On May 4, Lithuanians in Chicago gathered in the Lemont suburbs. Moments later, members of the diaspora pulled off a camouflage-covered tarpaulin, revealing a monument for Lithuania’s post-war partisan leader – Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas, nom de guerre, the Hawk.
Just three days later on May 7, the Russian Embassy in the US published a script, accusing Lithuania of “falsification of WW2 history” and “glorifying Nazi collaborators.” Similar text appeared the same morning on Russia’s state-funded media, RT.
On May 8, the disinformation chain ended with the BBC, when it ran the story based primarily on the Russian embassy comments, using the “the same false statements that are repeated by the Kremlin,” according to conservative MP Radvilė Morkūnaitė-Mikulėnienė.
“We were ready,” Lithuania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) communications officials told LRT English – “We predicted that Russian officials will react sensitively to Lithuanian historic memory commemoration".
In the run up to the event in Chicago, Lithuanian representation abroad launched a PR campaign, aiming to introduce the history of anti-Soviet resistance to foreign audiences.
One video featured a family, dressed in white, with smiling children, and an attractive wife seen from the point of view of the husband.
A narrator with a heavy American slur introduces in English the background of World War Two as fiery graphics roll on, and a drum beat picks up the pace – “Everything can suddenly be taken away,” he warns, as the expression of the family sours.
Almost four minutes and dramatic scenes of fights for “Democratic Lithuania” later, the credits roll with a full family, including the husband, in view, as the final captions appear: “The Freedom Fighters, in memoriam Adolfas Ramanauskas”.
With the right budget, the content was able to reach 1.3m users on Facebook, according to the MFA, and was deemed a success.
Not unlike similar social media campaigns launched in Russia, degrading Baltic citizens as “toilet cleaners of Europe”.
It’s questionable what tit-for-tat social media battles can achieve in the long term.
But the Lithuanian MFA is adamant: “We need to understand that [Russia has] a thorough campaign with political will and huge resources; it will not stop anytime soon.”
That’s why “we are making sure that our history is not being written for us” by others.
Yet, the disinformation trail culminating in the BBC’s news feature published on May 8 shows the limits of strategic communication.
“We invite journalists” for chats at the embassies and distribute material directly to them, who “for timing or other reasons, were lacking background information – understanding historic context is no easy task,” said Rasa Jakilaitienė, advisor to Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius.
The case with the BBC journalist, “is no exception,” she added.
The unveiling of the monument to Ramanauskas-Vanagas is only one event in a series of diplomatic spats surrounding Lithuania’s anti-Soviet legacy.
In July 2017, NATO TV released a film on Baltic anti-Soviet partisans, sparking hashtag battles between Russian media, public figures and the Lithuanian civil society.
It culminated when Jiri Mastalka, a Communist politician and a member of the European Parliament, told Russian media his party was drafting a resolution to sanction the Baltic states for “fascist sentiments”.
However, the statement was circulated exclusively on Russian media and did not appear in any official sources.
Similarly in 2018, Lithuania’s initiative to name the year after the anti-Soviet partisan leader, led to diplomatic rows between embassies and foreign ministries, with fascism accusations directed against the Baltic states.
The need to react to disinformation, however, obscures the underlying discourse – Lithuania’s own inability to adopt a clear position on its Holocaust legacy.
“The Lithuanian Foreign Minister [Linas Linkevičius] has often repeated the position,” that facts established by “competent historians” on “instances of Nazi-collaboration among Lithuanian partisans is used to spread disinformation,” discrediting the whole resistance movement, said the MFA.
Similarly in the latest Ramanauskas-Vanagas controversy, Russian media and the embassy in US used pictures of the Jewish school protest against Jonas Noreika in front of Lithuania’s consulate in New York, to also discredit Ramanauskas-Vanagas.
“We ourselves are tangled up,” Doctor Nerija Putinaitė, a researcher at Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science, previously told LRT English.
“The broad blanket in international media then falls easily on all of our post-war partisans, and therefore, interpretations by Russia can sound believable,” she added.
And as long as the Lithuanian society, education system and the government fails to adopt a firm position regarding the troubling Holocaust legacy, disinformation and hashtag wars are set to continue.