Ukraine war created “arc of instability” from Balkans to Caucasus

Ukraine war created “arc of instability” from Balkans to Caucasus
Police at a protest organised by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor in Moldova in 2023. The government says Shor is trying to destabilise the country with Russia's backing. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews May 31, 2024

The ongoing war in Ukraine has created what Carnegie scholars describe as an "arc of instability" between Russia and the European Union. 

Countries in the arc, including Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova and Serbia, are seen as increasingly vulnerable to external pressures. The paper, “Between Russia and the EU: Europe’s Arc of Instability”, published by think-tank Carnegie highlights Russia's efforts to maintain influence over these countries by exploiting their vulnerabilities and adjusting its narratives to win over swing voters and deter Western influence.

While these states are not members of either the European Union or Nato, they are strengthening their ties with the EU, with most being prospective members. At the same time, they maintain significant connections with Russia, both political and economic. Armenia, for instance, is a member of both the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) although it is reconsidering its participation in these groups.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU and the US have increased their political and economic support for what the authors dub “in-between" countries. 

The EU has reinvigorated its enlargement process and granted candidate status to Moldova, Ukraine, and conditionally to Georgia. Additionally, it has launched the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) to monitor its border, the first such mission in a CSTO member state. Moldova, meanwhile, is gradually reducing its dependence on Russian gas.

“Still, it would be complacent to assume that the European trajectory of these in-between countries is a given,” warns the report. “The enlargement process still has a long way to go before the candidate countries achieve actual membership, leaving skeptical EU governments with many opportunities to exercise vetoes.” 

Although public opinion in these nations is becoming more pro-European, many people in countries such as Serbia still value ties with Moscow. 

The authors point to the public struggle to win over the hearts and minds of people in the “in-between” countries. 

To achieve this, they say, Moscow has changed its messaging. “Today’s weakened Russia puts less emphasis on its role as security patron and energy provider and more on an ideological message: that it provides an alternative pole to the West and in particular to the “global hegemon” of the United States, which is portrayed as the puppet master of unwilling European countries.” 

They add: “In the Western Balkans, a Euroskeptic message will always find its target.” Moscow plays on ethnic rivalries, claiming, for example, the EU will force Serbia to recognise Kosovo and turn North Macedonia into a semi-Albanian state.

Russia has also focussed on topics such as traditional values, gender and LGBTQ issues that resonate with the more conservative parts of the population, also working closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has ties with churches in the region. 

Future paths 

All of the countries in the “arc of instability” are relatively small, and the authors warn that their future paths “will be largely determined by developments beyond their control” Specifically it refers to the outcome of the war in Ukraine and decisions made decisions made by EU members about the future of the union. 

“If Russia is even partly successful in its war of aggression in Ukraine, destabilisation or military action against its other neighbours cannot be ruled out. Conversely, Ukrainian military success against Russia and an accelerated path toward EU accession for Ukraine increases the European prospects of other states,” says the report’s authors. 

They also point to the crucial role of geography. The Western Balkans are encircled by EU countries, limiting Russia's political ambitions despite frustrations over the slow pace of EU enlargement. This dynamic does not apply as strongly to Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. Georgia's proximity to Russia and its long-standing conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognised as independent in 2008, heightens its vulnerability. This has driven the Georgian Dream government to seek a softer rapprochement with Russia since 2022.

Armenia and Moldova are both small and economically weak by European standards, with pro-European governments but substantial pro-Russian constituencies. Armenia, isolated from the EU by its location between Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey, relies heavily on Russia for security and energy, though it is seeking to reduce this dependence, says the report. Moldova, meanwhile, is bordered by Romania and Ukraine, has reduced its dependence on Russia since 2022, especially in the energy sector, while pursuing EU accession. 

Between Russia and the West

The report’s authors conclude that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has "dealt a severe blow to its ability to project military and economic power in its neighbourhood”. 

This has been liberating for some countries in the region. “A number of countries that are not members of either the EU or NATO, and that in the prewar years looked set to remain forever in a gray zone between Russia and the West, have suddenly found themselves much better positioned to make progress on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration and strengthen cooperation with both the EU and the United States,” says the report. 

Still, Russia continues to wield power in the region through its ability to influence the populations of “in-between” countries, many of which are open to the Kremlin’s negative messaging about the West.