WASHINGTON/BELGRADE (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Thursday said “misinformation” led Serbia’s defense minister to criticize a top U.S. general who had warned that Russia was meddling in the Balkan country’s affairs.
U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of U.S. forces in Europe, said in Congressional testimony earlier this month that Serbia was vulnerable to Russian interference.
Shortly afterwards, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin slammed Scaparotti, saying the U.S. general had accused Serbia of being a danger to the Balkans.
“Since 1999 there was no harder, more irresponsible and more dangerous statement than Gen Scaparotti’s statement,” Vulin said.
But on Thursday, the Pentagon said Vulin’s comments were not based on accurate information.
“Misinformation began to appear in Serbian media that attributed a false statement to General Scaparrotti designed to inflame Serbian sentiment against him, and by extension the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told Reuters.
“Shortly thereafter, a senior Serbian official issued a statement based on that misinformation that mischaracterized General Scaparrotti’s testimony,” he added.
An official from the U.S. military’s European Command, speaking on the condition of anonymity, blamed Russia’s Sputnik news website and other outlets for creating misinformation. The official said Russian influence has helped to amplify anti-American sentiments in Serbia.
In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8, Scaparrotti did not mention Serbia as a danger to the Balkans, according to a transcript of his remarks.
But he was critical of Russia’s role in Serbia, which has historical ties to Moscow despite current strong relations between the Serbian army and NATO.
“Russia’s at work in the Balkans, and I think that we’ve kind of taken our eye off the area,” Scaparrotti told the committee.
NATO has accused Russia of escalating a disinformation campaign against the West since the Kremlin’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region. U.S. officials say the Serbian incident shows that the United States is struggling to counter Russian disinformation.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military was making a greater effort to be more pro-active in anticipating information that Russia could deliberately misconstrue.
In 1995, NATO bombed Bosnian Serb forces and in 1999 the alliance also launched air strikes on the then Yugoslavia during the war in Kosovo. After the ouster of former strongman President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Serbia sought to mend ties with the West and wants to join the European Union.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Alistair Bell