Thursday, April 23, 2020

Russia in Review: The Kremlin Faces Setbacks in the Balkans

By George Barros

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.

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is losing initiative and influence in several Balkan states. North Macedonia joined NATO despite Russia’s efforts to prevent it. Russia’s strategic partner Serbia is increasingly vocal about its aspirations to join the EU. Balkan states are curbing the influence of Russian energy and the Russian Orthodox Church in their countries. The Kremlin is attempting to counteract these potential influence losses by exploiting its connections to Serbia’s defense establishment to prevent Serbia from deepening ties with the EU. The West should keep the Kremlin on the defensive in Europe by supporting ongoing EU and NATO efforts to integrate the Western Balkans.

The Kremlin is facing setbacks in the Balkans due to the West’s intensified outreach and limits to Russia’s value proposition. Halting the expansion of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Balkans is a major Russian strategic objective. Serbia-Kosovo normalization talks might resume and could open a path to Serbia’s EU accession. The Kremlin likely has overestimated the extent to which it can curb Serbia’s European aspirations. Montenegro threatens to reduce the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key vector for Russian soft power influence. An EU ruling in March limited the Kremlin’s energy leverage over Bulgaria. In late March, North Macedonia joined NATO despite strong Kremlin resistance.[1]

The EU intensified its outreach to the Balkans in recent months. The European Commission proposed a new enlargement procedure for the Western Balkans, calling the region their “top priority,” on February 5.[2] An enlargement procedure is a plan for an EU candidate country to meet the necessary criteria for EU membership. The EU intensified outreach to Serbia after struggling to restart normalization talks between Kosovo and Serbia since 2018.[3] The talks stalled when Kosovo imposed a 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods in response to Serbia blocking Kosovo’s bid to join Interpol in November 2018.[4] Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and normalization of relations between the two countries are preconditions for both Serbia and Kosovo’s EU accession processes.[5]

French President Emmanuel Macron pledged “unconditional support” for Serbia’s pursuit of its “European path” in a call with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on April 2.[6] Macron also reversed his opposition to EU expansion in Albania and North Macedonia in February, when he said France is open to both countries beginning EU accession talks.[7] The change in Macron’s rhetoric likely indicates consolidating political consensus in the EU on expanding into the Balkans. The EU planned a Western Balkans summit in Zagreb for May 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the bloc to postpone it.[8]

President Vucic is responding positively to the EU’s outreach, and Kosovo might be setting conditions to renew talks. Vucic said in January that the Serbian people “don’t see a real alternative” to joining the EU.[9] Vucic met with Kosovo’s president and top US officials in Washington, DC, in March – representing progress in Serbia and Kosovo’s stalled dialogue.[10] Vucic called for “compromise” on Kosovo resulting in “guarantees for a much better future” during his US trip, likely referencing EU membership guarantees in exchange for recognizing Kosovo.[11] Vucic expressed support for the EU’s new enlargement procedure on February 6.[12] Vucic is doubling down on his pro-European rhetoric after balancing between Europe and Russia for several years.[13] Vucic may be setting expectations for the Serbian people for a deal in which Serbia recognizes Kosovo in exchange for EU membership guarantees.

Kosovo might be setting conditions to renew normalization talks with Serbia. Kosovo lifted its 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods – a major impediment to Kosovo and Serbia’s normalization talks – on April 1.[14] However, Kosovo’s outgoing interim prime minister, Albin Kurti, threatened to reimpose the tariffs unless Serbia delivered reciprocal concessions by June 15.[15] That said, Kurti’s threat to reinstate the tariff may be hollow; he lost a vote of no confidence on March 25 and may not be prime minister when the June 15 deadline passes.[16] Kurti likely agreed to completely remove the tariff only after he failed his vote of no confidence in an attempt to expand his political leverage inside Kosovo. Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi is attempting to remove Kurti and is likely supportive of removing the tariff and resuming talks with Serbia.[17] US officials pressured Kurti for refusing to completely remove Kosovo’s tariff against Serbia in February.[18]

Vucic is likely trying to extract major political concessions from Kosovo and the EU during Serbia’s accession process. Serbian officials expressed discontent with Kosovo’s tariff removal because the lifting came with additional demands from Kurti.[19] Serbian officials likely understand that Kosovo may not reimpose the tariff on June 15 due to Western political pressure and uncertainty about Kurti’s tenure as interim prime minister and may refuse to make concessions as a result. Regardless of the outcome of Serbia and Kosovo’s political maneuverings, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely stall progress on the countries’ normalization talks.

The Kremlin is mitigating a potential loss of influence in Serbia by increasing its outreach there.

The Kremlin’s objectives in the Balkans include maintaining influence in Serbia and non-recognition of Kosovo. The Kremlin describes NATO’s 1999 military intervention in Serbia and the subsequent creation of Kosovo as a classic example of an “illegal NATO intervention.”[20] The Kremlin opposes EU and NATO expansion into Serbia. Serbia and Kosovo’s mutual recognition would open a pathway for Serbia’s EU accession, eroding Kremlin influence in the Balkans. Russia also seeks to maintain its cultural influence in Serbia and the reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Kremlin increased its military outreach to Serbia as the EU increased engagement with Serbia. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu met with Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin in Serbia on February 17.[21] A Russian shipment of Pantsir-S1 air defense systems arrived in Serbia on February 24.[22] The Kremlin is likely trying to cultivate new and reinforce existing human connections and institutional links in Serbia’s defense establishment to consolidate opposition to future talks with Kosovo and Serbia’s integration with the West. The Kremlin may exploit its influence among Serbian defense officials to set conditions for political and military resistance against the expansion of Western structures in Serbia.[23] The Kremlin has been carrying out a campaign to expand its influence in Serbia at all levels, including the military, economy, and infrastructure spheres – a campaign ISW analyzed in detail.[24]

The Kremlin is exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to increase its influence in Serbia and the Republika Srpska – as the Kremlin likely previously did in Italy and the United States. The Russian Air Force sent at least 87 military specialists with military and medical equipment to Serbia on April 3-4.[25] The Kremlin sent military cargo planes with medical supplies and military experts to the Republika Srpska – the political entity for Serbs within Bosnia – on April 10.[26] Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik thanked the Kremlin for its assistance.[27] The Kremlin may also be using counter-COVID-19 measures as a pretext to deploy military units to collect intelligence on Serbia and Europe, as Russian military intelligence likely did when the Kremlin deployed Russian military assets and “humanitarian aid” to Italy and the United States in March.[28]

The Russian Orthodox Church may lose influence in Montenegro – another state in the Balkans. Montenegrin President Milos Djukanovic signed a law in December that could strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of hundreds of religious sites in Montenegro.[29] The Serbian Orthodox Church denounced the law and organized protests that injured four Montenegrin police officers.[30] The Serbian Orthodox Church is allied with the Russian Orthodox Church, a Kremlin foreign policy tool.[31] Djukanovic accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of promoting policies that undermine Montenegro, a NATO member and EU membership candidate.[32] A loss of Serbian Orthodox Church influence in Montenegro would likely prelude a loss of Kremlin influence in Montenegro. The Kremlin is likely using its influence in the Serbian Orthodox Church to undermine Montenegro’s EU membership aspirations.[33]

The EU forced the Kremlin to cut energy prices for Bulgaria. Russian state-owned gas operator Gazprom cut gas prices to Bulgaria by 40 percent to comply with a European Commission antitrust ruling on March 3.[34] Bulgaria is the latest of eight European states, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, to agree on gas price cuts with Gazprom under the European Commission’s ruling.[35] The Kremlin regularly seeks energy deals that place other countries at a disadvantage, though it typically casts these deals as fair trades or even concessions by Russia. For example, the West allowed the Kremlin to secure a deal with Ukraine in December 2019 that eroded Ukraine’s long-term energy leverage against Russia.[36] In contrast, Western intervention, specifically by the European Commission, cost the Kremlin leverage over Bulgaria and reduced Russian revenue. Furthermore, Bulgaria, like other European actors, is diversifying its gas imports, eroding a key point of Russian leverage.[37]

The Kremlin was unable to stop the NATO accession of North Macedonia, another Balkan state. North Macedonia joined NATO on March 27.[38] The Kremlin accused NATO of “procedural and legislative violations” in North Macedonia’s accession. The Kremlin claimed there is no “single clear justification” for North Macedonia’s NATO membership, that it does not offer any national security value for Europe or Macedonia and only creates further divisions.[39] The Kremlin tried to use an information operation to disrupt the process of North Macedonia’s renaming, a condition for North Macedonia’s NATO membership.[40] The Kremlin similarly tried and failed to stop the NATO accession of Montenegro in 2016.[41] These events mark significant setbacks for the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent NATO expansion in the Balkans.

Implications and Recommendations:

The Kremlin likely overestimated its ability to curb Serbia’s European aspirations. The Kremlin will leverage its instruments of influence in Serbia, such as Serbia’s defense establishment, in an attempt to spoil the normalization talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely slow Serbia and Kosovo’s normalizations talks and support the Kremlin’s efforts. The Kremlin will likely continue to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify these shaping operations. The United States should support the EU and NATO’s efforts to integrate the Western Balkans. The United States should set conditions to advance talks between Kosovo and Serbia with the end goal of securing Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. The EU should reschedule its postponed EU-Western Balkans summit to advance the EU accession of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

[1] Tsvetelia Tsolova, “UPDATE 2-Bulgaria Agrees Deal to Cut Price of Russian Gas Imports by 40%,” Reuters, March 3, 2020, ; “North Macedonia joins NATO as 30th Ally,” NATO Press Center, March 27, 2020,
[2] “A More Credible, Dynamic, Predictable and Political EU Accession Process - Commission Lays Out its Proposals,” European Commission Press Center, February 5, 2020. https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_181.
[3] Michaela Walker, Andrea Snyder, Darina Regio, and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Balkans Campaign Update” Institute for the Study of War, May 9, 2019,
[4] Plator Gashi, Eve-anne Travers and Filip Rudic, “Kosovo’s Bid to Join Interpol Fails,” Balkan Insight, November 20, 2018, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2018/11/20/kosovo-s-bid-to-join-interpol-fails-11-20-2018/ ; “Kosovo Slaps 100 Percent Tariffs On Serbia, Bosnia To 'Defend Vital Interest,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 21, 2018,
[5] “Remarks by Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi at the Joint Press Point with Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia,” European Commission Press Center, February 6, 2020, https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/varhelyi/announcements/remarks-commissioner-oliver-varhelyi-joint-press-point-aleksandar-vucic-president-serbia_en.
[6] “Telephone Conversation with the President of the Republic of France,” The President of the Republic of Serbia Press Center, April 2, 2020, https://www.predsednik(.)rs/en/press-center/press-releases/telephone-conversation-with-the-president-of-the-republic-of-france.
[7] John Irish and Robin Emmott, “Macron Opens Door to North Macedonia, Albania EU Accession Talks,” Reuters, February 15, 2020, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-germany-security-macron-balkans/macron-opens-door-to-north-macedonia-albania-eu-accession-talks-idUSKBN2090DM.
[8] “EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb Postponed, New Date Possible in June,” European Western Balkans, April 8, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans(.)com/2020/04/08/eu-western-balkans-summit-in-zagreb-postponed-new-date-possible-in-june/.
[9] “Serbia Committed to Joining European Union, says President Aleksandar Vučić,” Euronews, January 23, 2020, https://www.euronews(.)com/2020/01/23/serbia-committed-to-joining-european-union-says-president-aleksandar-vucic.
[10] “Vucic, Thaci Hold Meeting in Washington,” Independent Balkan News Agency, March 3, 2020, https://balkaneu(.)com/vucic-thaci-hold-meeting-in-the-us/ ; Dagmar Skrpec, “Playing the Field in Serbia: Aleksandar Vucic’s Dance between Russia and the West,” Foreign Affairs, September 11, 2015,
[11] Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, “Vucic: Most Serbs Prefer a ‘Frozen Conflict’ with Kosovo,” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2020,
[12] “Serbia's Vucic Backs Changes To EU Accession Process,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 6, 2020,
[13] Aleksandar Vasovic, Ivana Sekularac, “Serbia's Vucic Confirms Domination with Presidential Win,” Reuters, April 1, 2017, ; Dagmar Skrpec, “Playing the Field in Serbia: Aleksandar Vucic’s Dance between Russia and the West,” Foreign Affairs, September 11, 2015,
[14] “Kosovo Lifts All Tariffs on Serbian, Bosnian Goods,” DW, April 1, 2020, https://www.dw(.)com/en/kosovo-lifts-all-tariffs-on-serbian-bosnian-goods/a-52975561.
[15] Llazar Semini, “Kosovo Lifts 100% Tariff on Serb, Bosnian Goods,” Associated Press, March 31, 2020,
[16] Xhorxhina Bami, “No-Confidence Vote Topples Kurti Govt in Kosovo,” Balkan Insight, March 25, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/25/no-confidence-vote-topples-kurti-govt-in-kosovo/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Kosovo President Presses Leaders Over Unity Govt,” Balkan Insight, April 1, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/04/01/kosovo-president-presses-leaders-over-national-unity-govt/.
[16] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020, ; Xhorxhina Bami, “No-Confidence Vote Topples Kurti Govt in Kosovo,” Balkan Insight, March 25, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/25/no-confidence-vote-topples-kurti-govt-in-kosovo/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Kosovo President Presses Leaders Over Unity Govt,” Balkan Insight, April 1, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/04/01/kosovo-president-presses-leaders-over-national-unity-govt/.
[16] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020,
[17] Xhorxhina Bami, “Thaci Push for Unity Government in Kosovo Deemed Futile,” Balkan Insight, March 30, 2020 https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/30/thaci-push-for-unity-government-in-kosovo-deemed-futile/ ; Xhorxhina Bami, “Policy Rift Widens Between Kosovo President and PM,” Balkan Insight, March 10, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/03/10/policy-rift-widens-between-kosovo-president-and-pm/ ; “Thaci Urges Kosovo’s Lawmakers To Consider Western Ties When Talking Tariffs,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 1, 2020, ; “Clash of Thaçi and Kurti Over Tariffs Continues,” European Western Balkans, March 12, 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans(.)com/2020/03/12/clash-of-thaci-and-kurti-over-tariffs-continues/.
[18] “U.S. Envoy Calls Kosovo's Decision To Partially Lift Serbian Import Tariffs A 'Serious Mistake,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 28, 2020,
[19] “Kosovo Lifts 100 Percent Tariff On Serbia; Belgrade Calls It 'Fake News,'” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 1, 2020,
[20] NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya is another of the Kremlin’s examples of “illegal NATO intervention.” [“Statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry Concerning the Anniversary of NATO’s Aggression Against the Union of the Republic of Yugoslavia,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 27, 2001, https://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/587216 ; [“‘An Absolute Violation of International Law’: How NATO’s Bombing of Yugoslavia Changed the World,”] RT, March 24, 2019, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/article/614701-nato-yugoslavia-bombardirovki.
[21] Dusan Stojanovic, “Russian Defense Minister Visits Serbia Amid Balkan Tensions,” ABC News, February 17, 2020,
[22] “Serbia Receives Delivery Of Russian Antiaircraft Systems Despite U.S. Sanction Threats,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 24, 2020,
[23] Nataliya Bugayova and Anthony Yanchuk, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Block in the Balkans,” Institute for the Study of War, December 17, 2019,
[24] Ibid.
[25] Lina Davydova, [“Virologists and Therapists: A Colonel of the Medical Service Spoke about the Specialists who Arrived in Serbia,”] Tv Zvezda, April 4, 2020, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20204493-RR9HX.html ; “All 11 Il-76 Aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces with Military Epidemiologists Arrived in Serbia,” Newsfront, April 4, 2020, ; “The 11th Plane with Russian Aid Arrives in Serbia,” Oculus News, April 5, 2020, https://www.ocnal(.)com/2020/04/the-11th-plane-with-russian-aid-arrives.html.
[26] “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass(.)com/society/1142823.
[27] “Three Russian planes has Delivered Aid to Republika Srpska,” Russian Aviation, April 10, 2020, https://www.ruaviation(.)com/news/2020/4/10/14942/?h ; “Russian Aid Delivery to Republika Srpska Complete,” TASS, April 10, 2020, https://tass(.)com/society/1142823 ; [“A Russian Plane with Medical Aid arrived in the Republika Srpska,”] EurAsia Daily, April 10, 2020, https://eadaily(.)com/ru/news/2020/04/10/v-respubliku-serbskuyu-pribyl-rossiyskiy-samolet-s-medicinskoy-pomoshchyu.
[28] John Follain, Alessandro Speciale, and Stepan Kravchenko, “Italy Questions Russians Over Their Goodwill Virus Gestures,” Bloomberg, April 3, 2020, ; Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, “Russian Coronavirus Aid Delivery to US Prompts Confusion and Criticism,” CNN, April 2, 2020,
[29] The law requires Montenegrin religious communities to prove they owned their property before 1918, when the Kingdom of Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. If religious communities cannot prove ownership, the state will take over ownership of their property. Samir Kajosevic, “Montenegro President Warns Party Members to Avoid Church Protests,” Balkan Insight, February 5, 2020, https://balkaninsight(.)com/2020/02/05/montenegro-president-warns-party-members-to-avoid-church-protests/ ; Andy Heil, “Montenegro's Not-So-Merry Legal Challenge To The Serbian Orthodox Church Riles Society,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 29, 2019,
[30] “Montenegrin Protesters Clash with Police Over Religion Law,” Reuters, December 30, 2019,
[31] Brandon Davis, “Holy War: How Putin Weaponized the Russian Orthodox Church,” Naval Postgraduate School, September 2019,
[32] Aleksandar Vasovic, “Montenegro's President Accuses Serbia and Russia of Undermining Independence,” Reuters, February 28, 2020,
[33] Ibid.
[34] Tsvetelia Tsolova, “UPDATE 2-Bulgaria Agrees Deal to Cut Price of Russian Gas Imports by 40%,” Reuters, March 3, 2020,
[35] “Antitrust: Commission Imposes Binding Obligations on Gazprom to Enable Free Flow of Gas at Competitive Prices in Central and Eastern European Gas Markets,” European Commission Precess Center, May 24, 2018, https://ec.europa(.)eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_18_3921.
[36] George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Europe Cedes Opportunity in Russia-Ukraine Energy Deal,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2020,
[37] [“Became Abroad: Bulgaria Intends to Abandon Russian Gas,”] Izvestia, February 3, 2020, https://iz(.)ru/970847/aleksandr-sidorov/stala-zagranitcei-bolgariia-namerena-otkazatsia-ot-rossiiskogo-gaza.
[38]“North Macedonia joins NATO as 30th Ally,” NATO Press Center, March 27, 2020,
[39] [“Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary Regarding North Macedonia's Accession to NATO,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 31, 2020, https://www.mid(.)ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4093913.
[40] Greece demanded that then-“Macedonia” formally rename itself as “North Macedonia” as a condition for North Macedonia to join NATO. Idrees Ali, “U.S. Defense Secretary Warns of Russian Meddling in Macedonia Referendum,” Reuters, September 17, 2018, ; “Macedonia is a Tiny Country with a Giant Russia Problem,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2018,
[41] Julian Borger, Andrew MacDowall, and Shaun Walker, “Serbia Deports Russians Suspected of Plotting Montenegro Coup,” The Guardian, November 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian(.)com/world/2016/nov/11/serbia-deports-russians-suspected-of-plotting-montenegro-coup.