An influential Washington-based think tank has called for a permanent US presence in the Western Balkans to counter growing Russian influence in the region.
A new report from the Atlantic Council, that is funded by Nato, warns that the region has been neglected by the US since the wars of the 1990s, allowing Russia and other actors to “reshap[e] the geopolitical landscape”. As a result of this neglect, says the report by the think tank, the Western Balkans has “become a much more dangerous place”.
“The Western Balkans were supposed to be a solved problem,” says the report, citing slow but measurable progress over the last two decades. “In 2016, however, two important changes upended the status quo by undermining much of the Balkans’ trust in their short-term future in the EU and Nato.”
These came first from the EU — where the UK’s Brexit referendum and a Dutch vote rejecting the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine “sent an unmistakable signal to the region that the European Union has no immediate appetite for further enlargement” — and then from the US, where concerns were raised by President Donald Trump’s questioning of the Washington’s commitment to Nato and uncertainty over his relationship with Russia.
“The last two years have seen breath-taking attempts by Russia to capitalise on the region’s lingering pathologies to undermine the European project,” claims the paper published on November 28.
It argues that Moscow’s actions have been “particularly malign” in Bosnia & Herzegovina, which it assesses as “the most fragile post-Yugoslav state”. It singles out Moscow’s cultivation of Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, encouraging his attempts to hold a referendum on the Serb entity’s secession from Bosnia. “Dodik and his inner circle have spent more than a decade trying to tear apart [Bosnia’s] fragile state structures,” comments the report.
It also details Russian “games” in Kosovo, such as alleged intelligence activities in the Serb-dominated north of the country, the dissemination of “fake news” and — most notably — the journey of a Russian-funded train emblazoned with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” that Serbia’s rail operator threatened to drive into Kosovo.
The report also details the suspicions of Russian intelligence involvement in the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, and Russia’s role in deepening the long political crisis in Macedonia. It accuses Russian diplomats of “backing VMRO-DPMNE to the hilt”, which helped the conservative party to cling onto power and, while a new government has now been appointed, warns that “If poisoning the well is their goal, the Russians have done an admirable job … much damage was done to the country’s cohesion over the past year and every new round of political wrangling is fraught with tension. If the past is any guide, Russia will not quit stirring the pot.”
Looking at the reasons for Russia’s involvement in the region, the Atlantic Council speculates that Moscow has three key goals: distracting the west from challenging it over more vital interests in its immediate neighbourhood, using the threat of a new Balkan war and its potentially destabilising impact on Europe as leverage, and calling into question the legitimacy of existing borders in the Balkans to open a wider debate on the status of Crimea, the Donbas and potentially also the Baltic states.
“Put more simply, the overall goal is to make as big a mess as possible in the region, a mess that would require Russia’s assistance to sort out. Russia is seeking leverage,” says the report.
While much of the report is devoted to Russia, it also warns of other threats including that of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, which in turn are encouraged by high unemployment and lack of prospects for young people in the region. Kosovo’s government, for example, has already warned of the potential threat from returning Islamic State (IS) fighters. Other destabilising factors include the pressure the migrant crisis has placed on weak state institutions, together with political gridlock, and pervasive corruption.
Discussing the issue of corruption, it doesn't spare even the US’s closest allies among the region's leaders, as it criticises previous US policy of “turning a blind eye to the creeping authoritarianism of the region’s leaders”. Instead, the US needs to “regain [its] reputation as an honest broker.”
The primary policy recommendation from the Atlantic Council is for a permanent US military presence in the region; it proposes Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo as “ideal” for the purpose.
“Such an announcement would demonstrate an enduring US commitment to security in the region and anchor the United States’ long-term ability to influence developments,” the report explains. “The move should also send a clear signal to the region that the United States is committed to preventing reckless revisionism of existing borders—something that Russian adventurism has encouraged.”
Separately, it calls on Washington to be more forceful in persuading Serbia to “meaningfully distance itself from Russia”. The US’s frustration as Belgrade continues pursuing a course between the West and Russia became apparent when US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee offended officials in Belgrade by using an old Serbian proverb — “It is not possible to sit on two chairs at the same time” — to apparently chastise Serbia for not choosing between the EU and Russia.
The Atlantic Council takes a more sceptical view on Vucic than typically held by EU leaders, writing that “even as he has tantalised Western leaders with the promise of a breakthrough on Kosovo, Vučić has also courted Russia”, accusing him of “‘playing hard to get’ in order to wrest some concessions over the Kosovo issue and keeping his relations with Russia as a back-up.