“A Russian influence operation in the
United States is something we’re looking very closely at,” The
Washington Post recently quoted an unnamed senior intelligence
official as saying. As the article put it:
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement
agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian
operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the
upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions,
intelligence and congressional officials said.
Information campaigns are nothing new
for Russia, which has been running them in the Balkans at least for
the past eight years, since Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and
declaration of independence. There its strategy is to create a
perception of Russia as a great power and powerful ally, with little
substance behind it in investments or donations to the nations
Here’s what the United States can learn
from Russia’s low-cost, high-yield communications approach there.
Why the Balkans?
The Western Balkans are symbolically
important in Putin’s foreign policy. Many in Russia viewed the fall
of Yugoslavia as an example of humiliation, where the West ignored
Moscow’s views – and the post-Soviet world first saw the blueprint
for “color revolutions.” That blueprint was Otpor, or “Resistance,”
a mass nonviolent movement that eventually rid the nation of
Slobodan Milosevic and then became a nongovernmental organization
that advised trained pro-democracy activists.
Putin has never shaken off his dismay at
how Russia lost influence in Kosovo as it became autonomous, if not
recognized as an independent state. He has used that territory’s
upheaval and independence as his justification for asserting
Russia’s power by fighting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and
in Crimea in 2014.
Russians feel strongly that to be a
great power, the nation must be involved and present in the Balkans.
Historically, that was for two reasons: first, the Russian Empire’s
interests in controlling the Bosphorus Straits; and second, because
so many Russians feel strongly that Slavs should unite across
boundaries, a sentiment called “pan-Slavism,” claiming that there is
a “special relationship” between Russia and the Slavic nations of
How Russia runs its propaganda
campaign in the Balkans
Russia’s propaganda campaign is highly
focused, targeting the generally Serbian speaking Slavic-Orthodox
communities within the Balkans. The main tools of Russia’s
information policy are the television network and Internet portal RT
(formerly Russia Today) and the online news and radio broadcast
service Sputnik Srbija. Since early 2015, the two have had,
combined, a relatively small staff of about 30 people.
The main message is straightforward:
There’s a special relationship between Russia and the
Slavic/Orthodox communities in the Balkans.
This narrative is created in several
ways. First, hosts and authors regularly refer to the shared Slav
history and culture, emphasizing the long and (in this telling)
honorable involvement of the Russian Empire in this part of the
Second, the outlets also use
anti-establishment and anti-Western rhetoric, referring particularly
to events or ideas that resonate among Serbs, such as the 1999 NATO
bombing of Serbia.
Finally, they refer to conspiracy
theories about an ongoing threat from the West, such as a suggestion
that Madeleine Albright, who was the U.S. secretary of state when
NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, has a “pathological hatred of
Local pro-Russian analysts and
politicians are deployed to reinforce this narrative by reminding
audiences of Moscow’s veto of the Srebrenica genocide resolution at
the U.N., and its help in undermining Kosovo’s UNESCO bid. The
Serbian government’s opposition to Kosovo’s UNESCO membership was
based on its loathing of recognizing Kosovo’s official existence;
its official opposition, however, was a contention that Kosovo’s
government cannot be trusted with the protection of Serbian-Orthodox
monasteries based there. Belgrade’s opposition, supported by Russia,
ultimately led Kosovo’s bid to fail.
At the same time the West is portrayed
as culturally different and (unlike Moscow) unable to understand
Russia’s chosen narrative is amplified
by a number of Balkan media outposts. The Belgrade-Based Center for
Euro-Atlantic Studies identifies 109 organizations promoting
different aspects of Serbia-Russian relations, including Russian
foundations and pro-Russian members of parliament.
Of course, emphasizing Slavic
brotherhood by itself is not misinformation. What Russia is trying
to do is instill a sense that the two countries have the
relationship of older and younger brothers. It’s trying to sell an
image of Moscow listening to and respecting as equals to the Slavic
governments in Belgrade, Serbia; Skopje, Macedonia; and Banja Luka,
of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By contrast, the West has not offered a
coherent narrative in which the Balkan states are woven into an E.U.
identity. As a result, the public support for the European Union
started to fall.
What is Russia trying to achieve?
Russia’s communications strategy is
paying off. Far more Serbian citizens say they would prefer to be
allied with Russia (67.2 percent in favor and 18.8 percent against)
than say they would like to join the European Union (50.9 percent
for to 38.8 percent against).
Interestingly, Russian strategic
communications do not offer a coherent alternative to the European
Union. Its media outlets may criticize Brussels and wider European
politics, but they do not portray the Eurasian Union as a viable
alternative for Belgrade.
Things seem to be more challenging from
the military perspective. Russia is openly discouraging Balkan
states from joining NATO, encouraging close military cooperation
with Moscow-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Montenegro is scheduled to join NATO fully somewhere between
December 2016 and April 2017. Faced with that deadline, Moscow may
push Serbia’s military to cooperate more closely with Russian
forces, joining the CSTO alliance.
This anti-NATO campaign may have
significant impact on the European Union (EUFOR) and NATO (KFOR)
peacekeeping missions in the Western Balkans in the short term.
What can the West learn from
Russian strategic communications in the Balkans?
The Balkans may be a test ground for
the Kremlin’s information campaigns elsewhere. Limited investments
have yielded favorable opinion polling and more openly pro-Russian
parties in Serbian parliament, where they got almost 15 percent of
Serbia’s votes. Although they may be small gains, these may be
enough to swing elections and policies in a more pro-Kremlin
Russian strategic communication is
effective at playing up differences but rarely offers coherent
alternatives. It promotes anti-Western sentiments, encourages
polarization but does not offer a convincing alternative to the
The European Union has worked to
counter Russian propaganda primarily in Russian-speaking countries.
It has not yet paid attention to Russian influence in the Balkans,
despite urgings at the London School of Economics’s conference on
Russia in the Balkans in 2015.
Before invading Ukraine, Nikolay
Bordyuzha, a Russian general, was asked about the Kremlin’s
propaganda efforts. He was quoted as saying, “In information
warfare, the side that tells the truth loses.”
Russia has gradually increased its
spending on television, radio and online services overseas. Although
chances for Russian military intervention beyond the Ukraine and
Syria may be limited, the Kremlin will undoubtedly continue its
propaganda strategy, especially in relation to key elections in the