The Dutch Institute for International Relations Clingendael has published a study on how Russia influences three of the six countries in the Western Balkans.
This Clingendael report examines the role of the Russian Federation in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It examines Russia’s goals in its relations with the three countries, as well as the different sources of influence the Kremlin has in each. The report places this analysis in the changed geopolitical circumstances resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s main goals for the Western Balkans are threefold. First, the Kremlin seeks to project great power status around the world. Second, it aims to impede the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration by opposing NATO and EU integration and increasing instability. Third, the Kremlin uses the Balkans, particularly Kosovo’s statehood, as an argument for its foreign policy agenda elsewhere, especially when defending perceived dominance over the immediate.
Rather than building a stable, inclusive, and meaningful relationship with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Montenegro, Russia is instead pursuing an opportunistic approach based on fragmented access points to influence in each country. The Kremlin shows moderate ambitions to build positive relations with all three countries, which is reflected in the tools it uses to influence the region. It cultivates contacts and influences through a wide range of individual politicians, the Orthodox Church, the media, and maliciously portrayed groups, using energy links as well as local tensions and historical memories. Moscow pursues this approach deliberately and has proven relatively successful.
At the political level, Russia’s influence extends particularly to (pro-)Serb politicians, who often use similar narratives and use Russia as an external supporter to advance their ideas. In particular, its position on Kosovo, Russian support for Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, and its ties to the Orthodox Church remain important entry points for Russia’s political influence throughout the region. Of the three countries, the entry points for Russian influence are strongest in Serbia, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Economically, Russia’s influence has significantly surpassed that of the EU, particularly in the area of trade. However, Russia’s extensive influence in the energy sectors of BiH and Serbia, however, provides considerable political leverage, even if its investments often prove economically inexorable.
In terms of military influence, Russia is eager to maintain military cooperation with its main partner, Serbia, while supporting the militarization of Republika Srpska. Belgrade is satisfied with the current level of cooperation with Moscow, but wants to avoid becoming Russia’s base in the Balkans. In fact, Russia is only one of many security actors in the Balkans, overshadowed by NATO and challenged by China.
While Russia presents itself as a partner to Serbia and Republika Srpska in particular, it also uses malicious instruments that have often proven effective in shaping the political environment in the Western Balkans. In the absence of a military presence in the region, Russia supports far-right nationalist figures and organizations, generally more akin to organized crime groups than paramilitary organizations, to achieve its goal of destabilization by fomenting polarization and anti-Western sentiment.
The Kremlin is arguably most successful in the area of media and disinformation. Russian propaganda infiltrates Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina through Russian-funded portals, local media, and social media. Russian disinformation and narratives have permeated the region to the point that large segments of society have a positive image of Russia and its political leadership.
In all these areas, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had a moderate impact, but did not completely change Russia’s attitude toward Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Meanwhile, the invasion has led to a sharpening of the dividing lines between Russia and the West and a decline in Russia’s financial and diplomatic capacity. Russia’s sources of influence in all three countries are moderately strained, in part because of initial moves by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia to diversify energy sources and pressure from the West to reduce their political and security ties to the Russian federation. For now, this has not affected Moscow’s ability to disrupt the Euro-Atlantic integration of the three countries./The Geopost/