Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Campaign in the Balkans

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Special Topic Update: The Balkans

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Chase Johnson

Key Takeaway: Russia is waging a campaign to increase its influence and limit the growth of NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The Kremlin is establishing proxies and training local separatist forces from the Balkans in Russia. Russia is also actively attempting to sow internal discord within the Balkans in an effort to stall or block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia intends to use the Balkan Peninsula as a critical geographic foothold in Europe from which it can launch subversive operations meant to fracture the long-term unity of the West. Its activities could encourage a renewal of the ethnic violence of the 1990s and create fertile conditions for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadism among Muslims in the Balkans.

Russia is supporting irregular forces in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that it could use to destabilize the Balkans. The Kremlin is providing diplomatic and military support to the autonomous region of Republika Srpska as it seeks to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Russian Security Services are training and developing local “special police” units in both Russia and the Republika Srpska. Russia also allegedly trains military personnel from Serbia who later return to develop and lead paramilitary groups in the Republika Srpska. These separatist groups reportedly train in “cultural centers” run by Russia in Serbia and recruit members from criminal networks in Serbia as well as populations that support Pan-Slavism. The Kremlin - in coordination with nationalists in Serbia - likely intends to leverage these forces to support hardline Bosnian Serbs (such as the current President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik) in their efforts to acquire independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This action would undo the agreements that ended the massive ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. The Kremlin could also leverage a position in the Republika Srpska as a base for destabilization operations targeting regional member-states of the EU and NATO as part of its long-term effort to undermine institutions in the West. This instability could also provide an opportunity for Salafi-Jihadist groups to expand in the Balkans and Europe.

Russia is attempting to spoil ongoing negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo to block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia has used diplomatic pressure and cultural outreach to spoil normalization talks between Serbia and Kosovo that could position both states to join the EU. Serbia and Kosovo are holding formal negotiations to redraw their disputed border. Russia has responded by increasing its engagement with Serbia and will likely seek to pressure Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to forsake normalization initiatives led by the West. The Kremlin has long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an illegal unilateral action imposed by NATO on Serbia. It also likely fears that recognition for Kosovo would embolden autonomous regions in the Caucuses to declare their own independence from Russia. Russia may nonetheless cite the ongoing border discussions as a legal precedent to legitimize its own support for separatist movements in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Donbas on the grounds that these breakaway regions hold the same legal authority to declare autonomy as Kosovo. The Kremlin has previously used operations by NATO in the Balkans as justification for its own aggression in the Caucasus.

Russia is also supporting nationalist groups to block the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece and Macedonia reached an agreement to settle their long-running dispute over Macedonia’s name in June 2018. The deal lifts the last obstacle blocking the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece later expelled several Russian diplomats attempting to bribe officials to block the deal and charged a Russian national with financing several nationalist groups to incite protests against the name change. Russia will likely continue such low-cost subversive activity - such as biker-gang tours, cultural outreach, and applied economic pressure - to raise tensions ahead of the scheduled referendum on the deal on September 30.

The Kremlin is increasing energy investment in key regional states to increase its leverage in the Balkans. The Kremlin will seek to secure its energy dominance on the Balkan Peninsula through a combination of maneuvers aimed at blocking investment in diversification measures from the West. The Balkans still rely heavily on energy imports from Russia. Russia has proposed to build power plants and gas pipelines in Croatia. It has also revamped negotiations to construct a nuclear power plant in Bulgaria despite the previous cancellation of the project due to financial sustainability concerns. Bulgaria reversed the decision and subsequently sought renewed investment from Russia following a series of high-level negotiations with counterparts in Moscow. Bulgaria has also expanded a regional gas pipeline to Turkey in a bid to convey natural gas from the Russia-Turkish TurkStream Pipeline into Europe.

Russia will likely escalate its subversive activities as the Balkans move closer to the West. Russia regularly intervenes to disrupt all stages of the accession of aspirant states into NATO and the EU, and it has a history of previous escalation in this regard in the Balkans. Russia will continue to stoke ethnic and nationalist tensions from the 1990s in order to fracture its opponents and build space for networks of deniable proxies that it can activate as needed. Russia - if left unimpeded - will successfully position itself to use diplomatic and military subversion to further challenge the southern flank of NATO. This instability could also provide an opening for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadist groups in the Balkans and Europe.