltic problems," he said. "We are a nuclear power. This is nonsense and everyone understands this. But it is necessary to expose this nonsense."

No, Fyodorov is not going rogue. He's not a loose cannon. And he's not off message. He's playing his role perfectly.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


Latest Posts

Latest Podcast