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The Ukrainian crisis is accelerating the resolution of problems in the Balkans

The Balkan states cannot influence the resolution of the crisis in Ukraine. Those that are part of NATO are fulfilling their obligations arising from membership, in accordance with their capacities, which are not particularly large in relation to the scale of the crisis. But their partnership in this case goes beyond their military and political dimensions and is important as it contributes to the demonstration of Alliance unity, as one of the more important elements in balancing forces with the rival. On the other hand, countries that are not in NATO, such as Serbia, do not even have that possibility, but all the same, all together, whether in NATO or not, they will feel the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis.
When John Kerry, the head of the State Department at the time of Barack Obama, spoke in 2015 about Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia as countries “on the line of fire” in the event of strained US-Russian relations over Ukraine, he may have thought of this situation that followed seven years later. Not as directly exposed to potential armed conflicts, but as an area where Ukrainian events will undoubtedly be reflected.
Without going into the predictions about the crisis itself and the ways in which it will be resolved (or maybe aggravated), or even who will emerge from it as a winner and who as a loser, we will focus only on its impact on the Balkans. It is already possible to talk about it with a lot of certainty.
As a huge country, and especially as a country whose ambitions exceed its real reach, during the current crisis in Ukraine, Russia shows perfectly clearly for which foreign policy priorities it is ready to invest the maximum of its strength and resources. It is without a doubt Ukraine. In recent years, while “pumping” the image of a global power for internal purposes, it has shown that it is interested in playing on a global field. Syria was a place where it wanted to prove that it was interested in the events in the Middle East, but its engagement ended there, with the preservation of its military facilities in the Mediterranean. The Middle East, on the other hand, remained a region under the dominant influence of the United States and its allies.
Russia tried to get involved in the events in Afghanistan, after the American withdrawal, but it could not match the influence of China, so it accepted the role of its subcontractor in the construction of post-American Afghanistan. There have been other attempts to play on the global field, in Venezuela, for example, or through the Sputnik V vaccine, but even those efforts have not brought Russia the halo of global power that Putin’s government longs for.
Even on the local field, in its nearest yard, Russia has not demonstrated the strength that would crown it with the title of global actor. The brief episode of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was a rough confrontation with the truth that neither Russia nor its eastern copy of NATO – the CSTO, are able to bring what they are intended for, and that is undeniable cross-border influence.
Nowhere, as in the case of Ukraine, has Russia invested the maximum of its resources – military, political and economic, because those other regions are not at the top of its priorities. Ukraine certainly is, and that speaks enough about the real reach of Russia as a regional power, which it is, and especially the imagined empire or global power as it would like to be.
The Balkans are without a doubt one of the regions in which Russia has long wanted to demonstrate its cross-border influence and has succeeded in doing so from time to time. However, the Ukrainian crisis will also change the Balkan situation, precisely because Russia has directed all its potentials towards the number one goal, which is Ukraine. This focus of Russia opens the space for the Balkans, and especially Serbia, to exclude Russia in future calculations as a factor that will, to the extent that it has done so far, have an impact on regional developments. This primarily refers to the issues of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Russia simply does not have enough political, economic or soft-diplomatic resources to be able to play at several global points at the same time. Also, its coalition capacity, in terms of gathering partner countries for joint action around the same goal, is zero. Russia has no partners on the international scene, and its belief that it will be able to get them through long-term hybrid operations, even within the EU, will prove to be in vain on the example of Ukraine.
As an effect of the crisis over Ukraine, Russia’s interest in the Balkans will prove to be secondary and unimportant, as they have always been. The speed with which Russia will “withdraw” from the Balkans will be directly proportional to the speed with which the crisis in Ukraine will get its final outcome. In that relocation, the Balkans will serve Russia exclusively as a chip for its aspirations around Ukraine, in the sense that it will be ready to make some concessions to the West in the Balkans, in order to get something more around Ukraine in return. That bargaining will, of course, be a bluff, because Russia has nothing left to threaten with in the Balkans, since all its political, military, diplomatic and economic resources have already been transferred to the Ukrainian “front” and will not withdraw from there. Russia is already unable to match the West with the same intensity around Ukraine and the Balkans, and that will especially not be the case in the coming months.
During the escalation of events in Ukraine, the West managed to preserve its internal alliance, primarily through NATO and the G7. They thus parried Russia’s long-term efforts to thwart that unity, primarily through its cyber-operations, in order to welcome the “confrontation” over Ukraine with confusion and disunity in the ranks of the West. That did not happen, and this very confrontation, which will probably be crucial for the outcome of the crisis around Ukraine, will have important repercussions on the Balkans as well.
The region already has Russia on the defensive, and on the other side, it will have a refreshed and strengthened unity in the ranks of the West. It will be manifested primarily through NATO, and to a lesser extent through the EU. For the Balkans, this will mean the complete domination of the United States in solving regional problems, and that further means their accelerated solution, while marginalizing the role of the EU. Due to its internal turbulence, and in large part due to the negative Russian influence to which it was exposed, the EU did not perform its tasks in the Balkans. Its Balkan policy in recent years has been shaped by Germany, whose reputation in the current Ukrainian crisis is not at all enviable, both because of its reluctance to more resolutely support Kiev and because of its resistance to impose economic sanctions on Moscow, especially around the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
German dominance in the Balkans has often benefited Russian interests in the region in recent years. First of all, when it comes to Kosovo, where Germany allowed endless delays, even freezing of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, encouraged Kosovo leaders to persevere in their obstruction of this process, as was the case with 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia. All this suited Moscow, which truly wanted the status quo in Kosovo, as a way to keep the region unstable and stuck on the path to EU integration for as long as possible.
Unlike Russia, the United States has the resources to solve problems at several points in the world at full capacity. The American engagement in the Balkans is incomparably stronger than it has been in the past years, and it suggests a pragmatic solution to all those problems that are decisively hindering the region on the path to Western integration, and those are primarily Kosovo and BiH. Their main ally in that will only formally be the EU, as a framework towards which common Balkan interests are moving, but in essence it will be Great Britain rather than Brussels. The Anglo-American partnership has received strong verification on the Ukrainian case, and it will be the backbone of the Western presence in other post-conflict areas, and in the European framework, it is primarily the Balkans.
The model of their cooperation will be successful in the Balkans if it is conducted in two directions at the same time. One is related to reaching political agreements on Kosovo and BiH, where their participation will be crucial, and the other is the fight against Russia’s negative propaganda and politically destructive influence, which Moscow will not give up, even during its “withdrawal” from Balkans. The EU has shown that it cannot match that, either because of its proverbial inefficiency or because of Germany’s dominant influence in European Balkan affairs so far. The United States and Britain do not have those ballasts; they are coming out of the Ukrainian crisis with strengthened unity and unquestionable leadership, so they have reasons to be leaders on the Balkan “front” as well.
It will not be a one-time action; it will be a process that will require stable international leadership, if its success is desired. Ukraine will remain the main point of contact between the West and Russia and their competition for a long time to come, and the strategic rivalry between the USA and Russia will last in the long run, just as the RAND Corporation concluded in 2017. In that sense, the Balkans can always be destabilized, if it suits the interests of Russia on the other side, the Ukrainian side. That is why removing the Balkans from the agenda as soon as possible, as the only one of the remaining non-integrated and unstable European areas, is at the same time cutting off one of the sources from which Russia can draw its blackmailing potential. That is why resolving the Ukrainian crisis is at the same time a good opportunity to resolve the remaining issues that keep the Balkans in long-term instability and still far from full Western integration.

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