Russia is entering a new phase in its disinformation campaign in the Western Balkans, escalating disinformation and propaganda, and aggressively pushing messages of inevitable war with the European Union and NATO. The narrative conveys Russian military might, a weak Europe, and a belligerent American-led NATO intent on dominating the region. Ultimately, the campaign is aimed at disrupting the region’s integration into European and trans-Atlantic institutions.
The countries of the Western Balkans – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia – are all in varying stages of integration into the EU and NATO. Russia crafts its messaging to manipulate cultural links to those countries’ Slavic, Orthodox Christian majorities.
In Macedonia, Russia is supporting the conservative President Gjorge Ivanov, whose party is preventing a newly-elected parliamentary majority from creating a government. Moscow is accusing the EU and NATO of attempting to install a government that would help neighboring Albania pursue expansionist policies. As the state-owned Sputnik news site blared in a headline late last month, “NATO is willing to see blood in the streets of Macedonia.”
In Montenegro, authorities are preparing to indict a Russian military intelligence officer they accuse of leading a plot to kill and replace Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. As a result, the Russian Foreign Ministry has established a website designed to counter and uncover what it calls “foreign media lies.”
In Serbia, Moscow not only touts its defense cooperation, but suggests in its Serbian-language news outlets that the construction of Russian bases there are the best defense against a Kosovar Albanian military threat. The Kremlin’s news outlets present recent tensions between Pristina and Belgrade as evidence of a new clash between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians and Serbs, and that Russia is the only protector of its fellow Slavs the Serbians. In Sputnik’s words, Russian bases would protect Serbs from their neighbors, who are “readying for a fight.”
Serbian mainstream media outlets frequently republish and recycle stories from Kremlin-owned websites like Sputnik and Russia Beyond the Headlines. Moscow’s efforts mean pro-Russian content is now dominant in the country both online and in print.
U.S. and European leaders recognize that Russian information operations in the Balkans are a serious threat, allowing Moscow to gain influence in the region. Some analysts have even warned that the most immediate danger to European stability no longer lies in the Baltic states but in the Balkans.
Russian military doctrine includes using cyberspace, funding, and disinformation to influence European political parties and voting constituencies. Moscow is thereby able to sow confusion and distrust and help shape conditions in target countries without having to resort to conflict.
Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May called on European leaders to counter “destabilizing Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of the Western commitment” to the Balkans. General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, similarly warned that Russia is using asymmetric tactics against the EU and NATO.
Despite this growing recognition among European and NATO leaders, there remains a lack of coordinated strategy within both institutions to address the problem. Dealing with propaganda and disinformation is difficult in an open society – as one Russian general cynically put it, “In information warfare, the side that tells the truth loses.”
Western Balkan states have made significant progress in reaching integration benchmarks for both the EU and NATO. Washington and its European and NATO allies need to be clear-eyed about Russia’s intentions in the region and develop a coherent policy for addressing them.
John Cappello, a former B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.