March 24, 2023 | Friday

Europe in the sights of Russian disinformation – Kati Schneeberger

Not only since the invasion of Ukraine a year ago do Russian troll factories exist with the aim of influencing the opinion of Europeans in Russia’s favour. Even during the corona pandemic, they were very active on social media to divide the population in Europe. According to the Kremlin’s calculations, a weak Europe that does not stick together will do little to counter an attack on Ukraine. But that was only one of several misjudgements. Ukrainian resistance is much stronger than expected, as is European cohesion and European support for Ukraine.

To break this support and unity, Russian propaganda and disinformation is running at full speed. The ultimate goal is to demonize Ukraine. Another goal is to distract attention from the battlefield in Ukraine. A targeted attempt is being made to destabilize the situation where it can succeed most easily – in the Balkans. The last own war experiences were not so long ago, there are still enough open wounds to stab into in order to fuel the conflict again. It is very easy to create unrest here so that everyone concentrates on preventing these conflicts from escalating again. That means less attention and less energy for the war in Ukraine.

The EU and the US have finally realized that much more intensive and serious efforts are needed for normalization, especially between Kosovo and Serbia. However, hasty solutions are rarely sustainable solutions. Thus, despite all urgency, care should be taken to ensure that envisaged agreements also contribute to a calming of the situation and a sustainable solution to the conflict in the long term. We do not need a postponement of the conflict into the future, but a solution. We do not need sham solutions in the short term that lead to even bigger problems later. As an example, one only need to look at Bosnia.

When untying the Gordian knot, the focus should always be on the EU accession perspective of all remaining countries in the Balkans. Only when we have succeeded in this and all countries of the Balkans and Eastern Europe are part of the European Union, will we really be strong enough against the influence of Russian propaganda and disinformation and protected from attacks by Russia. Until then, these countries are easy targets and we in Europe are far from our post-WW2 vision of lasting peace in Europe.

Nevertheless, cohesion in Europe is still higher than everyone expected. The EU states have only recently unanimously adopted another sanctions package. And the EU has not remained idle on the subject of disinformation either. There is, for example, “EU vs Disinformation”. You can get very good information via the website There are fact checks and it is explained how Russian propaganda and disinformation works. Unfortunately, this initiative is still too little known.

In some countries, such as Austria, Russian – formerly Soviet – propaganda has been working for decades and is very deeply entrenched in parts of the population. Politics and the media are also strongly affected by it. Much more and more intensive work is needed here, because politicians and journalists in particular have a very significant influence on the population. They influence public opinion and thus bear a particularly great responsibility. In times like these, when war or peace is really at stake in the truest sense of the word, politics should communicate responsibly and not chase votes cheaply through populism. This burden is distributed among a few parties, since especially parties on the extreme fringes have either been financed by Russia for years or pursue a pro-Russian or anti-American ideology and thus willingly spread Russia’s propaganda.

When it comes to combating fake news via social media or conspiracy-theory “alternative media” on the web, the quality of the established media also plays a major role. If trust in classic media sinks, many people start to inform themselves only via social media and a dangerous dynamic develops.

However, even one year after the invasion of Ukraine, there is still a widespread lack of knowledge, especially among those who are expected to provide well-founded and objective information in such a situation. This includes journalists and teachers. Among the latter, a lack of knowledge is particularly fatal. In addition to the short-term enlightenment, there is also a need for more knowledge and skills transfer in schools.  In addition to a well-founded general education, the ability to recognize propaganda and disinformation and to understand their mechanisms is needed, as well as media literacy to deal with all this in the right way. If teachers themselves are not trained well enough in this, how are they supposed to pass it on to the students?

Russian disinformation can also catch on so easily in Western Europe because there are enormous knowledge gaps on the topic of Eastern Europe among the population and the military conflict that has already existed since 2014 has not been sufficiently recognized as a danger for all of Europe. Even when it comes to the Western Balkans, the knowledge of many EU citizens ends with the classic holiday regions. The conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is today (in contrast to 1999) somewhat less viewed as a “conflict of great powers”, unlike the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.  However, the “Russian version” around the 1999 events in Kosovo is still one of the narratives to “justify” the war against Ukraine and annexations.

Disinformation cannot be tackled by media literacy alone, but it is a solid basis for a resilient democratic society.