The Balkans is often overlooked by the West, which provides a space for Russia to spread its influence in the region. The most prominent example is the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, in which both the West and Russia seek to strengthen their positions. Although Serbia still strives for an EU membership, similarly to other countries in the region, Russia still holds the ultimate veto through its power to delay the resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute and its recognition of Kosovo.
The Western Balkan countries have once again become the battlefield of the great powers since Russia has lately started using this region to position itself as a superpower in the international system more assertively.
By drawing on its pan-Slavic ties with some of the Balkan countries, Russia has tried to legitimize its presence and raise its influence in the region. Although it has never left the region, its foreign policy strategies towards the Balkan countries have altered over time. Currently, Russia has tried to play a role in the important developments of the Balkan politics such as the latest regional tensions surrounding Serbia and Kosovo.
“NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo has brought a new paradigm in the international arena by framing Western support and legitimacy of the intervention as ‘humanitarian.’”
Russian influence in the Western Balkans cannot be understood without analysing the function of the international system, relations among the great powers, their balance of power, and the historical background of the region. Since the 1990s, ethnic conflicts which ended in military interventions in the Western Balkans have played an important role in the reformulation of the international system. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War brought about the emergence of the US as a hegemonic power. The US-led NATO military interventions in the Balkans (in Bosnia Herzegovina and especially in Kosovo) then contributed to the solidification of the US position, further undermining Russia’s attempt to position itself as a great power.
“Russia has thus used Kosovo’s case as a strategic opportunity to reassert its role in the international system.”
NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo has brought a new paradigm in the international arena by framing Western support and legitimacy of the intervention as ‘humanitarian.’ This portrayal was not uncontested, however, and triggered a debate regarding international law and order. In the opposition to the Western position, Russia has supported Serbia in the international arena by condemning the intervention in Kosovo as unjust and against the international law. Russia has thus used Kosovo’s case as a strategic opportunity to reassert its role in the international system.
Furthermore, the military intervention in Kosovo has served as a tipping point for Russian foreign strategy. Since then, Russia started to use the Kosovo case as a precedent and a legitimization of its own military interventions elsewhere, as seen in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Instead of having a clear strategy towards the Western Balkans, Russia rather concentrates on strategic profits from the political mistakes committed in the region by the Western powers and their general lack of attention given to the Balkans.”
The annexation of Crimea and instability in Ukraine show further transformation of Russia’s foreign policy into a more aggressive and revisionist one, as Moscow openly started to oppose Western norms and principles accepted as international values. Fighting against Western dominance in general and USA hegemony in particular positions Russia as an economic and military alternative for the Western Balkan countries. Yet, instead of having a clear strategy towards the Western Balkans, Russia rather concentrates on strategic profits from the political mistakes committed in the region by the Western powers and their general lack of attention given to the Balkans.
Although the Western Balkan countries are in the process of EU integration, they still face obstacles of ethnic tensions, corruption, unstable social conditions and economic stagnation. These vulnerabilities are exploited by the great powers to spread their influence in the Balkans. Although the EU has played a significant role in the democratization process of the countries, the Union’s own issues such as migration or Brexit have enabled Russia to play a more active role and enhance its economic, cultural and military relations with these countries.
“The West should count with Russia when it comes to important political developments in the region.”
In this regard, Serbia is Russia’s biggest cultural and military ally in the region. Russia has also become Serbia’s major supporter in opposing Kosovo’s statehood in the international arena. The two countries have mutually benefited from their cooperation, Russia by proving its international power through its influence in Serbia, and Serbia using it for its own political benefits and as bait to the EU, i.e. threatening the EU to go under Russian political umbrella and, most importantly, to bring Russian influence in the region.
In the recent meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in which they discussed how to push forward the dialogue with Kosovo, Vučić was interested in showing support for Russia in the process. Even though the specifics of the meeting were not shared with the public, the message that Putin wanted to send by the meeting was clear: The West should count with Russia when it comes to important political developments in the region.
“Possession of a veto in the UN Security Council makes Russia a crucial player and enables it to prevent Kosovo’s membership in the UN and its full international recognition.”
Last but not least, the final stage of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is currently taking place. If successfully finalized, it would enable Serbia to speed up its EU membership process and secure a financial benefit as an EU country whereas for Kosovo, it would open the UN membership door. Possession of a veto in the UN Security Council makes Russia a crucial player in the process and also enables it to prevent Kosovo’s membership in the UN and its full international recognition.
To sum up, Russia’s foreign policy is directed towards emphasizing that the international system is not unipolar – where the West is the greatest international power – but rather bipolar, where Russia plays a preeminent role in shaping daily politics. Its influence is therefore directed towards countries aspiring towards EU and NATO membership, especially through becoming an instrumental player in their membership processes into these international organizations.
This op-ed was written as part of the project ‘Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Non-Democratic External Influence Activities,’ led by the Prague Security Studies Institute