The Russian invasion of Ukraine has significantly expanded the range of foreign policy instruments that the Kremlin considers acceptable to use.
While the Russian military is bombing Ukrainian cities and turning them into ruins and deliberately leaving people without heating and electricity in freezing temperatures, Moscow can hardly be expected to show humanity in other international matters. The Kremlin is willing to ignore the cost of its most destructive actions if they advance its cause in Ukraine, but Russia has been strangely quiet in the Western Balkans. Why?
The Western Balkans is often considered an easy target for Moscow. Close to the European Union and perennially volatile, the region also maintains significant ties to Russia. This combination seems to be a convenient opportunity for the Kremlin to cause trouble there in order to divert the attention and resources of the West from providing assistance to Ukraine, writes Montenegro-based Vijesti daily.
However, nine months after the start of the war, Moscow appears to be in no rush to seize the opportunity. Amid the new rise in tensions in most of the Balkan states, Russia is largely standing on the sidelines, sticking to its previous tactics and narrative, as if 2022 has not upended the geopolitics and geoeconomics of wider Europe.
At first glance, the Kremlin’s caution seems counterintuitive, but less so if we take a closer look at the long-standing limitations of Russia’s policy in the region, which have been further reduced by the war.
The contrast between Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and restraint in the Balkans stems from its strong dependence on Balkan politicians. Russia’s direct presence in the region has always been limited, but its visibility and influence are being zealously boosted by numerous local actors.
Their agenda differed slightly from Russia’s: both tried to block pro-European reforms, exploit anti-Western sentiment and fuel inter-ethnic conflicts. Those common interests made them natural partners who exaggerated their affinity to strengthen each other’s influence.
Regardless of how persistently some Balkan politicians presented themselves as loyal supporters of Russia, they are noticeably autonomous in their actions. It was acceptable for Moscow to pretend to be in charge when its priorities coincided with those of its local allies, but it was hardly in a position to make unilateral changes to the common agenda.
Local allies may play the role of reckless pro-Ruhr radicals, but in reality, their radicalism is largely feigned and aimed solely at resisting any change that might threaten their power and privileges.
Significant reforms and the eventual resolution of the Balkan conflicts posed a more realistic threat, but both Russia and its regional allies realized that overly dangerous policies could get them into trouble by provoking a possible response from the West. That’s why they stuck to the status quo by implementing their radicalism moderately: to prevent positive change, rather than encourage negative.
Even if the war has changed the formula by fueling Moscow’s appetite for destabilization, this has not been the case with its key Balkan allies. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and pro-Russian politicians in Montenegro, etc., still maintain their current privileged status and have no desire to jeopardize it for the sake of Moscow’s geopolitical adventurism. Even if the Kremlin takes a risk by trying to coerce them, that attempt is likely to backfire because local allies will simply defy any pressure from Moscow.
Russia’s international reputation has already been destroyed. The last thing that the country needs is another humiliating blow that would reveal how little influence it has on Balkan events as soon as Russia’s priorities and those of its allies fail to match. It’s no surprise, then, that Moscow prefers to stick to the old rules of its regional alliances, even if that stance doesn’t exactly align with its new bellicose agenda.
As a result, the main driving force behind the current Russian policy in the Western Balkans is the growing fear that the war in Ukraine could prompt the West to implement quick fixes in the Balkan conflicts too and eliminate Russia from the region altogether. A major setback in Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina would draw Putin’s attention to Balkan issues, exposing those in charge of the region to the president’s wrath. To prevent this, they avoid sudden moves and hope that Russia’s regional partners will still be able to withstand increasing pressure from the West and preserve the status quo.
This post is also available in: Italiano