The Balkan Peninsula (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)
As the Balkans erupted into violent conflict in the early 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) found renewed relevance as it deployed ground forces into Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994, conducted an air campaign against Serbia and then moved troops into Kosovo in 1999. In quelling the violence of the Yugoslav War, NATO successfully moved past its territorial defensive roots and unexpectedly adopted an expeditionary force posture. While these early operations gave NATO the confidence to move beyond its boundaries and eventually into the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan, these same operations unfortunately sowed the seeds of mistrust between Russia and the West, with opposing narratives from Moscow and Brussels about NATO’s actual role in the Balkans. And while Russia willingly placed itself under NATO command in Bosnia, Kosovo would become a major source of tension. By mid-1999, a British officer on the ground refused an order from NATO leadership, convinced NATO-Russia tension could lead to World War III. Potential bloodshed was averted, but the standoff between Russian and British troops at the Pristina Airport became a portent for future relations as the new partners again found themselves reverting to opposite sides
In spite of its history in the western Balkans, NATO has largely overlooked tension with Russia there and has instead preferred to focus its efforts on Russian attacks in the Baltic states and Ukraine. This dynamic requires understanding Russian efforts to discredit Western democratic systems, strengthen its military posture, perpetuate false narratives, and pick old scabs. Security risks that could spillover if the West fails to take preemptive steps to underwrite stability must be considered. Additionally, options for Western coordination and involvement in the region based on history, laws, identity sensitivities, and associated risks should be explored. In short, the West must galvanize itself or prepare for greater instability on its turf. During the NATO parliamentary assembly in October 2017, this need for vigilance was trumpeted by various members, citing many challenges in the Balkans, not the least of which is Russian influence. Yet, NATO is not a monolith, thus rather than waiting for the Alliance to act as a collective body, its umbrella provides a useful frame for mapping opportunities at bilateral and scoped multilateral levels, where trust and shared interests are highest.
The Balkans Today: Europe’s Ignored Backyard, Russia’s Entry to Europe
Recent NATO reports indicate Russian influence in the Balkans is growing, while Western influence is declining. Worse yet, recent reports indicate that Russia and its proxy organizations are increasingly spreading misinformation about NATO and the European Union (EU), thereby mobilizing civil resistance against the West’s ability to intervene if and when it decides action is necessary. Russia has further bolstered these efforts to sow Balkan distrust and fear of any Western cooperation by stirring nostalgic Pan-Slavic sentiments.
The U.S. and NATO response to Russian influence must be comprehensive. Further, it needs to incentivize and underwrite lasting cooperation amongst Balkan nations. Instead, a patchwork of efforts—from the Berlin Process to increase economic development and diversification, to support of the Adriatic Five initiative to build solidarity in the region, to formal NATO membership processes—are not coordinated, much less federated, for effect. Many of these efforts identify comprehensive Russian actions aimed at destabilizing the region, yet they have their own discrete objectives and therefore avoid direct confrontation.
It must be noted that security problems in the Balkans are plentiful and not limited to Russian intervention. For example, according to a recent Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) report, all seven of the western Balkan nations in their study—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—have internal vulnerabilities including dangerous strains of nationalism, historical grievances, corruption, weakened state institutions, weak media, economic instability, terrorism and radicalization, and transnational organized crime. These challenges tend to exist regardless of the level of Russian activity in the respective country though they are at times intertwined with Russian activities or ignored due to linkages to Russian criminal networks. Therefore, there are opportunities to assist the region independent from directly countering Russian actions.
The Advancing Russian Approach
Russian influence varies across the Balkans, but is most visible in Serbia given its position of “military neutrality” as Serbia attempts to balance its military cooperation between the United States and Russia. Serbia has reiterated its commitment to a delicate balancing act between the United States and Russia, despite protests from the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee who has stated that Serbia “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time.” This Serbian commitment to neutrality is further threatened by other Russian initiatives, such as the Russian Humanitarian Centre, a Russian government-sponsored activity in Serbia. Other nations including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo are also seeing a significant rise of Russian influence, the most disturbing being an alleged Russian-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016 as it prepared for eventual NATO membership. Further, indirect connections between Russia and the growth of organized crime, violent extremism, and foreign terrorist fighter flows to support Ukrainian separatists exacerbate and link the challenges to every other nation in the region.
It is no secret that Russia sees the world stage as a competition for influence and outcomes between it and the West as a zero-sum “great” game. Russia’s overarching objective is to strengthen its stature and ability to project itself as a world power with whatever tool most effectively meets this objective. This goal is directly correlated to discrediting and weakening perceptions of U.S. and Western institutions and democracy in general.
Both NATO and the U.S. military recognize the risk and have sought to understand Russia’s evolving influence operations, ostensibly to get ahead of their decision-making cycle. Various papers have been written on the resurgence and evolution of hybrid, irregular, asymmetric warfare, which are also conveniently referred to as “gray zone” conflicts due to ambiguity of what exactly is occurring and why. Russia effectively mixes diplomatic, information, military, economic, legal, and other tools together—both under control of its government and those it can directly influence, such as private sector and black market connections. In short, Russia’s preferred methodology is classic political warfare, veiling military capabilities behind a shroud of uncertainty and deniability. This approach is not a “new” one, but rather an evolution of undeclared irregular and unconventional warfare, a way of war that has atrophied in the West since the end of the Cold War.
Russian tactics no longer follow clear doctrinal lines that the world witnessed during the fall of the Iron Curtain, or more recently in Chechnya or Georgia. Russia has learned valuable lessons through its military interventions in both Ukraine and Syria, as well as less overt practices in exploiting factionalism in nations like Bulgaria or Hungary. Their emerging approaches are nuanced and informed by local dynamics to enhance effectiveness. In general, Russia spreads misinformation to exploit nationalist sentiments or ethnic and religious divides while fostering relationships and patronage systems to exert political influence and create dependencies on Russia for critical resources such as energy. Russia then uses this as a basis for increased military cooperation and closer political alignment.
Taking a chapter from its successful playbooks in other parts of Europe, Russia uses multimedia disinformation campaigns in the Balkans to spread conspiracy theories. Given the prevalence of these actions in the news media, much of the public begins all publicly available information through a lens of doubt. In Macedonia, these media campaigns spilled over into entertainment and news shows that then overlooked any positive Western actions in the region. Russia has successfully twisted public understanding of the NATO bombing in Serbia and Montenegro in the 1990s as an example of Western disdain and prejudice against the Slavs rather than Allied efforts to halt ongoing hostilities against the residents of Kosovo. Beyond these existential fears of NATO operations in Serbia, this misinformation also creates policy influence in fiscal arenas. Serbians polled in 2016 believed that Russia had a significantly higher economic impact on their country than the EU, yet the EU actually provides a higher level of economic assistance. This comprehensive approach pulls on emotional strings, combining information and psychological warfare.
Russia’s central line of effort flows from a steady stream of disinformation presenting either false or exaggerated negative pictures of the West, or conversely false or exaggerated positive pictures of Russia. These channels of disinformation are diverse and directed toward national, cultural, and religious institutions. Supporting pan-Slavic, anti-Western sentiments, Russia overtly supports pro-Russian political parties and individuals and, to the extent possible, forms cooperative agreements between the United Russia party (Putin’s political underpinning) and likeminded groups in the Balkans. These efforts lead to symbolic cohesion, from joint parades, celebrations, and awarding of political decorations, to vocal support for Russia-friendly government policy platforms including the refusal to join sanctions against Russia for actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The tactic is spreading to intra-regional politics as well. While Kosovo created political seats reserved for minorities within their new nation, Serbia has taken the initiative to turn these appointments into placements of pro-Serbian operatives. Meanwhile, a rather fragile Kosovo is simultaneously struggling with radical Islamic movements, ISIS recruiting, and movements of foreign terrorist fighters to and from the Middle East.
Militarily, Russia is most active in growing its Balkan toe-hold in Serbia, despite Serbia’s declared policy of neutrality in 2007. Russia’s approach appears incremental. Playing off various Russian-sponsored organizations active in the region, many of the over 100 groups openly advocating for increased Russo-Serbian military cooperation have significantly impacted political outcomes, while the public becomes increasingly comfortable with Russian intervention. For example, according to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 14 bilateral meetings were held in 2016, initially focusing on economics, agriculture, science, and energy, but shifting to commitments to possibly upgrade security partnerships in October of the same year. In December 2016, Russia announced that it would support Serbia by gifting six MiG-29 planes, tanks, and scout vehicles, and media articles characterized this provision as “saving” Serbia’s Air Force. Unfortunately, the reality that these “gifted” aircraft arrived in a non-operational and dissembled state that will require an estimated $200 million and years of Russian support to become operational. This twist has done little to diminish Serbian enthusiasm for increased Serbo-Russian military cooperation. Rather, Russia has promised to deliver 30 tanks and 30 armored vehicles in the coming year. While Serbia participated in military exercises with 30 other nations in 2016, to include the United States, the largest events were with Russia and Belarus, and the Serbian government looks to build on that cooperation for the foreseeable future. The asymmetry of Serbia’s international military cooperation is apparent, despite public statements of neutrality. Serbian exercises with Russia focus on aggressive military moves, while exercises with NATO and the EU trend toward peacekeeping missions and disaster response. Further, Serbia’s agreement in the summer of 2017 to host a joint NATO-supported Regional Exercise (REGEX) in 2018 was quickly followed by statements from its Minister of Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin that the exercise was not, in fact, a joint Serbian-NATO exercise. Minister Vulin further emphasized that Serbia retained the right to hold exercises with anyone from whom it learns something. Considering the depth of Russian engagement and the slowness of the U.S. security sector assistance programs in the region, the outlook for true neutrality appears bleak.
Russian influence is also rated high in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic tensions are again giving way to violent extremism. The situation is further exacerbated by Russian disinformation about NATO that undermines the public’s trust of Western security assistance and limits the ability of Bosnian government officials to accept and integrate that security assistance effectively. While Islamic extremism is on the rise, other groups such as a “cleric-fascism” sect of nationalist Serbian Orthodoxy, or other neo-Nazi trends, are also growing. Members of these groups have gone to fight alongside Russia in the Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in Macedonia, despite the preponderance of political parties stating their continued interest in joining NATO, there are undercurrents with deep divisions along ethnic cleavages. Recent protests against election results, political pardons, and other signs of corruption led to further polarization. Adding to the fog of information, Russian statements accused the United States of being a culprit responsible for the unrest. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, similar divides in identity and grievances that the Dayton Peace Accords failed to address 20 years ago continue to push the nation to the brink of war.
Despite much of the negative examples, Montenegro did weather Russian influence operations that included the aforementioned coup attempt and completed its accession to NATO in June 2017, but still feels pressure from the religious divides Russia exploits and continual Russian military requests to use facilities, most recently for efforts in Syria. Russia works to portray the Orthodox Church as embodying “Eastern Christian” values that are different from Western, including NATO and EU, “values” to strengthen divides. This effort is successful, despite completely ignoring the fact that there are already Orthodox nations in NATO and the EU, such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania.
What the West Should Do Next
Many in the West recognize the importance of security in the Balkans, but these stakeholders must better organize themselves and their resources in this arena. This reorganization includes developing a new approach towards the Balkans, identifying and empowering lead organizations and individuals within the process, setting communication frameworks with each Balkan nation individually, and then designing realistic strategies to organize contributions in time and space. The West has lost positioning with many Balkan governments and populaces, and therefore working collectively is essential to regain sustainable footing with the ability to underwrite stability.
Given the size of resources, NATO and U.S. European Command’s interagency teams can kick-start this process as facilitators, bringing intergovernmental organization (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individual nations together as a “Balkan Community of Interest.” Policy representatives from NATO, EU, and U.S. State Department should serve as lead brokers with an invitation to other nations to join this “board” and a schedule should be created to keep the effort on track. Beyond traditional players, U.S. National Guard partnership program leaders, and internal military forces with law enforcement duties like Italy’s Carabinieri, should be included. Balkan nations should all be encouraged to participate as potential benefactors and partners from the deliberations.
Adding to the complexity, the group must collectively determine if and how “countering Russian influence” is emphasized. Other framing options include collaborating on refugee and migration policies, addressing combating extremism in schools, enhancing counter-terrorism information sharing methodologies and application, securing porous borders, strengthening institutions to suffocate transnational organized crime, or designing opportunities to stimulate economic growth. U.S. foreign policy expert James Carafano suggested that “much of what America can and should do to squeeze Putin’s malignant efforts out of the equation ought to focus on the region itself rather than on the Kremlin’s misbehavior.” In short, efforts that can be organized without directly tying to counter-Russian activities may defuse false perceptions that Balkan nations must take a side. Consideration of these activities ought to be prioritized. Further, the group must be deliberate to ensure time is well spent and processes continue to lean forward. Iterative meetings need to focus on organizing available capacities that obtain Balkan buy-in. Legitimacy and realistic scoping of efforts is critical on both sides.
Next, the group should identify Western leads to guide and synchronize efforts in each “Western lead plus Balkan nation” partnership. While enhancing security, stability, and governance is a broad starting point, various individual constitutional and political limitations must be considered up front. For example, Serbia is more likely to work with the EU or, potentially, an individual nation such as Germany. NATO leading collaboration with Montenegro is a natural fit given its new membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina could also synchronize through a NATO lead, potentially the U.S. Macedonia’s partner must be able to serve as an honest broker given ongoing disputes with Greece. These pairings should map to where trust and shared interests are highest to minimize friction and limit how and when actions are perceived as directly confrontational to Russia unless by design.
Moving Forward. Together.
The process of identifying strengths of Western representatives interested in enhancing stability in the Balkans, and weaving respective activities together, must be conducted at a higher level than any one institution or nation. NATO, the EU, and the U.S. should take steps to get behind this basic premise. Additionally, other nations, such as China, should be invited to the discussions if they are willing to work towards shared objectives with corollary benefits. Ultimately, protecting peace in Europe depends on stability in the Balkans. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in February 2017, “The challenges we face are the most complex and demanding in a generation. Neither Europe nor North America can tackle them alone. A strong NATO is good for Europe, a strong Europe is good for North America.” Ultimately, a strong Europe rests upon stability in the Balkans.