Author: Connor O’Kelley
In his 1911 satirical compendium The Devil’s Dictionary, American author and journalist Ambrose Bierce defined diplomacy as “The patriotic art of lying for one’s country” – over a century later, as countries such as Russia and China utilize their embassies throughout Europe and the world as platforms to spread and amplify malign disinformation, with ambassadors and diplomats serving as state-commissioned propagandists, his words seem more prophetic than ever before. In recent years, the embassies of Russia throughout Southeastern Europe (SEE) have opened up a new front for the Kremlin’s campaigns of disinformation, utilizing their official Facebook pages to disseminate Russian state propaganda and Kremlin-aligned disinformation across the social media environments of their respective host countries. This trend has grown particularly visible in some SEE countries such as Bulgaria, where Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofonova commands a massive social media following and regularly sparks polarizing national dialogues based on her controversial and disinformation-plagued Facebook posts. Meanwhile, the European Union, United States, and other Western nations have attempted to counterbalance this flood of Kremlin propaganda with social media outreach on the part their own embassies, but the results of these efforts have been mixed.
Utilizing the data analysis tool CrowdTangle, experts at the Center for the Study of Democracy have compiled a wide array of data related to the activity and impact of the Facebook pages of the embassies of Russia, the EU, U.S., France, Germany, and the United Kingdom throughout SEE. Ranging from January 2021 to December 2022, the data set tracks a variety of variables in each respective SEE host country, such as posts per diplomatic mission, the number of each mission’s followers, and the total count of Facebook interactions generated across the period in question. A comparative overview of the embassies’ activity and user interactions across the region demonstrates that U.S. and EU diplomatic missions are generally their Russian counterparts’ greatest rivals across all metrics. This analysis also reveals several notable regional trends and potential countries of priority for the Kremlin, along with notable spikes of disinformation spread by Russian embassies coinciding with the onset of the war in Ukraine. Combining this data, CSD is able to group the eight analyzed countries into three categories corresponding to their relative level of permeability to disinformation originating from their respective Russian diplomatic missions, as well as the relative influence of the EU and other Western missions.
Regional Comparative Overview
Examining the regional landscape of selected diplomatic missions’ Facebook pages, Russia holds a clear lead over its five counterparts in terms of overall post numbers at 18,006 for the period of January 2021 to December 2022, followed by the European Union at just under 13,000. This trend is not uniform, however; Russia’s overall numbers are buoyed by outsized post counts in Romania and North Macedonia, with a staggering 7,193 posts over the two year-period in Romania – an average of almost ten posts per day – and 3,943 posts in North Macedonia. By contrast, Russia’s embassy in Croatia posted just 90 times over the same period, and its embassy in Serbia only 270. This extreme level of disparity across the region could indicate a coordinated effort by the Kremlin to place a higher priority on the embassy-facilitated spread of disinformation in certain countries over others, with Romania and North Macedonia seeing a large-scale push in post volume over the past two years. Meanwhile, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have seen comparatively little concerted embassy-based outreach from Russia, with the remainder of the region falling more towards the average of these two groups.
Figure 1: Number of Posts per Diplomatic Mission by Host Country (2021-2022)
In terms of the other selected countries’ embassy pages, the European Union follows Russia in post volume, but does not demonstrate the same degree of regional disparity in this metric. The variance between the host country seeing the largest volume of EU-embassy posts (Greece, at roughly 2,800) and the smallest (North Macedonia at 873) is over three times smaller than the same variance between Russia’s embassies in Romania and Croatia. While this may be indicative of a heightened focus on Greece, the EU’s post counts are overall much more consistent than Russia’s, and the same is largely true of the U.S., UK, Germany, and France, with relatively few outliers, such as Germany’s lack of a Facebook page for its embassy in Croatia.
A different picture emerges when examining the overall numbers of user interactions generated by the selected pages in 2021 and 2022, however. While Russia also ranks first in this metric, at over four million interactions across the region, its pattern of high post volume has not translated directly to equally high numbers of interactions in the two countries in question. Instead, Russia’s embassy in Bulgaria dominates this metric, boasting over 2.3 million interactions- more than 50% of Russia’s total interactions for the region. The United States’ diplomatic missions in SEE outcompete their EU counterparts to place in second despite a lower overall post volume, numbering 3.2 million user interactions across the region in total to the EU’s roughly 1.8 million. The Russian Embassy in Bulgaria stands out as a massive outlier in this category, punching far above its weight class in terms of its total user impact relative to its post volume; the same is true for the Russian Embassy in Greece, the U.S. Embassy in Albania, and the EU Embassy in Romania. Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in Romania and the EU Embassy in Greece considerably underperform relative to their post volume, showing little in the way of results for their outreach efforts.
Figure 2: Number of User Interactions per Host Country by Diplomatic Mission
The extreme success of Russia’s embassy in Bulgaria can likely be attributed at least in part to the close cultural and historical affinity of the Bulgarian public towards Russia; in 2021, only 3% of Bulgarians considered Russia to be a threat, while 70% viewed Vladimir Putin positively, according to GLOBSEC statistics.1 The outspoken and controversial nature of Russian Ambassador Eleonora Mitrofonova also likely plays a role in boosting engagement, as her polarizing statements and stances frequently succeed in prompting intense public discourse.
When examining the user interaction counts of all Russian embassies throughout the region over time, it is apparent that interactions underwent a clear and pronounced spike across much of SEE immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This trend is most prominently visible for the Russian embassies in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and to a lesser extent, North Macedonia; in the case of Bulgaria, the Russian embassy generated 1.5 million user interactions from March to September 2022, over half of its total of 2.3 million for the two-year period. In Greece, meanwhile, the Russian embassy generated around 425,000 user interactions from February to July 2022, roughly 55% of its approximate two-year total of 769,000.
Figure 3: User Interactions per Month of Russian Embassies
A similar trend emerges across many of the analyzed host countries when scrutinizing Russian embassies’ post count per month, with almost all of Russia’s diplomatic missions in SEE seeing a spike in post volume coinciding with the invasion of Ukraine. This trend was reflected most sharply in Romania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro, but was also visible to a lesser extent in Greece, Bulgaria, and the rest of the region. Interestingly, some countries such as Montenegro and Greece saw pronounced spikes in the monthly volume of Russian posts several months in advance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; this could potentially represent a concerted effort by the Kremlin to turn the conditions of the local information landscape in their favor ahead of the conflict.
Figure 4: Number of Posts per Month of Russian Embassies
Low Permeability Countries
Among the SEE countries displaying the lowest levels of relative permeability to social media penetration by Russian disinformation narratives originating from diplomatic missions is Croatia. Of the nine Russian embassy Facebook pages examined throughout the region, the Russian mission in Zagreb was perhaps the least active, posting just 90 times across the two-year timeframe; by comparison, the next-least active page, that of the French embassy, posted over 500 times across the same span, while the EU’s Zagreb mission made over 1,400 posts. The Russian Embassy in Croatia’s Facebook page similarly falls behind the EU and most of its other Western counterparts in every other examined metric, with its interaction count ranking among the lowest at 8,699 compared to the U.S. mission’s 75,405. Likewise, its followers number only 3,262 compared to the U.S. mission’s 52,401.
Figure 5: Post Counts and Total Interactions of Embassies in Croatia
This extremely lackluster social media performance by Russia’s embassy in Croatia could potentially represent an outlier compared to the other seven SEE countries included in the dataset; alternatively, it may indicate that the Kremlin places low priority on Croatia as a target for its disinformation campaigns. Regardless, the data indicates that Croatia shows the lowest level of permeability to social media penetration by disinformation spread from Russian diplomatic missions of any SEE country, with the EU dominating post count and the U.S. mission generating the most user interactions. Interactions per month with the Russian embassy’s page spiked briefly in March and April 2022, coinciding with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but overall follower counts and levels of interaction across all of the analyzed Facebook pages in Croatia remain low compared to the majority of the region, however.
The Facebook page of Russia’s diplomatic mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is also outcompeted by most of its Western rivals. While still narrowly outpacing France, Germany, and the United States with 511 posts over the two-year analysis period, Russia’s embassy in Sarajevo was far outstripped across this timespan by its EU counterpart both in terms of overall posts and interactions. And while the post count of the U.S. embassy in BiH ranks on the lower end of the spectrum, it dominates the social media landscape for embassies both in terms of followers and user interactions, with a follower count over twenty times that of Russia and an interaction count over six times as high.
Figure 6: Follower Counts and Total Interactions of Embassies in BiH
Figure 7: Post Counts and Total Interactions of Embassies in BiH
A strikingly similar dynamic is visible in Albania. Just as in BiH, the Russian diplomatic mission’s Facebook page ranks above-average in terms of post count, with its 902 posts falling behind only the EU mission at 1,303 and the U.S. mission at 1,609. Russia falls far behind these two rivals in terms of follower count and interactions, however, with roughly 90,000 user interactions across the two-year span compared to over 200,000 for the EU mission and over 1.4 million for the U.S. mission. The follower count of Russia’s mission in Tirana also ranks near the bottom of the pack at just over 10,000, with the U.S. embassy standing far above its competition at over 250,000 followers.
Figure 8: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Albania
Russia’s efforts to penetrate the Albanian social media space in with Kremlin-linked disinformation narratives seems to be meeting with limited success, though not for lack of effort. The Russian Embassy in Tirana’s post count sharply spiked in March 2022, coinciding with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and have begun to dramatically rise again in November and December 2022. Whether this reflects a longer-term trend remains to be seen, but user interaction numbers have remained stagnant across the aforementioned post spikes, placing Albania firmly in the low-permeability group.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Serbia also displays a low level of permeability to disinformation narratives spread by Russian diplomatic missions. While Belgrade remains Moscow’s closest diplomatic partner in SEE, as indicated by its refusal to join EU and Western-backed sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s diplomatic mission in Serbia is clearly outcompeted by the Facebook pages of its Western counterparts. The EU diplomatic mission in Belgrade dominates the analyzed group of pages in terms of its post count and interactions, with 1,685 posts and roughly 340,000 user interactions from 2021-2022 compared to only 270 posts and roughly 27,000 user interactions for Russia’s mission.
Figure 9: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Serbia
Given the high levels of sympathy towards Russia already present among the Serbian populace, facilitated by cultural and historical affinity, it is possible that the Kremlin has deemed Serbia a low priority for further social media penetration led by the embassy in Belgrade, content to use other means to spread disinformation throughout the country. It is worth noting that the Russian mission in Serbia’s post count has spiked in November and December of 2022, a similar trend to the one displayed in Albania; it remains to be seen whether this pattern indicates a wider degree of coordination in Russian embassies’ social media activity.
Medium Permeability Countries
Figure 10: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Montenegro
Targeted by visible Russian meddling and interference in the past, including a Kremlin-backed coup attempt in 2016, Montenegro retains a slightly higher degree of permeability to disinformation campaigns originating from its Russian diplomatic mission than its neighbors. The Russian Embassy in Podgorica is highly active on Facebook, ranking the highest of the six missions in this metric with over 1,800 posts from 2021-2022. Meanwhile, Russia’s diplomatic mission outcompetes all of its counterparts aside from the U.S. in terms of interactions generated.
While the overall user interaction counts in Montenegro remain the lowest of any in the region aside from Croatia, this can likely be attributed at least in part to the country’s small population in Montenegro’s case. Interactions with the Russian diplomatic mission in Montenegro spiked sharply in March and April 2022, outcompeting the U.S. mission for these two months as the invasion of Ukraine began. Overall, while the U.S. still largely remains dominant on average, the Russian Embassy in Podgorica’s high-volume posting patterns have proven at least partially successful in driving high numbers of interactions with Kremlin- linked disinformation.
The dynamics present in Romania largely mirror the situation in Montenegro, albeit at a considerably larger scale. The Russian Embassy in Bucharest is perhaps the most prolific poster of all the examined diplomatic missions throughout the region, churning out a staggering 7,193 posts from 2021-2022; this averages to almost 10 posts per day. Despite this massively outsized post count, however, Russia’s mission in Romania still lags behind its EU and U.S. counterparts in terms of both followers and user interactions. The glut of posts flowing from the Russian mission in Bucharest has not translated to a similarly large following, with Russia ranking last among the six Romanian embassies in follower count.
Figure 11: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Romania
Nevertheless, Russia still generates the third-largest number of overall user interactions across the two- year timespan despite this low number of followers, and ranked first in interactions for much of 2022, including the span from March to June; after a decline in interaction numbers for much of the late summer and fall, Russia ranks first in this metric once again as of November and December. Despite the EU and U.S. missions’ longstanding dominance in Romania, Russia’s brute-force strategy of high post volume may finally be paying dividends, meriting Romania’s placement in the medium-permeability group. If the Russian embassy’s rising interaction numbers continue their current trend, Romania might shift to high permeability in the future.
Figure 12: Follower Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Romania
Figure 13: User Interactions per Month of Embassies in Romania
High Permeability Countries
At first glance, when examining only the post counts and follower numbers of the six analyzed diplomatic missions, Greece may appear to rank on the lower end of permeability compared to the rest of the region. After all, the EU’s post count ranks far above Russia’s, and Russia’s follower numbers are relatively low by comparison. When it comes to user interactions, though, an entirely different story emerges: The Russian embassy in Athens easily trounces all of its competition in this metric, boasting over 750,000 total interactions from 2021-2022.
Figure 14: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Greece
By comparison, the U.S. comes in second at less than 200,000. This trend existed prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it has only become more heavily pronounced since then, with posts by the Russian embassy continuing to soar above the competition in terms of interactions.
Figure 15: User Interactions per Month for Embassies in Greece
After a large peak of high interactions for Russia from February to June 2022, coinciding with the invasion itself, the U.S. has regained a narrow edge as of November and December 2022, but Russia’s influence in the North Macedonian social media space among diplomatic missions remains high, as does the nation’s level of permeability.
Figure 16: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in North Macedonia
Figure 17: User Interactions per Month of Embassies in North Macedonia
Russia’s domination of user interactions in North Macedonia is even more pronounced in Bulgaria, where the Russian Embassy in Sofia has no true competition for this metric. Russia’s mission in Bulgaria also ranks first in overall post volume; while its post count of 1,572 from 2021-2022 is much lower than the sky-high numbers in neighboring Romania, the Kremlin has been able to gain a far larger foothold in the Bulgarian social media space with far less effort, comparatively speaking. Monthly user interactions tell largely the same story; in the social media landscape, Russia sits alone atop the mountain, and no other Western nation’s diplomatic mission has yet been able to climb the summit.
Figure 18: Post Count and Total Interactions of Embassies in Bulgaria
Figure 19: User Interactions per Month of Embassies in Bulgaria
The regional trends in social media performance by Russian and Western diplomatic missions are highly varied, ranging from an entirely overshadowed and almost invisible Russian presence in Croatia to unquestioned Russian dominance in Bulgaria. These variations across SEE indicate that the Kremlin likely adapts its strategy for each country, prioritizing some more highly than others; these efforts have met with varied success, though, in countries such as Romania, where Russia’s high post volume has failed to materialize an equally large audience. One universal trend across the region is a sharp rise in Russian posts and user interactions sparked by the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, but the staying power of this spike has varied from country to country.
This dataset cannot be taken on its own as definitive proof of a strategy of regional coordination among Russian diplomatic missions in SEE on its own, and further investigation is needed to prove any causative links for many of the trends observed in this report. But as the diplomatic services of the EU, United States, and other Western powers move to mitigate an increasing torrent of Kremlin-backed disinformation spread from Russia’s embassies across the region, they should keep a close watch for any emerging spikes in Russian post and interaction volume in medium and high-permeability countries, and devote their embassies’ resources accordingly. If the West allows Russian diplomatic missions to continue spreading their reach throughout the region’s social media landscape at the current rate, they risk losing the information war in fronts across Southeast Europe.