Our research revealed that the Kremlin is successfully projecting power and leveraging historical or current-day revisionism over Central-Eastern Europe to forward its agenda against the Euro-Atlantic community and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns focusing on territorial revisionism are put forward either by pro-Kremlin far-right and paramilitary groups or local pro-Kremlin networks of media in Central-Eastern Europe.
There is a demand for such foreign policy and external affairs related communication. As a Pew Poll from 2020 indicated, a considerable proportion of the population in Central Europe would like to take back territories after past conflicts.
Altogether, we identified 19 new revisionist domestic narratives, 11 of which express territorial claims against neighbours, for example Polish or Hungarian extremist claiming that parts of Western Ukraine should join their respective countries. These are at the heart of the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns in a region where diplomatic conflicts over minorities are prevalent and revisionist attitudes run high, affecting between 48 and 67% of local populations.
Pro-Kremlin media is proactively utilising local inter-ethnic conflicts or commemorations of WWI and WWII to escalate bilateral tensions between Ukraine and its neighbours, claiming that Ukraine is a "fascist" or "undemocratic" country unable to adhere to European norms and values, as it happened in relation to the arson attack against the Hungarian minority’s cultural centre in Uzhhorod in Ukraine.
The Kremlin's disinformation campaigns have been relying on a string of successful active measures executed by German, Polish, Russian agents of influence to directly pit against each-other national governments, as well as majorities and minorities in Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland. Such cases included, for example, blowing up a Polish commemorative statue in Ukraine or the disruption of Polish WWII commemorations by “Fascist” provocateurs.
In terms of the number of domestic revisionist narratives, Hungary witnessed the highest number of "aggressive" territorial claims against neighbours, followed by Serbia, Romania and Poland in both mainstream and fringe media. "Victimhood" narratives fearing revisionism were most prevalent in Ukraine and Romania.
Domestic "aggressive" or "victimhood" narratives, for example about Hungary plotting to reclaim Transylvania from Romania, were used by Russian disinformation campaigns in the frames of three primary revisionist strategies. They all justified local revisionism by applying the Kremlin's "victimhood frame" to ethnic minorities living in Ukraine, Romania, or Kosovo.
The first strategy of bilateral inter-ethnic exploitation applied in Hungary, Romania and Poland further escalated bilateral diplomatic conflicts between EU and NATO member states via disinformation campaigns implemented by far-right groups and pro-Kremlin media. Such action included the Uz valley incident in Romania or the arson attack against the Hungarian minority in Western Ukraine.
The second strategy of boosting pan-Slavic solidarity directly spread Russian revisionist narratives about Crimea, the "Donetsk People's Republic" or the "Luhansk People's Republic" territories through Russian officials or activists in Slovakia and Serbia. This strategy legitimised Russian land grabs by evoking the concept of pan-Slavic brotherhood between nations and drawing parallels between Crimea as a Russian territory and Kosovo as a part of Serbia.
The third strategy of retelling the story of territorial aggression in Ukraine tried to reinterpret the Russian military aggression as a "civil war" or "freedom fight," while questioning the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian national identity based on religion, language or ethnicity.
Based on the best performing revisionist fringe Facebook pages and posts, we concluded that the successful dissemination of revisionist narratives in social media depends on five factors: a high number of followers, extremist political movements capable of mobilisation, cross-posting of content, nationalistic rhetoric and conspiracy theories running against official or mainstream explanations of territorial conflicts.
The network analysis of pro-Kremlin webpages revealed a centralised model of dissemination in Serbia, Romania, Hungary and Poland, where central-nodes of pro-Kremlin media either disseminated Russian news agency contents directly to domestic audiences or legitimised their revisionist messages by incorporating data, statements published by prestigious third-party media, such as the BBC or Deutsche Welle. In Ukraine and Slovakia, parallel networks of pro-Kremlin pages were created either to circumvent the official ban on the Kremlin's mouthpieces (Ukraine) or reach out to both far-right and far-left audiences (Slovakia).
A visible and highly cohesive network of pro-Kremlin webpages could be observed in Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia, capable of executing coordinated disinformation campaigns, online and offline mobilisation.
The revisionist disinformation strategies, networks of pro-Kremlin pages pose a direct national security threat to the countries involved or the Euro-Atlantic Community since they are mobilising online or offline local far-right or paramilitary groups, hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms. Therefore, anti-Ukraine, anti-NATO, anti-USA or anti-EU disinformation campaigns can become a long-term fuel for revisionist claims in Central-Eastern Europe.