Western Balkans in Russia’s Crosshairs

Photo: iStock.com/julian_nitzsche

As NATO prepares to add another small Balkan country to its ranks – Montenegro is expected to join on June 5 – the region that has long been torn between the East and the West, and plagued with internal ethnic, socioeconomic, and political tensions is once again showing signs of increased instability.

“The Western Balkans is in the crosshairs of Russian influence operations right now … Across the whole region, Russia is meddling and trying to subvert some of the governments and sow chaos and instability,” Michael Carpenter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, told a Senate Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) hearing last week.

“I worry that the Balkans may not get sufficient U.S. attention,” said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, at the CSCE hearing.

In March, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia landed in Washington to discuss their new trilateral agreement for expanding security cooperation and political dialogue, and to urge the United States to pay more attention.

Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic said at an Atlantic Council event that for the past two years, Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement – namely, expanding to include Montenegro – has become “bigger” and “more involved.”

Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier of Croatia echoed that, saying it’s “evident” that in the last years there has been an increased Russian presence in the region. And Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati of Albania noted an “assertive Russia” in Montenegro.

In October 2016, the Russians allegedly orchestrated a coup attempt in Montenegro, plotting to seize the country’s parliamentary building, kill the Prime Minister, and install a new government that would be hostile to NATO. Montenegro recently indicted 14 individuals suspected of being involved in the attempted coup, including two Russians.

Why has Russia over the past few years become increasingly aggressive in the Balkans, stoking old tensions and creating new ones?

John Cappello, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who previously served as the U.S. Defense Attaché to Serbia, told The Cipher Brief the answer is two-fold: Putin has consolidated more power domestically and needs an enemy – that is, the United States, and the Western world more broadly – to maintain nationalist sentiment at home; and Putin sees an opening. “We’ve kind of taken our eye off the ball in the Balkans,” he said, noting that integration following the wars of the 1990s remains incomplete.

Some Western leaders are beginning to notice the growing instability. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, toured the Balkans in March, re-focusing on the region ever since the attempted coup in Montenegro.

One month later, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-AZ) took a Balkans tour, meeting with leaders there. After returning, Senator McCain told The Cipher Brief in a phone interview, “They’re confused as to the statements of the President, as to exactly what our commitment is to NATO and to other aspects of our relationships. … we’re going to have to show them our commitment to the alliance. … Leading from behind doesn’t work.”

On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump repeatedly called NATO “obsolete” and insinuated that if NATO members do not meet the two percent of GDP defense spending goal set by NATO in 2014, the U.S. may not uphold its end of the bargain – namely, Article 5, the collective defense clause.

President Donald Trump seems to have made a 180 on NATO, saying at a press briefing with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in April that NATO is “no longer obsolete.” Trump also signed off on the Senate’s near-unanimous consent for Montenegro to join NATO.

Still, Trump’s proclaimed isolationist tendencies and wavering commitment to the transatlantic defense alliance, along with a rise in populism – and more nationalistic views – across Europe, provides Russian President Vladimir Putin with room to maneuver in the Balkans.

“Whenever the larger European system breaks down, which is happening currently, so does the prevailing Balkan status quo,” David Kanin, a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), told The Cipher Brief.

“It is important to remember that outside Cold War-era Germany, the Balkans is the only part of Europe where World War II did not definitively settle borders and statehood,” added Kanin, who served in the CIA as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Europe from 1993-96.

Contributing to a fragile Western liberal democratic world order are economic malaise and the threat of terrorism. The 2008 world financial crisis hit the United States and Europe, including the Balkans, hard, helping to foment populist, nationalist sentiment.

Terror attacks from Brussels to Paris to Berlin are dividing the continent between those who believe in shutting down borders and closing doors to all Muslims to combat the threat, and others who think that improving security checks and integration policy is the answer.

In the Balkans, “at least 877 nationals from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2012” to fight with ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, Anita Rice told The Cipher Brief in May 2016. 

Rice, a senior editor at the Balkans Investigate Reporting Network (BIRN), said, “Around 300 Balkan nationals are believed to have returned home so far.”

These threats are leading to what Stier called a “vacuum” in international politics, which allows countries like Russia to move in to try to fill the “gap.”

Cappello noted that Russian information campaigns – that is, propaganda via news media – in the Balkans has become more “aggressive” in the past two or three years.

While many in the Balkans support Western-oriented policy, Darmanovic noted that the government must acknowledge the anti-NATO camp in a very “blunt” way. “We of course don’t want to clash with Russia,” he said, while commenting that becoming a part of NATO does not threaten anyone. “We can’t even if we want to!” he quipped. Montenegro has around 2,000 soldiers, no military academy, no air force, and no coast guard.

Still, “Just being under the NATO umbrella may offer protection from a full-on assault, but doesn’t provide any shield from other Russian efforts at destabilization,” wrote Foreign Policy’s Emily Tamkin, who moderated the Atlantic Council discussion with the three Balkan ministers.

“Another round of fighting, as Western hegemony weakens, is the region’s most likely future,” said Kanin.

Senator McCain, on the other hand, said, “I do not predict conflict or war. But I do predict challenges which are met by strength, the old line of Ronald Reagan – peace through strength.”

But he lamented that “we have sort of walked away from” the Balkans and warned, “We need to pay more attention to those countries – after all, we did fight a little war there.” 

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.