Arminka Helic: The BBC is our greatest weapon against Russian disinformation in the Balkans

25 Mar

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

Alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine is a war on truth. Vladimir Putin prepared the ground for his invasion through the press and broadcasters. Russian state media and their proxies spun lies about the Ukrainian government being run by Nazis and drug addicts, and invented atrocities to blame on Ukraine.

As quick victory has eluded the Kremlin, Putin has doubled down. All independent media and reporting have been banned in Russia. Social media have been restricted. By suppressing information, the Russian government hopes to hide the horrific cost of its war – first and foremost from Russians.

Worryingly, it is not just Russia where the Kremlin’s lies are printed without question. The Russian state has actively worked to build its propaganda machine abroad. This has been true here in the UK: in the last decade, for example, Russian media such as RT and Sputnik spread lies about Russia’s activities in Syria.

It is most visible, though, in the Western Balkans.

Sputnik and RT have a significant presence in the region. Sputnik’s Serbian-language reports are provided free to local media, who – often desperately short of funding – reproduce them wholesale. Truth is squeezed out.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina – where Sputnik also has a large number of Facebook followers – the Russian agency has extensive connections with local media, who blindly publish its disinformation.

It is closely aligned with local secessionists, and readily attacks their political opponents as western puppets and threats. It works closely with the media channel ATV, controlled by the separatist leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the United States in January. It portrays NATO as a threat, and Russia always as a friend.

In North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member, Sputnik continues to try to stir up the disputes and grievances which previously prevented membership, seizing on any opportunity to emphasise division with neighbouring Bulgaria. Despite having failed to prevent North Macedonia’s NATO entry, Russia still dreams of using the country to undermine the alliance – and hopes to block any moves towards EU membership.

The situation is even worse in Serbia, where the dominant government-controlled media echo the Kremlin’s propaganda. Read Serbian dailies, or watch the state news channel, and you would believe that the Ukrainian government are killing their own people. That they are Nazis, shooting civilians in the back – a claim which resonates in the Balkans, where Yugoslav identity was built in part on stories of resistance to Nazi atrocities in the Second World War.

Polling in Serbia shows strong support for Putin, and a belief that Russia is the main power Serbia should depend on for its security.

For a decade, the Kremlin has sought to sow division in the Balkans, and to exploit the region as a weak point within the heart of Europe and NATO, through which to cause division and instability.

While we give Putin’s propaganda free reign, he can succeed. If the dominant media narrative is of Russia as a friend and NATO as aggressive, of democracies as weak and autocracies as effective, there can be little hope for long-term stability and prosperous relationships.

These ideas and attitudes cannot be reversed overnight. But we do have a tool to challenge them: free and independent media, who report impartially, diligently, bravely. In Ukraine, journalists are on the frontlines to bring us news unfiltered by the Kremlin’s propaganda department. As Putin has sought to restrict the press and reporting in Russia, the BBC have been taking steps to ensure that truth can still be heard.

The BBC and its reporters are renowned around the world. But we have not been giving them the support they need. As too often, we have looked at a great national institution and found ways to criticise it, rather than to improve it.

Instead, we should value the role that BBC journalists fulfil in challenging propaganda through their fair and determined reporting. And we should recognise the part that they can play in defending against Putin’s war on the truth.

In the Balkans, I believe we should increase the funding for the World Service’s local language journalism, so that BBC reporting can compete with the distortions of Sputnik, RT and state-controlled media. Sputnik is able to propagate its disinformation through local media, in part because of consistent efforts to squeeze funding for the independent press.

To counter this, we should fund the expansion of existing BBC services in Serbia, and extend provision into Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia. We should support them to provide BBC bulletins and coverage to other broadcasters in the region, so that local media have a genuine choice. And we should resource the sort of innovative approaches now being adopted for Russia, where the BBC are taking to platforms like TikTok to reach audiences otherwise cut off.

We will not change minds immediately. But by ensuring that Russia’s voice is not the only one in the Balkans, and that the impartial, scrupulous reporting for which the BBC is renowned can be heard, we can expose RT and Sputnik for what they are. We can challenge the Kremlin’s narratives, and provide an alternative to their lies.

And we can offer a reminder to the citizens of the Balkans, that aggression and autocracy are not the best foundations for a society, but that prosperity is best served by a free press, respect for rights, and democracy.

Alicia Kearns: This week’s NATO summit must be used to speed Russia’s defeat

22 Mar

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Last week, I had the humbling privilege of hosting a delegation of Ukrainian MPs. They call themselves the Women’s Diplomatic Battalion of Ukraine: Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko. It is currently treason for a Ukrainian MP to leave their country, but the four had secured special presidential dispensations to visit the UK to secure further support from their foremost bilateral ally.

At the time of writing, it is Day 23 of Putin’s invasion – an invasion that has followed almost exactly the intelligence assessments I received in Kyiv in January: Putin would invade within the month, he would seek to decapitate the country by occupying Kyiv and that, contrary to his assessments, the Ukrainian people would fight like lions.

It was also foreseen then that there would be an enormous capability and speed gap between Putin’s understanding of his armed forces and the reality. This has all played out, with our Ukrainian allies pulverising Russian troops thanks to British NLAWs (Next Generation Anti-tank weapons), American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktar drones provided in anticipation of invasion.

The Russian setbacks are extraordinary. There are rumours that ultra-loyalist “Zagradotryady” had to be formed – barrier units to shoot Russian soldiers who retreat or desert. But these losses have unleashed a new level of barbarity; in which Putin’s forces indiscriminately bomb civilians in an attempt to break Ukraine’s resolve.

This week, an emergency NATO Summit is being held, and the UK’s voice is pivotal. We must redouble our efforts around Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, surge support for the humanitarian catastrophe and bolster deterrence against chemical weapons’ use, as well as launching deterrence diplomacy to prevent Putin’s aggression from turning to the Western Balkans.

On defensive capabilities, the UK is walking a line whereby we cannot be accused by Putin of escalating the conflict, and culpability for any escalation is on him. There has been much discussion about a no-fly zone and, whilst all options must remain on the table, these are proving a distraction from the meaningful efforts of the UK to establish a de-facto no-fly zone through the use of surface-to-air weapons.

Through this means, Putin’s forces have already been unable to establish air dominance and are barely able to fly in the daytime. We must entirely deny them the air, and the deployment of new StarStreak missiles announced by Ben Wallace will further support this aim.

It is artillery causing a great deal of the damage we’re seeing, and at the NATO summit our allies must step forward with anti-artillery weapons. In this respect we have been world-leading, but our counterparts are not pulling their weight. Just one-fifth of Germany’s promised (if very late) defensive weapons have arrived. Ukraine fights for our shared freedoms, and if our allies fail Ukraine now, they fail us all.

On the humanitarian side, just one word is needed to understand the depravity of Putin: Mariupol. Once a coastal hub for heavy industry and education, Ukraine’s besieged city has become a byword for the barbarity of his campaign.

Ninety per cent of its buildings are damaged or destroyed, and its population of just under half a million has been without food or water for days. Civilians are forced to drink sewer water and, last Wednesday, the city theatre – where women and children were sheltering – was destroyed by Russian air strikes. Satellite photos show that before it was hit, the Russian word for children, “DETI” had been spelled out in large letters by the building in the hope Russian pilots would find a conscience. Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.

However, there’s one enormous difference: aid agencies just aren’t on the ground working to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Government has just pledged another £80 million of aid, and the generosity and goodwill of British public is likely also in the millions.

But while we are giving, Ukraine is having difficulty receiving, as international agencies squabble over mandates and appallingly, the idea that Russian permission is needed to be on the ground. These same agencies were working on the ground in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – why have they abandoned Mariupol? We must lead calls for international humanitarian bodies to step in to save lives; it is not enough to be in Lviv alone.

There is an equally dark element of this conflict that has been largely absent from reporting: rape and sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence are too often silenced by the shame that is wrongly inflicted upon them. In Ukraine, women are being raped, and that almost certainly means that men and children are as well. There are reports of women over 60, those unable to get out, being raped and then hung or committing suicide. The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity, including rape. The UK should lead efforts to expose and document these war crimes and support survivors.

As Putin grows more desperate, his use of thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions becomes more extensive, and we face the threat of chemical weapons use. We and our allies must determine now the repercussions Putin would face: we have a legal duty to intervene if chemical weapons are used, and that is a duty we must not fail.

Much has been made of the threat of Putin pressing his big red button, but this belies a much more likely reality. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, several of which are now controlled by invading Russian forces. Destroying a nuclear reactor is very difficult, but damaging a nuclear waste facility is frighteningly feasible, and any such incident would disperse radioactive particulates across Europe, reaching the UK, as they did following the Chernobyl disaster.

NATO and all freedom-loving nations must be resolute in telling Putin now, that any nuclear incident in Ukraine – no matter how extensive the false flags – will be met with the swiftest and harshest repercussions.

Whilst we rightly focus on Ukraine, we must not forget Putin’s wider ambitions and the potential of a second front in the Western Balkans.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina threatened the country with the “same” as Ukraine. There is a fragile peace, one already under attack from Putin’s stooges such as the secessionist leader, Milorad Dodik.

Now is the time for NATO to prove that deterrence diplomacy can work, and prevent bloodshed on two fronts. Certain European countries disregarded the UK and US’s intelligence assessments on an invasion of Ukraine. At the NATO Summit we must ensure the same complacency and arrogance does not enable bloodshed in Bosnia.

It was a difficult goodbye last week. These courageous women travelled back to Ukraine knowing that Putin has put all Ukrainian MPs on one of two lists: a kill list, and those to be taken to Moscow.

One sentence our Ukrainian counterparts used repeatedly haunts me: “You will have no choice but to intervene, but this decision is being measured not in hours or days, but by the numbers of Ukrainians killed.” These brave MPs made their mark in Parliament this week, and did their country proud. When the war is over, and Ukraine has won, we’ll all meet again in Kyiv; but for now we must use this NATO summit to do all we can to hasten Putin’s defeat.

Kate Ferguson: The Government must act – as the threat of ethnic cleansing haunts Bosnia once again

2 Dec

Kate Ferguson is Chair of Policy at the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and is Fouding Director of Protection Approaches, which has convened The UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group since 2017.

Most people think that mass atrocity crimes are rare, exceptional aberrations, but they are actually fairly common. Where there are means of criminal enterprise, motivation of populist bigotry or manipulation of identity politics, and opportunity of unchecked power violence against groups becomes likely. All are present and worsening in the Bosnian-Serb majority entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Republika Srpska.

Thirty years ago these same propellants were left unchecked, and succeeded in driving a political campaign that saw the deliberate, systematic violent targeting and forced expulsion of Muslims and Croats by a coordinated coalition of Bosnian-Serb and Serbian state and non-state armed formations.

Ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide are never inevitable, but they are predictable. The escalating risks in Bosnia today are familiar – and must – be confronted before the already precarious situation worsens.

Boris Johnson, in the outcomes of his Integrated Review of international policy, rightly made atrocity prevention a new strategic priority of British foreign policy: Bosnia is now the test case for this commitment.

This December marks the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which established the two-entity make-up of the country – an agreement that froze rather than resolved the violence, and which preserved the single state by establishing a complicated system of power-sharing governance that includes a tri-partite presidency, with a rotating chairmanship.

Uneasy peace has held, but not taken root. Recent months have seen escalation of inflammatory actions and rhetoric by the Bosnian Serb member of the BiH Presidency, Milorad Dodik. Dodik has announced his intention to withdraw Republika Srpska from many state institutions, including the border police, judicial institutions and the armed force of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1991 as now, the Bosnian Serb leadership is testing the attention and resolve of the international community as it escalates the political crisis and heats up its incendiary rhetoric. Dodik and his coterie – as Radovan Karadžić and all violent populists before him– know that these misdeeds help to gauge international appetite for censure, while also serving to incite local level identity-based violence. If Dodik is allowed to continue, we will see an uptick in violence.

Such incidents are already not uncommon in Republika Srpska, where Bosniaks who were ethnically cleansed in the 1990s have returned to their homes are now often targeted, threatened and assaulted.

This violence is not new. The hurling of stones at the Serbian Prime Minister in 2015 during the twentieth commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide drew international attention, but only because it occurred in front of the world’s media.

Three days later, a returnee to RS was attacked by masked men who carved the four Serbian Cs in a cross on his stomach, but this was not reported in English language press. But tensions are now mounting, and returnees fear history is repeating itself.

While the current crisis is not a new one it is, in part, a consequence of BiH’s allies failing to adequately respond to the pernicious and persistent denial of the genocide of Bosnia’s Muslims, and to the ongoing incidents of the enduring identity-based violence that rarely draw headlines outside of the region.

Late in the day it may be, but friends of Bosnia must now step up fully, and emphatically communicate that the errors of the mid-1990s will not be repeated and that red lines, if crossed, will result in coordinated response.

So far, the UK is emerging a potential leader on the international stage – a stark contrast to Britain’s Bosnia policy of the 1990s. Being outside of the European Union but working with European partners places the UK in a unique and strategically useful position.

The British Embassy in Sarajevo, led by Matthew Field, the Ambassador, is very well respected. Here, Parliament has already held a number of debates – another later today brought by Alicia Kearns, Sarah Champion and Stewart McDonald – which communicates solidarity and cross-party political will. (Hansard’s records for December 1991 contain not a single reference to Bosnia).

But how the commitments of the Integrated Review are reflected in Britain’s Bosnia policy are not yet clear. The Government continues to reject cross-party calls for a comprehensive, cross-departmental strategy of atrocity prevention, arguing its narrow approach to conflict is sufficient.

During the 1990s, the then Conservative government failed to identify the campaigns of identity-based violence and atrocity for what they were and tried – and failed – to apply a framework of conflict resolution: at its heart, the violence between 1992-95 wasn’t a conflict, but a coordinated assault on populations, with the clear-eyed intention of removing or destroying them, in whole or in part.

The same mistake cannot be made again by the UK. Britain’s Bosnia policy needs to specifically recognise and respond to the rising risks of identity-based violence and atrocity.

BiH is the latest in a line of current and emerging crises where this policy gap can be seen to restrict the UK’s capacity to respond –the absence of central thinking strategically about preventing identity-based violence leaves even the most proactive country teams and embassies with their hands tied; they have to follow policy.

If the UK wants to stand with Bosnia, the Government needs to follow through on the promise of the Integrated Review. The IR claimed new emphasis on confronting grievances, criminal economies, political marginalisation as drivers of violence: this is what Bosnia needs.

Prevention policy requires a different way of doing things – it requires strategy, analysis, consultation, and coordination. But it doesn’t necessarily require big resources – in fact, effective prevention always saves both lives and money.

Since Dayton, Bosnia has been a frozen crisis. If Dodik is allowed to continue raising the temperature we will quickly reach the point there the thaw cannot be prevented. The goal for the UK and all allies of Bosnia mustn’t be to simply keep the uneasy peace, but instead to comprehensively support Bosnians who are working towards a safe, inclusive and resilient society.