On Tuesday Vladimir Putin warned the U.K. against sending Ukraine depleted uranium shells. Maria Zakharova immediately called this plan the “Yugoslavia scenario,” accusing NATO of using ammunition that caused cancer during its military intervention in 1999 in Yugoslavia. This is a well-known script that the Kremlin has been using for years, and this Friday the Kremlin will not miss the opportunity to conduct information warfare against the West.

As Serbia marks the 24th anniversary of NATO’s intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia this Friday, Russia will likely use NATO’s 1999 humanitarian intervention to justify its current foreign policy in Ukraine, to portray NATO as a nefarious actor, and to add fuel to fire in the Balkans. It’s high time for the West to give Moscow a taste of its own medicine.

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The Kremlin has long used NATO’s intervention in Kosovo to degrade NATO’s legitimacy. Last year on March 24, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted out “today marks 23 years since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia… on that day the West began dismantling the international legal framework.” In 2016, Putin described NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and its “attacks on Belgrade” forms of “aggression.” He emphasized how, “the missile and bomb strikes at the end of the 20th century in the center of Europe… was some kind of savagery, just wild.” In 2022, Putin again evoked references to 1999, detailing “all of us were witnesses to the war in Europe that NATO unleashed against Yugoslavia… It did happen. Without any sanctions by the UN Security Council.”

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The Kremlin has also exploited NATO’s 1999 intervention to justify Russia’s continual assaults on Ukraine. NATO did not receive Security Council authorization and the U.S. justified the intervention under humanitarian intervention. Putin has used NATO’s intervention to justify his unauthorized war in Ukraine, painting it as a humanitarian effort to combat Nazism and Russophobia. In his approval of Putin’s invasion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov  described how the term “genocide is also connected with the history of the creation of Kosovo as an independent association without any referendum. And the fact that they are now trying to support an openly neo-Nazi, Bandera regime in Kyiv is also a manifestation of genocide.”

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The Kremlin has also used NATO’s 1999 intervention to bolster the legitimacy of its annexations of Ukrainian territory. The Kremlin argues that, since annexed regions of Ukraine have held elections, unlike in Kosovo, their legitimacy as independent regions cannot be questioned. In 2014, after Putin annexed Crimea, Russian state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta accused the West of “overt hypocrisy”; the newspaper emphasized how, while Crimea “joined [Russia] as the result of a popular referendum,” NATO made a “unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence” without seeking any sort of elections or verification of Kosovo’s independence. Putin discusses how, “I well remember the verdict of the International Court of Justice, which says that a region of any state, exercising the right to self-determination, does not need permission from the country’s central authorities to declare its sovereignty… [And] many states of the world, including our opponents in the West, have recognized this [independence proclaimed unilaterally] in relation to Kosovo… We did the same with the republics Donbass.”

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While the Kremlin has used information operations about NATO’s 1999 intervention to justify its war in Ukraine, it also has information operations within the Balkans focused on securing regional power. Throughout Kosovo and Serbia’s recent negotiations to normalize relations, Russia has discounted the negotiations’ legitimacy. Russia has accused the West of pressuring Serbia to recognize Kosovo; Russia has also stated that the West is meddling in the two countries’ relations to open a new Western front in the Balkans against Russia.

Beneath the layers of disinformation, Russia does not care about Kosovo or Serbia. Russia has attacked the West’s efforts to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo because they undermine the Kremlin’s regional ambitions. Those who deny Kosovo’s independence view Kosovo as “the heart of Serbia,” as many Serbian Orthodox churches remain there. With the current rise in Serbian nationalism, Putin, with the help of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, has amplified pro-Serbian rhetoric surrounding Kosovo’s independence to create a constant state of escalating to de-escalating conflict. Putin views this constant conflict as necessary to keep Serbia pitted against the West and to ensure he retains regional influence.

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Russian information operations have been in high gear to increase anti-NATO sentiments in the Balkans. Russia’s government and media have accused NATO of using depleted uranium during its 1999 bombings of Serbia. Following this information campaign, Serbian President Vučić announced that he would open an investigation against NATO. There are now cases before Belgrade’s High Court. Russia’s Sputnik news outlet has published numerous articles on this topic in Serbian. The campaign has been pervasive, with Sputnik even creating a quick search tag, “depleted uranium.” While Putin seeks to target the Western Balkans, Russia’s government has also used the narrative to support their war in Ukraine. This week Lavrov accused Britain of agreeing “supply Ukraine with depleted uranium shells” and stated this would “violate international and humanitarian law.”

What should we do about it?

With the war in Ukraine, Russia again seeks to portray NATO as a nefarious aggressive actor. The Russian military says that “information has become a weapon.” Russian military strategists Chekinov and Bogdanov argue: “In the ongoing revolution in information technologies, information and psychological warfare will largely lay the groundwork for victory.”

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If Russian disinformation campaigns have shown U.S. intelligence anything, it is that they can shift public opinion to mobilize powerful opposition against the West. Even some of the Kremlin’s more absurd disinformation, like its claims that the U.S. has used migratory birds and bats to spread pathogens, hold sway as the Kremlin’s main goal is to amplify uncertainty in the information space. If some people believe the disinformation, this is only a supplemental victory in the Kremlin’s book.

As Russia’s disinformation strategy is to create confusion, NATO’s current strategy of denying Moscow’s claims is insufficient. NATO’s articles that factcheck Russian disinformation only put Russian disinformation further into the spotlight. Rather, the West should launch an information campaign. Putting our own narrative into the information space will make Russia redirect time, energy, and resources into defensive, rather than offensive, operations.

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In devising a strong information offensive, it is important to understand what information will be convincing. Information to justify NATO’s 1999 intervention, like the Serbian army’s human rights violations and ethnic cleansing campaigns, will not resonate with a pro-Russian or pro-Serbian audience.

An effective message would expose Russia as an unreliable ally. Given Russia is currently trying to destabilize the Balkans, information operations should remind pro-Russian Serbs that Russia will not help them. Although Russia joined the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Russia abandoned it in 2003. Effective information operations should mock Putin for throwing his Slavic brothers under the bus. Information operations could send messages asking Serbian nationalists “where was Russia in 1999 to protect its Slavic brothers from evil NATO?”

After planting a seed of doubt in audiences’ heads about the Kremlin’s legitimacy as an ally, information operations should question Russia’s great power status. This could include mocking Russian weapons delivery. The West could post a funny meme with an invisible S-300 traveling through the Danube. This simple meme would create questions surrounding Russia’s capacity to defend its allies in even the staunchest pro-Russian minds. 

With regards to Russia’s continued accusations of NATO causing cancer via depleted uranium, Western information operations should highlight Russia’s own bioweapons programs. In 1999, Kenneth Alibek, first deputy director of the Soviet Union’s bioweapons program, told the Nonproliferation Review “the Soviet Union was able to develop one of the most powerful and sophisticated programs in the world.” U.S. media should amplify the truth about Russia’s violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. To target Serbian audiences, the West should discuss the implications of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union on Yugoslavia.

It is time to start winning the information war against the Kremlin. Russia’s offensive information operations have used NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia to portray the alliance as a nefarious and aggressive actor and to undermine peace and security in the Balkans. Two can play the information game: NATO must use offensive information operations and hit Putin where it really hurts. NATO must show up, or it will get shown up.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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