The Western Balkans occupies a special place in Russian foreign policy.
In addition to its cultural and historical affinity with local Orthodox Slavs, the Russian leadership is still haunted by the Kosovo crisis during the 1990s and NATO’s bombing of Serbia in early 1999. Russia has not forgiven NATO for that military campaign, which went ahead without a mandate from the UN Security Council.
The sense of being unfairly treated by the “hypocritical” West cements the unprecedented friendship between Russians and Serbs, who live not only in Serbia itself but also make up influential minorities in the neighboring countries.
Despite these ostentatious displays of intimacy, Russia’s relations with the Western Balkans are plagued by a lack of economic substance. Russia’s share in the region’s foreign trade, investment, credit, and remittance flows has been on the decrease for several years, falling from one of the region’s top economic partners at the beginning of the century to the single digits today. Even in Serbia, Moscow’s closest Balkan ally, Russia lags behind the EU by the factor of ten in terms of Belgrade’s foreign trade, which amounted to just 6.7 percent with Russia in 2016, compared to 64.4 percent with the EU in the same period.
In other Western Balkan states, Russia is even less of a match to European financial support or bilateral trade with individual EU countries. And the refusal of Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to join EU sanctions against Moscow has failed to revitalize the region’s economic cooperation with Russia.
Moreover, Moscow seems to be losing enthusiasm even about its traditional hobby horse, the Balkan energy sector. Despite being announced with much pomp, numerous joint Russian projects in the region—like the integration of the Druzhba and Adria pipelines—are lying idle. Russia still maintains investments it made in the 2000s, including oil refineries in Bosnia and Herzegovina (that finally brokered gas supplies from Croatia during the recent visit of the Croatian president to Russia), and the oil and gas giant NIS in Serbia. But the central piece of its energy strategy in the region, the South Stream gas pipeline, was abandoned in 2014. Though an alternative Turkish Stream is already under construction, the route of its European segment, if any, is still uncertain.
Economic stagnation, low oil prices, and new priorities in the Middle East and the Pacific have relegated the Western Balkans to a third-rate level on Moscow’s foreign policy list. But this does not imply that the region has become irrelevant for Russia.
For Moscow, the historic popularity it enjoys in the Western Balkans as a counterweight to the West is a convenient and low-cost way to sustain Russia’s image of a veritable world power with interests spreading all over the globe, including in the EU’s neighborhood.
Since Western Balkan states are the most likely candidates to become new members of NATO, forestalling any further expansion of the alliance is one of the main long-term drivers of Russian foreign policy. Moscow does not view the small and hard-up states of the Western Balkans joining the U.S.-led alliance as a direct threat; the region is already separated from Russian borders by a belt of other NATO countries. But Russia’s leadership is afraid that a renewal of NATO enlargement is likely to create an expansionist impulse that might spill over to the post-Soviet space.
Moscow also believes that the West has been stirring up trouble in Russia’s neighborhood in recent years; it thus feels entitled to “payback time.” There is no shortage of examples to describe Russia’s recent meddling in the Balkans. Most of them indicate that Moscow is not prepared to commit any substantial resources to the region. Russia is keen, however, to take advantage of the deep-rooted local problems to make the Western Balkans a thorn in the West’s side, while posing as an influential world power.
Encouraged by a new standoff between Russia and the West, Balkan leaders soon found out that Moscow was not going to lure them with new lucrative projects and subsidized credit lines. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik spent two full years between 2014 and 2016 negotiating a Russian credit, which was reported to amount to several hundred million euros. But to no avail. Cash-strapped Moscow preferred to support Dodik rhetorically, as it suffices to keep the Bosnian state paralyzed.
Neither is Russia ready to risk applying all-out pressure on Western Balkan states, as it often does when dealing with post-Soviet countries. Instead, Moscow has opted for a low-budget, opportunistic approach in the region, shifting most of the burden to local actors.
In the case of intelligence activities, it is usually a few Russian agents merely coordinating the actions of far larger structures of local ultra-nationalist radicals. The number of Russian propagandistic media broadcasting in the regional languages is limited, but they skillfully amplify anti-Western narratives already present in the local media.
As for Balkan politicians, they are also always eager to promote Russia’s image as a mighty alternative to the West when pursuing their own interests. Some do this in a negative way, to portray themselves as the only force capable of stopping Russian influence in the region. Others take the opposite approach: they overblow the significance of Russian assistance for the chance of a photo-op with Putin, who remains a popular politician among Serbian voters.
With local actors voluntary doing the lion’s share of the work, Moscow is able to limit its own efforts to a few impressive, but low-cost gestures that fit the anti-Western narrative. For instance, it can roll out a lavish reception for a Balkan politician in the Kremlin or hand out some outdated military equipment as a present.
What makes such a policy possible, and to a certain extent effective, is not Moscow’s brilliant understanding of the region or its strategic genius, but the numerous Western failures in the Balkans. EU accession still remains a distant prospect for most of the Western Balkan states, while some European leaders tend to prioritize a semblance of stability (and politicians able to provide it) over profound reforms in the region.
In short, nations in the Western Balkans have become so disillusioned with the West and its inability to match exaggerated expectations that many of them are willing to be attracted or lured by any alternative, no matter how far-fetched it is. And though Moscow has no desire to take on Western Balkan economic or security problems, it is ready to sustain such an illusion.