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Western Balkans still matters: Understanding Russian involvement in the region?

Vladimir Vučković

April 2021

This article is based on the central argument that Russia perceives the Western Balkans as a zone of political confrontation in its broader rivalry with the West, where it seeks to undermine the achievements of the EU and NATO. After 9/11 and the US decision to stop treating the Balkans as one of its priority geostrategic areas and start fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia was unexpectedly given the opportunity to fill a geopolitical vacuum in the Balkans, relying greatly on opportunistic tactics. Although Moscow has sought to maintain its traditionally strong ties with the region, Russia paradoxically does not have a long-term strategy for development of relations with the Western Balkans, but its advantages are seen in flexible actions and swift decisions. Russian politics in the Balkans have been sympathized by the ruling elites who largely relied on logic of bargaining by choosing the policy of alternatives instead of opportunities, consequently strengthening cooperation with Kremlin as an actor who provides greater benefits than others. At the same time, the semi-authoritarian leaders were sending a clear message to the West that cooperation with Moscow (or Beijing) was welcome as long as it did not threaten the political legitimacy of domestic ruling elites nor interfere in internal political affairs.

Newly post-communist Russia’s inability to be actively involved in international politics was clearly visible to the world, in contrast with the Soviet era. The loss of vast territories, the lack of access to seas and warm-water ports, the absence of a corridor linking Russia with the West, and the more than 20 million Russians living outside its borders were a clear sign that Russia was facing a new and challenging geostrategic reality. If one considers the fact that Russia’s military forces were significantly weakened, reduced, and pulled back by some 1,500 km to the east, then it is no wonder why such an uncertain situation had a substantial influence on Russia and its active participation in international relations, including in the Balkan region. The newly-born Russian Federation faced a certain challenge. Although unable to compete with Washington and Brussels on the international level after the end of the Cold War, Moscow desperately sought to maintain its status of regional power in the former Yugoslavia, as part of its traditional sphere of influence. 

After the election of Boris Yeltsin as president in 1991, Russia became more constructively involved in establishing peace and stability in a war-torn Balkan region. As a member of the Contact Group, Russia highlighted its foreign policy actions in ending ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while rhetorically opposing the US and EU in their launching of NATO military strikes on Bosnian Serbs in 1995. Also, Russia's leadership supported the stance that the Kosovo crisis was an internal issue revolving around Serbian sovereignty and territorial integrity, thus seeking strict adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 1160 adopted in 1998. The Russian veto on the Security Council was a confirmation of Moscow's stance of being strongly opposed to any kind of military intervention against Serbia (i.e. Serbia and Montenegro, at that time). 

However, the Western powers did not care much for Russia’s veto on the Security Council, as NATO soon started a military intervention against Serbia due to the bloody humanitarian catastrophe occurring in Kosovo in 1998-1999. It is precisely this NATO military action against Serbia that changed Western-Russian relations forever. As a result, the Russian policy of distrust prevailed, as it came to feel like a second-rate power. Viewed from its perspective, Moscow’s constructive role in overcoming a civil conflict on the territory of the former Yugoslavia was not taken seriously by the West, as they did not view Russia as a superpower anymore, nor they did (re)consider the Kremlin’s national and foreign interests in the region. As of this moment, it was clear that Russia would redefine its foreign policy priorities,consequently advocating a more pragmatic and hardline approach towards both the US and EU. 

   It is a simple fact that no great power can afford the luxury of looking weak.  Hence, after the election of Vladimir Putin for President in 2000, Russia became even more actively involved in the Balkans. The Russian strategy of competition quickly emerged after the adoption of its 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, which clearly defined crucial foreign policy goals for achieving supremacy at the international level: remaining a nuclear power, great power, and regional hegemon. Although Russia has deep relations with many Western Balkan countries, through strong historical, cultural, and political ties, the region has remained a priority on Russia’s foreign policy agenda during the last decade as a zone of geopolitical confrontation with the EU and US. Undoubtedly, the worsening relations between the West and Russia were caused by the EU and US decision to impose sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but also due to the increasingly active role of the EU in Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova through the signing of several cooperation and association agreements.These are all post-Soviet states, which are of the utmost strategic importance for Moscow. In this sense, the Russian opinion on the Western Balkans is predominantly determined by its relations with the West. During the time of Medvedev's presidency, for instance, the Kremlin demonstrated no objections to the NATO accession of Albania and Croatia in 2009, while post-Crimea Russia has started observing the region from a zero-sum perspective where a Western gain is a Russian loss. Hence, no wonder why Russia has strongly opposed NATO enlargement (e.g. when Montenegro and North Macedonia joined the alliance), and, in recent years, has opposed the EU integration process as well. 

Russia’s return to the Balkans had a predominately symbolic impact, in which the main levers of its influence in the region are based on three aspects of soft power: 1) use of veto power as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council; 2) the Pan-Slavism idea; 3) and use of energy-economic connections. While using its veto power on the UN Security Council has prevented Kosovo from being internationally recognized and joining the UN, Russia has strengthened its dominant political position in Serbia as an important regional actor. While the Kremlin has (mis)used the cultural-historical context for once again unifying all Slavic states under Russian influence, on the one hand, it has provided affordable gas and oil prices and subsidies, making them highly dependent on Russian energy on the other hand. These sorts of zero-sum approaches have been of the utmost importance in the Kremlin’s foreign policy towards the Balkans, as this area is essential for maintaining Russian influence and is used as a buffer zone in achieving a wider international influence.

Although the Western Balkans are not conceived of as a primary geopolitical sphere in its rivalry with the West (compared to Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East), Moscow has successfully used various soft power means in undermining Western achievements in the region in an easy and cost-effective way. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the Western Balkans represent part of a broader political arena of confrontation with the West, where it has used various soft power mechanisms (e.g. supporting religious groups and anti-western media outlets, and establishing close ties with right-wing populist parties) in order to leverage its influence by undermining the values of the EU and NATO. 

Obviously, Russia is featuring in the role of an opportunistic spoiler. By using the rhetoric of maintaining supposed brotherhood, Moscow has bolstered its foreign policy actions through continuous visits of high-ranking Russian officials to the Balkans, and also visits of Balkan politicians to Russian military parades and celebrations. However, although Russia views the Balkans as its traditional sphere of influence, it does not have a long-term strategy for development of relations with the region, but its advantages are seen in flexible actions and swift decisions. At the same time, it has been reluctant to provide a regional alternative perspective for achieving stability and prosperity compared to Western models. Russian foreign policy intentions have also been pragmatically perceived by domestic ruling elites, which largely use the logic of bargaining by choosing a policy of alternatives instead of opportunities, consequently opting for certain international actors who provide higher benefits than the Brussels, and thus at the same time sending a very clear message that the EU is not the only game in town.

Vladimir Vučković is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations and European Studies at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

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