Balkans a prime target for Russia's unconventional warfare tactics

Balkans a prime target for Russia's unconventional warfare tactics
Police at a protest organised by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor in Moldova in 2023.
By bne IntelliNews February 22, 2024

The Balkan region offers a “particularly serious set of opportunities” for Russia’s unconventional military activities as it seeks to destabilise European countries beyond Ukraine, warns a new report from UK-based defence and security think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). 

Close to two years into the war in Ukraine, Russia is interested in creating crises elsewhere in Europe, as well as continuing its expeditionary operations in Africa, where it aims to seize control of critical resources. 

One of the most concerning areas outlined in the report is the Balkans, where Russia sees significant opportunities for its unconventional military activities, says the report titled "The Threat from Russia’s Unconventional Warfare Beyond Ukraine, 2022-24”, authored by Jack Watling, Oleksandr V Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds.

"The Balkans present a particularly serious set of opportunities for such enterprises," the report states.

Despite setbacks for the Kremlin, including the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from European capitals, Russia continues to actively pursue avenues to rebuild its capacity for unconventional operations. This includes efforts to expand its partnerships in Africa, supplanting Western alliances, and leveraging influential figures like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to build networks of influence in Europe and the Middle East.

The report highlights Russia's multifaceted approach, combining conventional and unconventional military means as tools of national power. This includes information warfare and active measures aimed at manipulating public sentiment to mobilise or paralyse constituencies within target countries.

"Russia considers both conventional and unconventional military means to be tools of national power and applies them in combination," the report says.

“Russia also has an active interest in destabilising Ukraine’s partners, and with a slew of elections forthcoming across Europe there is a wide range of opportunities to exacerbate polarisation,” the authors say. 

“Moreover, with its conventional forces – so often used to coerce others – fixed by the fighting in Ukraine, the significance of unconventional operations as a lever of influence increases. This is especially important with the collapse of Russian overt diplomatic access across target countries.”

They believe Russia’s special services are actively seeking to “expand their capacity in several areas that pose strategic threats to Nato members”.

Instances of violent subversion for political destabilisation, such as the attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016 and subsequent efforts to destabilise Moldova, demonstrate Russia's persistent use of these tactics.

In Moldova, the RUSI analysts believe, “Russia's original plan had been to militarily occupy Moldova after concluding its operations in Ukraine. When the invasion of Ukraine failed, however, Moscow sought a mechanism to destabilise the Moldovan state.” 

There have been two attempts by Russia to destabilise Moldova since the invasion of Ukraine. The first was on Victory Day, May 9, 2022, when protests were organised against the repression of Soviet military symbols during the Victory Day commemorations. According to RUSI, “Provocations during these demonstrations were to be used to drive an escalating cycle of violence in which politicians friendly to Russia could call for a change in leadership to stabilise the situation.”

This was followed by a second attempt centred on the protests orchestrated by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, with Russian GRU officers working with Serbian football ultras and other Serbian citizens sought to provoke violence, according to the think-tank. 

Both attempts were unsuccessful. However, according to RUSI, the Kremlin’s efforts in Moldova continued. 

“[O]ver the course of 2023, following the failure of the second attempt to destabilise Moldova, Russian disinformation targeting the country became much more consistent and mutually reinforcing,” said the report. 

“Russia shifted to strengthen the public association between Moldova’s aspiration to join the EU and President Maia Sandu personally, while simultaneously blaming her for the country’s economic woes. At the same time, the Russians began targeting Romanian nationalists within Moldovan society to amplify their voices, and in doing so exacerbated the threat felt by Moldova’s Russian-speaking population in relation to increased alignment with Europe.”

Majority Muslim countries, as well as those with Muslim minorities, were also targeted by Russia's propaganda efforts. 

RUSI research found that Moscow portrayed Kadyrov in particular as a defender of traditional values in defiance of Western influence. “Russian official propaganda and networks of hidden influence operating in Muslim countries push a romantic image of Kadyrov as a defender of Islam, opposing Western heretics who are trying to destroy traditional values,” the report says. 

The Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation (named for the Chechen leader’s father) is “especially active” in the Balkans, where it has established ties with authoritative Muslim representatives, said the report. It names not only the countries of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, which have large Muslim populations, but also Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.