Russia is increasing disinformation operations aimed at undermining government and public support for American military forces in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. officials.
The stepped-up disinformation includes creating and circulating recent news stories falsely claiming American soldiers were engaged in sexual misconduct in Poland and were exposed to mustard gas in Latvia.
A more recent example involved a Russian broadcaster falsely attributing a statement on Russian electronic warfare to a retired U.S. general.
A U.S. official in Europe said the military's European Command and the State Department cannot say for sure whether Russia is behind the fake news stories. But the spreading of disinformation is increasing, he said.
"There have been a number of fake news stories, propaganda, lies, whatever you want to call it, over the past two weeks," the official said. "Specifically, in Poland, Estonia, and Ukraine, just to name a few."
The European command and U.S. diplomatic outposts are working to counter the false stories that have spread on the internet and through social media outlets and in some cases have been picked up by Russian state-controlled media.
"Media have recently been flooded with fake news as there has been a growing number of false reports on other NATO activities and different situations involving troops of allied forces," the Latvian Defense Ministry said in a statement this week.
The most recent example involved a video broadcast on the Russian television program Vesti April 14.
The article said Russia was increasing its electronic warfare capabilities and could wipe out the U.S. Navy with a single electronic bomb.
The story was picked up and reported by the British tabloid the Sun and then by Fox News. The Vesti report included a false quote by retired Air Force Gen. Frank Gorenc, a former commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe.
Gorenc told the European command he did not make the statement reported by the Russians.
The story was also picked up by Russia's official TASS news agency and the state-run Sputnik.
Earlier this month, another false news story was published by the Baltic News Service (BNS), an online outlet that covers events in Eastern Europe.
The news service falsely reported April 12 that a group of U.S. soldiers in Latvia were exposed to the chemical weapon blistering agent mustard gas.
The fake story appeared based on a report April 14 in the military newspaper Stars & Stripes that reported several U.S. Army soldiers had been treated in a Riga hospital for exposure to carbon monoxide after their M1A2 Abrams tank malfunctioned during a military exercise.
The exercises were part of live-fire training with Latvian forces called Operation Atlantic Resolve—aimed at bolstering Eastern European allies against threatened Russian aggression.
Russia is said to be using its formidable information warfare capabilities to discredit U.S. and NATO military efforts to push back against Russian hegemony and aggression in the region.
The Pentagon has been sending military forces and increasing exercises in the region as part of an effort to reassure allies.
The news service pulled the story down from its website after U.S. protests, and a BNS editor claimed its servers had been hacked.
A spokesman for BNS did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Latvian Defense Ministry said in a statement the mustard gas report was among the "most blatant examples of propaganda."
"The story, published in Lithuanian and Russian versions of the portal, pointed out that mustard gas stockpiles buried on the bottom of the Baltic Sea can be considered an ecological bomb and only Kremlin knows when it will go off," the ministry said.
The third disinformation story that triggered concern among U.S. military and diplomatic officials involved Russian social media posts falsely accusing U.S. troops of sexual misconduct.
The official said the reports were completely baseless in claiming drunken U.S. soldiers in Poland tried to assault a woman and then beat up a local Polish man who tried to intervene.
The false reports claimed local authorities had arrested the Americans but released them after intervention by their U.S. military commander.
The Latvian Defense Ministry said the story was published on the website of the Russian news agency regnum.ru.
The report stated that three intoxicated U.S. soldiers tried to sexually assault a 19-year old girl who lived in the Polish town Zagan, in a darkened alley on April 9. The story also falsely said a man who tried to help the girl was beaten.
The story also was picked up by Sputnik, a frequent outlet for Russian disinformation and propaganda.
Disinformation is the blending of true and false information and propaganda involves spreading information aimed at promoting specific government policies.
The Latvian ministry said "the aim of such propaganda is to undermine public trust in NATO, and troops of allied forces, through use of unverified information affecting hearts and minds of the people."
The Latvian Defense Ministry statement also said Russia was spreading false stories that new military capabilities were being developed to subject Russian speaking citizens to "new physical, biological and other methods aimed at altering human psyche and behavior."
Moscow also is claiming U.S. military training in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia is preparing for an invasion of Russia.
Navy Capt. Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for the European Command, said officials at the command work on a regular basis with NATO, U.S. embassies, host nation governments, and media to correct false information and made up stories.
"It is far too easy to not tell the truth and as a team we have to be vigilant and quick to set the record straight before the false info tarnishes what we and our allies stand for," he said, noting that "everyone needs to participate in fact checking."
Hernandez defended the command's failure to single out the Russians for the information operations.
"Each case has unique circumstances and different factors but appear to have similarities that must be further investigated," he said. "These problems are not just related to one specific country but to what appears to be an organized and synchronized effort to muddy information in subtle ways to mislead or influence international audiences."
"We implore everyone including social media companies to find fake news and remove it from their sites where appropriate," Hernandez added.
Michael Waller, an information warfare expert, criticized the failure to highlight the Russian role in the disinformation.
"The European Command has shown no leadership in countering Russian disinformation which it should be countering as a matter of course," Waller said.
If the command cannot trace the information operations to Russia, it indicates U.S. intelligence agencies are not collecting intelligence on Russian disinformation, he said.
"This lack of leadership inadvertently helps Moscow because it makes the United States look helpless and undermines the confidence of our threatened allies in the region. Fortunately some of those allies—tiny Latvia in particular—have filled in the gap in important ways."
Waller, a founding member of the editorial board of NATO's Defense Strategic Communications journal, part of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said Russian disinformation is not new. Moscow has been conducting disinformation operations on and off for decades.
"The U.S. military leadership has largely ignored the problem apart from occasional hand-wringing and wondering what to do," he said.
President Ronald Reagan was the last American president who aggressively held Moscow accountable for anti-NATO and anti-U.S. disinformation and propaganda. However, U.S. counter-disinformation capabilities largely were dismantled during President George H.W. Bush's administration after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Waller said currently the Trump administration has not outlined its strategy toward Russia.
"A small part of a new U.S. strategy would be to make the Russian leadership pay a price for its misbehavior," he said. "That way, we can make it too costly for such misbehavior to continue."
Domestically, Russia engaged in what U.S. intelligence calls a cyber-enabled influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Reuters reported in October that Russia appeared to be behind a forged document from Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.) to Hillary Clinton's campaign warning of a cyber attack on U.S. election machines. Carper sent the document to the FBI for investigation.