The US and EU’s lack of a coherent strategy towards the Western Balkans has emboldened Russia to hinder the region’s integration into the EU and NATO. In recent years, the Western Balkans has been at the forefront of Russia’s strategy to expand its global influence and undermine the West. These strategies have included more traditional soft power and trade approaches, as well as the widespread use of disinformation, cyberwarfare, and intelligence operations.
Some of Russia’s more brazen intelligence activities in the region saw Russian spies take part in a planned coup d’etat in Montenegro 2016. Serious doubts have also been raised as to the nature of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre, with evidence to suggest its work is focussed not so much on ‘humanitarianism’ as ‘human intelligence sources’.
Yet, while there are many examples of Russia flexing its influence and intelligence muscles in the Western Balkans, the question remains as to how impactful these strategies have actually been. If anything, Russian intelligence activities in the region appear to undermine its efforts to build influence. Despite Vladimir Putin’s sky-high ratings in Serbia, Russia’s relationship with Belgrade is increasingly strained; last year, pro-government newspapers accused Russia of fomenting unrest and Putin cancelled a planned visit. Elsewhere in the region, Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined NATO. While Russia still has close relations with the Republika Srpska enclave - and increasingly good relations with Croatia - it is unclear that either relationship will advance Russian interests in any significant way.
To discuss these questions and gauge the impact of Russian influence operations in the Western Balkans, The Henry Jackson Society is holding a panel discussion with Dr Dimitar Bechev, Dr Mira Milošević-Juaristi and Vesko Garčević.