Soviet-era disinformation campaign makes a comeback in the Balkans

As the entire world watches in trepidation as Russia amasses more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, the Kremlin’s local language media outlet in Serbia – Sputnik Srbija – calls this stationing of troops ‘‘a globally constructed false narrative that Russia is preparing its army for an invasion.’ Another article on Sputnik’s Serbian language website which critically analyses Bosnia’s defense reforms on its path to NATO exclaims ‘An obvious game against the Republic of Srpska – sucking Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO.’

In fact, according to, a fact-checking Bosnia-based website, of all the politicians in Bosnia, Bosnian Serb ultranationalist Milorad Dodik has been the most visible in Sputnik’s reporting and has been, without fail, presented in a positive light. Even over the past months, as Dodik has singlehandedly dragged Bosnia into an ever deeper political and security crisis, he has been receiving unquestioned support from the Kremlin’s Belgrade-based media outlet.

Meanwhile, the same media outlet has been demonizing the United States and NATO; presenting the EU as weak and divided; advertising Russian military superiority, lionizing Vladimir Putin and his proxies in the Balkans and amplifying threat perceptions.

The emergence of these narratives in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo coincided with Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

Russia launched the Sputnik news service in the Serbian language in February 2015, soon followed by Russia Beyond. Its strategic positioning of Sputnik in Serbia, and its production of content in the Serbian language, was well thought out. The language is perfectly understood in Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Kosovo, Montenegro, and even North Macedonia. Hence, news content crosses the borders of the former Yugoslav states, all of whom have expressed their desire to join the EU. Russian media outlets tend to recycle certain narratives about the threat of ‘Islamic extremism’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or a ‘Greater Albania’ emerging between Kosovo, parts of Northern Macedonia and Albania proper. They also keep the memory of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia due to its massacres of Kosovar Albanians alive and present Russia as the only great power that truly cares about the Serbian people. In Sputnik Serbia’s first year alone, found 36 uses of disinformation in 16 articles, and 100 more articles were mentioned in another study as showing a clear bias towards the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik. This trend has only increased over the years. Such Kremlin-funded websites also portray Russia as a savior with headlines such as “Putin is ready to enter Kosovo with the Army” and “America’s horror story for Kosovo”. alleges that most of Sputnik’s articles are “disinformation”, “clickbait”, “fake news”, “conspiracy theories” and “factual manipulations.”

Local Balkan media channels have been playing the most significant role in amplifying and disseminating Kremlin’s messages to the public, making Russia’s involvement even easier. This is often due to these media outlets being plagued by a chronic lack of funds, hence often copy-pasting and republishing Sputnik’s free content. One research traced which outlets republish Sputnik news and found that the most frequent re-publishers of Sputnik Serbia content included local outlets in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Kosovo, but also the Republic of Srpska’s public broadcaster.

In Serbia alone, this Russian disinformation campaign is so strong that a majority of Serbs believe Russia and China to be their country’s most important economic partners. In reality, however, Serbia conducts more than two-thirds of its foreign trade with the European Union. EU countries also account for the bulk of foreign investment in Serbia.

Balkan strongmen love Russian news outlets.

The Kremlin’s portrayal of Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to serve as a model for many politicians in southeastern Europe. In Serbia, a country ruled by the increasingly illiberal President Aleksandar Vučić, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and the United Arab Emirates’ Muhammad bin Zayed, the news correspond to Vučić’s own political ideals: a state led by a powerful politician who is omnipresent in all spheres of life and plays a dominant everyday role. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa and Bosnian Serb member of the presidency Milorad Dodik have all at some points in recent history expressed their admiration for Russia’s president. According to a 2020 opinion poll by the International Republican Institute, 48% in Bosnia and Herzegovina; 60% in Northern Macedonia; 64% in Montenegro; and 87% in Serbia have favorable or highly favorable views of Russia. It is interesting to note that the favorable views of Russia in a NATO member state could indicate Montenegro becoming a Hungary-like spoiler within the alliance and perhaps even dissenting in decision making processes.

Strategically located on the southeastern flank of the EU and NATO, the Western Balkans have become a fertile ground for Russian disinformation campaigns after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Western-imposed sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin inserted itself by developing a counter-strategy which involves a meticulously planned disinformation and propaganda campaign, thereby capitalizing on ethnic divides, weak institutions, and the deteriorating freedom of media. These fabricated narratives are persistently injected into the Balkans’ information ecosystem and are adjusted according to the changing political situation in order to support Moscow’s policy goals.

While it is impossible to make a direct link between the narratives promoted by Kremlin’s media outlets and people’s attitudes and perceptions, it is possible to identify a certain level of susceptibility to some of the most common narratives promoted by Russia, including those that portray NATO and the EU negatively.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union coined the term “dezinformatsiya” as the dissemination of false information with the purpose to deceive the audience. It became a prominent tool in the second half of the 20th century. It seems the Kremlin has once more returned to its old tactics.