Friend of the magazine Ivan Krastev has an excellent article in the FT about the Balkans’ susceptibility to Russian meddling of the sort Putin has deployed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. He offers an insightful explanation of why Putin might try to expand the crisis beyond Ukraine. Krastev:
One of two scenarios could play out in the year ahead. The Kremlin could withdraw from eastern Ukraine and try to repair its relations with the west. Or it could try instead to regain the initiative, increasing the pressure on European leaders and try to split the continent asunder.
Krastev then details the reasons why the rest of Russia’s immediate neighbors are inapt targets for Kremlin meddling: while further destabilizing Ukraine would trigger more painful sanctions, attacking the sovereign territory of other neighbors like Belarus and Kazakhstan would scupper Moscow’s dearly held plans for a Eurasian Union. But as Krastev notes, none of those disqualifying factors apply to the Balkans:
Logic dictates that if Russia wants to increase the pressure on Europe, it should try beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is such a scenario that makes the Balkans a likely hotspot. Russia certainly does not fantasise about bringing Bosnia or Albania into its sphere of influence, and nobody in the Balkans dreams of joining the Eurasian Union. Their major trading partner is the EU — and it is there that businesses look for investment, and would-be émigrés look for new homes.As well as being the EU’s backyard, the Balkans are the underbelly of Brussels’ diplomacy. Their banking systems are fragile. If businesses with large deposits and Russian connections were suddenly to pull their money out, the result could be widespread insolvency, and with it civil strife. Pro-western governments would teeter. This is the place to apply pressure, if Moscow wants to make Europeans feel uncomfortable.A controlled crisis in the Balkans would give Russia bargaining chips, and deniability. It would force many European governments to turn their eyes away from Ukraine. And it will make it almost impossible for the EU to maintain even a semblance of unity on security. It would open a chasm between the European south and European north.
Krastev closes by saying that ultimately Putin has more to lose from destabilizing the Balkans than he has to gain. But true or not, that conclusion may not be shared by Moscow; the argument that Balkan meddling would be a powerful weapon against Western solidarity and resolve may resonate more loudly in the halls of the Kremlin. The Balkans are weak states, have considerable sympathy for Putin’s agenda, and in several cases already have pro-Russian groups just waiting for an extra push to turn into rebel movements. Putin may have his problems, but as Krastev’s article illustrates so well, he has more cards in his hand than many in the West understand.