In the Balkans, Russia is playing with fire.
This year commemorates the 30th anniversary of the start of Europe's worst conflict since World War II, the Yugoslav conflicts. Despite the fact that the Balkan states proceeded toward democratic government and NATO and European Union membership in the immediate aftermath of the conflicts, the West's continued indifference has contributed to a major backsliding in recent years. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is embracing the chance to undermine NATO and the European Union by utilizing the former Yugoslav republics as the next battleground.
Putin’s efforts to push the Balkans to the brink are part of his mission to reestablish Russia as a global power broker. Russia's objective in the Balkans, like its approach in the Caucasus, is to inflame tensions so that it can portray itself as the region's single mediator and security guarantee. It also strives to show that NATO, the EU, and their members are untrustworthy partners for any of the Balkan nations. Moscow's influence effort in the Balkans serves as another front against the West, as it continues to build up its military along the Ukrainian border.
Putin's policy is perplexing to many in the West. These scholars regard the Balkans as a geopolitical backwater, and they don't see why Russia would intervene in the region. "The Balkans are not a major battlefield in the Russia-West struggle," said the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The Balkans are not to be ignored lightly. Russia sees the region as Europe's vulnerable underbelly, with its expanding clout threatening to allow it to station vital military assets near a major US base and promising access to the Adriatic Sea. Putin's bigger goal is to shift Europe's power balance in Moscow's favor, and the Balkans are an important component of that strategy. Moscow has used information operations to inflame ethnic tensions and incite protests, as well as cementing arms agreements, embedding itself in crucial energy infrastructure, and leveraging long-standing theological and cultural links between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Russia’s efforts have been helped immeasurably by the EU’s weak response. Despite the many years and billions of euros spent preparing the Balkans for EU integration, the effort has stalled. The EU has not expanded since its absorption of Croatia in 2013, and despite promises of membership for the “western Balkans six”—Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia—for all practical purposes talks have frozen. Marred by challenges as varied as Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of far-right groups, and Europe’s migrant crisis, expansion appears to be on indefinite hold. This failure has made the Balkans an obvious target for Putin.
Russia was too weak to act militarily during the previous Balkan crisis in the 1990s. After the Kosovo conflict in 1999, it was reduced to a peacekeeping operation, from which it opted to withdraw in 2003. However, there is little question that the Russian leadership considered NATO's expansion into eastern Europe as a major national security concern even back then. With Russia's considerably stronger economic and military, the Kremlin now sees an opportunity to halt NATO's expansion by focusing on the former Yugoslav republics. The last time conflict broke out in the Balkans, Western Europe was asleep at the wheel; the stakes are too great for it to neglect the area this time.
THE BALKAN TINDERBOX
The endemic corruption in Balkan countries has exposed fissures that Moscow has exploited to advance its aims. As the former Yugoslav states moved from socialism to free-market economies after the 1990s, kleptocracy and illicit privatization took root. According to Freedom House, the western Balkan countries are all slipping back to “partly free.” Putin is using corruption to drive economic, ethnic, and religious wedges into Balkan societies by co-opting the region’s leaders.
Serbia is an important role in the Kremlin's Balkan ambition. Both the government and the church have a strong commitment to Moscow, which is based on centuries of shared religious and cultural connections, as well as Serbia's and Russia's mutual isolation from modern Western powers. The Serbian government proposed the construction of a "Serbian universe," a Balkan counterpart to Putin's "Russian world," to bring all Serbs together under a shared cultural framework. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is more interested in Russia's intervention in the short term since it allows him to portray himself as a force for stability ahead of his reelection campaign in 2022. Serbia and Russia have agreed to work together to oppose major demonstrations and "color revolutions" in the West, in order to ensure that the elections go their way.
Russia reciprocates Serbian loyalty through generous support for the Serbian military. Since 2018, Serbia’s defense budget has almost doubled, and it leads all Balkan states in defense-related spending. Despite threats of U.S. sanctions on Serbia, Moscow sent an S-400 missile system to Serbia in 2019 for a military drill. The Kremlin upped the ante further this year when it allowed Serbia to procure Pantsir-S1M air defense systems. Serbia also hosts a Russian-run “humanitarian center,” which serves as an intelligence-gathering institution situated close to Camp Bondsteel—the primary NATO base in Kosovo.
Moscow has openly threatened Balkan countries that have attempted to strengthen their security ties with the West. It attempted to derail a 2018 referendum on NATO membership in North Macedonia, and its ambassador declared the country a “legitimate target” if tensions between NATO and Russia were to increase (the country became a member state in 2020). Next door in Montenegro, Moscow backed an outright coup d’état in 2016 just before its successful bid to join NATO.
Putin is on a mission to reestablish Russia as a global power broker.
Russia is well aware that religion has traditionally played a role in igniting violence in the Balkans. The Serbian Orthodox Church, which has denigrated the notion of separate Montenegrin and Serbian national identities and participated in politics on Moscow's behalf, advocates pro-Russian policies in Montenegro. Last year, Russia used the church to incite major rallies and replace an uncooperative administration with pro-Russian officials.
The Balkans’ most explosive tinderboxes are Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although Kosovo’s population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian, Serbs see the country as an ancestral homeland that contains some of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s holiest sites. Just as a civil war exploded out of tensions between different religious and ethnic groups in the early 1990s, the Kremlin is now using the Orthodox Church to destabilize the country and the broader region. Russia’s Orthodox Church has escalated recurring disputes over religious sites, most recently expressing concern for the “destiny of Christian shrines in Kosovo” after tensions flared between Kosovo and Serbia.
Moscow has also stated that official recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia by the United Nations will be impossible without Russia's agreement. Putin frequently used Kosovo to justify Russia's invasion of Crimea, claiming that Western nations' acceptance of Kosovo's separation from Serbia established a precedent that allows other areas to declare independence unilaterally.
Just as President Donald Trump's 2020 "Washington Agreement" failed to make significant progress on key areas in the conflict, Brussels has failed to make progress toward Serbian recognition of Kosovo. Similarly, KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo, has struggled to keep the country stable. In September, demonstrations occurred along the contested Kosovo-Serbia border over a prohibition on automobiles with Serbian license plates entering Kosovo. The Serbs responded with a blockade and aerial display of force, as well as the deployment of Kosovo's police forces. Predictably, Russia followed the event by mocking the KFOR and calling out the EU for inadequate mediation of the ongoing tensions between the two states.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in 1995 is in crisis. The country continues to be driven by divisions between its Bosniak, Serb, and Croat communities, and Russia has exploited these divides to its advantage. In March, Russia threatened retaliation if Bosnia joins NATO. Meanwhile, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, threatened that Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that make up the country, will secede from Bosnia. In December, the Republika Srpska National Assembly voted in favor of starting a procedure for Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from state-level institutions including the Bosnian army, security services, tax system, and judiciary. In addition to Republika Srpska, the Kremlin has been supporting Bosnian Croat nationalists to push for the creation of another entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The international high representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, raised alarm bells in November when he said that “the prospects for further division and conflict are very real.”
It is high time that Western powers wake up to the threat that Russia’s meddling in the Balkans poses to their interests. Here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And they have several options at their disposal.
NATO must emphasize on the area and make de-escalation of tensions a top priority. It should dispatch its Counter Hybrid Support Team to the Balkans, as it did in Montenegro in 2019, to counter Russian misinformation and other information operations. NATO nations should also form a "coalition of the willing" to fight Russian meddling in Bosnia, with peacekeeping forces stationed in crucial areas like the northeastern Brcko District to protect at-risk areas from spiraling out of control. This force might augment the EU-led peacekeeping force (EUFOR), which is responsible for sustaining peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but whose mandate must be extended by the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have veto power. In June, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order imposing sanctions on individuals who undermine the Western Balkans' stability; the EU should join these efforts.
Russia sees the Balkans as Europe’s soft underbelly.
Because Hungary and a few other European NATO states act as Russia's proxy in the organization, all NATO members cannot be expected to help the Balkans. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, appears to recognize the gravity of the situation. It has pledged to safeguard "stability in the Western Balkans" and has urged Russia not to make a "strategic blunder" in the region. London should seek to put these words into action by spearheading a coalition of willing parties to counter Russian meddling in the area.
Above all, NATO should expedite Bosnia and Herzegovina's and Kosovo's NATO membership. As a result, the Kremlin's actions in the Balkans would be more expensive. Russia has always been a vocal opponent of NATO expansion, and now, as the Ukraine situation worsens, it has demanded a legally enforceable promise that NATO will suspend military operations in eastern Europe. Integrating Bosnia and Kosovo would send a message to the Balkans that they won't be left to fight for themselves against Moscow, and that Putin won't have a say in NATO's future.
It can be difficult to persuade the world of the importance of the Balkans, just as it was at the start of the Yugoslav conflicts or in the run-up to World War I. In the 1990s, European countries failed to respond to the crisis with appropriate haste, forcing the United States to intervene. This time, the United States, on the other hand, has gone inside and is unlikely to interfere. As a result, the EU will most likely bear the brunt of the burden. Nothing less than Europe's stability, as well as the EU and NATO alliance's continuing viability, is at stake.