MUNICH (Reuters) - Russia was behind a false report of a rape by German soldiers in Lithuania that was intended to undermine support for NATO’s new eastern force, a senior NATO general said on Saturday, warning Europe to expect more such “fake news”.
Petr Pavel, who heads NATO’s military committee, said he also hoped to hold the first telephone call in more than two years with Russia’s military chiefs in coming weeks. There he will outline why NATO believes its biggest military build-up since the end of the Cold War is not a threat to the Kremlin.
Pavel, a Czech army general, said a claim that German-speaking men raped a 15-year-old girl last week in a Lithuanian town close to a German army barracks “was not based on real events”. An email making the claim was sent to the speaker of Lithuanian’s parliament on Tuesday.
“It is clearly fake news and I believe we should expect more of this,” Pavel, told Reuters in an interview, citing conversations with the German and Lithuanian defense ministers.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister Sven Mikser also blamed Russia and said he expected more “hostile propaganda” over the troop presence.
Pavel said Russia was “not pleased” by the deployment of NATO troops closer to its border.
“It will likely use legal means, such as propaganda and they will try to influence public opinion against the deployments,” he said. “It will get stronger ... but we will be transparent, consistent.”
Russia’s foreign ministry did not respond to NATO’s assertion that it was behind the email to the Lithuanian parliament, as evidence for which Pavel cited NATO intelligence work that monitors suspicious activity and disinformation.
European intelligence agencies have said Moscow is also seeking to destabilize governments and influence elections with cyber attacks and fake news.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday she would like to discuss the issue with Russia, but it was questionable whether the problem could be successfully addressed before European elections this year.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Munich, said he saw no evidence of Russian meddling in western elections. But he was open to discussing the threat of cyber attacks at the NATO-Russia Council, a bilateral diplomatic forum.
Worried since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea that Moscow could invade Poland or the Baltic states, NATO is bolstering its eastern flank with troops, war games and equipment ready for a rapid response force of up to 40,000 personnel.
The first German troops have arrived in Lithuania, where Berlin is leading a battalion of some 1,000 troops. From around April, Britain will head the deterrent force in Estonia, while Canada is deploying in Latvia and U.S. troops are arriving in Poland and across the Baltics.
Russia says the alliance build-up threatens the stability of central Europe. It has some 330,000 troops amassed in its Western military district around Moscow, NATO believes.
Pavel said the Western military alliance has ways, known in military parlance as strategic communication, to counter Russian disinformation and he did not expect Moscow to be able to generate popular protests against the deployments.
“The population in these countries are rightly afraid of a continuation of these events, a potential spillover into their countries. They have been asking for years for some kind of visible reassurance,” Pavel said, referring to Crimea.
NATO will also reassure Moscow directly that the eastern deterrent is a measured response to Crimea and what NATO says is Russia’s direct support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Pavel said contact between NATO’s top commanders and their Russian counterparts could restart in the next few weeks with a telephone call with the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov that might lead to a face-to-face meeting.
U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, met Gerasimov in Azerbaijan this week.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sought on Saturday to assure Europe that Washington would back NATO, but told allies they must pay their fair share to support the alliance.
Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Andreas Rinke; editing by John Stonestreet