In response to Putin’s aggression, the West has become more united than ever – except in the Western Balkans – European integration
In the series of meetings with world leaders before the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia is in danger and has the right “to intervene” to resolve differences between the West and the Russia. Guided by the nationalist “Russian world” narrative – that all Russians have the right to live in one country – he argued that Ukrainians are not a nation but in fact Russians. Ukraine is not a state, he continues, but Lenin’s project, and it must be integrated into Russia. Putin’s rhetoric bears a striking resemblance to the narrative used by Slobodan Milošević to start the war in Yugoslavia in 1991 – and to the current narrative of a “Serbian world” directed towards Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Today, weeks after the start of the invasion, Putin and Russia find themselves in the most difficult situation since the end of the Cold War. The Russian economy is suffering from unprecedented sanctions and Putin could be accused of war crimes. Some would say he looks like Milošević – only with nukes.
However, there are a few black sheep in Europe who have defied the unified Western response: Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have refused to introduce sanctions against Russia.
In response to Putin’s aggression, the West has become more united than ever. It has isolated Russia financially and the EU is closer than ever to granting Ukraine candidate status. Putin’s increasingly desperate actions — issuing nuclear threats to anyone who dares to help Ukraine, for example — have led even his closest autocratic allies, like Viktor Orbán, to turn their backs on him. However, there are a few black sheep in Europe who have defied the unified Western response: Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have refused to introduce sanctions against Russia. In Bosnia, it failed because of the blockade of the Serbian and pro-Russian member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik.
The Western Balkans are Europe’s weak point
In this context, we can see more and more clearly how certain regimes in the Western Balkans played a role in paving the way for a wider conflict between Russia and the West, including the destruction of the Western security architecture. well funded in the Western Balkans. Moscow had worked for a long time to destabilize Europe and NATO, and mainly through two channels in the Western Balkans: politics and security.
The political channel worked in two ways. First, Putin tried to block the European integration of the Western Balkan countries. Second, he tried to undermine NATO enlargement by destabilizing Montenegro and North Macedonia. In 2016, a coup attempt and the assassination of President Milo Djukanovic was supported by Putin’s regime, as well as the Russian and Serbian Orthodox Church. In 2017, Russian intelligence services supported the storming of parliament and the attack on then-opposition leader Zoran Zaev in North Macedonia.
From a security point of view, Moscow supported the project of changing borders in the Western Balkans by creating three large states: Serbia – the project of a Serbian world in the image of the Russian world -, Albania and Croatia which would absorb small states and nations. such as Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Ultimately, this would lead to a new war in the Balkans.
Now, Putin’s latest trump card in Europe would be to provoke a new conflict through his proxies in an effort to divert NATO and EU attention to the Western Balkans.
The opportunity for Europe to counter
However, despite their weakness, the Western Balkan states are resisting Russian hybrid aggression with varying degrees of success. The biggest challenge is the regime in Serbia which is strongly integrated into the Russian and Chinese zone of influence. Officially, Serbia is “militarily neutral,” but it needs help to break free from Russian influence.
The EU should first complete its work in the Western Balkans and continue the integration of the countries that are already negotiating.
The EU now has the opportunity to become more resolute in its foreign and security policy. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have applied for EU membership. This obviously raised expectations elsewhere. This is why the EU should first finish its work in the Western Balkans and continue the integration of the countries which are already negotiating. Montenegro, as a member state of NATO which has opened all the chapters of the negotiations, could relatively quickly become a member of the EU. This would have an insignificant cost to the EU given its small population and adaptable economy. More importantly, it would send a strong message to the Western Balkans and to the democratic world – that the EU does not give up on the vision of its founders.
Albania and North Macedonia, also members of NATO, could finally get the long-awaited dates for the start of negotiations. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs the attention of the EU and NATO due to its security problems, as there is still an ongoing debate on the electoral legislation and the organization of the country which must be established on civic and not ethnic principles. Kosovo is likely to become a member state of NATO, which would accelerate the overall agreement with Serbia and remove the illusion that Kosovo will join greater Albania.
The international situation has changed – the Western world is showing more unity and solidarity today than just a few days ago. This momentum should be used for a more agile European policy in the Western Balkans – without forgetting that the ultimate priority is to stop the war in Ukraine.