On December 9, during a routine session of the European Parliament in Brussels, someone snuck into the building, probably through an inner parking garage, and quietly placed copies of the same thick paperback book into the private mailboxes of all 751 parliamentarians.
The book, Red Dalia, is a takedown of Dalia Grybauskaite, the president of Lithuania. The country sits on the fringes of the EU, squeezed between the former Soviet dictatorship of Belarus and the militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The books were printed in English.
Except, the obscure book had never been published in English. As it turned out, no one had any idea who published it, who translated it, who printed the 751 copies, or who paid for the whole thing. Even Red Dalia's author had no idea, telling a Lithuanian reporter "this is theft."
But for those familiar with recent events in the Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — the answer was obvious. Grybauskaite, who is featured in tonight's VICE on HBO season finale episode at 11pm ET, had spent the preceding weeks commenting on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Most notably, she called Russia, which invaded Ukraine last year, a "terrorist state."
When she spoke to VICE in February in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Grybauskaite compared Russia's behavior in Ukraine to that of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Syria and Iraq.
"[The West] is supporting and supplying the populations against ISIS," she said, "but we're allowing Russia to support criminals and bandits in East Ukraine who are attacking and behaving as terrorists."
The book stunt appears to have been an exercise in Russian soft-power retaliation against Grybauskaite. Earlier this year, a Maltese staffer was fired from the parliament for allowing unnamed Russian and Russian-born citizens into the building with the books. The general assumption is that they were spies sent by a Russian foreign intelligence agency.
The incident gives a glimpse into the apparent resurgence of Cold War-style intelligence operations in Europe. As the crisis in Ukraine has deepened, and relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to their worst state since the fall of the Berlin Wall, spying and counter-spying are booming.
In the shadow of Vilnius's Museum of Genocide Victims, which details the atrocities carried out by Soviets in Lithuania, one security analyst told us there were likely "hundreds" of undercover Russian spies currently in the country seeking to undermine the authority of the government and "make Lithuania a failed state." One well-placed source in the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry told VICE that graffiti reading "RUSSIANS GO HOME" in Vilnius was seen as an attempt to spread division between the country's Russian-speaking minority and others. These anti-Russian messages, he said, are the work of Russia.
Up until the 1990s, the Russian KGB used the basement in what is now the genocide museum to imprison dissidents, killing more than 1,000 prisoners. Russian President Vladimir Putin was a KGB field agent, and many other former KGB elite yield great power in Russia. So Russian soft power and spy games played out in the Baltic states is no small matter for Lithuanians.
The Baltic states are members of NATO, the decades-old alliance between the United States and many European countries. The alliance rests in part on a security agreement known as Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one is an attack on all. The idea is that if any member state of NATO is attacked — even small ones like the Baltics — all member states must respond as though they themselves were attacked, including the United States.
In Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, Russia engaged in hybrid warfare, a combination of undercover intelligence work, overt media operations, and traditional military action. Soft power was the opening salvo in what eventually became a more conventional military conflict; pro-Russia media was used extensively to stir anti-Western sentiment in the lead-up to fighting. Undercover Russian Spetznaz special forces soldiers have been used extensively there to spread dissent. Russian media broadcasts false stories, like one about the pro-European Maidan movement in Ukraine being made up of Nazis and child crucifiers.
Marius Laurinavicius, a senior analyst at the Eastern Europe Studies Center, sees Russian intelligence work and soft-power maneuvering, combined with a military buildup along Lithuania's border with Kaliningrad — a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland that's essentially a huge military base — as a display of Russia's willingness to test NATO's commitment to Article 5.
"[Russia] really thinks that NATO wouldn't risk a war with a nuclear-capable Russia [to defend] such 'unimportant,' as they say, countries like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia," he said. "Of course for us it's unimaginable that Russia would attack a NATO country…. But when we think in their terms, it is a really, very highly possible scenario.
"We really face a danger of real conventional war here — not the hybrid war we are discussing now, but a real conventional war."
For now, NATO is hardly ceding the Baltics. As tonight's episode of VICE on HBO shows, the US military is in Lithuania training, and training with, the military there. Meanwhile, NATO member states from Italy to Spain to Poland are lending jets and pilots to the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania. And US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is considering sending enough military equipment to outfit a brigade — about 3,500 troops — to the region.
Still, the soft power war continues to escalate. Congressman Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in April that Russian propaganda in the Baltics, especially that which aims to stoke Russian-language separatism as it did in Ukraine, is as dangerous as military action.
"Russia has deployed an information army inside television, radio, and newspapers throughout Europe," he told a hearing. "Some doing the Kremlin's bidding are given explicit guidelines to obscure the truth by spreading conspiracies that the CIA is responsible for everything from 9/11 to the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 over Ukraine."
Royce claimed that the US is utterly failing to counter these narratives, and called for a counter attack.
And that's why in Brussels this week, the EU's diplomatic corps (read: spy agencies) discussed an "action plan" to invest in media that promotes "EU policies and values" in order to counter "disinformation activities by external actors [using] communication materials and products… in local languages, notably in Russian."
Follow Alex Chitty on Twitter: @alexchitty