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Russia Will Not Abandon the Balkans

Matthew Rojansky

Matthew Rojansky

Russia will not relax its efforts to maintain its interests in the Balkans, according to Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Rojansky suggests that the West should try to help Balkan countries avoid making difficult strategic decisions that might provoke crises such as that in Ukraine.

In a recent interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Balkan service, he said: “I wouldn’t put Serbs in a position where they have to choose to be dependent on Western security guarantees or its economic system, all of which is still in doubt. Look at Greece and the crisis in the Eurozone [and you might imagine] how insecure the Baltic states feel, even with their NATO guarantees."

RFE: Is the current ceasefire sustainable, given the fact that the previous one was severely breached? The clashes have been intensified in recent days. You’ve just returned from Ukraine. What’s your impression?

Rojansky: The ceasefire violations are already happening and that has been the case since the Minsk agreement was signed in February. So there should be no illusions that we have a perfect ceasefire framework in place. What we have is a low-intensity conflict in which, so far, neither side has had sufficient incentive to escalate to the point of high intensity conflict. The question is whether it will be changed in the next few months.

The political framework of the Minsk agreement appears to become increasingly less viable. At that point will either side … turn it to into a bigger and more violent conflict? I suspect that the answer to this question remains no, because on the Ukrainian side there is very little to be gained from provoking a military contest with Russia. So far, what they are doing is low intensity fighting. It stokes political flames of nationalism, it yields political support for the current government, which otherwise wouldn’t be very popular because it is doing some unpopular things like reforms. But then also the corruption and typical Ukrainian oligarchic politics is continuing. So, [the government] wouldn’t be so popular without the war.

On the Russian side, I think that Moscow has more or less what it wants. The EU has definitely backed down from its commitment to a European integration path to Ukraine. It may be backing down altogether from the Eastern Partnership as a core part of the EU’s future strategy. Meanwhile, I think that the US is signaling political and rhetorical support for Ukraine, but is not putting itself in a position to make Ukraine a kind of battleground against Russia.

In the meantime, Russians are suffering economically, but they believe they can survive and reorient their economy.

RFE: There is information that Russia is beefing up its troops near the border with Ukraine. At the same time NATO held recently the military exercise in Baltic states. Is there a danger that the Ukrainian crisis could spiral out of control and that an isolated incident could trigger conflict on a massive scale? Frequent violations of airspace …and sending military advisors … It’s a stark reminder on the situation on the eve of World War One. None of the major powers, at first glance, wanted a global war, but all their actions led to it.

Rojansky: There is always danger of unintended escalation. Of course, the buildup of troops on both sides [creates a possibility that] one side or the other side crosses the line. For the same reason, having thousands of nuclear weapons targeted at each other on hair trigger alert also could happen and one party might cross the line. And yet we have managed for half a century to avoid crossing that line. I believe it’s still possible. But in order to do it we are going to have to have a lot more transparency and communication. The biggest problem is that relations are frozen between the US and Russia as well as between NATO and Russia. So, we don’t have a dialogue, which is worse in some ways than the Cold War. During the Cold War, at least we realized what the danger and stakes were after a series of crises – the Berlin crisis, Hungary, the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and many others – and for that reason we developed the framework for dialogue. One of the most significant factors was the Helsinki process agreeing on the basic principles and the rules of the game. Russians want to do this again, but the position of the US and Europe is that we don’t need to do it, we already have the rules, you (Russians) don’t follow the rules and you need to go back to them. The reality is that Russia refuses to do it.

RFE: What measures does the West have at its disposal? Will it ratchet up sanctions against Russia? Will the US eventually send lethal weapons to Ukraine? If so, would it help the Ukrainian forces contain the Russian troops, or would the Kremlin use it as a pretext to spread conflict to other areas.

Rojansky: Escalation will breed escalation. So if the US chooses to arm the Ukrainians, the Russians will escalate on the separatist side. If the Russians support the separatist offensive on Mariupol, the US likely will choose to arm the Ukrainians and take other steps to escalate the isolation and punishment of Russia.

There is no doubt about this equation. The question is whether one side or the other has the incentive to take action [for instance if] it becomes clear that a political settlement … is not going to lead anywhere. Because for now there is an idea on both sides that the Minsk framework is of some value, it is the vehicle by which we will ultimately solve this conflict.

I think that the Minsk agreement is the only chance, but maybe there is no chance, that the Minsk accord is not good enough and we don’t have anything else. If that’s the case, then we will probably see escalation.

RFE: What’s Moscow’s intent? Is its priority to solidify its positon in the so-called “Near abroad”, i.e. the former Soviet space. Is it just an imperial sentiment in Russia, which has beena great power throughout history, or this staunch position motivated by fear, which also harkening back to its history, of being encircled?

Rojansky: There is a long narrative of historical grievances, about the unipolarity of the post-Cold War world that the US acts irrespective of the international rules, which always put Russia into a disadvantageous position. Hence, Russia thinks that now is time to take advantage of the situation when it has some kind of control.

However, a narrow, smaller explanation is also important—that this servesto unify the Russian electorate in support of Putin at a time when his popularity was not so high. Which direction this causality runs, in other words, if he is doing this for domestic political reasons or if there are domestic political benefits that he sees orgeopolitical reasons? I don’t know for sure, but it’s not negligible that this works out in Putin’s favor for now and I think, as time goes on, as the conflict continues, the Russian political system can exploitthe sense of conflict with the West. The conflict is almost not about Ukraine in that sense. I mean it is about Ukraine, but for the purpose of Russian domestic politics, it is much more about the role of the US. That isa valuable card for any Russian leader to play because of the general reaction of the Russian people, which is very negative toward the US.

RFE: US secretary John Kerry said recently that some Balkan countries are, among others, on the firing line in relations between Washington and Moscow. In which way could Russia preserve its impact on this region, given that it recently abandoned the South Stream oil pipeline, which would be powerful leverage for projecting Russia’s influence in the Balkans? Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic recently visited Washington and he’s pressured by the West to diversify Serbia’s energy supply.The Balkans is not a battlefield like Ukraine for a trial of strength between Russia and the West but is it still ofimportance?

Rojansky: I don’t think that the Balkans is the theatre for Russia-West conflict that it might have been 100 years ago or even in the 1990s, because the region is moving in the right direction and there is less opportunity to be exploited. However, it depends from country to country in the Balkans and Serbia. First and foremost, is a country going to be faced with choices?And to the extent we in the West can help avoid forcing choices in ways that create a Ukrainian style crisis, it would be very smart…So I wouldn’t put Serbs in position in which they have to choose one thing which is uncertain at the cost of throwing something away like special relations with Russia which have lasted for more than 100 years.

Bulgaria made that choice and it sees a very deep dysfunction in its society as the result. Namely, Bulgaria enjoys a huge Russian investment, there is a considerable pro-Russian population, and yet a certain layer of leadership is viciously anti-Russian. This is very dysfunctional and, I think, we don’t want to create such a situation.

RFE: Serbia has increasingly found itself in a precarious situation as relations between Russia and the West deteriorate. At a certain point will it have to make a strategic decision about which side to lean toward?

Rojansky: I don’t think it makes sense from the Western positon to provoke that kind of instability in countries we are claiming to offer protection, prosperity and integration. That logic worked with a certain set of post-communist countries that were right on the borders of the then EU and were super committed. There was a total clarity and a lot of opportunities while Russia was very poor and could be ignored. But that logic just doesn’t work now. I’m not saying we offer them nothing, that we disappear from the Balkan region. But we need to look carefully at consequences, what will happen in 5 or 10 years as a result of offering something like EU membership or EU association. That is what Moldovans are pretty scared of right now. They heard all this talk about their integration with Europe. They look at their leaders who make these promises, who needlessly provoke conflict, who are not less corrupt than previous authorities. People see it and say we don’t need it – it doesn’t make our life better, it makes us less safe, we don’t want to be like Ukraine.

RFE: You said that the Balkans are moving in the right direction. However, there are lots of flashpoints which keep the region pretty fragile. The region feels insecure as long as it stays outside of NATO and the EU.

Rojansky: Yes, but I think we need to be careful about imagining the EU membership or Western integration is the kind of magic blanket and that all Balkan problems will go away. It is not true. Look at post-Soviet countries which already joined the Euro-Atlantic structure. Estonia is very insecure and afraid. It is being subject of cyber-attacks and it worries [about] a kind of hybrid warfare. Look at Latvia which faces a real ethnic problem between the Latvian majority and the Russian minority. Lithuania in addition has serious problem of domestic corruption. All these countries are members of the EU and NATO. The Baltic states and Greece at the time of entering those institutions moved in right direction, as the Balkans do now. But, if you put this magic blanket over it doesn’t mean that problems go away.

RFE: Will Russia try to preserve influence in the Balkans at any cost, among others, throwing spanner into the works of the EU integration of countries in the region?

Rojansky: Russia will not abandon its interest in what it has always seen as a special relationship, particularly with Serbia. Russians will be opportunistic to the extent of defining their interests as being a counterweight to this narrative about European integration. They will definitely look for opportunities to demonstrate “hollowness” and “hypocrisy” in that narrative. If Russians find such opportunities in the Balkans, they definitely have assets and capabilities to exploit them.