Thursday, May 9, 2019

Russia in Review: Balkans Campaign Update

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. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Authors: Michaela Walker, Andrea Snyder, Darina Regio, and Nataliya Bugayova

Key TakeawayRussia has sustained its campaigns to prevent the expansion of NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The Kremlin is expanding its outreach in Serbia even as EU-mediated negotiations fail to restart talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The Kremlin is also leveraging favorable political actors to block the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina with NATO and the EU. The Kremlin has supported secessionist powerbrokers and militarization programs that could reignite ethnic tensions in Bosnia with repercussions for the fragile stability of the wider Balkans. The Kremlin could attempt to connect its military and energy projects in Serbia and Bosnia to gain greater influence in the Balkans.

Europe is struggling to restart normalization talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Germany and France hosted a summit in Berlin on April 29 - 30 to restart negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia. The summit failed to achieve progress on key items including border demarcation, trade normalization, and Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo. Kosovar and Serbian delegates roundly criticized one another and their hosts but agreed to meet again in Paris in July 2019. Previous negotiations stalled in November 2018 when Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on goods from Serbia after Serbia blocked Kosovo’s bid to join Interpol. The Kosovar Parliament voted to transform the Kosovo Security Force into the Kosovo Armed Forces in December 2018, prompting Serbia to threaten military intervention.

The stalled talks are expanding friction between Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU. Kosovar President Hashim Thaci stated that the EU is “too weak” and “not united” to deliver a successful deal and called for a “leading role” for the U.S. on May 2. Thaci asserted that “Kosovo remains the most isolated country in Europe thanks to Europe.”[1] Kosovar officials also blamed EU High Representative Federica Mogherini for the challenges in Kosovo’s integration into the EU.[2] Meanwhile, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic accused France and Germany of using the talks to pressure Serbia to recognize Kosovo.[3] Dacic specifically called for a larger role for Russia.[4] Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin stressed on May 2 that Serbia will find a “way to be wanted by other big and powerful countries” if Europe “does not want” Serbia.[5] Both Serbia and Kosovo have been increasingly critical of the EU.

The Kremlin will likely act to exploit these tensions between Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU to block further expansion by the EU and NATO. Russia holds a core strategic objective to halt the expansion of the EU and NATO in the Balkans. It thus maintains a stake in preventing diplomatic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo that could enable one or both of them to join the EU. The Kremlin has also long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an “illegal unilateral action” imposed by NATO on Serbia in 1999.[6] Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has consistently asserted that the intervention by NATO in Kosovo was a blatant abuse of international law by the U.S. that disregarded the interests of Russia. The Russian Parliament recently approved a bill calling on Europe to “condemn NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia” in March 2019.[7] The Kremlin also likely fears that recognition of Kosovo would embolden similar independence claims by autonomous regions in Russia in the long term. Russia will likely continue to use diplomatic pressure to undermine progress towards normalization between Serbia and Kosovo and hinder the EU and NATO in the Balkans.

The Kremlin is increasingly prioritizing outreach to Serbia as its preferred partner in the Balkans. Putin met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic during the One Belt One Road Forum on April 26.[8] Putin previously offered several major deals to Vucic during a “historic visit” to Serbia on January 17 including $1.4 billion in energy infrastructure investment and implied support for a bid by Serbia to join the TurkStream Pipeline.[9] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Dacic held an extensive bilateral meeting on April 14.[10] The Kremlin will also reportedly dispatch new Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko in June 2019.[11] Putin will leverage this growing relationship to expand his influence in the Balkans and block positive momentum between Kosovo and Serbia as previously assessed by ISW.

Pro-Russian Bosnian Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik is similarly stalling the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina with the EU and NATO. Dodik asserted that he would block any steps to incorporate Bosnia into NATO on April 25. Dodik is also likely sabotaging closer ties between Bosnia and the EU. He submitted an incomplete and overdue questionnaire to the EU Commission regarding the potential accession of Bosnia to the EU in March 2019. He also presided over government deadlock that led to Bosnia’s temporary suspension from the Council of Europe in April 2019.[12] Dodik will retain his rotating position until July 2019. Bosnia remains far from achieving membership in the EU and NATO but its continued disunity will only further impede its progress towards the West to the advantage of the Kremlin.

Dodik has also intensified secessionist rhetoric that threatens to destabilize Bosnia. Dodik is a proponent (and former leader) of the Republika Srpska - the political entity for Serbs within Bosnia. He expressed disillusionment with a united Bosnia and called for the unification of all Serbs on March 24.[13] He also condemned the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords (which ended the Bosnian War) for creating a “divided society” and dysfunctional federal government unable to develop a common future for Bosnia.[14] Dodik has advocated for an independent Republika Srpska and its potential unification into a Greater Serbia - an idea also propagated by nationalist Russians linked to the Kremlin.[15]

Dodik is likely attempting to build an independent military force to support his aspirations for the Republika Srpska. The Republika Srpska National Assembly voted to add more than 1,000 reserve officers to the existing 7,000 Republika Srpska Police on April 18.[16] Republika Srpska Interior Minister Dragan Lukac justified the increase as a response to the migrant crisis in Southern Europe.[17] The move nonetheless raised fears of militarization across Bosnia. The Bosnian Muslim Party for Democratic Action stated that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - the second political entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina - “will be forced” to implement its own auxiliary police if the Republika Srpska did not halt its expansion of the Republika Srpska Police.[18] Neither the Federation nor the Republika Srpska can legally operate independent militaries since their integration into the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords also restrict the size and capabilities of military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Kremlin will likely leverage its ties with Dodik to advance its strategic objectives in the Balkans. The Kremlin openly opposes the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO.[19] The Kremlin will likely maintain its support for Dodik, who advocates for continued close ties between Russia and the Republika Srpska.[20] The Kremlin will also likely support these irregular forces in the Republika Srpska. ISW has assessed that the Russian Security Services were training local “special police” units in Republika Srpska in 2018. Russia also allegedly trains military personnel from Serbia who then develop paramilitary groups in the Republika Srpska.

The Kremlin could ultimately use its footprint in Bosnia as a vector to destabilize neighboring states as well as the wider structures of the EU and NATO. The Kremlin could push for deeper interconnections between Serbia and the Republika Srpska, including military support and participation in joint energy projects such as the TurkStream Pipeline.[21] The Kremlin could also ultimately seek to undermine the 1995 Dayton Accords (which it currently claims to support) as part of its global campaign to reverse the wider international order built after the Cold War, which Putin perceives as unfair and disadvantageous to Russia.[22] ISW will continue to examine additional indicators to assess with a higher degree of confidence the Kremlin’s intent for the Dayton Accords and Greater Serbia.

[1] “Pristina: EU Keeps Silent About Serbia’s ‘Anti-European Behavior’,” N1, May 2, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480674/Pristina-accuses-Brussels-for-ignoring-Serbia-s-anti-European-behaviour.html.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Serbia’s FM: Berlin Summit Isn’t Format for Belgrade - Pristina Talks,” N1, April 30, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480148/Berlin-summit-not-good-format-for-Belgrade-Pristina-talks-FM-says.html.
[4] [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia I. Dacic,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, April 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3618519?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP&_101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP_languageId=ru_RU.
[5] “Serbia Def Min: If Europe Doesn’t Want Us, Someone Does,” N1, May 2, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480770/Minister-says-if-Europe-doesn-t-want-Serbia-there-is-someone-who-does.html.
[6] [“Speech by the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation A. Lukashevich at a Meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on the 20th Anniversary of the NATO Bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 30, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/vistupleniya_rukovodstva_mid/-/asset_publisher/MCZ7HQuMdqBY/content/id/3595333.
[7] “Russia’s Upper House Calls for Condemning NATO Aggression against Yugoslavia,” TASS, March 13, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1048450.
[8] [“Meeting with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,”] Kremlin, April 26, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60385.
[9] “Joint News Conference with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,” Kremlin, January 17, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/59693.
[10] [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia I. Dacic,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, April 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3618519?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP&_101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP_languageId=ru_RU.
[11] [“Russia Will Send Its New Ambassador to Serbia at the Beginning of the Summer,”] Regnum, April 15, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2612159.html.
[12] “Bosnia Temporarily Suspended from Council of Europe,” N1, April 9, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a337048/Bosnia-temoprarily-suspended-from-Council-of-Europe.html.
[13] [“Milorad Dodik: Serbs Do Not Have a Future in Bosnia and Herzegovina,”] Regnum, February 7, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2568343.html; [“Milorad Dodik Thinks It Is Time for the Unification of Serbs Within One State,”] TASS, March 24, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6253192.
[14] [“Dodik Threatened Reunification with Servia if Kosovo Is Accepted into the UN,”] PolitNavigator, April 16, 2019, https://www.politnavigator(.)net/glava-bosnijjskikh-serbov-prigrozil-prisoedineniem-k-serbii-esli-kosovo-primut-v-oon.html.
[15] Carstrad TV, [“Dugin Directive: Greater Serbia,”] YouTube, January 12, 2017,
[16] “Bosnian Serb Region Adopts Draft Law Changes Establishing Auxiliary Police Unit,” N1, April 18, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a338944/Bosnian-Serb-region-adopts-draft-law-changes-establishing-auxiliary-police-unit.html.
[17] “Internal Affairs Minister: Nobody Should Be Afraid of Police,” N1, April 18, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a339070/Internal-affairs-minister-Nobody-should-be-afraid-of-police.html.
[18] “Parties in Bosnia’s Federation Entity Also Want Auxiliary Police Unit,” N1, April 19, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a339275/Main-Bosniak-party-wants-auxiliary-police-unit-in-Bosnia-s-Federation-entity.html.
[19] [“Turning Towards NATO: In the United States, Calls to Help Bosnia and Herzegovina Resist the ‘Influence’ of the Russian Federation,”] RT, April 25, 2019, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/article/624774-ssha-bosniya-gercegovina-rossiya-vliyaniye; [“Lavrov: Russia Can Not Agree with the Entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO,”] TASS, January 16, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6004637.
[20] Alexander Borisov, [“Milorad Dodik: Serbs Want Friendship with Russia and Do Not Accept NATO Membership,”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 8, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/03/08/milorad-dodik-serby-hotiat-druzhby-s-rf-i-ne-priemliut-vstuplenie-v-nato.html.
[21] “Joint News Conference with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,” Kremlin, January 17, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/59693; “Bosnia and Herzegovina's Leader Hopes His Country Will Join TurkStream Pipeline Project,” TASS, January 18, 2019, http://tass(.)com/economy/1040591.
[22][“Matvienko: Basic Principles of Dayton Accords Must Be Preserved,”] TASS, April 23, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5151768; [“Lavrov Declared the Unacceptability of Turning the Balkans into the Subject of Strife Russia and the West,”] Interfax, September 21, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/630167.