Russia’s relationship with Serbia, a state in the heart of the contentious Balkans, will almost certainly be leveraged to imperil European security for the foreseeable future. Serbian President Aleksander Vucic, a former Europhilic parliamentarian turned autocratic leader, continues to advance Russia’s destabilizing efforts in the region. Russia’s close relationship with Serbia allows for the Kremlin to develop ties with the nationalist Serbian diaspora throughout the Balkans to destabilize Kosovo, Bosnia, and other pro-Western states in the region.
Following the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, millions of Serbs found themselves in the states which emerged from the conflict. As a result, sectarian divisions still plague the region and guide Belgrade’s foreign policy. Belgrade continues to claim Kosovo as a part of Serbia, citing a historical claim to the land and the illegitimacy of Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence. Russia, leveraging deep cultural ties with Serbia, provides Belgrade vital diplomatic and rhetorical support on territorial issues. In exchange, Serbia acts as a Russian trojan horse in the Balkans to facilitate the spread of Russian influence amongst the Serbian diaspora in the Balkans.
To Serbia’s west, Russia maintains a robust relationship with Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency. With Russian support, Dodik and Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska entity are establishing regional governing institutions that rival Bosnia’s. These institutions range from a state-level judiciary to the reconstitution of the Republika Srpska armed forces. Dodik said on June 6 that Republika Srpska intends to secede from Bosnia. In response, Germany announced on June 8, 2022 that it will deploy troops to Bosnia for the first time in a decade citing resurgent instability emanating from the tense situation in the country.
Dodik’s threats continue to destabilize Bosnia and delay the country’s accession into Western institutions, to the delight of Moscow. Dodik met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 18 to reaffirm Republika Srpska’s desire to deepen economic cooperation and to combat Western sanctions against Russia. At this meeting, Putin expressed his appreciation of Dodik’s efforts to prevent Bosnia from complying with Western sanctions stemming from the Ukraine war.
Russia’s support for the Serbian diaspora extends into Kosovo and continues to delay a resolution to the Serbian-Kosovar dispute. This dispute is incredibly important for Russia’s current cadre of foreign policy leaders. For Putin and his ilk, the secession of Kosovo from Serbia isn’t a reflection of the Kosovar people’s will, but rather a cynical effort by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to destroy Serbia, a Russian ally. Additionally, Putin cites the West’s supposed disregard for international law on the Kosovo issue to deflect from Russia’s malign activities in the former Soviet Union.
Kosovar Serbs blocked key roads on July 31 in north Kosovo to protest Pristina’s attempt to force them to replace their Serbian license plates with the Kosovar equivalent. Pristina is sensitive about Kosovar Serbs’ use of Serbian license plates as it is a reflection of the Serbian population’s refusal to legitimize Kosovo’s statehood. As a result of the Kosovar Serbs’ protests, Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar police engaged in a tense stand-off on July 31, which ultimately led to exchanges of gunfire.
In response to the heightened ethnic tensions in Kosovo, Serbian officials threatened to retaliate if the Kosovo government continues to act against the Kosovar Serbs. Vladimir Djukanovic, a Serbian parliamentarian from Vucic’s party, tweeted on July 31 that Serbia “will be forced to begin the denazification of the Balkans,” in reference to Russia’s justification for its war in Ukraine. As the situation escalated, Vucic met with Serbia’s General Staff to discuss potential military options in response to ‘provocations’ against Kosovar Serbs on July 31. In response to this development, NATO’s Kosovo Force said it would intervene if Kosovo’s stability is threatened. Eventually, Kosovo’s government conceded to the Serbian demonstrators and agreed to postpone its ban on Serbian license plates on August 1.
Throughout Pristina’s dispute with Kosovar Serbs, Russian media flooded the information space with articles claiming that tensions were the West’s fault and several Russian officials voiced their support for Serbia. Russia’s First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov said on August 1 that Russia can aid Serbia with military support if necessary. Russian support for Serbia will continue to embolden Belgrade to rattle the sabre and extract concessions from Kosovo, thus worsening the security environment for NATO’s Kosovo Force.
In a way, Russia’s support for Belgrade throughout its conflict with Kosovo turned Serbia into a ‘little Russia,’ whose domestic stability is pegged to foreign policy victories. Like Russia, Serbia’s path to democracy is obstructed by a centralized autocracy that has persecuted opposition figures, free press, and has established complete control of the judiciary. Additionally, Serbia’s media environment is run by a handful of pro-Vucic tycoons that resemble the oligarchs which support Putin’s regime. Both Russia and Serbia are bitter about the supposed division of their nations. Russia acted on this bitterness when it illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Given Vucic’s visit to the General Staff on July 31, and Djukanovic’s ominous tweet, militarist sentiment amongst Serbian officials over Kosovo is evidently increasing.
Between backing Dodik in Bosnia and supporting the Kosovar Serbs, Russia successfully illustrated its ability to exploit sectarian divisions to freeze and intensify conflicts in the Balkans. Russia’s malign activities in the Balkans are succeeding in unnerving the West and denigrating democratization in the affected Balkan states. As the Kremlin looks for ways to lash out against the West, meddling in the Balkans will continue to serve as a low risk-high reward opportunity for Russia to threaten Europe’s security. Pro-Russian officials in Bosnia and Serbia will continue to advance Russian regional interests in exchange for diplomatic support.