The Ukraine Crisis and Great Power Rivalry in the Balkans – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By David B. Kanin*
Moscow still has the initiative in a crisis it has caused, but Russia’s apparent failure so far to organize a bogus “internal” Ukrainian opposition leaves the situation literally on the edge. Russian propaganda is already trying to claim victory by portraying post-Afghan America as “exhausted”, but Moscow is struggling to provoke Western diplomatic disarray. For its part, the United States has gone from a chaotic Trump administration to the chaos of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and finds itself having to react to Vladimir Putin’s moves all around the former Soviet periphery. Yet Washington’s stern public warnings about Russian preparations seem to have taken Moscow by surprise and put Putin on his back.
If the reports from London are correct, Russia might have wanted to do in Ukraine what it failed to accomplish in Montenegro in 2016. Then Russian interests and Serbian compradors botched an attempt to overthrow Milo Djukanovic. Some of these Serbs may have gone off-script in a plot to kill Djukanovic on the spot. (Similarly, rogue pro-Russian Ukrainians may be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in early 2020). Djukanovic’s later problems were due to his mismanagement of the Serbian Orthodox Church, not an outside threat – and he remains president of Montenegro, regardless of Moscow’s preferences.
The Russians may have been trying to exploit public dissatisfaction with the corporate oligarchs’ stranglehold on business, trade and politics in Ukraine to create a plausible fifth column in support of any military action they take. Meanwhile, Moscow has denounced Ukraine’s non-implementation of the Minsk agreement with the Western public in mind. The fact of Western impatience with Kiev’s failure to root out the country’s indelible elite could further serve to deepen divisions in the West over the resolve to oppose Russian aggression. Similar conditions informed Russia’s playbook in Montenegro.
Any shortcomings in Russia’s performance so far do not justify the lack of US strategic thinking regarding Ukraine or geopolitics in general. Washington’s rhetoric continues to stem from the assumption that diplomacy and military action are alternative choices rather than tools in the same toolbox. Nevertheless, the United States managed to raise the bar on what would constitute a Russian military “success”. His account created a general expectation that Russian troops would overwhelm Ukrainian troops and conquer the country if they set out to do so. If that happens, the United States will have suffered a serious setback, but it will underline the fact of its forecasts and try to rationalize the impact of the Russian victory. . Expectations that Russia would win any military confrontation build on Moscow’s successful assaults on Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine and will color perceptions if war is averted.
On the other hand, if Ukrainian forces manage to slow or block a full-scale Russian attack, Moscow will have to make tough choices about how brutal it is willing to be. Western rhetoric could also point to limited Russian intervention as proof that Western resolve has deterred something more terrible. The West, of course, would also impose severe sanctions and denounce Russian aggression. In either case, the Russians would have failed so far to bring about a decisive change in European security.
The problem for both powers is that the longer the crisis drags on without resolution, the less credible one or the other will seem. Putin will have massed troops for what will increasingly seem like an expensive and unnecessary work of art. Meanwhile, breathless American war warnings will exhaust the public’s ears. As posts on either side begin to suffer from diminishing returns, neither will want to be the first to step back from the ledge. Until Moscow and Washington agree on a way out, there will remain a danger of impatience and miscalculation.
At this point, the best non-violent outcome for Russia would be for the West, in exchange for military de-escalation, to force Kyiv to implement the elements of the Minsk Accords that undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, just like the Ukraine Accord. April 2013 sponsored by the EU between Belgrade and Pristina. undermines the sovereignty of Kosovo. Russia loses if the crisis results in a diplomatic process in which the West can credibly trumpet NATO cohesion in the context of no substantial Ukrainian concessions on the Minsk process.
Moscow is exploiting the ambition and political interests of French President Emmanuel Macron to produce a Russian diplomatic success. Macron faces re-election in April and could use something to brag about. Since becoming president, he has tried unsuccessfully to present himself as the leader of the EU and to present Europe as a leading player in geopolitics and security. Macron’s public assertion that a diplomatic deal on Ukraine is within reach, expression of sympathy for Russian security concerns, and statement that the EU does not need to follow the Washington’s example to reach an agreement could give Putin the opportunity to present Ukraine as an obstacle to peace. With a pacifist Germany in tow, France could try to impose on Kiev another poisonous gift which, like its predecessors in Minsk, has undermined Ukraine and prepared the ground for the current crisis.
In response to the crisis, Balkan states and media mavens are showing appropriate caution. Belgrade seems content to remain in the background while France poses as a possible mediator. B92 asked which side Serbia was on, but took a line suggesting the government doesn’t have to make that choice until developments on the ground. The Americans or Russians are unlikely to expect anything material from the Serbs, suggesting that Belgrade’s efforts to balance its relations with the big powers at little cost to itself are working quite well. (Serbia enjoys a position similar to that of Prussia and unlike that of Austria in the diplomatic preparation for the Crimean War.)
Countries with weak or divided leadership did not initially show such stability. Croatia is a member of both the EU and NATO but is far from being firmly aligned with the West. Croatian President Milanovic called Ukraine “one of the most corrupt countries in the world”, prompting an apology to Ukraine and its Western partners from Prime Minister Plenkovic. This suggests that Russian efforts to increase its influence in Croatia have had at least limited success.
Romania and Bulgaria have both reacted publicly to Russian demands that NATO withdraw its forces from their territories, but while Bucharest has blasted the affront to its sovereignty, Sofia has taken a more measured approach. The Romanians have long been disappointed by NATO’s lukewarm reaction to their calls for a stronger Alliance presence in and around the Black Sea and could use the current crisis to redouble their efforts to put pressure once again more for a more robust NATO presence in the region. Meanwhile, Bulgarian Defense Minister Stefan Radev voiced his opposition to any further deployment of US troops in his country while other politicians had relatively little say on the matter.[presenceintheregionMeanwhileBulgarianDefenseMinisterStefanRadevexpressedoppositiontoanynewdeploymentofUStroopstohiscountrywhileotherpoliticianshadrelativelylittletosayontheissue[presenceintheregion MeanwhileBulgarianDefenseMinisterStefanRadevexpressedoppositiontoanynewdeploymentofUStroopstohiscountrywhileotherpoliticianshadrelativelylittletosayontheissue
As the crisis drags on, Balkan governments have all remained relatively silent and seem to be waiting to see what will happen. . A major Russian military victory or diplomatic success over the Minsk process would cement Russian power in the Black Sea region, likely creating serious doubts in Romania and Bulgaria about the wisdom of joining NATO. The fragile new coalition government in Sofia would face pressure from President Rumen Radev and other pro-Russian elements to reconsider its “European” orientation in security affairs. Romanian fears that the West is uninterested in and uninterested in the security of the Black Sea would be confirmed. On the other hand, any diplomatic outcome in Ukraine that leaves the impression that the status quo remains intact could persuade these Black Sea NATO members that Russia is a one-dimensional military power and a manageable security threat.
Washington’s perceived success or failure in backing Ukraine will tell pro-Western voices in Kosovo and Bosnia whether they can retain (or regain?) a reliably American sentiment. The rickety status of Kosovo and decades-long skillful manipulation by Washington and its diplomats by Milorad Dodik have disappointed those in both countries who pinned their hopes on effective and decisive US action. The latest sanctions imposed by Washington on Dodik and others have had as little impact as previous US exercises in personal punishment.
Meanwhile, Western pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to comply with their demand to agree to the creation of a community of Serb municipalities in Kosovo. This would further undermine Pristina’s diplomatic and political status unless coupled with Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty. Success in engineering a Russian raid on Ukraine would reinforce the impact of Western influence on the skeptical Kurti. On the other hand, perceived Russian diplomatic and/or military gains would make the US and EU even more determined to impose a “victory” in Kosovo to compensate for failures elsewhere. Pristina would lose anyway assuming Belgrade pockets a win the EU promised it in 2013.
Afghanistan was seen by everyone everywhere as a major defeat for the United States and it is clear that the United States is struggling to deal with threats emanating from China, North Korea and Iran. . However, these places are far from the Balkans. Ukraine is very close and is the central theater of serial trials of will between Russia and the West which sometimes also concern Balkan issues. The West’s success in blunting Putin’s attack on Ukrainian sovereignty would send an exemplary message throughout southeastern Europe. On the other hand, a Russian diplomatic or military victory would greatly increase the likelihood of the post-1989 Western security system in Central and Eastern Europe collapsing in a manner similar to the arrangement in the same region created by Western powers. after the world war. I.
*David B. Kanin is an assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.