Freeze-frame images from the controversial video. The text reads, “Military training in Riga Center.” (Source: Vlad Kovin/archive)
Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin media in Russia, as well as critics of the Latvian government, exploited an excerpt from an eyewitness video of a military exercise in central Riga to condemn the Latvian armed forces and, indirectly, the current Latvian government. The excerpt depicted a scared woman carrying a crying child while running past a member of the Latvian military, who was shooting blanks from his rifle as part of the Namejs 2021 military exercise.
Many Russian-language outlets then promoted that clip to characterize the exercise as unexpected and disturbing for civilians, despite the fact it had been previously announced and covered by local media, and that almost every other clip in the full video showed civilians idly watching the exercise or even filming it on their phones.
While the footage is authentic, this case shows how a single, cherry-picked video clip can be politicized and used to encapsulate an entire event, fairly or unfairly, while creating an exaggerated impression about the Latvian public’s lack of support of and trust in the country’s national armed forces.
The Namejs 2021 military exercise
Namejs 2021, which began on August 30, 2021, is scheduled to run until October 3. As a part of the broader exercise, a portion of the training took place September 6–12 in the urban environment of the capital city “to make the exercise as close to reality as possible,” according to an August 31 press release published to the official Riga municipality webpage by the Latvian National Guard. Riga was not the only population center that hosted the exercise, which also took place in Jūrmala, Olaine, Mārupe, Ķekava, Baldone, Bauska and Ropaži.
The public portions of the exercise were announced widely ahead of time, with both the government issuing statements and alerts alongside the news media covering them. On August 20, prior to the Riga municipality press release, the Latvian Ministry of Defense published information about the upcoming exercise. Later, on September 8, public broadcaster Latvian Television aired a news story showing footage of the Latvian National Guard drilling a hybrid warfare scenario in the Ķengarags district of Riga. It complemented the report with a warning that the exercise would continue in populated areas.
The TikTok Video
On September 10, 2021, TikTok user Vlad Kovin uploaded a video showing Latvian armed forces members, including the National Guard’s 1st Riga Brigade, participating in the Namejs 2021 military exercise in Riga. The scene with the woman and child starts around :15 into the video. He also uploaded a separate TikTok, excerpted from the first video, of the scene in question. The woman can be seen looking back fearfully at a member of the armed forces firing a rifle, while the child screams. In the full version of the video, other pedestrians casually observe the exercise, avoid tripping over soldiers, and record it on their phones, apparently unconcerned about the enormous clatter of simulated gunfire.
According to the Unix-encoded timestamp retrieved from the video source code, Kovin uploaded the excerpt at 5:19 p.m. GMT on September 10. The precise date and time of the footage itself, however, is unclear.
At the time of publishing, the video excerpt had garnered over 2 million views on TikTok, alongside more than 74,000 likes, almost 3,000 comments, and just over 3,300 shares.
After the video’s release, Latvian Armed Forces stated on Twitter that the woman had been warned before crossing through the active exercise and decided to pass through anyway. Within a matter of days, though, Riga’s city council apologized to residents who had been intimidated by the exercise.
Coverage of the video
The day after the TikTok video first appeared, the Russian-language version of Latvian independent news outlet TVNET published an article containing comments from Kovin, who the author described as “a graphic designer based in Riga.” Both Facebook and LinkedIn contain profiles for a person by the name of Vlad Kovin who describes himself as a Riga-based graphic designer.
Kovin told the news outlet:
I was aware that the exercises were underway, and on some days it was possible to witness the action around the city. It just so happened that we came around the corner and suddenly saw this whole picture at once. It’s wildly loud, pretty realistic, but the sensation is very strange — there are dozens of people around, passers-by, and, at the same time, shooting, people dashing and “wallowing” on the ground. In short, all this looks wildly strange on the whole.
Regarding the footage of the woman and child, he added, “It was not on purpose, of course, but it turned ugly, to put it mildly.”
Vlad Kovin’s Facebook account subsequently shared the TVNET news story; among the comments below the post was one from user account Nastya Safikhanova, who states she is a producer for Kremlin-owned RT and asks permission to use the footage. Kovin did not publicly reply to the request.
While the exercise was neither a secret nor a surprise given the public announcements by the government and concurrent media coverage, some Kremlin-controlled media outlets, social media accounts prone to spreading misinformation, Latvian opposition politicians, and even some neutral actors on social media portrayed the exercise as unexpected and disturbing for civilians.
On September 11, the Facebook page Gaismas Timeklis (“Web of Light”), operated by COVID-19 and 5G conspiracist Andris Ciekurs, posted the excerpt from Kovin’s video alongside the text, “How can someone think of something so stupid as organizing war exercises in Riga’s center?? This is on the corner of Skolas and Elizabetes streets.”
The post was then used as the basis for a public opinion opinion piece by BB.lv, a media outlet formerly known as Vesti.lv, which amplifies Kremlin-controlled media narratives among Russian speakers in Latvia. The piece was entitled, “How can you even think of conducting military exercises in the center of Riga?”
Notionally politically neutral actors also criticized the incident as disturbing. Vadim Radinonov, an independent Russian journalist and blogger in Latvia, criticized the incident on Facebook. “Running with machine guns and shooting machines over moms with children in the center of Riga is a special kind of perversion,” he wrote, adding, “Someone clearly messed up this time.” In an interview with independent Russian news station Dozhdy, Radinonov analyzed the TikTok video at length and stated it was a gift for Kremlin propagandists.
Other sections of Kovin’s video were used to criticize the military exercise and the current Latvian government more broadly. On Facebook, controversial opposition politician Aldis Gobzems highlighted a single frame from the video showing a soldier firing blanks and compared it to celebratory gunfire at “Caucasian or Arab weddings.” He added, “Shooting blanks in the center of Riga is not training, it’s stupidity.”
On September 13, Kremlin-controlled TV channel Pervy Kanal analyzed the full video and claimed that residents of Riga “were not informed” about the exercise. It then acknowledged that the Latvian Defense Ministry announced online ahead of time, “but it of course went unnoticed.”
Analysis of the video’s spread did not show any clear signs of coordination. The video appeared on independent and Kremlin–controlled media outlets in the Russian language in both Russia and Latvia, as well as in Estonia, Lithuania and some countries in Central Asia. There were many social media accounts that extracted the video from TikTok or the previously mentioned TVNET article and were later used as a source in media publications.
DFRLab analysis also showed that the amplification of the video started on September 11, the day after it was first uploaded on TikTok. That day, the full video and the controversial excerpt made their way to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. The TVNET article also provided a particular boost to the video, with the DFRLab identifying at least 10 other posts based on their coverage. On September 12, it garnered a high volume of headlines from Russia-based outlets. By September 13, the footage was being featured in analysis pieces and social media roundups, mostly critical of the exercise, such as Sputnik Latvia’s roundup of social media posts about the video.
While the video no doubt captured a scary moment for the woman and her child, as they appear legitimately startled by the simulated gunfire, it served as political fodder for adversaries of the Latvian government, particularly when it was amplified out of context. Despite the Latvian government’s attempts at giving plenty of advanced warning of the in-city portion of Namejs 2021, the video created enough of a social media uproar that the government felt compelled to apologize to those who were upset by the exercise.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva, “TikTok video of Latvian military exercise becomes fodder for Russian-language outlets,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 28, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/tiktok-video-of-latvian-military-exercise-becomes-fodder-for-russian-language-outlets-fc50433be00.