The financial crisis of 2008 forced a conciliation of sorts between the west and Russia. For all the expressions of solidarity that followed the terrorist attacks in France last week, they are unlikely to have the same effect. Mr Putin is too resentful, Europe is too worried, and memories of the shortlived detente of a few years ago are hardly encouraging. America’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia ended with the annexation of Crimea.
One of two scenarios could play out in the year ahead. The Kremlin could withdraw from eastern Ukraine and try to repair its relations with the west. Or it could try instead to regain the initiative, increasing the pressure on European leaders and try to split the continent asunder.
What is evident is that Russia’s room for manoeuvre in its own neighbourhood is pretty restrained. A large-scale military operation in eastern Ukraine would mean heavy casualties and more sanctions. It would also bury the embryonic Eurasian Economic Union, because Moscow’s allies in Belarus and Kazakhstan have made clear that they strongly oppose the redrawing of sovereign borders.
Logic dictates that if Russia wants to increase the pressure on Europe, it should try beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is such a scenario that makes the Balkans a likely hotspot. Russia certainly does not fantasise about bringing Bosnia or Albania into its sphere of influence, and nobody in the Balkans dreams of joining the Eurasian Union. Their major trading partner is the EU — and it is there that businesses look for investment, and would-be émigrés look for new homes.
As well as being the EU’s backyard, the Balkans are the underbelly of Brussels’ diplomacy. Their banking systems are fragile. If businesses with large deposits and Russian connections were suddenly to pull their money out, the result could be widespread insolvency, and with it civil strife. Pro-western governments would teeter. This is the place to apply pressure, if Moscow wants to make Europeans feel uncomfortable.
A controlled crisis in the Balkans would give Russia bargaining chips, and deniability. It would force many European governments to turn their eyes away from Ukraine. And it will make it almost impossible for the EU to maintain even a semblance of unity on security. It would open a chasm between the European south and European north.
Bosnia’s survival as a unified state cannot be taken for granted. If Russia openly backed the secessionist aspirations of the Republika Srpska, it could be the point of no return. Moscow’s decision to abstain in a UN vote authorising a prolonged EU mission to the country leads many to believe that the Kremlin is seriously considering such a move.
Relations between Serbia and Albania have also deteriorated over the past year. Russia’s attacks on the hypocrisy of the west resonate with Belgrade. The region’s economy is heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil, and any supply hiccups will be troublesome. Five years after the gas crisis of 2009 — when Russia halted supplies through Ukraine, cutting off gas to southeast Europe — none of the projects designed to make the region less dependent on Russia have been completed. Moscow seems to have Balkan friends in high places.
At the heart of the Kremlin’s influence in the region is not cultural affinity, Slavic solidarity or the influence of the Orthodox Church, but something altogether less noble. Corruption connects people, and in the Balkans it connects dangerous people. Most of the Balkan oligarchs have their Russian connections. Russian foreign policy could easily make use of them.
But destabilising the Balkans — if that is indeed what Moscow is trying to do — is a risky project. Russia can offer these societies neither a working economic model, nor an attractive political one. It cannot even pony up much cash. Shared resentment is not the same as shared perspective. Abandoning the construction of the proposed South Stream pipeline reduced Moscow’s influence. Russian companies will be big losers from any Russian attempt to destabilise pro-western governments in the Balkans. And as the story of the Ukrainian crisis demonstrates, oligarchs are unreliable allies. They do not have friends, only financial interests, and fears.
Ms Merkel is right to fear that the Balkans could be the new playground for the bullyboys of the Kremlin. Yet Mr Putin has more to lose from such politics than he has to gain.
Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre of Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and board member of ECFR. His most recent book is Democracy Disrupted. The Global Politics on Protest (UPenn Press, 2014).
First published in Financial Times, January 14, 2015.
© Author / Financial Times