Unveiling Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans

Russia's influence in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzogovina

The Russian Federation and its influence in Balkan nations of Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina came under scrutiny in report by Clingendael as it unveils the inner workings of the extensive role played by the country in the region.

Earlier this year, then President, Milo Đukanović, criticized the European Union for allowing Russia to expand its influence in the Western Balkans.

The report assesses Russia’s objectives concerning these countries, as well as the various avenues through which the Kremlin exerts its influence. This analysis takes into account the shifting geopolitical landscape following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia’s objectives

Russia’s primary objectives in the Western Balkans can be summarized in three key points. Firstly, the Kremlin seeks to project its status as a global superpower. Secondly, it aims to impede the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region by opposing NATO and EU integration and fostering instability. Thirdly, Russia employs the Balkans, particularly the Kosovo issue, as a cornerstone of its foreign policy agenda, often used to assert its perceived dominance in its immediate vicinity.

Opportunistic approach

Instead of nurturing sustainable and comprehensive relationships with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, Russia adopts an opportunistic approach, capitalizing on fragmented entry points for influence in each country. This approach reflects Russia’s moderate ambitions for fostering positive relations with these nations and is evident in the instruments it employs to exert influence. Moscow cultivates contacts and influence through a diverse range of channels, including individual politicians, the Orthodox Church, the media, and various proxy groups.

Employing divisive tactics

It strategically employs energy links, local tensions, and historical narratives to achieve its goals, a strategy that has yielded notable success.

Politically, Russia’s influence primarily extends to (pro-)Serb politicians, who often align with Russian narratives and utilize Russia as an external supporter to advance their own agendas. Russia’s positions on Kosovo, its support for Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, and its ties to the Orthodox Church remain pivotal entry points for Russian political influence in the region. Among the three countries, Serbia boasts the widest array of entry points for Russian influence, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Utilising energy links

In economic terms, the European Union (EU) significantly outpaces Russia’s influence, particularly in trade relations. However, Russia’s substantial presence in the energy sectors of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina provides it with considerable political leverage, despite often encountering economic challenges.

In the realm of military influence, Russia aims to maintain its military cooperation with Serbia while supporting the militarization of Republika Srpska. Belgrade seeks to balance its cooperation with Moscow without becoming overly entangled in Russian interests. However, Russia remains just one of several security actors in the Balkans, overshadowed by NATO and facing competition from China.

Destabilising the region

While positioning itself as a partner to Serbia and Republika Srpska, Russia also resorts to malign instruments, such as supporting far-right nationalist figures and organizations, threatening the region’s cybersecurity, to destabilize the region.

These tactics aim to provoke polarization and anti-Western sentiments, contributing to destabilization.

Notably, Russian propaganda and disinformation have infiltrated Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina through Russian-funded portals, local media, and social media channels. The widespread dissemination of Russian disinformation and narratives has shaped positive perceptions of Russia and its political leadership within these societies.

The report further observes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a moderate impact on Russia’s approach to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. While the invasion led to heightened tensions between Russia and the West, resulting in reduced Russian financial and diplomatic capabilities, Russian strategies and objectives in the Balkans have remained largely consistent.

Although Russia’s sources of influence in these countries have faced some strain, particularly due to efforts by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia to diversify energy sources and Western pressure to diminish their political and security ties with Russia, Moscow continues to obstruct the Euro-Atlantic integration of these nations.

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