“Russia is interested in chaos.” There is talk of a new war in the Balkans

By Vasily Vermensky

Poster depicting Vladimir Putin and Aleksandar Vucic
Poster depicting Vladimir Putin and Aleksandar Vucic

One of the first to raise the specter of a military catastrophe in the region was a little-known member of the People’s Assembly of Serbia from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Vladimir Djukanovic. Shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine, he tweeted: “ It seems to me that Serbia will be forced to begin denazification of the Balkans. ” Recently, there has been more and more talk about the possibility of a new war in southeastern Europe. What are the reasons?

Copying a term that was used by Russia as one of the pretexts for a military invasion of a neighboring country seemed pointless at first glance. However, it reflected the main idea of ​​​​the supporters of creating a “Serbian world”, inspired by the ideologists of the “Russian world” – to gather all Serbs in one state under the auspices of Belgrade. Today, the threat of war manifests itself in a slightly different way, but arises from the same idea.

Lost Republic

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, an entity that is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), recently bluntly said: “My friends are Orban, Vucic and Putin, and our capital is Belgrade. In the end, we will leave Bosnia and Herzegovina “We don’t want to be in it, it’s a problem for our survival.” “We” are about a million Serbs living in BiH.

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The long-standing and emphatically defiant separatist rhetoric of Dodik, who was included in the US sanctions list in 2022 due to “corruption activities and ongoing threats to the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” seemed to have lost its shocking effect. Now we are forced to listen to her again. Bearing in mind the vote expected before the end of May on the UN General Assembly resolution, according to which a Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Srebrenica Genocide should be established (in 1995, Bosnian Serb troops killed more than 8 thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys over ten years of age there), Dodik outlined his “red line”: “The Srebrenica resolution, if adopted, will finally divide Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

The Srebrenica resolution will finally divide Bosnia and Herzegovina

In mid-April, thousands of Dodik’s supporters staged a protest against the resolution in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. Some of them waved posters of Putin. The posters also included images of Serbian General Ratko Mladić, who was responsible for the genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment as a war criminal in The Hague.

“If Dodik announces secession, war will begin here within an hour,” said Vice-President of Republika Srpska Kamil Durakovic, an opponent of the policy of separation.

“Break the Serbs”

Serbia is extremely wary of the adoption of a UN resolution recognizing the events of July 1995 in Srebrenica as genocide. She, in particular, condemns the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals, which happens all the time in Serbia and the Republika Srpska. Belgrade believes that the adoption of the document will mean automatic recognition of the Republika Srpska as a “genocidal entity” and will lead to the stigmatization of all Serbs as a “genocidal nation.”

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To avoid a veto by Russia and China in the UN Security Council, the countries sponsoring the document, primarily Germany and Rwanda, proposed voting within the General Assembly. Montenegrin diplomat and scholar Boris Vukotic, in an article for the Croatian newspaper Index, writes that the German initiative embodies the collective desire of the West to punish the head of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, for having disappointed the hopes placed in him. The West, Vukotic notes, expected from Vucic, first of all, a departure from the nationalist program, which led to the bloody tragedy of the 1990s. Washington and Brussels at one time believed that Vucic could become the main guarantor of stability and security in this part of Europe. Instead, Vučić relaunched the idea of ​​a “Serbian peace” and questioned the nature of the Srebrenica massacre, calling it a “great crime” but not genocide. Vučić is violating the standards established by the Dayton Peace Agreement and is trying to block negotiations on Montenegro’s accession to the EU. Germany was chosen as a sponsor of the draft resolution in order to negate the consequences of Vučić’s policies in the region, the author concludes, and the Germans are known as people who do not like to waste time.

Milorad Dodik communicates with Vladimir Putin often and with pleasure
Milorad Dodik communicates with Vladimir Putin often and with pleasure

How is the atmosphere around the adoption of the document being created? For example, like this: “There are people around Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic who work for the CIA, and he knows it.” This is stated by the former director of the Intelligence Agency for Security and Information (BIA) of Serbia, and now Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vulin. But he immediately adds: that Vucic is “very well informed” and many things are known to him in advance.

As for Moscow’s reaction to the document being prepared, it is, in a certain sense, self-exposing. This is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says in an interview with Alternative Television Banja Luka (ATV): “It is impossible to explain what the Europeans are guided by in practical terms when promoting this idea, except for one reason: the Serbs are too capricious, too independent in their actions, submit to demands to join sanctions against Russia.” And one more thing: “The goal is to break the Serbs. It has not disappeared anywhere. Ten years ago the UN Security Council tried to pass such a resolution (on the genocidal nature of the massacre in Srebrenica). We used the veto.”

Thunder in the West

The Wall Street Journal, in the article “Putin Wants War in the Balkans,” states: that Vladimir Putin openly declares his desire to weaken NATO and restore Russia’s “historical borders.” But while Russian troops are mired in a war against Ukraine, Moscow could benefit greatly from stirring up trouble in other regions. The right crisis would give the Kremlin an opportunity to gain local leverage through arms sales and mediation while diverting attention away from Ukraine and giving Russia leverage over Western capitals. The Western Balkans are an ideal candidate. A US intelligence report dated February 5, the WSJ continues, states that the risk of inter-ethnic violence will increase in the Western Balkans in 2024. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned in December that Russia was planning to destabilize the Balkans, a fear echoed by British Foreign Secretary David Cameron in January. Russia does not need to send its army to the Balkans: Serbia is enough for it to destabilize with the expectation that NATO will hesitate to respond, the publication concludes.

The dangerous situation in the Western Balkans region has worsened

All these theses are confirmed by high-ranking military personnel. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Christopher Cavoli, told the US Congress on April 17: “The dangerous situation in the Western Balkans region has escalated. Ethnic tensions in Bosnia have the potential to escalate, and the influence of Russia and Serbia is contributing to instability in the region.” Cavoli’s predecessor in the post, General James Stavridis, notes: “Tensions remain between Catholics in Croatia, Orthodox Christians mainly in Serbia, and Muslims in Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Putin is keen to capitalize on this. He knows that if NATO members again will be drawn into maintaining order in the troubled Balkans, they will be distracted from supporting Ukraine. Putin is clearly encouraging Serbia to put pressure on the NATO-backed government of Kosovo. He also seeks to destabilize the shaky government of Bosnia and Herzegovina Ten years ago, Dodik spoke to me about the need for Republika Srpska to secede which would effectively destroy the country. The seceding part would then unite with Serbia, creating a large Serbian state, which Putin would happily approve.”

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There are also some practical thoughts. Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, stated bluntly: “I am in favor of creating an EU heavy brigade that would allow an immediate response so that we do not have to ask the US to provide its resources in the event of any emergency in the neighborhood.”

What about the rest of the Balkans?

Macedonian analyst Lubomir Frackoski sees the following picture: according to the Kremlin’s plans, the Western Balkans region, and especially its Slavic states, should be turned into a neutral buffer zone with the secret or open influence of the “Russian world”, “which would become a kind of embodiment of the current geopolitical line of Russia in this part of the world.” But since Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Montenegro are NATO members, Russia appears to be developing a “Plan B,” the author continues. It consists of the expansion of Russian influence, which is “usually associated with nationalist parties, authoritarian or populist, inspired by anti-Muslim concepts, supporting and promoting the intervention of the Orthodox Church in politics based on a pan-Orthodox approach and offering international unions as an alternative to the EU. However, the most toxic is the propaganda line of activity of Russian intelligence services, which consists in using social media to create a general environment of unpredictability, instability, and uncertainty, a state of “post-truth”, when the spread of fake news is an information game in which the one who spreads it the most wins.”

"Serbs and Russians are brothers forever." Graffiti on one of the streets of Banja Luka
“Serbs and Russians are brothers forever.” Graffiti on one of the streets of Banja Luka

Milorad Dodik is promoting the strengthening of Russian propaganda influence in the region. He told pro-Kremlin channel RT Balkan in April while attending an international security forum in St. Petersburg: “We are a people who have experienced sanctions. The West trained on us before applying all this to Russia. The West provoked the conflict and is at war with Russia.” I think, continues Dodik, that “the presence of Russian media in the Balkans is a little late. But it’s never too late. You must strengthen your presence with strong institutional support.”

Vučić is actually a Russian proxy, just like Dodik

It is curious that pro-Russian sources also talk about the danger of a Balkan war, but as if from the other side – here, for example, is an analysis of the Serbian newspaper Pechat: “Western impotence in the Ukrainian conflict increases the chances of a new war in the Balkans. Preparations for it are already underway, and false goals have been identified: to prevent the “harmful” influence of Moscow. In fact, the West intends to create a platform for anti-Russian actions in the Balkans. All statements by American and European leaders revolve around one idea: the Balkans must be completely taken under political and military control as quickly as possible. In essence, this means a strike by all means against Serbia and the Republika Srpska.”

Balkan politicians are keeping their cool. BiH Foreign Minister Elmedin Konakovic, commenting on the position of the Serbian president regarding the upcoming adoption of the resolution on Srebrenica, said: “I think we have pulled Vučić out of the lair where he sold the world the idea that he is a pro-European and global politician, but in reality, he is a Russian proxy, just like Dodik.” Prime Minister of Montenegro Milojko Spajic confirmed, speaking in the country’s parliament, that he supports the resolution on Srebrenica. In our country, Spajic said, there live Montenegrins, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians. Russia has often intervened in the affairs of these ethnic groups only to claim later that they are under threat. “For 25 years, we have seen a sharp polarization of society. The picture is crystal clear: Russia is only interested in creating chaos.”