By David L. Phillips*/
The front line in Russia’s Cold War lies in the Balkans. Serbia is the epicenter of Russia’s anti-American agenda, which aims to destabilize pro-western states with NATO and European Union (EU) aspirations.Serbia is a convenient ally for Russia. The two countries have deep historical and cultural connections. Russia gained further favor by strongly opposing NATO’s intervention in 1999.
Vladimir Putin endorsed Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic when they met last month in Moscow. Putin also promised weapons. Russia’s “donations” of military equipment include six MiG-29 jets, with modern missiles, radar, and communication systems, as well as tanks and armored reconnaissance vehicles. Serbia also seeks BUK anti-aircraft systems and S-300 surface to air missiles.
Russia has a spy base in Nis in southern Serbia to monitor western activities in the region. Moscow denies espionage, insisting the base is used for flood relief and fighting forest fires.
Security cooperation with Russia enjoys broad support among Serbs. Most Serbs support joint military exercises. Nearly two-thirds of Serbs view NATO as a threat. Though the West provides four times more investment, Serbs see Russia as their primary commercial partner.
Russia is stoking tensions in Kosovo, which remains a dangerous flash point almost a decade after declaring independence. In January, Belgrade sent a Russian manufactured train to Mitrovica adorning its coaches with signs in Cyrillic and Russian declaring “Kosovo is Serbia.” When Kosovars objected, Vucic threatened military action.
Kosovo Serbs built a wall north of the Ibar River in Mitrovica and threatened to secede. They covered the wall with posters of Vladimir Putin. Russian media exacerbates tensions by engaging in anti-NATO propaganda. Sputnik, a Russian state news agency, has an active satellite office in Belgrade.
Russia also foments conflict in Bosnia. In November, Russia supported a controversial referendum by Bosnian Serbs, setting the stage for secession. Bosnia is deeply divided with the Republika Srpska moving towards separation.
In Macedonia, Russia tacitly supports the ruling VMRO party of Nicola Gruevski, which is becoming increasingly anti-American and anti-EU. Macedonia is the hub of fake news outlets, manufacturing stories that defame US politicians, US officials, and well-intended western philanthropists.
Montenegro is another proving ground. Authorities arrested 20 Serbian agents for plotting a coup on election day in October 2016, accusing Russian “state organs” of complicity.
US allies in the region are rallying.
Montenegro will attend NATO’s Summit next month as a full member.
Kosovo seeks support for establishing armed forces and assistance with its National Action Plan to prevent violent extremism.
Albania offers bases to enhance NATO air operations and counter-terrorism efforts.
Croatia, a NATO member, will buy jets and other equipment from the West in response to the Serbian buildup. It rebuffed specious offers of assistance from Russia to fight fires last summer on the Adriatic coast.
Bosnia reaffirmed its commitment to joining NATO, over the objection of Bosnian Serbs under Belgrade’s control. Bosnia rejected Russia’s “agreement of understanding” on joint actions in case of natural disasters.
Putin cynically pursues Russia’s self-interest, projecting influence in the Balkans. He heralds Slavic and Orthodox solidarity, but cares little about the targets of Russian influence. To Putin, the Balkans represent a vulnerable underbelly of the West, ripe for meddling.
The US should respond to Russia’s aggression by intensifying its economic and diplomatic contact. It can help stabilize fragile states in the Balkans through security cooperation aimed at preventing violent extremism and countering-terrorism.
Most people of the Balkans are pro-American and share European values. The US and the EU can effectively confront Russia’s challenge through more extensive engagement.
*David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He worked as a Senior Adviser to the State Department’s Bureau for European Affairs during the administrations of Presidents Clinton and Bush. He is author of Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.