A mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 2, 2022. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia, which is one of Russia’s closest allies in Europe, recently said something very strong in support of Ukraine. “We said from the beginning that we could not support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” he said, adding that “for us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine—it will remain so.” Many experts in the West quickly concluded that Serbia had seen the writing on the wall and was breaking ties with Russia because Russia’s war in Ukraine was failing and it was becoming more and more of an outcast. Nobody likes a loser.
This Western hope, however, couldn’t be more misguided. Vucic’s words are just part of Belgrade’s plan to keep a balance between Russia and the West. To pursue relationships with each, it adjusts its relationships to suit its interests. In this case, Vucic’s change of heart seemed to be all about Kosovo’s right to be independent, which Belgrade strongly opposes. At the same time, though, the fact remains that a Russia that loses in Ukraine and is left alone and weaker will not be a good partner for Serbia. The West would do well to remind Serbs of this fundamental geopolitical shift.
The logic behind Vucic’s statement is simple: Serbia thinks that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, which is recognized by about half of the world’s countries, broke the law and hurt its territorial integrity. By that logic, defending Ukraine’s right to control all of its territories is another way of saying that Serbia should do the same. For Vucic, Crimea, Donbas, and Kosovo are parallel cases of dismemberment.
Vucic has made similar statements in the past. In 2019, he says
that “Belgrade cannot yet formally recognize Crimea as Russia’s territory, since that would jeopardize the resolution of the Kosovo status issue.” Serbia also didn’t recognize the results of Russia’s fake referendums in the parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia that were controlled by Ukraine. In his rejection of the referendum results in September 2022, Vucic cited the United Nations Charter and report
Serbia “supports the territorial integrity of all U.N. member states, including the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Last March in favor of the U.N. resolution to condemn Russia’s aggression, with Serbian U.N. Permanent Representative Nemanja Stevanovic emphasized that his country was “committed to observing the principles of territorial integrity and political independence of states.” Serbia’s U.N. vote was part of Vucic’s pragmatic balancing act. Since the resolution didn’t say anything about sanctions and was mostly symbolic, Serbia’s vote was a low-risk way to give it a little boost in the eyes of Western leaders without putting Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow at risk in a big way.
Serbia also views the U.N. resolution as a mechanism to condemn NATO’s 1999 intervention in what then remained of the former Yugoslavia. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Stevanovic spoke of what he saw as a double standard applying to Ukraine and Serbia. “This is not the first war and the first conflict and the first attack on the territory of modern Europe,” claiming that “just as Russia violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine, so the Western powers attacked Serbia, which did not attack anyone, violated its territorial integrity, and then… recognized Kosovo.”
For Vucic, the implications of the war in Ukraine for the Kosovo question are more important than the risk of losing some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust.
The Kremlin, in turn, sees Kosovo’s independence as a precedent for the annexation of Crimea and a way to call out the West for its hypocrisy. Vasyl Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, stated in September 2022
Russia is wrong to use Kosovo as a model for other cases for many reasons, including the fact that the International Court of Justice says Kosovo is an uncial case, which means it has its own unique set of circumstances and can’t be used as a model for other cases.
Lest anyone harbor any hopes of an impending Belgrade-Moscow split
Although Serbia opposes Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory, it remains a steadfast Russian ally. Through their Serbian branches, Russian TV stations RT and Sputnik spread propaganda, and Vucic lets his propaganda machine repeat much of the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine. Serbian media reflects a broad array of pro-Kremlin messaging, varying from portrayals of Ukrainians as Nazis to false claims that Ukraine attacked Russia first
Belgrade and Moscow’s partnership
The more interesting lesson is that Belgrade and Moscow’s partnership is not due to some deep historical bond or Slavic brotherhood, as some people contend, but rather is strategic and transactional. They support each other only to the extent that it serves their separate agendas.
To Serbs, the West should ceaselessly emphasize Russia’s international isolation, military failures in Ukraine, and much-diminished power as an ally.
Serbia’s position is complicated by the fact that it is still largely dependent on Russia for military equipment and training, while Russia has strong regional influence through ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Russian information operations.
Vucic risks steep consequences if he were to truly anger Russia.
Indeed, Vucic’s recent statements against Russia’s actions in Ukraine have fueled a backlash against him. The acting head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin on Telegram that he is “sure Vucic is under pressure” to side with the West. In a similar vein, a Russian State Duma deputy from Crimea, Mikhail Sheremet, Vucic faces “colossal pressure from Western countries.”
A Russian senator from Crimea, Ekaterina Altabaeva, sharply criticized Vucic, how “it is very bitter when today’s realities force a person to abandon historical traditions.” She maintained that “historical ties between Serbia and Russia … will prevail over all political, opportunistic considerations.”
That remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Ukraine and the West should not be fooled by Vucic’s rhetoric. He is a rational actor whose principal goal is to remain in power. But given the growing tension between Vucic and the Kremlin, the West has an opportunity to exploit their differences to weaken both countries’ regional influence.
For one, the West should start an information offensive against Putin on social and other media platforms in the Balkans, primarily emphasizing Russia’s untrustworthiness as an ally.
In its information campaigns, the West can leverage Vucic’s current openness towards the West and involve him in efforts to weaken Russia’s regional influence. In a phone call this week between Vucic and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Secretary and President Vucic agreed that regional stability is essential to securing Serbia’s European future.
Serbia’s willingness to cooperate with the European Union emphasized Vucic’s commitment to regional stability and peace. Since Vucic fully controls his country’s media, he can easily spin information any way he likes. This means Vucic has the power to shift the tone of Serbia’s public conversation to support normalizing relations with Kosovo without any fear that Serbian nationalist groups country’s media, can easily spin information any way he likes. In this case, Vucic’s consolidated power could be an asset in the mission to undermine and deter Russia in the Balkans.
Western information campaigns should also target far-right Serbian nationalists. Their support for Putin stems from his affirmation of their belief that Kosovo is the heart of the Serbian motherland. The West can use strategic messaging to show these people that the relationship between Serbia and Russia is purely transactional and that the Russian brotherhood is nothing more than a myth.
The truth is that Russia is using Kosovo for its strategic purposes. Information campaigns could remind nationalists that Russia’s support for Serbia has been flaky. Russia supported Western sanctions against Serbia in the 1990s and did not help Serbia militarily during NATO’s 1999 intervention. Although Russia initially joined the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Russia abandoned it in 2003, throwing its supposed Slavic brothers under the bus.
Perhaps most importantly, the West should ceaselessly emphasize Russia’s international isolation, military failures in Ukraine, and much-diminished power as an ally. Russia is fast losing influence on its periphery—whether in Central Asia, the Caucasus, or the Balkans—and it is in no position to help Serbia, either militarily or economically. The exhibit is Armenia, a nominal Russian ally left helpless by its big brother after Turkish-backed Azerbaijan occupied parts of its territory last year. Make sure that all Serbs know that they should not hitch their wagon to a declining, unreliable star.