Next year will be a dangerous test for the Western Balkans

Photo sourse: isrtraga

As a result of the continuation of war-mongering by Belgrade and Moscow, the next year will turn out to be not easier than the last.  Western governments face a tough choice – whether to allow Serbia and Russia to rekindle armed conflicts or to deprive them of the tools to incite bloodshed.

Russia ignites the sparks of war not only on the borders near its territory

The sparks of war are most visible in Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – the three targets of Serbian mini-empire construction.  The methods of destabilization may vary from case to case, but the goal is clear: to establish Belgrade’s regional hegemony and expand Serbia’s borders.

This phased approach has been accelerated in recent months by Moscow’s decision to promote war in the Balkans to create problems for NATO, while Russia continues to lose ground in Ukraine.

Moscow does not need to deploy its army in Western Balkans because Serbia has its own aspirations and is willing to act as a proxy.  Presidents Vucic and Putin have a relationship in which Putin helps Vucic promote an enlarged Serbia, and Vucic helps Putin infiltrate the region and create problems for Western institutions

Instability in the Balkans allows Moscow to argue that the EU and NATO can not resolve or prevent conflicts.

“Putin’s special operation” has a wider scope than it appears

For the Kremlin, undermining the Balkans is a low-cost operation.  Moscow provides Belgrade and Banja Luka with diplomatic and financial support, along with weapons, propaganda, disinformation, provocateurs, and armed gangs.

Russia’s methods of undermining and subjugating its neighbors are also valuable examples for Serbia to follow in its three main strategies of division, escalation and dominance.  All three provoke a reaction from Serbia’s opponents that can spiral out of control into outright violence.

Russia’s allies use capture methods

The strategy of division is evident in the attempts to mobilize the Serbian minority in Kosovo, incite fear, breed ethnic hatred, and prove that states in the Balkans can not be multi-ethnic.

Setting up roadblocks, attacking journalists, forcibly conscripting peaceful local Serbs, sending provocateurs, and destroying property are all part of the methodology.

Schismatic processes were evident in Montenegro through the Serbian Orthodox Church, special forces and nationalist radicals who challenged the independence of Podgorica. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian territory is the main vehicle for division, and Belgrade has also attracted Croatian nationalists with the promise of territorial gains.

The method of blackmail based on the motives of Russia

Vucic and Milorad Dodik, the commander of Bosnian Serb forces, are both engaged in a strategy of escalation to gain leverage over Western officials.  By threatening armed intervention or political secession, they seek concessions from the EU and the US and subsequently create new spirals of instability.

Such an escalation diverts attention from the main problems – Belgrade’s non-recognition of Kosovo’s statehood and Banja Luka’s challenge to Bosnia’s integrity.  It also serves to portray Pristina and Sarajevo as the culprits and helps appease the West to avoid deeper conflicts.

As a result, the EU spends most of its time de-escalating conflicts created by Serbian leaders instead of dealing with the fundamental causes.

The third Serbian strategy of creeping dominance aims to drive neighboring states under Belgrade, either as economic subordinates through the Open Balkans project, as political dependents through diminished sovereignty, or through outright territorial absorption.

The division of Kosovo and Bosnia has been touted periodically to test international resolve and enlist Croatia and Albania as co-conspirators in border reshuffles and territorial gains primarily to benefit Belgrade.

Anti-Western sabotage by Russia

To defeat Belgrade’s three-pronged regional strategy, Western leaders must employ three effective weapons: diplomatic, military, and economic.

On the diplomatic front, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro can not be pushed to give in to ethno-nationalism.  A prime example is the pressure on Pristina to consolidate the territorial division by allowing the creation of a Serb territory called a “municipal association” that would mimic the state-destructive policies of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

The formation of any differences along ethnic lines is also an invitation to deeper anti-Western subversion on the part of Russia.

In Montenegro, Washington should not support political players who claim to be anti-corruption and pro-European while being used by corrupt anti-Montenegrin and pro-Russian forces to destabilize the state.

They should also challenge any manipulation of Bosnia’s elections that strengthens the grip of ethno-nationalist parties.  Such illusory solutions will deepen political and national divisions and fuel violence as the Bosnian population feels increasingly under siege.

Measures to destabilize the situation in Kosovo

In the military arena, the most effective way to prevent the destabilization of Kosovo is to demonstrate the power of NATO and the Kosovo Security Force, allowing Pristina to enforce law and order throughout the country.

Since the 1990s, Serbia has only respected strength, not weakness.  NATO’s lesson on dismantling roadblocks and ensuring freedom of movement in Kosovo will also be learned by Belgrade’s operatives in Montenegro and Bosnia. 

In addition, both Kosovo and Bosnia need a path to NATO membership, and Croatia’s NATO allies must rely on Zagreb to maintain security through NATO enlargement.

Economically and institutionally, the EU must argue that it will cut off all revenue streams and accession prospects for Belgrade if Vučić continues his divisiveness, escalation and regional dominance.  Conversely, Kosovo needs a clearer path to EU membership along with recognition by the five non-EU states.

The main focus of Western policy in the Balkans should be Russia itself

Serbia’s institutional and economic isolation from Europe will be exacerbated by the acceleration of the decline of Russia, which is facing economic disaster and state collapse and will have reduced opportunities to assist Serbia.

It is not enough to complain about “criminal influence”.  Russia’s destructive presence must be actively fought in all arenas – politics, energy, economy, mass media.

A good starting point for NATO would be to demand that the Russian intelligence outpost in Niš, disguised as a “humanitarian center”, be closed, or Belgrade would face the termination of any beneficial military contacts.

By allowing Russia access to the region, Vucic is cooperating in the war against Ukraine, giving Moscow a Balkan card in its fight against the West.

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