Serbia and Russia want to refight Kosovo, this time with disinformation

Yesterday, marked the 25th anniversary of NATO’s intervention against Serbia in 1999 to halt the human rights abuses perpetrated against the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo.

Today, the U.N. Security Council, at Russia’s request, plans to discuss NATO’s intervention. This will kick off yet another round of Russian disinformation about NATO’s supposed aggression against Serbia, Moscow’s closest ally in the Balkans. This is part of the Kremlin’s effort to paint NATO and the United States as hostile actors, thereby justifying Russia’s own aggression against Ukraine and other European countries.

The West needs to fight back — not just by rebutting Russia’s disinformation, but also by turning the tables on Moscow.

Russia’s script is well known. Vladimir Putin has characterized NATO’s intervention as an act of “aggression” and “savagery.” For example, Moscow and Belgrade accuse NATO of littering the battlefield with munitions containing depleted uranium, which they claim — without scientific evidence — has contributed to a rise in cancer rates.

Even as Russia portrays NATO as the aggressor in Kosovo, Moscow also points to the 1999 intervention as a supposed precedent for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin baselessly accuses Kyiv of committing “genocide” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. If NATO can intervene in Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds, Moscow argues, Russia can do the same in Ukraine. Never mind the fact that Moscow, not Kyiv, is the one committing war crimes in Ukraine.

The Kremlin similarly points to Kosovo to justify its illegal occupation of Crimea. After Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, Putin argued that the Russian-controlled Crimean Parliament is a “legitimate body of authority” that “adopted a declaration of independence just as Kosovo did.” Of course, this narrative conveniently ignores the fact that the Kosovar people themselves sought their independence, whereas Russia invaded Crimea and organized a sham referendum to justify its subsequent annexation.

Why should the West care? On March 5, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned of an increased risk of inter-ethnic violence in 2024 in the Western Balkans, and Russia and Serbia are setting informational conditions for more escalations in the region.

The U.S. and its allies can’t afford to be passive in the face of Russia’s lies. Western governments do a decent job of fact-checking Russian disinformation, but that’s not enough. The standard Western rebuttals don’t resonate with pro-Russian or pro-Serbian audiences. But other messages can gain more traction. Reaching ordinary Serbians is especially important at a time when Moscow and Belgrade are fueling ethnic tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and elsewhere in the Western Balkans.

Western messaging should remind pro-Russian Serbs that history shows Russia to be an unreliable ally. Despite Moscow’s promises of support and brotherhood and its efforts to push Serbia into a new conflict with Kosovo and NATO, Russia is actually unlikely to help Belgrade much.

For example, when the Yugoslav Federal Parliament voted to join an alliance with Russia and Belarus during NATO’s intervention in 1999, Moscow said “nyet” to its Slavic brothers, stating that Russian military involvement was unaffordable. This mirrors Russia’s decision not to aid its ally Armenia in its wars against Azerbaijan in 2020 and 2023, leading to humiliating defeats for Yerevan.

In addition, the West could point to Russia’s 2003 withdrawal from the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Western information operations could also mock Russia’s delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Serbia before NATO’s intervention in 1999, noting that the systems proved useless because they arrived incomplete and too late.

To counter Russia’s unfounded accusations of NATO causing cancer via depleted uranium, Western information operations should emphasize Russia’s own history of bioweapons programs. The West could also note the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster’s impact on Yugoslavia.

As Russia rolls out its latest disinformation campaign against NATO, it’s time for the West to turn the tables and take the fight to the Kremlin. Remind pro-Moscow Serbs that with friends like Putin, they don’t need enemies.

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