The fact that Russia is doing very badly in Ukraine is nothing new, and that it is even worse for them at home, that’s also yesterday’s news. It should have been clear to them a long time ago that they will suffer severe consequences long after the end of the invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has fewer and fewer options at its disposal to preserve even the appearance of a consolidated state, and it desperately needs those options.
It is impossible to expect that Putin and his apparatus will seek a way out of the labyrinth they created by turning to diplomacy, dialogue and a gradual return to the world community from which they are isolated. The intoxication with which they entered the Ukrainian invasion does not give hope for that. Adrenaline has been pumped up for years, and self-deception has long since changed reality. The way out will be sought in the old, tried out and tested way – when you get into a crisis from which there is no easy way out, make a new one and the wheels will slowly start to turn.
The Balkans are an ideal space, and 2022 is an ideal time in which Russia can try to provoke this new crisis and thus “spread the front” of its mythical battle in Ukraine. That is, “conflict with the West”, as Sergey Lavrov recently defined. Why not? Until now, years before the Ukrainian drama, the Balkans has been a “theater” where Russia tried to divert the energy of its rival (the West) from the scene of the main battle for its interests, and that is Ukraine. In essence, Russia has no direct interest in any of the Balkan countries, except as a market for its energy sources. But it has plenty of room to spread and maintain instability, thus keeping a small but important region away from full integration into Western structures. So far, in that region, it has very successfully linked the “divisions” of Western influence, its diplomacy, money, companies and the attention of its public. It was only necessary to constantly work on strengthening those already existing differences in the Balkans, which are primarily ethnic and religious, so instability, constant tensions and preoccupation with unpaid bills from the past were guaranteed.
On the first day of the aggression on Ukraine, this potential of the Balkans as a useful reserve area for the realization of the main Russian interests disappeared. However, that potential is returning, at the same speed with which Russian aggression is stuck in Ukraine, and the Russian economy suffers from stronger sanctions. The Balkans is once again becoming a zone that Moscow sees as a good way to get out of the problems it has fallen into.
At the moment, the Balkans has enough potential to become an area for a new crisis, in the middle of Europe. And Russia is looking at it with the eyes of a hungry and disoriented beast seeking a way out of the trap.
The recent elections in Serbia put the gallery of right-wing groups on the big stage, which, if they act together, will have a respectable 35 deputies in the Serbian Parliament and will be the third strongest parliamentary force. All these groups are distinctly pro-Russian and pro-Putin, so with all the differences they have, they are without a doubt united about the Russian issue. Moscow does not need to do anything special with them, they are already well prepared, and so they will speak in a single voice in and outside the parliament in favor of Russian interests. The first test shows that unity by bitterly opposing the possibility of Serbia imposing sanctions on Moscow, and they have not even sat in the parliamentary seats yet.
In Montenegro, a minority government, which will be fragile and dysfunctional even when (if) it is formed, is being constituted with great difficulty. Here come months open for the destabilization of one NATO member, in which the pro-Russian parties and leaders who led the Montenegrin Government in the past year and a half will continue to be on the scene.
Due to its susceptibility to instability, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a constant favorite, but at the moment it exceeds even its potential for self-destruction. In anticipation of the October general elections, the political scene is stirred to the maximum, and at the center of this storm is Milorad Dodik, without a doubt the most valuable factor of Russian influence not only in BiH, but also in the region. Russia cannot wish for a better situation for its plans to get out of the Ukrainian drama than it does now in BiH.
Kosovo is in itself a standard for instability, and its dialogue with Belgrade, under the auspices of the EU, has been frozen for a long time, with no prospect of resuming soon. A spark alone is enough to ignite a fire in this area that the whole region will fear.
If it activates any of these Balkan points as the focus of a new crisis in the middle of Europe, Russia can count on benefiting from a terribly difficult position it placed itself with the attack on Ukraine. First of all, it will divert at least a part of the European and American attention from Ukraine to the Balkans, and it will move at least a part of their diplomatic and security energy from the eastern to the southern European front. Their public opinions will shift the focus to the new crisis, to a region that they already see as traditionally divided and problematic. Furthermore, after the astonishing gathering of the Western ranks (EU and NATO) since the first day of the invasion of Ukraine, a possible crisis in the Balkans could bring Russia a new chance to create cracks in the Western monolith. Who knows, not all Europeans have the same opinion about a potential future crisis in the Balkans, not everyone thinks the same about Bosnia or Kosovo, for example.
A new crisis in the Balkans is desirable for Moscow also because it would cool the new European enthusiasm to include the region in its ranks as soon as possible. The war in Ukraine has put the EU’s enlargement to the Balkans at full speed from years of stagnation, but that speed could easily return to a standstill if the region is hit by some new destabilization.
The race against time is ongoing. Russia certainly understands that the rest of this year is the only chance to take advantage of the unfavorable political situation in most of the Balkans, and that such an opportunity will not happen again soon. Any stable government, with a strong pro-European leadership, is a strategic loss for the Kremlin for its primary interest, and that is the declaration of success in the invasion of Ukraine. The West is also aware of that, and that is why there are more and more calls to provide the Balkans with a fast lane for EU integration, as a security zone where the negative Russian influence does not have the range it once had.
There is no need to doubt Russia’s readiness to provoke a crisis, and even a conflict in the Balkans, because it has openly shown that readiness so far. Its military failures in Ukraine, and especially its economic isolation, make it more dangerous for the Balkans than ever before. There is no doubt that it will reach for the opportunities that are opening up in order to ease its difficult position in and on the occasion of Ukraine. But on the other side, at least the same determination is needed to protect the Balkans from the turbulence that would come from Russia. The full European integration of the region is a matter of political decision, and European leadership is on a big test here. Just like their sense of time which, under the burden of the Ukrainian crisis, is flowing faster than ever.