As European leaders make it increasingly clear that rapid EU membership for the Western Balkans is out of the question, there is speculation that other global powers may also reconsider their strategies in the region. Due to its longstanding ties with the Balkans and vast experience in meddling, Russia sparks particular fear in the West. Many see it as a well-entrenched and unpredictable force preparing for a last stand with the West over influence in the region.
Russia has indeed become far more willing to take risks in its Balkan policy. It vehemently opposed Montenegro’s decision to join NATO, and pulled strings to try to thwart the hard-won reconciliation between Greece and North Macedonia. Still, there are few signs that Russia is ready to intensify its involvement in the region. Its foreign policy priorities shifted away from the Western Balkans a long time ago, and its activities there have become low-budget and opportunistic. Russia occasionally exploits the region for diplomatic games and propaganda purposes, but has neither the resources nor the will to engineer a major change in the Balkans.
Obstructing the West
Russia’s main objective in the Western Balkans remains the same: to stymie the expansion of NATO and the EU. The Kremlin historically deems NATO a major geopolitical threat, and has opposed the enlargement of the alliance since the mid-1990s. Russia’s sharpest criticism and condemnation are reserved for Balkan politicians who strive to bring their countries closer to NATO. Russian meddling in the region peaked when first Montenegro, and then North Macedonia, were at the point of getting an official invitation to join the alliance.
This is not to say that Russia sees the accession of the Balkan states to NATO as a direct military threat. The Kremlin realizes that their small and under-funded armies are based far from Russian borders and can contribute little to the alliance’s capabilities. Rather, it fears that the renewal of NATO enlargement after a decade-long hiatus will create an expansionist impulse, which later may extend to Ukraine or Georgia: countries Russia deems vital to its security.
As far as the EU is concerned, the Kremlin continues to claim that it has no issue with the union’s enlargement in the Balkans, as long as the process is not accompanied by NATO expansion. Yet Russia’s actions belie this official stance. The Balkan outlets of the Russian propaganda machine invariably portray the EU as weak, inefficient, and unable to bring prosperity to the region. The Kremlin has no scruples about backing eurosceptic parties, and is ever eager to fuel internal divisions within the EU.
Tense relations with the EU make Russia ill-disposed to the Union’s expansion in the Balkans. To become part of the EU, the Balkan states would have to align themselves with its policies on Russia, i.e. scrap bilateral free-trade deals, introduce visas for Russian nationals, and put in place sanctions. While those steps wouldn’t cause much harm to the Russian economy, it would still be a humiliating setback that the Kremlin would prefer to avoid.
For this reason, Russia is trying to obstruct both the EU and NATO in the Western Balkans for as long as possible. In the Kremlin’s logic, the more attention and resources the West has to devote to its Balkan neighborhood, the less appetite it will have to integrate its eastern neighbors such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, thereby preserving those states as territory of Russia’s privileged interest.
Thriving on Conflict
Russia lacks the resources and determination for a full-fledged rivalry with the West in the Balkans. It is under no illusions that it can offer the Balkan states a viable alternative to lure them away from the EU and NATO towards Russia-led economic and security structures. The Kremlin, therefore, sees simmering Balkan conflicts as the best guarantee of Russia’s interests in the region.
When Russia stokes tensions in numerous disputes between Balkan nations, it simultaneously distracts the West’s attention from the post-Soviet space and secures its own continued role in regional security. Unresolved conflicts keep the Western Balkans in a geopolitical limbo, in which Russia’s meddling is easily amplified and local politicians seek the Kremlin’s support to get an edge in domestic squabbles.
These conflicts also institutionalize Russia’s role in the Balkan security architecture. As long as disputes between ethnic communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina remain unsettled, Russia keeps its seat in the country’s Peace Implementation Council. Moreover, unresolved disputes help keep Bosnian central government paralyzed by inter-ethnic bickering and unable to move ahead with Bosnia’s integration to the EU and NATO. In the same vein, as long as Serbia is focused on undermining Kosovo’s statehood, the Serbian leadership will strive for Russia’s support in the UN Security Council to preclude full international recognition of its breakaway province.
These are the roots of what many in the West describe as Russia stirring up trouble in the Balkans. The Kremlin strives to thwart the West’s efforts to resolve Balkan conflicts, not just to portray the West as weak and inefficient, but also to forestall scenarios detrimental to Russia’s interests in the region. When the Kremlin scares Serbian President Alexander Vucic away from a compromise on Kosovo, it is defending its own status as Serbia’s privileged ally. When Russia throws its weight behind Milorad Dodik, the radical leader of the Bosnian Serbs, it is defending Bosnia’s non-aligned status and its own seat in the local Peace Implementation Council.
Russia has nothing to gain and everything to lose from the resolution of any Balkan conflict. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the Kremlin displays little appetite for assisting the West in stabilizing the region, and instead prefers a marriage of convenience with radical Balkan nationalists.
Limits and Red Lines
Limited resources and more pressing foreign policy issues, however, impose significant constraints on Russia’s readiness to fuel Balkan conflicts. The Kremlin is unlikely to make a deliberate effort to destabilize the region. Although destabilization would present a challenge to the EU and NATO, it would hardly benefit Russia’s geopolitical or economic position. Russia does not consider its relations with the Balkans an asset valuable enough to challenge the West over them. Nor it is ready to inflict harm on its Western adversaries without regard for the costs and risks to itself. Russia will instead continue to pursuit a less costly and risky objective: preserving the status quo in the Balkans.
Although Russia is unlikely to carry out a campaign of destabilization in the Western Balkans, the Kremlin may well resort to destabilizing techniques in its efforts to ward off positive change to the current situation. Recent events in Montenegro and North Macedonia clearly demonstrated that Russia quickly steps up its propaganda and intelligence activities in Balkan states when they are on the brink of major geopolitical decisions.
In Montenegro, pro-Russian opposition leaders flew below the Kremlin’s radar for years—until the country picked up the pace of its accession to NATO, when they instantly became frequent and welcomed guests in Moscow. In North Macedonia, tensions between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians long escaped Russia’s attention, but became the subject of regular Kremlin pronouncements when the country elected a new reform-minded government that was prepared to compromise on ethnic issues to speed up integration into the EU and NATO.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia rendered support to Dodik’s police and paramilitary formations when he was at risk of losing elections and ceding control over the autonomous Republika Srpska to more amenable Bosnian Serb politicians. Even in Serbia, Russia’s staunchest ally, the Kremlin established contacts with radical nationalists when it became clear that President Vucic is prepared to make major concessions on Kosovo.
At the same time, these events highlighted the limits of Russia’s commitment to the Western Balkans. Unlike in the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin refrains from applying massive pressure on the Balkan states. Considering them as belonging to the West’s sphere of influence, Russia has never unleashed trade wars or embargoes against them, or canceled flight routes, let alone staged military intervention: instruments it routinely deploys in disputes with its post-Soviet neighbors.
When Russian efforts fail to prevent a change in the status quo, it quickly loses interest and backtracks. The intensity of the Kremlin’s meddling in Montenegro or North Macedonia decreased drastically once their accession to NATO was a foregone conclusion.
The eagerness to defend the status quo in the Balkans also means that Russia is quite content with it, and has no desire to change it of its own volition. Fears of an independent Russia-backed Republika Srpska or a nationalist takeover inspired by the Kremlin in Serbia lurk in the minds of many policymakers in the West and in the region, but fail to materialize. Russia’s support of Dodik’s brinkmanship stops when he starts speaking about proclaiming independence. And Russia didn’t withdraw its hefty investment in Montenegro’s tourism and real estate industries, though it was furious when Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic scrapped his carefully curated ties with the Russian elite and embarked on a pro-NATO course.
Prospects for Change
Russia’s strategy in the Western Balkans is of dubious efficiency, and has repeatedly backfired in recent years. In Montenegro and North Macedonia, Russia’s botched attempts to prevent those countries from joining NATO only bolstered the West’s determination to accept them into the alliance. Still, it is highly unlikely that the Kremlin is contemplating significant change to its strategy in coming years.
The Kremlin’s reputation as a troublemaker in the Balkans, and the general collapse of trust in its relations with the West, make EU-Russia rapprochement in the region almost impossible. At the same time, pressing domestic issues and falling support ratings leave the Kremlin little room for a more proactive approach to the Western Balkans: a region that has long since dropped down the list of Russian foreign policy priorities.
Moreover, the current state of Russia-Balkan relations is far from propitious for attempts to revitalize them. Russia’s economic ties with the region are on the wane. Its main energy project there, the TurkStream gas pipeline, hinges on Bulgaria and the EU, not the Western Balkans. The real priorities of the local ruling elites are almost universally pro-Western. The Kremlin team responsible for Balkan affairs hasn’t seen any personnel changes for many years, and clearly lacks the capacity to generate innovative ideas. Finally, the West and local elites are sure to seize upon any bold step made by Russia as an argument for accelerating the integration of the Balkan states into the EU and NATO.
Consequently, inertia is the most probable scenario as far as Russia’s relations with the Western Balkans are concerned. The Kremlin will continue to criticize the West for its arrogance, unilateralism, and disregard of Russian interests in the region. It will step up its opposition to the West’s mediation efforts if the Bosnian or Serbia-Kosovo conflicts get close to being resolved. But once a compromise is forged, Russia will grudgingly put up with the new status quo and concentrate on more pressing issues.