When the Roman empire divided under the emperor Theodosius in AD395, the geographic split into east and west occurred along the area we know today as the Balkans.

If we examine the map of the area today, we find a patchwork quilt of small nations which have been described as the soft underbelly of Europe because of the region’s constant friction and division.

When the Roman empire divided in AD395 between Theodosius’ two sons, the geographic division placed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia in the western empire and Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia in the eastern part.

If we turn our attention to the current membership of the EU we find that the western Balkan area is not presently in the EU itself.

Over the last year or so a number of articles have appeared which describe an increasing degree of Russian interference in the region.

Here are some excerpts from a number of political commentators.

The Western Balkans and the EU-Russia Tug of War

(Impakter August 15, 2019)

“Russia’s resurgent presence and strengthened role in the Balkan region has been the focus of increased attention and renewed interest in recent years. Highly catchy press titles such as “The Western Balkans are a testing ground in a new Cold War,” “The Western Balkans as a chessboard for superpower relations,” “Putin’s Game of Thrones in the Balkans,” and “Do the Western Balkans face a coming Russian storm?” highlight the narrative that, at the moment, the Western Balkans may indeed be a region where crucial geopolitical tensions and high stakes are playing out.

The stimulus for this renewed interest is the perceptible shift in the balance of power in the Balkan region. While the European Union (EU) was looking inwards and focusing on its serious domestic challenges including the economic crisis in Greece and the eurozone, Brexit, the refugee/migration crisis and the rise of eurosceptism and populist extremism in Europe, the geopolitical environment in the Balkan region was slowly but consistently shifting.

Russia’s Strong Arm

Balkans today

Russia has invested considerable effort and resources in recent years in the Balkans in an attempt to strengthen its influence in the area. It has been successful on many fronts, and Russia’s economic, diplomatic and political influence in the region is greater than it has been at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Moscow’s objectives are not only to prevent further expansion of the European Union and NATO into the Western Balkans, but to ultimately redress the balance of power and geopolitical landscape in what has traditionally been an area of intense Russian strategic importance. In this context, Russia’s most important instruments of influence in the region include energy policy, investment and “soft power” tools such as cultural, media and religious campaigns.

Concerning energy policy, Russia draws its strength from its role as a major supplier of energy and a key investor in the energy sector. Russia is by far the dominant oil and gas supplier in the Balkans, where all countries remain heavily dependent on imports to meet their needs. Russia’s energy influence is biggest in Serbia, North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where it supplies almost 90% of natural gas needs.

In addition to its strengthening economic presence, “soft power” tools have also given Russia considerable traction in the region. Russia has been rekindling traditional ties with many Balkan countries based on shared religious, historical and cultural affinities. The Christian Orthodox countries of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as Republika Srpska (within Bosnia-Herzegovina) are natural allies of Russia.

Russia’s historical role resonates with many elites and with citizens who believe deeply in Russia as the protector of Orthodoxy and all Slavic peoples. Russia’s severe criticism of NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, its decision to not recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, as well as the use of its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in Serbia’s favour (by vetoing two UNSC resolutions condemning violence by Bosnian Serbs) are all central aspects of Russia’s powerful pro-Serb, pro-Slav narrative.

Finally, propaganda and misinformation have played a key part in Russia’s campaign to strengthen its position in the Western Balkans over the past years. Russian propaganda has exploited, fuelled and capitalised upon the growing disillusionment of the EU on the European continent resulting from the slowdown of the EU’s enlargement process. Moscow’s strategy relies on a broad spectrum of instruments including media influence, public support for eurosceptic organisations and leaders, as well as the establishment of various high profile and active NGOs and civic associations.

There is no doubt that, armed with its real energy dominance, its cultural solidarity rhetoric, its soft power tools, its divide-and-rule tactics and the promise of another alternative to being condemned to the EU’s waiting room, Russia can indeed pose as a real threat of destabilisation and disorientation in the region. This in turn will have a crucial impact in geopolitical and economic developments in the region, as well as on the future EU prospects of the Western Balkan countries.”

Russia’s Game in the Balkans

(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 6 Feb 2019)

“Moscow’s willingness and ability to aggravate and prolong political instability in select Balkan countries appears geared toward undermining, or at least delaying, their prospects for integration into the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As xenophobia and populism upend political systems in European countries with far stronger institutions, the Kremlin’s cultivation of far-right groups and authoritarian-style politicians in the Balkans is worrying. Russia’s efforts will fuel democratic backsliding and political polarization—both of which complicate Balkan states’ EU and NATO prospects.

For Russia, the Balkans hold significant historic, cultural, and religious connections—shared ties that are actively propagated, and at times exaggerated, by Russian public diplomacy efforts and media narratives. The region’s geostrategic location between the Black and Mediterranean Seas, as well as its proximity to the Middle East, is also important to Moscow. The Black Sea provides Russia with access to warm-water ports—the quest for which has been a historic driver of Russian diplomatic and military activity in South-Eastern Europe. And as one of the last regions of Europe—before the former Soviet space—that has not yet been fully integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures, the Balkans present an obvious target for Russian influence operations that are geared toward slowing down and even preventing EU or NATO enlargement. By bogging down expansion in the Balkans, Moscow hopes to prevent renewed discussion about membership for Georgia, Ukraine, or any other former Soviet state.

Russia’s Toolkit in the Balkans

  1. Economics, Energy and Investment

Energy is the primary economic tool of Russian influence in the region. Moscow’s proven ability to transform energy into a diplomatic tool reflects the dominant role hydrocarbons play in the Russian economy. Moscow has long hoped to reduce its reliance on Ukraine as a transit state for gas exports by utilizing South-Eastern Europe instead, while making several midsize European countries dependent on Russian gas.

Through its investment in NIS, Gazprom Neft gained assets elsewhere in the region, including subsidiary enterprises—gas stations, storage facilities, drilling and exploratory rights, and representative offices—in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Romania. These facilities give Russian commercial entities a visible presence throughout the broader region and create affinities in provincial communities where Russian entities own—either directly or indirectly—stakes in important local employers.

Russia has also invested in other sectors across the region: banking, retail, real estate, and tourism. In 2012, Russia’s state-owned Sberbank purchased Volksbank International, formerly the Eastern European subsidiary of an Austrian banking group, now called “Sberbank Europe”. The acquisition gave the Russian bank a relatively large retail and commercial banking presence in South-Eastern Europe, with assets in Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

  1. Information Space: Propaganda, digital space, and cyber

Moscow amplifies its commercial presence and links to the region through repeated high-level visits, robust information campaigns, and partnerships with local media outlets, bloggers, and politicians who push Russian-friendly news stories or anti-Western narratives. Russian corporate sponsorship of football teams, charity events, schools, athletic associations, and Russian language or cultural associations also enhances goodwill among target populations. These soft power tools emanating from the private sector constitute a large part of Russia’s public diplomacy to the region, complementing more formal Russian state outreach through embassies, cultural centres, friendship societies, the church, and honorary consuls.

Russian-friendly or Moscow-supported media in the region eagerly highlight local resentments toward Brussels, Washington, or Balkan politicians who push their countries too far westward. These narratives generally present the West as the cause of the region’s democratic deficiencies, economic troubles, and continued ethnic divisions. They claim that US or EU support for certain pro-Western political elites at all cost is the root cause of the states’ failures to address corrosive corruption or to develop rule of law-based political systems and empowered civil societies.

Given rising internet penetration rates across the region, growing smart phones usage in key countries, and the popularity of social media, Russia’s use of mobile platforms to cultivate influence will likely continue to increase in the coming years. The narratives conveyed through these mediums are geared toward diminishing public support in the region for integration with Western political, economic, and security institutions. By highlighting Serbian or Orthodox victimhood, these messages also risk complicating conflict reconciliation efforts.

  1. Religious/Culture Wars

Putin with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić

Beyond the media, the Kremlin harnesses the Russian Orthodox Church as a vehicle of influence in countries with substantial Orthodox populations. Moscow deploys the narrative of Slavic brotherhood and shared Orthodox Christianity to fortify its relationships with political leaders, churches, and independent groups in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill serves as a visible interlocutor between his church and its counterparts across South-Eastern Europe, including to Orthodox minority groups in non-Christian countries, like Albania, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Putin’s much-publicized pilgrimages to Mt. Athos in Greece in 2005 and 2016 were Russia’s most visible global outreach efforts. Mt. Athos hosts twenty monasteries and is a centre of Orthodox mysticism. Putin’s visits prominently displayed Russia’s effort to promote itself as a benefactor of modern-day Orthodoxy. In the Balkans, Russia tries to foster connections with local Orthodox officials to sway public and elite opinion in its favour.

Oligarchs with ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and far-right elements in Russian society actively contribute to Russian soft power efforts in the Balkans, providing Moscow with a mask of deniability should an influence operation go awry. The most prominent example is Konstantin Malofeev, whose St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation is the largest Orthodox charity in Russia, with a reported budget of over $40 million. In addition to its work inside Russia, the charity supports family values campaigns throughout Eastern Europe. Malofeev and his charity appear to be key conduits for Russia’s outreach to conservative Orthodox groups in the Balkans. For example, the charity was behind efforts to bring the “ritual of Holy Fire,” which symbolizes Christ’s resurrection to Orthodox Christians, from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Serbia for the first time for Orthodox Easter in 2015. According to the charity’s website, it financed and arranged for an Easter flame to be brought from the church in Jerusalem to Belgrade for a ritual ceremony. The flame also travelled to Croatia, Montenegro, and the Republika Srpska. Ruski Ekspres, a Belgrade-based Russian media outlet, coordinated and broadcast the ceremony live in both Russian and Serbian.

  1. Political Ties

Moscow works to deepen ties with Balkan political leaders who share the Kremlin’s authoritarian approach to governance, its conspiratorial views of the West, and its rejection of Western cultural norms, particularly those concerning minority rights. The Balkans provide Moscow with fertile ground for promoting authoritarian worldviews. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, for example, has called for a Russian-style nongovernmental organization (NGO) law that would require some non-profit organizations to register as foreign agents and submit detailed financial information on their funding. Political parties in the Balkans that allegedly receive covert or overt support from Moscow fuel conspiracy theories about the West similar to those pushed by Russian officials.

  1. Security, Intelligence and State Proxies

When it comes to security ties, Moscow’s efforts in the Balkans focus primarily on Serbia, the one country without formal aspirations to join NATO, and the Republika Srpska. Serbia became an observer to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance in 2013 and participates in military exercises with Russia and other CSTO partners—most recently the Russian-Serbian-Belarusian “Slavic Brotherhood” military exercise in July 2018. Moscow and Belgrade signed a military technical assistance agreement in 2016 to support Serbia’s military modernization program, by upgrading and replacing its Yugoslav-era military stocks with used MiG-29 fighter jets, T-72 tanks, and combat patrol vehicles donated by Russia or Belarus. These donations, however, are somewhat controversial because Serbia is stuck with the cost of upgrading the equipment—most of which is nearing the end of its usable life.

Russia has provided military-style training for Serb teenagers in Serbia and Russia, presumably as part of an effort to promote cultural links and military-patriotic solidarity between youth in Russia and ethnic Serbs in the region. Serbian police shut down one such training camp in 2018, citing concerns about child abuse. Russia also established a humanitarian response centre in Niš, Serbia, to enhance regional capacity to respond to weather emergencies and other natural or man-made disasters. While the centre hosts advanced emergency response capabilities and contains a broad base of emergency response equipment, several Western states have accused the facility of serving as an intelligence collection centre or military post. No matter what its purpose really is, the facility gives Moscow a potential collection and operational platform to monitor events in Serbia and key countries of interest, including Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Macedonia.”

What about the future?

At the time of the end we expect to see the two halves of the ancient Roman empire under a single political power—Russia. Developments in the Balkans may be a catalyst in introducing a greater Russian influence in the region. We watch with interest how Russia and Europe will collide in this area and how Russia will, at the last, win.