Russian propaganda campaigns have become a serious concern for Western governments over the last year, but it’s Europe’s Balkan countries could be the Kremlin’s next major focus.
Various politicians, intelligence authorities and experts in both the U.S. and Europe have sounded the alarm on Russian propaganda efforts. The issue is widespread, but the Balkans are particularly vulnerable, according to one expert.
“The Russians seek opportunity, and they see vulnerability,” John Cappello, a senior fellow specializing in military affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview.
Cappello spent 25 years in the Air Force, including a stint as an acting defense attache in Belgrade, Serbia. He is familiar with political and military affairs in Serbia and the Balkans in general and told TheDCNF that they are particularly vulnerable to disinformation, a type of propaganda which involves the deliberate use of false or misleading information to influence the public or hide the truth.
The Balkans — particularly Serbia — present ripe targets for Russian disinformation: they are politically fragile, often contain a Slavic population and have a limited media market open for the taking. The U.S. focus away from the Balkans and toward more immediate concerns in places like the Middle East and east Asia has also left an vacuum Russia has started to fill, according to a report by The Economist.
There is a significant difference between misinformation and disinformation, according to Cappello. Misinformation can simply be accidental and unintentional, whereas disinformation is a specific and intentional. The Kremlin targets the media outlets of Balkan countries with disinformation in order to gain political leverage, he explained.
Russia has a long tradition of using disinformation to gain an upper hand in foreign affairs. In fact, the term “disinformation” derives from the Russian “dezinformatsiya.”
The primary media outlets in Balkan countries are smaller than those in larger countries, and therefore they have fewer resources and sources draw upon, according to Cappello. Kremlin-backed media outlets fill the void by producing stories which include disinformation to these smaller outlets. The smaller Balkan outlets then take this information and republish it to their national audiences. Cappello added that he does not blame the Balkan outlets for doing so, noting they are only using what is available.
What makes this disinformation effective is that it is believable. In fact, Cappello noted that there is often some truth in the stories shrouded by pro-Kremlin rhetoric and disinformation.
It is not difficult for the Russians to spread disinformation in the Balkans, especially when it comes to criticizing the West and NATO. The U.S. and NATO were actively bombing the Serbs less than twenty years ago in the Balkan conflicts, giving Russia the ability to paint the West as an aggressor. In turn, the Kremlin presents itself as the defender of fellow Slavs.
Cappello offered a recent example to prove his point. A story sourced from Russian media posted on Serbia’s B92 broadcasting website said that the Serbian Air Force is going to receive six new Mig-29 fighter aircraft from the Kremlin. It also noted that Croatia, which fought a war with the Serbs in the early 1990s, was receiving military equipment from NATO. Both are true statements. The headline of the story, however, implied that Serbia was under threat by Croatia and NATO, and that the Russian fighters “would restore balance.”
The reality of the situation much more mundane, according to Cappello.
“This is not a threat. Croatia is fulfilling its NATO responsibilities, the Serbian air force is in dire need in aircraft, and this is the most cost-effective way for them to obtain aircraft so their air force is able to fly,” he explained. “Their air force is in a really sorry state, and so they need aircraft. NATO doesn’t oppose them receiving those aircraft necessarily.”
Cappello noted that it’s not uncommon for media sources, even those in the U.S., play up a story, but in the case of Russian influence in the Balkans, there is a purpose behind it.
“They dramatacize it, they sensationalize it. But more importantly, they lead to an analysis of a problem that is anti-NATO, anti-EU and pro-Russia,” he told TheDCNF.
He added that there is a “common theme” in such stories in which Russian military might is “here to save the day” from EU and NATO threats against Russia’s “Slavic brothers in Serbia.”
The U.S. and NATO, though, are anything but a threat to Serbia’s security. The Serbian military engaged in more 125 joint military events with the U.S., NATO and other Western countries in 2016, compared to only 2 with Russia, Cappello told TheDCNF.
The solution to the disinformation problem is simple, but not being properly implemented, according to Cappello.
“I don’t think we should be reactive,” he said. Nor should the West expect Serbia to become a loyal NATO member.
Instead, Cappello suggested providing an alternative outlet, particularly one that focuses on security issues, that can act as an alternative to Kremlin-backed sources. The U.S. provided similar alternatives media sources for eastern bloc countries during the Cold War, including Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, but these organizations are limited in their research capabilities.
Cappello cautioned against U.S. policymakers propagandizing, or engaging in hysterical or hyperbolic rhetoric. Instead, he claimed Balkan media outlets will recognize the value added by an alternative media source, should they be given it.
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