Russia is a Menace to Balkan Democracies

Russia is aggrieved by the West’s growing influence in the Balkans, and Kosovo in particular. Despite historic ties between Russia and Serbia, and a shared Slavic and Orthodox Christian heritage, Russia was too weak economically and militarily to oppose NATO’s intervention in 1999, which culminated in Kosovo’s independence.

Today, however, Russia is resurgent. Kosovo has become a geo-political testing ground for Russia’s rivalry with the United States.

The risk of confrontation will increase when the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is annulled in February 2019 and Russia can target its missiles on Kosovo, Albania and other pro-Western countries.

Countries in Southeast Europe need to signal their resolve to counter Russia’s malign influence and nuclear brinksmanship. A first step would be evicting Russian spies and military attachés from Russia’s embassies in the region.

President Vladimir Putin should be judged by what he does, not by what he says. Russia is openly hostile to Kosovo’s state-building project and actively opposes Kosovo’s efforts to gain greater global recognition. Through its seat on the UN Security Council, Russia blocks Kosovo’s UN membership. It also led recent efforts to prevent Kosovo from becoming a member of the global policing body, Interpol.

Russia’s threat is not theoretical. Putin has targeted other states and post-Soviet governments that wish to join NATO and the EU, such as Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova. It has seized Crimea from Ukraine and supports pro-Russian gangs in Donetsk and across Ukraine’s border with Russia.

It invaded the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest promised eventual NATO membership to Georgia.

It intensified pressure on Moldova after Moldova signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2013 and in the aftermath of Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections.

Russia’s cooperation with Serbia is a flashpoint in the Western Balkans. While Putin professes pan-Slavic solidarity, he is purely self-serving. Putin is simply pursuing a strategic goal to limit US, NATO, and EU influence.

Putin has provided Serbia with sophisticated weapons, including tanks and mechanized armor vehicles, Mi-17 attack helicopters, and MIG-29 warplanes. Discussions are underway to transfer Buk-M1 and Buk-M2 missile systems, as well as S-300s surface-to-air missiles.

Russia has established an intelligence facility in Nis, in southern Serbia, to spy on US interests in the Balkans, although the Kremlin describes the Nis facility as a “humanitarian centre” for fighting forest fires.

In October 2016, Russia organized a failed coup in Montenegro, which envisioned anattack on the country’s parliament and the assassination of prime minister Milo Djukanović.


Milo Djukanovic, leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), addresses supporters during his final election rally in Podgorica, Montenegro, 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/BORIS PEJOVIC

In April 2017, Russia fomented a coup in Macedonia to undermine the formation of a government by the pro-Western Social Democratic Union, the SDSM.

Russia’s malign influence operations have sought to sway elections in the Western Balkans as well as the outcome of the presidential election of 2016 in the US. The US Senate Intelligence Committee has just published a report about Russia’s disinformation campaign, which used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos to help elect Donald Trump, and support his agenda after being elected. The US Department of Justice has indicted a bevy of Russians from the Internet Research Agency alleging that they conducted espionage.

Make no mistake: ethnic Albanian territories are targeted by the Kremlin. The military attachés and political counselors at Russia’s embassies in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro are active spies, plotting attacks against democratically elected pro-Western governments.

They may also be involved in selecting targets for Russian missiles after the INF Treaty expires in February 2019. Putin has no intention of returning to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty. For years, Russia deployed ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the arms control agreement.

It is time for steely-eyed realism. Russia is a real and growing threat to pro-Western states in Southeast Europe. Ethnic Albanian territories of the Western Balkans need a strong and coordinated response, aimed at increasing their inter-state cooperation on regional security and shielding the region from Russia’s attacks.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert to the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He authored ‘Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention’, (Harvard’s Kennedy School).

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.


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