10 February 2017

Russian Information Operations in the Western Balkans

By John Cappello

Moscow’s ability to wage information warfare is becoming alarmingly effective in the Western Balkans. Russian news outlets, fake news portals, and pro-Russian tabloids are increasingly attempting to impact public perceptions through manipulation of local media. 

Following increased tensions between Serb and Kosovar political leaders over rising nationalist rhetoric, pro-Russian outlets circulated news feeds across Serbia, stating Russia will intervene to protect the Serbian people by installing the S-400 air defense system in Serbia in the event of a new military conflict.

The Russians clearly identified an opportunity, having launched Serbian language media from an operations center in Belgrade. Content from sources like Sputnik News Agency and Russia Beyond Headlines are republished on an almost daily basis by mainstream Serbian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian Serb media outlets. The tone is strongly anti-NATO and anti-EU. And the veracity is often questionable, at best.

In Montenegro, tensions between the pro-Western ruling coalition and the pro-Russian opposition continue to rise as NATO prepares to invite the tiny Balkan nation to become its 29th member. Russia has applied pressure to derail both Montenegro’s NATO accession and EU integration. The Security Secretary of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, warned that the West is forcing Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to join NATO although these countries have expressed their interest in becoming a part of the transatlantic security alliance. 

Meanwhile, in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, tensions remain high as the president of the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, was placed under U.S. sanctions for obstructing the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian War in 1995. Dodik has called for a referendum on the independence of Republika Srpska, and during a recent trip to Moscow sought support for his political goals of an independent entity.

These messages of Russian military might, with an anti-NATO stance, are key elements of the Russian information campaign in the region.

Regional defense and security issues are frequent targets of pro-Russian outlets and used to fuel regional tensions. A prime example is a recent dubious report announcing the sale of Russian MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia in response to a perceived threat from NATO. Separately, the recent acquisition of OH-58 Kiowa helicopters by NATO member Croatia is portrayed as a direct threat to Serbia’s security. In reality, the purchase of MiGs by Serbia is the only affordable option for this Balkan country to maintain a viable air force.

While Serbia is not a member of NATO, its relations with the Euro-Atlantic alliance have never been stronger. However, this episode reflects the disconcerting efficacy of Moscow’s information warfare campaign to undermine Balkan states’ efforts to integrate into Western institutions.

Russia’s effort to portray the Serbian purchase of fighters as a response to the Croatian procurement is patently false. While Serbia maintains an official position of military neutrality, the vast majority of its international defense cooperation is with NATO and the West. 

Last year, Belgrade and NATO signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) to deepen dialogue and practical cooperation, particularly in the area of defense reform. Serbia has NATO-standard combat-ready units in accordance with Operational Capability Concept (OCC), which is a vehicle for developing a closer operational relationship between the Alliance and potential contributors to NATO-led operations.

Serbian military units also take part in European Command (EUCOM) exercises as well as training with other NATO partners. Furthermore, Belgrade is a very active participant in UN and EU peacekeeping operations, where the majority of Serbian personnel deployed on these missions are embedded with NATO member states, including Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Hungary. Serb units have been deployed to missions in Lebanon, Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Somalia, Uganda, Mali, and with the EU NAVFOR Operation ATALANTA to fight piracy in the Indian Ocean.

Serbia and the United States, meanwhile, are developing a regional training center for Peace-Support Operations in southern Serbia, which will help prepare the Serbian military for these international peacekeeping missions.

Despite all this cooperation, negative reports on Serb-NATO relations persist. These distortions also impact Western media. A U.S. News and World Report piece on Russian weapons sales to Serbia states, “Serbian officials have said they need to boost the military to protect the country from an alleged threat from NATO-member Croatia, Serbia's traditional foe that has split from the Serb-led Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”

The U.S. News story, based on Associated Press reporting, is a perfect example of the sensational coverage inspired by Russian disinformation. Serbia is certainly considering the purchase of Russian fighter aircraft, but Russian analyses that attempt to portray the issue as a regional arms race is absurd. Serbia needs aircraft to conduct air policing. The Croatian military is acquiring weapons systems in accordance with its role in NATO. Neither of these actions can or should be construed as evidence of an arms race.

Since the end of the bloody regional conflicts of the 1990s, political leaders in the Western Balkans have established Euro-Atlantic integration as the main policy objective. The United States and the European Union have committed to integrating the Western Balkans into a Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace.”

However, in recent years, the transition has slowed considerably as crises within the wider European community have grown. Economic difficulties, BREXIT, the migrant crisis, and turbulence in Ukraine and the Middle East have all combined to slow the integration process.

In other words, the integration of the Balkans into the Euro-Atlantic community is unfinished business. The Russians understand this and are exploiting the uncertainty, using the Balkans as an information battleground. The West, on the other hand, has not offered a coherent alternative, which solidifies the European identity of the Balkan states.

NATO and the West are battling this problem on multiple fronts. It is essential to establish fact-based news sources to counter Russian disinformation. The failure to identify and counter Russian efforts in the Balkans will not bode well for winning the broader information war. 

John Cappello, a former B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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