The Balkans, in general, hold a particular place in Russian politics because of its weight in the Pan-Slavic narrative, but also because of its geopolitical importance as a convenient theater of confrontation with the West. The US and Western Europe’s management of the Yugoslav crisis mounted to a humiliating loss for the Russian projection of power in its traditional Balkan domain. Post-Yugoslav states’ choice to pursue the EU and/or NATO membership, then, became the last nail in the coffin of Russian influence, but it also fueled a new impetus for Russia to take back control and halt those countries ongoing integration into European structures.
Kosovo’s independence in 2008, an act supported by the US and most European countries and vehemently opposed by Russia, created a new window of opportunity for the Russian comeback strategy in the region. Other regional problems – unsolved conflicts, divided polities, fragile institutions and contested states – created additional openings for the evolving Balkan strategy. As a US official with knowledge on the region puts it, ‘the Russians are taking advantage of the last part of Western Europe that remains politically dysfunctional.” An employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry further explains the link between region’s dysfunctionality and Russian policy: ‘[the region] is full of opportunities for us to play everyone against each other – and frankly, we don’t have to do very much.’
Considering the ample opportunities on the ground, but also other major and expensive operations in the Middle East and Crimea that dry out the bulk of its resources, Russia has opted for a low cost toolkit – hawkish undercover operations, obstruction of conflict solution initiatives and propelling friendly of pockets – which capitalises on the region’s own failings.
Russian engagement in the Balkans remains interwoven with spying and intelligence-nuanced undercover operations. Kremlin’s point man in the region, Nikolai Patrushev, is a career intelligence officer and Head of Russia’s Security Council. Kremlin’s other key Balkan strategist, Leonid Reshetnikov, is also a former career intelligence officer keen in masterminding a Russian ‘return to the Balkans’
Evidence from Russia’s involvement exposes a trend of covert and overt disruptive operations across the region. In 2016, Montenegro saw the unfolding of a surreal coup and assassination attempt against the Prime Minister, which allegedly involved 2 Russian citizens and 9 Serbian security operatives. The operation unfolded just ahead of country’s scheduled NATO membership. During the same year, Russia backed an unconstitutional referendum in the Republika Srpska, a move challenging the current architecture of the fragile Bosnian state. The move also went against any EU proposals to move the country towards the goal of EU membership. One year later, Russia was allegedly involved in the unfolding constitutional crisis in Macedonia, which risked halting the creation of a new government committed to minority rights and EU membership. In 2018, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats for ‘meddling in domestic affairs’, including efforts to sabotage an agreement with Macedonia, then crucially important to lift Greece’s veto of EU accession talks with the country. Back in 2017, Albania too become scene of a financing plot involving Russian-linked shell companies close to Putin, a Washington D.C. lobbyist and one of the major Albanian parties, seemingly intended to foment ‘political conflict’.
Russian financed media outlets that are active in the region provide backing for such operations by diffusing the Kremlin narrative and/or related propaganda material. Sputnik, the news agency owned by the Russian government, maintains a staff of 30 in Belgrade where it pays a network of local channels to rebroadcast its news while distributing free content, which is then republished hundreds of times a week. Another medium for Russian evolving strategy are Kremlin connect entrepreneurs who have shown able at ‘buying’ economic leverage and political influence across the region. Often, such leverage relies on ‘black accounts’, cash generated through proxies and other dubious sources that involve potential links with organised crime.