The War in Ukraine: Aftershocks in the Balkans

As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags into its second month, a deep sense of unease has settled across the Western Balkans. The images coming out of Ukraine have revived memories of the horrors the region experienced in the 1990s, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter Bosnia) and between Serbia and Kosovo. Given Russia’s strong economic, military, and soft power connections, the conflict has raised concerns that Moscow might try to further destabilize the region to deflect attention from its flawed campaign in Ukraine. Often referred to as Europe’s “soft underbelly,” the Balkans could turn into a new source of unrest in an already shattered continent.

Against this backdrop, Europe and the United States cannot stand idle. The war in Ukraine has relaunched questions about the future of the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region. Although surrounded by EU and NATO member states, the region remains only partially integrated into Euro-Atlantic political and security structures (see map). As countries in the Balkans are asked to take a side and to contribute to the diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia, Europe and the United States also need to double down their military, political, and economic engagement in the region.

A Vulnerable Region under Russian Influence

Today, Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans remains strong. Russia’s economic investment in the region has focused on strategic sectors like energy and has capitalized on systems of party patronage and corruption. In recent years, Russia has also strengthened its military ties with Serbia, selling it weapons, planes, and air defense systems. But it is Russia’s Orthodox faith and its continued opposition to Kosovo’s independence that has formed the foundation for its soft power in the region. This has paved the way for Russian influence to permeate strongly in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, where significant segments of the polity are staunchly pro-Russian. For leaders like Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić and Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik, demonstrating close ties with Russian leadership is a matter of political survival.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, pro-Russian rallies, often featuring far-right groups with direct ties to Russia, have cropped up in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia.

For nationalist factions across the region that view Putin’s Russia as a protector of Orthodox people, Russia’s invasion of a fellow Orthodox country like Ukraine is not an inherent contradiction. Divorced from historical context, these groups see Russia as reclaiming land that is rightfully theirs, much as they would like to see Kosovo “returned” to Serbia. Putin himself has often invoked the example of Kosovo as justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its incursions into Donetsk and Luhansk.

As with Ukraine, Russia sees the Western Balkans as a buffer zone where it can preserve a sphere of influence and undermine the West. In Montenegro, Russian FSB and GRU operatives were among those arrested for a failed coup attempt in 2016 designed to stop Montenegro’s accession to NATO. Regarding to Kosovo and Serbia, Russia’s support for Serbia’s position undermines attempts to normalize relations between the two countries, thus hindering their respective integration into the European Union. And in Bosnia, Russia’s recent threats to veto the renewal of the EU peacekeeping force in Bosnia have underlined the fragility of Bosnia’s post-war constitution. In all these cases, Russia has demonstrated that it could easily destabilize the Balkans.

Regional Reactions to the Ukraine War

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasized the cleavages between pro-Western and pro-Russian voices across the Balkans. NATO members Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia were quick to fall in line behind EU sanctions, as was NATO-aspirant Kosovo. While supporting the UN resolutions condemning Russia’s actions, Serbia and Bosnia have nonetheless refused to join sanctions against Russia, thus becoming the only two European countries left off of Russia’s list of “hostile” states.

In Bosnia, fears that the war in Ukraine could breed instability in the Balkans are particularly rife. The inability to come to a uniform position and condemn Russia’s aggression is due to the intransigence of Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, who has advocated a pro-Russian position. The country has found itself in its most serious post-war crisis in recent months due to threats by Dodik to pull the country’s Serb-majority entity from national institutions. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia fueled these fears by warning that any rapprochement between Bosnia and NATO would be met with a Russian response, saying,  “Ukraine’s example shows what we expect.”

In Kosovo, where public sentiment is strongly pro-Western and anti-Russian, the crisis in Ukraine has likewise heightened concerns over Kosovo’s own security. Government leaders have been strident in their calls for a faster path toward NATO membership and for a permanent NATO base. Like other European nations, Kosovo has also pledged to bring defense spending up to the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP in light of the current conflict, even establishing a “security fund” where citizens can directly contribute to the armed forces.

Although Montenegro was quick to join in sanctions against Russia, it has yet to implement most of them due to political infighting—though it did implement initial sanctions on Russian state-sponsored media outlets. The country’s pro-Serbian government, which collapsed following a no-confidence vote in February but remains in a caretaking role, has been bitterly divided over sanctions. These divisions are revealing of the degree of economic exposure of the country: Russia is the largest foreign direct investor in Montenegro, investing heavily in its real estate market and in sectors like metallurgy. However, the potential for a new minority-led government to be formed by Prime Minister-Designate Dritan Abazovic of the pro-Western “Black on White” bloc could temper pro-Russian voices currently in the government if coalition talks succeed.

Western attention has been most focused on Serbia, where the war in Ukraine has presented an added challenge to the government as it struggled to maintain its balancing act between Russia and the West ahead of presidential, parliamentary, and local elections on April 3. For a population that remembers well the pain of being on the wrong end of Western sanctions, President Vučić has strived to portray himself as the candidate most capable of protecting Serbia’s stability. Mindful of strong pro-Russian public sentiment and of increased scrutiny from the European Union and the United States, Vučić has been adamant about Serbia’s neutrality in the crisis: Serbia voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before the UN General Assembly but refused to align with EU sanctions on Russia. Yet, expectations will be higher now that his victory is in the rearview mirror. That Vučić will move towards the West is not guaranteed though, particularly as the government now begins coalition negotiations.

Time for Europe and the United States to Step Up

In this context, Europe and the United States need to redouble their efforts to avoid further destabilization in the Balkans. Depending on the Western response, two very different futures await the region: either growing instability that Russia could instrumentalize, or a lasting integration within the European community.

After years of stalemate, the brutal war in Ukraine is forcing all actors to choose a clear political path and take bold decisions. The coming months will offer opportunities to discuss the future of the region, starting with a European summit dedicated to the Western Balkans in June. Organized by France, as chair of the Council of the European Union, this summit would aim at “clarifying the European perspectives [of the Western Balkans], reinvesting in the region and defining a true common ambition for the decades to come,” as underlined by President Emmanuel Macron.

At the political level, it is imperative that Europe answers the calls across the region to speed up EU integration in the context of the war in Ukraine. Known for their hesitance, Paris and Berlin have already sent strong signals on this issue, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz calling on the European Union to support the Western Balkans countries in their bid to join the bloc “as soon as possible,” and President Macron advocating for “giving them a clear perspective of accession to the European Union.” A revived accession process would foster progress on much-needed governance and rule-of-law reforms in these countries. It could also serve as additional leverage to push Serbia to start aligning its foreign policy with the European Union, notably regarding sanctions against Moscow. This new political momentum could also contribute to a rapid resolution of the bilateral dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, which has led Sofia to block the accession process of both North Macedonia and Albania, whose bids are tied.

On the security front, both the European Union and NATO need to adapt their posture to prevent any destabilization of the region. In Bosnia, the European Union has already doubled the size of its stabilization force (known as EUFOR ALTHEA) from 600 personnel to 1,100, while French aircraft have conducted overflights as a precautionary measure. NATO has also recently decided to develop a “new defense capacity-building package” for Bosnia. The future of the EU force is nonetheless at risk as Russia could block the extension of its mandate at the United Nations next fall. This prospect should encourage Europeans to explore other legal ways to sustain the mission. Likewise, the European Union has decided to deploy additional police forces to Kosovo to support local police as well as NATO troops.

The European Union and NATO should also increase their support to help Western Balkans countries uphold rule of law and counter Russian malign influence and disinformation campaigns. In Bosnia, the action taken this week by the UN high representative to suspend legislation on state-owned property passed by the Republika Srpska was also a welcome indication of Western attention to Dodik’s attempts to violate the country’s constitution. So too were the actions of the United States to sanction seven individuals from the region deemed to pose a threat to regional stability. While there have been small efforts across the region to create educational awareness about media literacy and disinformation in recent years, these efforts are still disjointed and drowned out by the tabloid-driven media environments. In addition to its support for independent and investigative media outlets across the region, the European Union can help coordinate and amplify such information literacy efforts from local governments and civil society organizations across the region. In order to foster greater pluralism of the media, both the United States and European allies can help guide reforms aimed at widening transparency of media ownership and limiting political influence in media markets.

Finally, in the economic domain, Europe and the United States should bolster their assistance to the region to help Western Balkans countries mitigate the many spillover effects from the war in Ukraine, from higher energy prices to food insecurity. On the energy front, EU countries have already agreed to allow Western Balkans countries to take part in joint gas purchases to contain energy costs. Similar actions should also be undertaken to address a looming global food crisis. Over the long run, the European Union should accelerate the implementation of its €30 billion investment plan announced in October 2021 for the 20212027 period. Investments should in particular focus on energy diversification and infrastructure as a way to reduce the dependencies of the region toward Russia as well as China.

For many people in the Balkans, the brutal images coming out of Ukraine for the past several weeks—of refugees crowding train stations, buildings bombed, bodies lying in the street—have evoked a specter of the past few have been able to forget. As the United States and Europe contemplate what the future of the continent could look like, there is room to further engage with this corner of Europe to deepen stability and security both inside and outside of the bloc. Regional leaders should likewise take stock of the future they want to build for their countries.

Dejana Saric is a research assistant with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

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