*Prepared by: Fitim Gashi
Russia hasn’t stopped its propaganda and false news about the war in Ukraine, as well as the aerial and ground attacks that began since February 24, 2022. Despite the significant efforts of non-governmental organizations and media to expose Russian propaganda and disinformation, they continue to influence a portion of Ukrainian society. This was confirmed by fact-checkers during an exchange of experiences with a group of journalists from the Western Balkans, the Middle East, and Asia. In some cases, similarities can be observed among the narratives that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his followers attempt to disseminate in Ukraine and the Western Balkan countries.
Both for Ukraine and the Western Balkans, these narratives aim to instill fear by portraying it as a war between the United States and Russia, which could potentially escalate into a nuclear war.
Attitudes towards the Neo-Nazi Ideology
Attitudes towards the neo-Nazi ideology have not completely faded in Ukraine, as confirmed by the study titled ‘The Ability of Ukrainians to Recognize Russian propaganda messages”.
“Most respondents agree with pro-Ukraine messages and disagree with pro-Russia ones. However, when analyzing each narrative, the researchers spotted some red flags. For example, it turned out that 43% of respondents in Ukraine and another 36% of Ukrainians abroad disagreed with the statement that Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology is not widespread in Ukraine.” says Svitlana Slipchenko, the manager of the “VoxCheck” project.
According to her, this is one of the examples of false narratives that Russia has been spreading for at least 9 years. There are also ongoing statements attributing all forms of Nazism to Ukrainians, justifying the so-called special operation with the claim of ‘Denazification’ of Ukraine. The reason the propagandist narrative is so widespread is due to the perception that it has deeply embedded itself within the bubble of Ukrainian information.
“In addition, the Ukrainian government remained silent, letting this action pass without reaction, refutation, or explanation, coordinated at all levels nine years ago, unlike the modern fake narratives that are being denied at the early stage of its spreading”, Slipchenko expresses.
Meanwhile, the news agency “Internews-Ukraine” has identified the 10 most frequent narratives of Russian propaganda since the beginning of the war. Among them are: “Ukraine has never existed,” “Russia is defending Ukraine,” “Everything is going according to plan – Russia is winning, Ukraine is losing,” “NATO’s army is approaching our borders.”
In reference to this, Putin is deeply involved in spreading false narratives about the war, seeking to portray Russia’s “special military operation” as a pan-Slavic mission to unite Ukrainians with “Mother Russia.”
False claims about mercenaries from the Balkans
The extension of Russian propaganda and disinformation narratives in the Western Balkans region has also been identified by the fact-checking network from the six states of the region, of which Sbunker is also a part.
The process of media monitoring in North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina within the framework of the Western Balkans Regional Initiative against disinformation – “Center against Disinformation in the Western Balkans: Exposing Negative Influences through the surveillance of journalism,” highlights that the most frequent disinformation topic was the “Russian War in Ukraine.” The narratives are constructed in a way that attempts to present a negative image of Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state. Another common narrative was the claim that “The West is responsible for the war,” meaning “The war is actually between the USA and Russia,” alongside the narrative that “NATO expansion is responsible for Russia’s aggression.”
There are various examples that demonstrate similarities between narratives and disinformation encountered by fact-checkers in Ukraine and the Balkans.
In Kyiv, one of the leading fact-checking teams is “VoxCheck,” which has monitored 93 reputable media outlets across six European countries: Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine. According to them, the most prevalent news stories are those related to claims about foreign mercenaries in the Ukrainian war.
However, the list of states affected by this narrative is longer. This narrative originates from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, among other countries on the list, had also included Kosovo and Albania.
Even though access to Russian media for the Kosovar public is restricted, this list prompted official reactions from Kosovo.
Government officials stated that no Kosovar citizens are fighting in Ukraine and that these are claims by Russia to justify the war in Ukraine. Similarly, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama declared during a visit in Kosovo that “when it comes to fighters in Ukraine, Putin and Lavrov always mention Albania and Kosovo.”
Putin’s Unstable Analogies
In addition to the claims about mercenaries, articles have been distributed in Ukraine drawing analogies between the war in Kosovo in 1999 and the one in Ukraine. In one of these articles, criticism of Russia’s occupation of another country is labeled as hypocritical, as they argue that NATO did the same when it bombed former Yugoslavia.
However, credible organizations in Ukraine clearly understand that the case of Kosovo in 1999 and the current situation in Ukraine are entirely different scenarios.
To counter disinformation and Russian propaganda, Kosovo institutions have heightened security measures and imposed sanctions on Russia, which also partially affect the realm of information by temporarily blocking certain Russian channels.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia has not ceased its efforts to ignite another hotspot of conflict in the Western Balkans. The periodic resurgence of tensions in the northern region, populated predominantly by Serbs, has led to Kosovo being regarded as a potential destabilizing factor due to its strained relations with Serbia, which persist over time.
In Serbia, there are increasingly dangerous forces that support Putin, who is interested in spreading the conflict further into the Balkans region.
Given the current developments, in Ukraine, there is a belief that if the war continues for an extended period, we will witness more tendencies to misinform public opinion and create situations with the aim of spreading the conflict to other areas, such as the Western Balkans.
*This article is published as part of the Western Balkans Regional Initiative against disinformation. Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: exposing malign influences through watchdog journalism.