The war in Ukraine has led to a reduction in Russia’s economic presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia – the three Western Balkan countries where it has historically had the greatest influence, according to a new report from Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. .
Although Russia still has economic influence in all three countries, notably as an energy exporter and owner of crucial energy infrastructure, its role in the economies of these three countries has overall been largely exceeded by that of the EU, before and after the February 2022 invasion, the report says. , titled “Little Substance, Big Impact,” which examines Russia’s goals and influence in the three countries.
Overall, the report’s authors say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had little impact on its position on Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia, with its fundamental approach largely unchanged.
“Even though the invasion led to a sharper divide between Russia and the West and a decline in Russian financial and diplomatic capabilities, we see continuity in terms of Russian strategies and objectives,” the report said.
“Russia’s sources of influence in all three countries have been moderately strained, notably due to early moves by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia to diversify their energy sources and Western pressure to reduce their political and security ties with the Russian Federation. So far, this has not yet affected Moscow’s ability to undermine the Euro-Atlantic integration of the three countries.”
Russia’s hopes of using the Balkan region as an oil and gas supply route to Europe were already dashed in 2014, when the South Stream project was abandoned. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine only confirmed this, reduced Russian gas supply, falling European demand and EU sanctions on Russian oil imports cemented this change .
Russia, however, still strives to maintain its energy-based economic influence in the region. In the energy sector, Russia maintains its influence by supplying almost all gas imports to Serbia and Bosnia, where it also has energy infrastructure.
“Russia retains economic influence, particularly in the energy sector in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it supplies almost 100% of both countries’ gas imports and its energy giant Gazprom has crucial energy infrastructure in those countries. Russia actively uses its energy ties to politically influence the region,” the report said.
However, he emphasizes that the share of gas in the energy mix of each country remains low. Meanwhile, Russia has so far only persuaded Serbia to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Moscow’s Balkan strategy
In the Western Balkans, Russia pursues three key objectives. First of all, it aims to assert global power. Second, it hinders Euro-Atlantic integration by opposing NATO and EU participation and fostering instability. Third, the region, particularly Kosovo, becomes a lever for Russia’s broader foreign policy, defending its influence in neighboring regions.
Its approach to achieving these goals is largely opportunistic. “The Kremlin displays moderate ambitions in building positive relations with the three countries, which is also reflected in the instruments it uses to influence the region,” the report explains. “It maintains contacts and influence across a wide range of individual politicians, the Orthodox Church, the media and malicious proxy groups, using energy connections as well as local tensions and historical memories. Moscow is deliberately pursuing this approach, which is proving relatively effective.”
Although after the invasion of Ukraine Western concerns about Moscow’s influence in the Western Balkans increased, the report’s authors say the region is not a foreign policy priority for Russia.
“Russia’s focus on the Western Balkans, as part of its broader foreign policy, has faded in recent years. Russia now seeks above all to obstruct the integration of the EU and NATO and to project its status as a great power, and above all plays a disruptive role in the region with attempts at destabilization,” explain they. This contrasts with stronger Russian objections to what Moscow sees as Western interference in the post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
“In short, Russia views the region as a tool that can be used to flaunt its great power status on the one hand, while obstructing the West and sowing the seeds of unrest on the other; However, Russia appears unwilling to invest in institutionalized and broader relations with the three countries in the region. The policy that pursues Russian objectives in the Western Balkans appears largely devoid of substance,” the report said.
In addition to its economic influence, Russia also seeks to influence the region through political, military and media channels.
Politically, Russia’s influence is particularly notable among Serbian politicians, who use rhetoric similar to Russia’s and leverage Russian support. Russia’s support for Belgrade on the Kosovo issue is particularly important. However, the report notes, while presenting itself as a partner, Russia also exploits effective malign tactics to shape the political landscape of the Western Balkans. “In the absence of a military presence in the region, Russia supports far-right nationalist figures and organizations, which generally resemble organized crime groups more than paramilitary organizations, to achieve its goal of destabilization by stoking polarization and anti-Western sentiment. »
In the military domain, Russia intends to maintain its collaboration with Serbia while supporting the militarization of Republika Srpska in Bosnia. Russia also has no military presence in the region, instead resorting to “other hybrid methods to stoke unresolved conflicts and instability.” These efforts largely failed; most countries in the region, including Montenegro, have become members of NATO.
Russia, however, has been more successful in its media and disinformation efforts. Through Russian-backed portals, local media and social platforms, Russian propaganda is infiltrating Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. This pervasive misinformation has led significant segments of society to have a favorable opinion of Russia and its leaders.
“In its approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, Russia uses various narratives that resonate with a significant portion of their populations,” the report said. Among these narratives is Russia as the protector of Serbia’s interests vis-à-vis Kosovo and Serbia. as a defender of traditional Christian-Orthodox values.
Thanks in part to the success of these strategies, Russia’s disruptive role in the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration remains intact for now. Overall, as the report details, the Russian invasion of Ukraine moderately influenced, but did not fundamentally alter, Moscow’s position toward Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia.