Russian and pro-Russian channels on Telegram, which until then were focused on the war in Ukraine and justifying the invasion, became interested in the situation in the north of Kosovo almost simultaneously.
The situation in the north is gradually normalizing on August 1, while trucks and barricades are being removed from the roads, with which the local Serbs blocked the roads leading to the two border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia the day before.
The blockades followed after the authorities in Kosovo announced the implementation of two decisions of the Government of Kosovo on license plates and documents of Serbia from August 1. The deadline for implementing decisions, after tensions, was subsequently extended by one month.
Organized dissemination of disinformation
The consistency that points to an organized network was shown on July 31 after 7:00 p.m., when the channels broadcasting in Russian and Serbian published the same announcement with a difference of a few minutes.
It is about information about the alleged first wounding of Serbs at the blockade towards the Jarinje crossing.
Russian rightist Vladislav Pozdnyakov, founder of the radical organization “Men’s State”, who in his posts openly supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine, also published the information on his Telegram channel.
More than 116 thousand people follow him on Telegram.
The director of the Health Center in North Mitrovica, Zlatan Elek, confirmed to the local media on Sunday evening that no injured person had reported to the facility since the beginning of the blockade that day.
The Kosovo police also reported that shots were heard in some places, that some were aimed at police units, but that there were no injuries.
Russian channels also published a picture of the boots and part of the uniform of an unidentified person with the statement that the Serbian Army is in combat readiness at, as it is stated, the administrative border, i.e. the border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo.
Since 2001, the Serbian Army has had the right to patrol the land security zone, which covers an area five kilometers wide along the border with Kosovo. However, since the withdrawal from Kosovo in June 1999, the Serbian army and police have not been able to cross into Kosovo territory.
Due to the misinformation that was spreading about the Serbian Army, the Ministry of Defense of Serbia reacted on July 31, stating on its official website that “the Serbian Army has not crossed the administrative line and has not entered the territory of Kosovo in any way”.
Half an hour later, the account “Rebellion is a state of mind” published in the Serbian language, which informs its 61,000 followers daily about the invasion of Ukraine, published information from its sister channel about unofficial reports about the transfer of Serbian planes to airports and fields near Kosovo.
A few minutes later, “Serbski Vestnik” (Serbian Herald), as well as Russian-language channels “Velika Rusia” and “Orlovi” did the same in Russian.
This information has not been officially published or confirmed anywhere.
Not long after that, the account “Rosich” (Rosich), which is part of the Russian paramilitary unit Wagner, which is fighting in the east of Ukraine, joined the sharing of information about Kosovo.
The publication states that the President of Serbia stated that the Kosovo Army intends to attack the north of Kosovo at midnight.
What Vucic did say at the press conference that day is that the implementation of the decisions of the Kosovo authorities on re-registration and identity cards will start at midnight.
“The Albanians have sent two units with 21 tons of fuel to the administrative crossings, with the desire to stop those who have Serbian identity cards. All this should start tonight at midnight, while at the same time convincing the Serbs to give up KM plates,” said Vucic.
The Telegram channel “Great Russia”, as well as Vladislav Pozdnjakov, published the same allegations with a difference of a few minutes.
Network of extremism and disinformation
This kind of network for spreading misinformation has been building for some time, Predrag Petrovic, director of research at the non-governmental Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told Radio Free Europe (RSE).
According to him, this is the way of operation of various extremist groups that are connected to each other.
“The main goal of this is to create the impression that their numbers are large and that they are supported by a large number of people. It is also a way to reach as wide an audience as possible,” says Petrovic.
He warns that such a way of communication is “quite effective” especially with people looking for an alternative to mainstream politics.
“They offer them that alternative in extreme right-wing positions. It is especially important that they try to use those channels to market information that gives the impression of authenticity – that it is from the field, exclusive and first-hand. It is receptive to the audience and quickly spreads through those channels.”, says Petrovic.
Russian analyst Leonid Savin, a close associate of Alexander Dugin, a former adviser to Russian President Putin, also gave his opinion on the crisis in the north of Kosovo. On his Telegram channel “Kybernet”, he shared the text of the right-wing organization “Katehon”, owned by Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeyev.
The unsigned text states that Serbia hopes for Russia’s help in solving the Kosovo issue.
“Since the unipolar order is collapsing after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, the Serbs believe that after some time the geopolitical changes will also affect the Balkans, where Moscow will be able to use its military force to restore the territorial integrity of Serbia. So far, this is not the official position of the government, but rather the aspiration of the Serbian people.” the text states.
No research was conducted in Serbia that dealt with the attitudes of public opinion towards the military conquest of Kosovo with the support of Russia.
A picture of alleged weapons on a table, next to food and drinks, somewhere in North Mitrovica – was also shared simultaneously on numerous Russian Telegram channels.
“Kosovo Serbs are pulling out hidden weapons. And believe us, there are enough illegal weapons there,” says the description of the photo, which, among others, was published by the “Orlovi” channel, which is run by the non-governmental organization “Russian-Serbian Center ‘Orlovi'”, based in Sankt Petersburg.
RSE could not detect where and when the image was taken.
The same picture, with the same text, was shared almost at the same time by the channels “Rosic” in Russian. The photo, along with the same text, was also shared by Dejan Beric, a Serbian citizen who is fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine and against whom Serbia is taking a case before the court for fighting on a foreign battlefield.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader whose military forces are fighting in Ukraine on the side of Russia, also spoke about the tensions in the north of Kosovo.
Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel, which is followed by 2.6 million people, that he follows the events between Serbia and Kosovo, with the assessment that it is a “complex situation”, in which NATO took the side of the “instigators”.
“Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whom I know well, understands very well what NATO is and what methods the Alliance uses to incite conflicts,” says Kadyrov, the autocratic ruler of the Chechen Republic, which has autonomy within the Russian Federation.
He accused NATO of “trying to corrupt countries with traditional values” and turn them “into a bunch of evil people with animal instincts without faith and honor.”
The KFOR mission of the United Nations (UN) in Kosovo works under the leadership of NATO, after setting up blockades in the north of Kosovo on July 31, it announced that it is carefully monitoring the events and that it is ready to intervene if stability in Kosovo is threatened.
The authorizations for this derive from Resolution 1244 of the UN Security Council adopted in 1999. The resolution was supported by all 14 members of the UN Security Council, including Russia.
Calls to violence
Certain channels on Telegram openly expected Serbian citizens and state representatives to launch violent actions.
The administrator of the “Rosic” channel, which has close to 100,000 followers, in a post on July 31 expressed the hope that “Vucic will have the determination to issue an order” for military action, and that “the Serbian army will be strong enough” to “raze the Albanians to the ground”.
On July 31, the “Orlovi” channel published a video showing a group of men lighting the flag of Albania with a torch and calling for the killing of Albanians.
“We are waiting for actions like this tomorrow all over Serbia and beyond”, say the channel administrators in the description below the video, noting that it is an archival recording.
In a post on August 1, the same channel asks the question: “Have the musicians taken heart and started collecting their instruments?” The words “musicians” and “instruments” in this context mean “warriors” and “weapons”. In a post from July 4 on that channel, a photo of an armed man in uniform with the signature: “Musician” from Serbia was shown.
The “Wagner Z Group” channel, which mainly promotes the eponymous paramilitary unit fighting in Ukraine, published a photo of the Serbian flag on August 1, with a comment in Russian: “Kosovo is Serbia. Denazification is inevitable.”
This comment refers to the Kremlin’s formulation that Russia launched a “military operation” on February 24 with the aim of “denazifying Ukraine”, which was claimed by supporters of the Russian invasion.
Militarization of society
Predrag Petrovic from the Belgrade Center for Security Policy says that such narratives are dangerous, as they further militarize the audience that follows such channels.
“There is a feeling of the necessity of military action for the sake of realizing some interests, in this case the realization of national interests as they see them. Precisely such militaristic announcements, which target emotions, attract a good part of the public,” says Petrovic.
Since Russia launched the invasion more than five months ago, numerous Russian and Serbian channels on Telegram publish pro-Russian propaganda and spread unverified news and misinformation every day. /RSE