Russian Propaganda in Countries of Balkan Region: Pro-Kremlin Narratives in Local Online Media

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The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security analyzed the publications of local online media in Countries of Balkan Region – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Slovenia based on the monitoring conducted by the Ukrainian social startup LetsData in January-February 2023 to find out the level of influence of Russian propaganda in the studied countries.

Methodology: using machine learning, publications were collected with at least one mention of Ukraine and/or the war in Ukraine in the online media of the countries studied. For each country, the most visited online media sites (also considering those that share pro-Russian rhetoric), TV channels, and newspapers that have an online version were selected. Data collection and analysis were conducted in the original language. Preparation and processing of data was conducted in the Python programming language. Text processing was based on content analysis.

The study presents only those narratives and messages that reproduce Russian propaganda, which does not exclude the presence of productive and neutral narratives in the media of the analyzed countries.

Contradiction of Pro-Russian Messages on Peace Negotiations

Regarding peace talks, messages that reproduce Russian propaganda, on the one hand, state that “soon, the West can make Kyiv reconcile with Russia.” 

However, on the other hand, there were conflicting messages that “after the decision of the West to supply Ukraine with tanks, peace talks lost their meaning” or “Russia: there is no point in communicating with Kyiv and its Western puppeteers.” In addition, some messages explained the alleged “reasons” for this decision of Russia and, as always, according to pro-Russian narratives, the “culprit” was the West. For example: “Americans today are not set on a diplomatic solution to the situation in Ukraine,” “Musk and Kissinger’s initiatives for peace in Ukraine are doomed. The efforts of all Western services are aimed at escalating the conflict and forcibly changing power in Russia through a coup d’état” and “Putin: we did everything to solve the problem in the Donbas peacefully, but the West had a different scenario.” 

Such messages were reinforced by additional calls for negotiations on Russia’s terms and their supposed inevitability, such as: “The United States will have to negotiate with Russia to have a chance of success against China” and “some countries are adding fuel to the fire. China calls for peace and dialogue in Ukraine.” 

Pro-Kremlin Messages about Ukrainian Army

Messages about the Ukrainian army, which were noted in the countries of the Balkan region, focused on its alleged “combat incapability.” For example, “the Ukrainian army is in great trouble: its combat capability has suddenly fallen,” “the Ukrainian soldiers feel abandoned,” and “the low morale of the Ukrainian army indicates that the army is exhausted and cannot conduct offensive actions.”  

In addition, the spread of messages about the “Ukrainian army as a threat to the civilian population” continued, such as: “The Ukrainian army shells cities in Donetsk Oblast — civilians are dying.”  

Kremlin Messages on “Advantages” of Russian Weapons

In the context of military aid for Ukraine, along with the messages that discredit it, Russian propaganda “boasts of its own achievements and advantages.” In particular, in the media landscape of the countries of the Balkan region, the following messages were noted: “Putin: Russian enterprises produce about as many missiles as all countries of the world combined,” “Russia has a serious advantage over Ukraine. Russia does not have to wait for the promised weapons, which are an easy target for Russians during transportation” and “cheap Russian drones pose many problems for Ukrainian defence and Western supporters.”

Pro-Russian Messages about Crimea

The media landscape of the studied countries also contained reports about Crimea. These messages were part of the context of “Ukraine as a puppet of the United States” and the imaginary “terrorist activities of Ukraine in Russia.” For example: “The US allows the Kyiv regime to launch terrorist activities in Russia when they call Crimea Ukrainian” and “an attack on Crimea would satisfy US ambitions.” 

“Provocations” by Ukraine and the West against Russia and Belarus

Messages about alleged “possible provocations by Ukraine and the West” against Russia and Belarus continued to spread. For example: “Ukrainians provoke Belarusian troops on the border: there is a significant number of units of the Ukrainian army and territorial defence on the border of Belarus and Ukraine” or “the UN intends to arrange a provocation with poisonous chemicals in the Donbas.” 

Arms Supply and “Consequences” for Ukraine and the West

Messages about military assistance to Ukraine were quite common. According to reports, the supply of weapons to Ukraine will allegedly lead to “the suffering of Ukrainians,” “escalation of the war by Russia,” or “turn the West into a radioactive tomb.”

At the same time, there were also messages that “the supply of Western tanks to Kyiv will not change anything — Western tanks will be destroyed on the battlefield” and “The Kremlin: new deliveries of Western weapons to Kyiv will only deepen the suffering of Ukrainians and will not change the course of the conflict.”  

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A separate topic was the relations between Russia and Germany because of the supply of tanks for Ukraine. For example: “Germany ignores its historical responsibility for the events of World War II, escalating the conflict, sending tanks to Kyiv” and “Peskov: sending tanks to Ukraine will leave an indelible mark on the future relations between Germany and Russia.”

In addition, such messages as: “Europe is exhausted and vulnerable due to military assistance to Ukraine. Armies are weakened” and “Washington urged Ukraine to move quickly on the battlefield; otherwise, Western military assistance will be reduced” were noted. 

Russian Messages on Nuclear Weapons

Some messages in the context of military assistance included “threats” to use nuclear weapons, for example: “Medvedev: Military assistance to Kyiv can lead to a nuclear catastrophe” or another message about “nuclear war”: “Russia warned the United States: there is a real threat of world war. There is also the possibility of nuclear war.”  

Pro-Kremlin Messages about Ukraine in Context of International Relations

Ukraine and Moldova. In the context of relations between Ukraine and Moldova, pro-Kremlin messages featured the alleged “readiness of Ukraine to attack Transnistria with the consent of Moldova” and the fact that “the ‘crisis’ in Ukraine led to the fall of the Moldovan government.”   

Ukraine and Poland. In the context of Poland, pro-Russian messages related to the narrative about “Western Ukraine becoming part of the territory of Poland,” for example: “Medvedev: there are plans to transfer Western Ukraine to former Polish lords and rename Lviv to Lemberg.”  

            Other Pro-Kremlin Narratives and Messages

●               “The West is waging a war against Russia”

Moreover, during the monitoring, there were the following messages of the narrative that “the West is waging war against Russia,” such as: “NATO leadership is pushing Europe towards a direct confrontation with Russia,” “Lavrov: the West is no longer waging a hybrid war with Russia, but almost a real one” and “Europe and NATO have entered into a direct war with Russia, which means a great threat of armed conflict.” 

The “tool” for the “war of the West against Russia,” according to pro-Russian messages, was Ukraine. For example: “Shoigu: The West is using Ukraine to try to break Russia,” “The United States withdrew from Afghanistan to prepare Ukraine for war,” and “Ukraine is the price Washington is willing to pay to weaken Russia.”

In addition, messages were tracked that combined the topic of military assistance and the “war of the West against Russia.” For example, “if NATO sends planes to Ukraine, it will mean that NATO has entered into a conflict,” “one thing is clear from the supply of tanks to Ukraine: now, there is a war of the West against Russia,” and “the supply of tanks by the West is evidence of NATO’s participation in the war in Ukraine.”  

●               “Ukraine is losing”

Another common pro-Russian narrative is that “Ukraine will lose the war.” 

For example, there were references to the alleged “specific period in which Russia will win,” such as: “Ukraine will be defeated before October, and then come its capitulation and capture” or “Kadyrov: by the end of the year, Russia will have captured Kharkiv, Odesa, and Kyiv, then it will reach the Polish border.”   

Reinforcing messages were those about “the incapability of the Ukrainian army and the loss of the spirit of victory.” For example: “the Ukrainian army is close to a complete and catastrophic defeat and failure,” “the Ukrainian army will soon be defeated,” and “Ukraine must get ready for the worst, even a territorial retreat.” 

At the same time, “one of the options” for Ukraine’s victory, according to pro-Kremlin messages, was “territorial concessions”: “the only way for Ukraine to defeat Russia is to give up its territory.”

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

Expert commentary

The Balkans has traditionally been a region vulnerable to Russian propaganda and all sorts of anti-Western narratives, including those of a conspiracy nature. This is due to both historically determined Russophile and Slavophile traditions, as well as a sceptical attitude towards NATO and prejudice against the United States. First of all, it concerns Serbia and the Serbs. Currently, Serbia is the only country in Europe (excluding Belarus), where the Russian media not only are not banned, but, on the contrary, are welcomed to work and expand (Sputnik, RT). Most media in Serbia have a more or less positive attitude towards Russia (including pro-government publications), which is a reflection of the socio-political mood in this country. The spectrum of pro-Russian positive attitude in the Serbian media is different: from latent to openly radical.

It is worth considering that the current Russophilia among the Serbs, which sometimes takes on frankly shocking forms, further aggravated after the full-scale invasion of Russia to Ukraine in February 2022. This was perceived by the Serbian media and a large part of society (despite the position of the official authorities, which formally support the territorial integrity of Ukraine) mostly neutrally and positively. A number of tabloids in Serbia on February 24 literally abounded with headlines like “Ukraine attacked Russia.” From the perspective of Serbian supporters of Russia, especially nationalists, the current Russian aggression against Ukraine looks like a kind of retaliation to the United States, NATO, and the collective West. After all, among the Serbs who in 1999, during the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević, were bombed by NATO, there is still a strong sentiment of resentment and offence regarding the North Atlantic Alliance. That is, due to its own historical traumas of the 1990s, Serbian society is a very favourable environment for Russian narratives and propaganda, in which the war against Ukraine is portrayed as a war against the United States and NATO. In addition, the Serbian media regularly speculate on the topic of “Ukrainian fascism” according to the Kremlin textbook. 

For years, the Russian media spread propaganda of the “invincibility” of the Russian army and its superiority over the armies of NATO member countries in the Balkans. There has been notable success, especially in Serbia. In view of this, in the first weeks after February 24, 2022, the statement that Ukraine was about to lose and would be completely occupied by Russian troops was common in the pro-Russian media of the Balkan countries. Numerous Serbian media quite gullibly and uncritically picked up and spread any Russian anti-Ukrainian narratives that were intended to justify aggression against Ukraine and constantly changed (bio-laboratories, denazification, “dirty bomb,” etc.). Quite effectively, the minds of the pro-Russian oriented part of the population in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro are influenced by the Kremlin’s statement that Russia, allegedly, is fighting for a “fair” world order and against the “US hegemony” (again, largely due to the traumatic experience of the 1990s). In the same context, the topic of the development of cooperation between Russia and the People’s Republic of China as opposed to the collective West is actively covered.

In turn, the Serbian media is an important retransmitter of Russian propaganda in the neighbouring countries of the region with a significant percentage of the Serbian population, primarily in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (namely, in one of its entities — the Republika Srpska). In Montenegro, all mainstream media take a generally correct and balanced position on the Russian-Ukrainian war (the main broadcasters of Russian propaganda are several officially unregistered portals and media from the neighbouring Serbia), and the percentage of pro-Russian oriented population, according to various estimates, is from 30 to 40%. Instead, in the Republika Srpska (BiH), pro-Russian sentiments are sometimes even more radical than in Serbia itself (which is also manifested in the narratives of local media). On the other hand, in the media space of another entity of this country: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the majority are Croats and Bosniak Muslims, pro-Russian narratives are much less common.

Notably, pro-Russian sentiments are also present in Bulgaria, although this country is a member of the EU and NATO and since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, it has been providing significant military-technical and material assistance to Ukraine, and also takes a completely friendly political position towards Ukraine. Russophilia in Bulgaria has a historical basis. However, currently, the Kremlin’s open supporters do not have a decisive influence on the socio-political life of Bulgaria (the same applies to the media).

In North Macedonia as a whole, pro-Russian supporters are not dominant, and the leading media of this country cover the armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine generally correctly. In the Albanian environment of the country (Albanians constitute about 30% of the population of North Macedonia), pro-Western attitude absolutely dominates, and Russophilia is absent as a phenomenon. However, there are sometimes pro-Russian supporters in the spirit of “Slavic Orthodox unity” and anti-Americanism among some nationalist Macedonians. However, in the context of the neighbouring Serbia, the influence of Russian propaganda in North Macedonia is significantly lower.

In Croatia, Russophilia as a noticeable phenomenon of socio-political life, unlike in a number of other states in the region, is absent. Pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian narratives here appear mainly among the so-called “anti-globalists” who are critical of the United States and its role in the modern world, as well as, which is characteristic, both among radical leftists and part of ultra-right nationalists. In general, the Croatian media, except for a number of analysts and experts known for their pro-Russian views, are much less vulnerable to Russian disinformation and propaganda. However, even in respectable Croatian publications, you can sometimes come across materials that try to relativize the guilt of Russia as an aggressor state and explain the current war as a geopolitical game in which Ukraine, allegedly, is a hostage and a “toy.” Moreover, there are sometimes contradictory materials on the topic of “harmfulness” of armed assistance of the West to Ukraine and the negative impact of anti-Russian sanctions on the economies of European countries in the Croatian media field.

It is also worth noting that pro-Russian narratives are practically absent in the media space of Albania and Kosovo. Among the inhabitants of these countries, the positive attitude towards the EU, NATO, and the United States (especially in Kosovo; this is associated with the support of Serbia by Russia) is fundamentally dominant.

Thus, Russian propaganda has a favourable environment among some residents of the Western Balkans (mainly Serbia and the Serbs). The most common narratives relate to the fault of the West and NATO in the war of Russia against Ukraine, the superiority of Russian weapons, the demonization of the collective West, and the depiction of Ukraine as a “pawn” in the hands of the “aggressive NATO bloc.”

On the part of Ukraine, it would be advisable to strengthen its information presence in the Balkan region in order to refute blatant Russian disinformation and convey more objective information about the Russian-Ukrainian war and its true causes and prerequisites, with special emphasis on the atrocities and crimes by the Russian occupiers. In the case of Serbia, the Ukrainian side should pay attention to the fact that Ukraine has always taken a friendly position towards Belgrade and has not recognized Kosovo until now, so, given this, the open support of a significant part of Serbian society for Russia looks at least strange and ungrateful.

Anatolii Demeshchuk, expert of the Analytical Center for Balkan Studies

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