Russia’s influence in the Balkans is real and easily observed. Both before and since the Ukrainian crisis, it has affected the region in a multitude of ways. Moscow’s rising military might has far reaching consequences for the security posture of NATO and its members bordering the Black Sea. The Russian oil and gas companies, Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, and Lukoil, still play an enormous role in the local energy markets, despite the headwinds they face and the beefed-up E.U. legislation aimed at encouraging competition and diversifying supplies. The cult of Vladimir Putin and the celebration of Russia’s resurgence on the world stage routinely makes headlines.
Emboldened, Russia has not shrunk from throwing its weight around, putting pressure on Europe and America, the two guarantors of the security order in the region. The rivalry is intense and it spans both countries and policy arenas. Despite the hopes of detente or even a grand bargain with Russia—touted by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic—there is no end in sight to the ongoing contest.
That all said, it is important to avoid lazy thinking, put the Russian challenge in perspective, acknowledge its limits, and recognize what it is not.
First of all, this is not a return to the Cold War. There are no blocs or alliances poised against one another in Southeastern Europe—a clear departure from the recent past. Russia, moreover, has no permanent allies or coherent ideology to export and sustain. Nor is it in a position to build an economic integration unit, for example by expanding the incipient Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) into the Balkans by accepting as members Serbia, Republika Srpska, Macedonia, or anyone else for that matter. Even Moscow’s best friends in the region tend to gravitate to the European Union in economic terms, and continue to seek positive ties with NATO and the United States. For its part, Russia has been perfecting its skill at disruption, without necessarily trying to establish its hegemony. Anything more ambitious would be a very costly enterprise, and certainly not worth it to the Kremlin in terms of returns on investment.
Second, though certain similarities or flashbacks are certainly present, we are not witnessing a “back to the future” scenario—some kind of return to a “Great Game” era of geopolitics. Back in the 19th and early 20th century, Russia wielded much greater clout over Balkan affairs compared to today, thanks to its recurrent military interventions and the very structure and operation of the Concert of Europe. At no point, however, was Russia an important economic factor. These days, by contrast, Russian energy firms and various financial investments in the region represent a much more effective tool. Whether it’s the South Stream gas pipeline or the 2015 sanctions against Turkey, the economy plays a central role in Russia’s relations with Southeast Europe. What is particularly noteworthy is the broader context: an unprecedented degree of interdependence and border permeability in post-1989 Europe. Denser links between societies, financial institutions, businesses, government agencies, media, and so forth, along with the World Wide Web, have facilitated Russia’s ability to affect events, and are essential to the operation of its soft power, such as it is. Granted, globalization may not be an entirely contemporary phenomenon and there are antecedents in the long 19th century. But were Alexander II or Nicholas I to be miraculously awakened today, would they even recognize the world in which we live?
In the Balkans, Russia is not after the establishment of a new political order or empire, whether formal or informal. Its goal is to undercut and upset the existing institutions and rules put in place by the West. It is also important to underline the fact that Russia is not acting alone. There have always been willing associates and fellow travelers. They cooperate with Russia to advance their own political and economic interests, always on the lookout for external supporters. Remarkably, some of Russia’s associates and partners counted as pro-Western in the not so distant past. A few examples: Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia. Others have made the opposite move, dropping Russia in order to align more fully with the West, as is the case of Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović. Russian policy may be opportunistic, but the fact of the matter is that there are an endless number of political chancers on the other side too. This, of course, facilitates Moscow’s job of asserting its influence.
Russia’s footprint in Southeastern Europe, which expanded dramatically in the 2000s, became more visible only recently thanks to the confrontational turn in relations between Moscow and the West. Many factors account for this downturn: the Putin regime’s quest for internal legitimacy in the face of a stagnant economy and a dwindling public trust in “the system,” the desire to assert Russian interests in a growingly multipolar but also uncertain world, the anti-interventionist mood within the United States, and the European Union’s chronic malaise. Whether due to the mechanics of power politics, as scholars of a realist persuasion contend, or because of the push and pull of domestic factors, as liberals might argue, Russia is prepared to challenge America and its allies. It wants to be an international agenda-setter, not an agenda-taker. Fears of Western plots to foment “color revolution” and Maidans inside Russia itself mould the foreign policy thinking of Putin and his inner circle.
Of course, “the near abroad”—or, to use Brussels speak, the Eastern Partnership countries—are where Russia’s pushback is at its strongest. Yet Moscow has reinserted itself in other regions and political arenas. The military intervention in Syria has broadened its footprint in the Middle East beyond recognition. Even in the United States itself, the issue of suspected Russian meddling and cyber espionage came to the forefront of the 2016 presidential elections. The Obama Administration may have styled Russia as a declining regional power, but in reality the Kremlin’s outreach goes well beyond post-Soviet Eurasia. Post-communist East-Central Europe, including former Yugoslavia, is the obvious target. So too is Turkey: Moscow has the means to co-opt Ankara as its relationship with the United States and the European Union frays. Western sanctions and the dramatic fall in oil prices have put the Kremlin on the back foot, but it knows how to play the game of influence and how to exploit weaknesses and opportunities across Europe’s multiple peripheries.
For all that, one should resist the notion that the Kremlin is pulling all the strings in this game. Across Europe, political and civic leaders, governments, and business interests have been more than willing accomplices, enlisting Russia’s support to attain all kinds of goals—balancing against external threats, maximizing payoffs and redistributing the spoils, hedging and pushing for concessions from the West, sidelining and outfoxing domestic rivals, and muzzling critics. This sort of behavior is not unique to Southeast Europe, where historical connections to Russia admittedly play a role. It no doubt has its adepts in many other corners of the continent, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, and, not least, Germany. Whatever the weather, there will always be players willing to influence or do business with Russia.
Is the rival power that Russia has become in a position to undermine the European Union from within, starting from its more vulnerable southeastern states? Probably not. For one, notwithstanding the belief in many quarters, the Kremlin does not appear to have a coherent model that is exportable beyond the post-Soviet space. Neither “the managed democracy” or “sovereign democracy” of Putin’s first two terms, nor the more recent praise of conservative values and religion more broadly, nor the celebration of Russia as a unique civilization opposed to global liberalism quite do the job, irrespective of the fact that these ideas have plenty of cheerleaders across the European Union. From Belgrade to Ankara, from Sofia to Budapest, dysfunctional democracies, state capture, and the backslide to authoritarian politics are, on the whole, homegrown ills, not the results of a sinister Muscovite plot. As much as “Putinization” represents a threat, it is worth our while to reconsider who the real Putinizers are. Even more important, Russia appears to have neither the economic resources for costly ideological crusades nor the will to bankroll friendly regimes. The record in the Balkans proves the point. The European Union might be in the doldrums, facing a succession of existential crises, but it still has allure thanks to its market, sizable financial transfers, and, to a lesser degree, the power of its foundational narrative.
So what one is left with is a rivalry between an opportunist who has a clear set of goals but lacks the means to achieve them and the terminally disoriented West, which possesses the power assets but is not of one mind about how to use them. This applies both to the European Union, where member states have always found it difficult to “speak with one voice” on Russia, and the United States where the right balance between containment and engagement continues to be a hotly debated subject.
In the meantime, Southeast Europe will navigate the murky waters of this new contest. For the most part, the states of the region will jump on the West’s bandwagon but hedge their bets and keep their options open. It would be foolish of Putin to just stand idly by and not take advantage. But, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango.