The Biden administration has focused its foreign policy on countering a rising China. A bi-partisan consensus has emerged in Washington that China is America’s most dangerous global adversary. And in order to zero in on confronting Beijing, the White House has been seeking more “stable and predictable” relations with Russia. In reality, fostering unpredictability and instability are Moscow’s two core strategies for undermining the West and it has no reason to relinquish them.
As the White House is preoccupied with China’s growing military power and its threats against U.S. allies in the Far East, the Kremlin can subvert other regions. Benefiting from White House distractions it can help ignite new conflicts, and the Western Balkans remain a primary target of opportunity. The recent dispute at the Kosova-Serbia border over the recognition of license plates looks like a test run for more serious confrontations. Russian officials are encouraging the government of President Aleksandar Vučić to transform Serbia into the dominant power in the Western Balkans and thereby increase Russia’s leverage with Washington and Brussels.
Belgrade organized a blockade along the frontier with Kosovo in September, placed its troops on alert, and threatened military intervention. Russia’s Ambassador Aleksander Botsan-Kharchenko accompanied Serbia’s Defense Minister Nebojša Stefanović toinspect Serbian army units. While Prishtina sent a police detachment to implement license plate requirements, Belgrade deployed military vehicles along the border and flew MiG-29 fighter jets over the area to try and intimidate its neighbor.
In another show of strength and a demonstration of Kremlin military commitments to Belgrade, Russian and Serbian air defense forces conducted joint exercises in mid-October that involved MiG-29 fighter aircraft. Moscow has also deployed a battery of Pantsir-S short-range anti-aircraft systems to Serbia and stated it was ready to sell other air defense systems to Belgrade. As Serbia’s neighbors do not possess any significant air force, the maneuvers were clearly intended as a signal to NATO that Russia will defend its key Balkan ally in the event of a regional war.
The propaganda ground is also being prepared for conflict. Belgrade and Moscow accuse the Kosova government of threatening the rights and existence of the Serbian minority. A similar narrative can be employed against the Bosnian government to justify war. The Kremlin has consistently used such claims about Russian populations in its aggressive revisionist enterprises in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. Russia is now instructing its “younger brother” Serbia on the methodology of regional dominance and territorial partition.
In one scenario, Serbian intelligence operatives can provoke inter-ethnic confrontations inside Kosova and capitalize on the ensuing violence as a pretext for military intervention. This would place the small NATO force in Kosova in a difficult position in confronting the Serbian military. By supporting any Serb incursion and threatening to provide direct military assistance if NATO engages, Moscow would test Biden’s resolve in risking a NATO-Russia war. Putin may calculate that Washington would prefer negotiations even it means surrendering Kosova’s northern municipalities to Belgrade’s control, especially as Kosova is not a NATO member and cannot rely on its collective defense commitments.
The Kosova gamble could be part of a wider offensive by Belgrade with Russian guidance to expand Belgrade’s regional position. According to Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, all Serbs have the right to be united in one state. Just like Russians, the Serbs are portrayed as the long-suffering victims which hostile powers are conspiring to eliminate. Belgrade claims the right to protect Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosova, North Macedonia, and Croatia. In addition to destabilizing Kosova, Belgrade’s current focus is on deepening Bosnia’s divisions and enabling the Serb entity to threaten secession. It also collaborates with Serbian nationalists in Montenegro’s coalition government to reverse Montenegro’s independence and pro-Western policies.
While Vučić is seeking glory as a uniter of “Serbian lands,” Putin manipulates him to serve Russia’s geopolitical goals. Vučić is permanently indebted to Moscow for blocking Kosova’s entry into the United Nations and Serbia’s economic dependence on Russia is expanding, particularly in the energy field where it recently joined the new Russian natural gas link via Bulgaria and Turkey.
Serbia is also being groomed as a Russian military outpost and a hub of regional subversion. It has been armed with an assortment of weaponry over the past few years, including warplanes, tanks, helicopters, and anti-aircraft systems. The Russo-Serbian “humanitarian center” close to the Kosova border serves as an intelligence gathering and special operations facility for Moscow. Serbia is also developing close links with the Russia-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) intended as a multi-national counterpart to NATO.
Through a multitude of tentacles controlled by the Kremlin, Serbia is becoming Russia’s Balkan hostage. Moscow is adamant that any Serbian moves toward NATO accession will not be tolerated and could result in the replacement of Vučić and his government. Kremlin support for assorted nationalist groups in Serbia, its extensive influence in Serbia’s information space, its intimate ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and its espionage penetration of key institutions in Serbia are all intended to keep Vučić in line and prevent him from developing any closer integrative links with Western institutions.
Serbia provides a valuable opportunity for Putin to stir armed conflicts in a still volatile Balkan region. This would help expand Russia’s influence, distract Western attention from conflicts that Moscow engineers in its own neighborhood, and disguise the intensifying crackdown on dissent inside the Russian Federation. At some point, Vučić could be enticed or provoked into a military confrontation with one of Serbia’s neighbors and will then appeal to Moscow for assistance. With the EU rudderless and the U.S. focused on China and other international crises, the Kremlin may calculate that the reduced risk of Western military intervention is worth taking.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC.