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What’s Behind the Posturing of Russian Mercenaries in the Balkans?

Given how thoroughly Ukraine has overshadowed all other Russian foreign policy objectives, it seems unlikely that Moscow would embark on another risky undertaking with unclear prospects in the Western Balkans.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spelled disaster for Moscow’s long-standing ties with Europe. In a matter of months, Russia largely lost access to suppliers of imported technology and markets for its energy exports that had taken decades to establish. This isolation dealt a severe blow to the country’s development prospects, but at the same time means there are very few remaining restraints on the destructive tactics Moscow is prepared to deploy against its European opponents.

Within Europe, the Western Balkans appear especially vulnerable to Moscow’s growing appetite to cause strife. The region’s simmering ethnic conflicts, historical affinity to Russia, and grudges against the West seemingly make it an ideal playground for the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the West was alarmed when the first reports surfaced in November 2022 that Russia’s infamous private military company Wagner intended to expand its activities to the Balkans.

The Serbian government pledged to put an end to Wagner’s presence in the country, but failed to do so entirely: Serbian volunteers are still spotted fighting for Russia in Ukraine, while at home Serbian radicals sport Wagner insignia at nationalist rallies, which tend to turn violent. Kosovo’s leadership has accused Wagner of preparing provocations in the Serb-populated north of the country, and security officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina claim that Wagner representatives were present at nationalist celebrations in the country’s Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska.

Still, Balkan leaders are known for exaggerating to suit their own ends, and few of their claims can be taken at face value. There is no doubt that the Russian regime and Wagner in particular interact regularly with various Balkan radicals. Less clear is their ability to leverage these often superficial ties to achieve anything meaningful. With all the constraints imposed on Russia by its ill-fated war against Ukraine, including its growing dependence on local partners in Balkan affairs, Moscow and Wagner will have their work cut out if they opt for an attempt to destabilize a region so heavily dependent on the West. 

Distracting the West

Russian objectives in the Western Balkans have changed little in recent years. Russia never intended to drag the region into Moscow-led integration structures, seeing it as too distant and deeply integrated with the European Union. Instead, Russia strived to manipulate its ties with the Balkans to distract the West’s resources and attention away from the post-Soviet space, which the Kremlin views as Russia’s sphere of influence.

The logic is straightforward: so long as the integration of the Western Balkan states into Euro-Atlantic institutions remains incomplete, the West will be reluctant to venture further afield and offer NATO and EU membership to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Thus, Moscow needs to keep the West absorbed with Balkan affairs by stalling the settlement of local conflicts, fostering interethnic acrimony, and promoting anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiment, which is traditionally strong in the region.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 only increased the urgency of these objectives. Instead of the swift victory it expected, Russia has become bogged down in a large-scale war of attrition that is devouring the country’s resources and ruining its international clout. The invasion has also unified the West, mobilizing it in support of Ukraine against the aggression. This makes the Kremlin believe that it could easily win the war if the West grows tired of supporting Ukraine and becomes distracted by other issues.

The ever-unstable Western Balkans, surrounded by EU states, seem to have all the ingredients to become such a distraction. Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has failed to make Balkan leaders more constructive in the face of the crisis, while the popularity of Russia with many locals has remained largely unscathed. On the contrary, Balkan societies tend to interpret the Russia-Ukraine war through the lens of their own experience in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, reviving their old grudges against the West.

As a result, the Western Balkans demonstrate one of the highest levels of support for Russia’s policies in the world. In Serbia, opinion polls reveal that 63 percent of Serbs blame the West for the outbreak of the war, while 66 percent still consider Russia a friend of Serbia. In Republika Srpska within Bosnia-Herzegovina, 52 percent of those polled state that they support the Russian aggression against Ukraine. In Montenegro, 37 percent admitted to having a positive opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a poll conducted in January 2023.

No less disturbing is the fact that pro-Russian politicians in the region make no attempt to conceal their resentment at renewed Western efforts to bring the Balkan conflicts to a final resolution. Many of them have vested interests in keeping the regional disputes simmering, as this benefits them politically and financially. This reality creates a temptation for the Kremlin to stoke tensions in the region so that they spiral out of control, and this is where the long-established ties between Russian and Balkan paramilitaries come in handy.

Wagner in the Balkans

The cooperation between Russian and Balkan paramilitary formations has a long history. Hundreds of Russian volunteers fought alongside the Serbs during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. In the 2010s, Serbian volunteers reciprocated, joining Russian ranks in the Donbas and Syria.

Over the past years, there has been no shortage of reports that Moscow is cultivating Balkan paramilitary groups in order to sabotage the region’s integration with Western institutions. In 2016, Russian intelligence officers in cooperation with Serbian radicals perpetrated a failed coup d’état in Montenegro in an attempt to prevent the country from joining NATO. In 2018, Russia was accused of training paramilitary formations for the nationalist leader of Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, and the reports were confirmed by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s security minister. In Serbia, radicals with known connections to Russia stage nationalist protests every time the Serbian leadership intensifies the dialogue with Kosovo: the most recent brawls with the police took place this February.

Nor is Russia’s Wagner a newcomer to the Western Balkans. Under Western pressure, the Serbian government made volunteering to fight in foreign conflicts a criminal offense back in 2015, but that didn’t stop Serbs from joining the Russian mercenary company. In 2017, a Serb was convicted for fighting in Wagner’s ranks, while another Serbian mercenary fighting for Wagner was killed in Syria. Wagner veterans have spoken of Serbs serving in relatively senior positions within the company.  

In late 2022, Wagner’s ties to the Balkans made international headlines when two Serbian radicals visited the company’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, prompting fears that Wagner intended to open a recruitment office in Serbia. Those fears were then further fueled by an article advertising work with Wagner published by RT Balkan, a recently established Serbian branch of the Russian RT propaganda holding. 

Serbian president Alexandar Vučić and Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin have repeatedly stated that the mercenary company has no presence in Serbia. But Wagner is increasingly becoming part of the local political landscape, even if indirectly. In January 2023, a mural celebrating Wagner appeared in Belgrade. In February, one of the two radicals who had visited the company’s Russian office was found to be among rioters detained for brawling with the police during anti-Kosovo protests in front of the Serbian presidency building. In March, people wearing Wagner insignia were spotted at nationalist rallies against Vučić’s readiness to continue the talks with Kosovo. 

Still, it is doubtful that either the Russian regime in general or Wagner specifically has enough clout or resources to be able to convert this intimidating posturing into meaningful change in the security situation in the Western Balkans.  

Barriers and Constraints

The evidence of cooperation between Russian and Balkan paramilitaries may be extensive, but it merely exposes the activities of small fringe groups with poor organization and few members. The People’s Patrol movement, for example, whose representatives visited Wagner’s office in St. Petersburg, is effectively a gang of street thugs known for beating up Asian immigrants on the streets of Belgrade. Recently, the movement has joined better-established ultra-right formations in organizing anti-Kosovo protests, but the rallies they hold on their own usually gather around a hundred protesters.

Russian state media trumpets the presence of Serbian volunteers fighting for Russia in Ukraine in order to prove that Moscow is far from internationally isolated, but realistic estimates put the number of such fighters at a few dozen at most. Serbian enthusiasm for volunteering for Russia is dampened by the prospect of subsequent prosecution at home: over thirty Serbian nationals have been convicted for fighting in foreign conflicts since this was criminalized in 2015.

Besides, the war against Ukraine has seen Wagner’s ranks swell to several tens of thousands, and it makes little sense for the company to burden itself with the legal, financial, and logistical difficulties of systematic recruiting in small Balkan countries. The supply of potential mercenaries is infinitely wider and significantly cheaper in Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors. The environment there is also much more permissive than in EU-candidate states, which either closely cooperate with or have already joined NATO.

Nor should the ability of Russian agents to navigate the Balkan underworld be exaggerated. The trial that followed the failed coup d’état attempt in Montenegro in 2016 exposed glaring deficiencies in the work and training of the Russian intelligence services in the region. 

The Russian organizers of the Montenegrin plot avoided arrest, but in every other respect, the affair was conducted so poorly that it was possible to establish their identity and employment with Russia’s Military Intelligence Service (GRU), record their phone calls with Serbian hirelings, and photograph their meetings in Belgrade. It also became clear that the Russian agents lacked knowledge of local languages and the criminal scene, leading them to recruit a mixed bag of misfits who got cold feet and reported the plot to the Montenegrin authorities a few days before it was due to be enacted.

Local Rivals

Russia’s poor understanding of Balkan realities and its scarce presence on the ground raise questions over the extent to which Wagner and Moscow’s other structures are capable of manipulating the pro-Russian ultra-right in the Western Balkans, especially if their agenda deviates from that of local men of influence. Serbian radicals have multiple loyalties, and Moscow is just one of the centers from which they take guidance. They jump at an opportunity to visit Russia or have a photo taken with Russian hardliners. But they also realize that Moscow is far away and has other priorities, while their own well-being depends on the benevolence of the local authorities.

The conditions essential for Balkan ultra-right formations—tolerance by the security services, access to mainstream media and financing, and, if they are lucky, even registration to run in elections—hinge not on Russia, but on the goodwill of their patrons in local state structures. This is especially true of Serbia, where President Vučić himself hails from ultranationalist circles and knows firsthand the inner workings of the shady Balkan underground of radicals, football fans, and organized crime. This world in many respects defies post-Yugoslav national borders, with strands running from Belgrade to Serbian communities in Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During his decade in power, Vučić has perfected the artform of manipulating pro-Russian right-wingers to his own advantage, using both sticks of persecution and carrots of lucrative assignments in domestic politics. At home, radicals’ rabble-rousing makes Vučić’s own nationalism look moderate. On the international scene, it allows him to portray himself as the only dependable person in the mess of Balkan politics: indispensable for the West, even if his methods do at times fall short of Western standards. 

Moscow can hardly rival Vučić in this domain. It may pose as an almighty master of Balkan radicals, but in practice its presence in the region very much depends on cooperation with Vučić and lesser local leaders like Dodik. For now, they get along fine, as both sides seek to keep the regional conflicts unresolved. But if Moscow opts for an uncontrolled escalation, it will find no support among its Balkan partners, who are happy with the status quo and do not want to jeopardize it with excessive brinkmanship. The recent winter crisis between Serbia and Kosovo was a case in point. Moscow eagerly supported Belgrade in escalating tensions, but had to cut its invective short as soon as Vučić decided that the time was ripe for concessions in the talks with Pristina. 

Vučić and Dodik’s control over the Balkan ultra-right is by no means absolute, but it is certainly greater than Moscow’s. And the ostensibly pro-Russian Balkan leaders will most likely resist any Russian intrigue that endangers their political or financial well-being.

Finally, there are Western military missions deployed in the two focal points of tensions in the Western Balkans: the EU’s EUFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina and NATO’s KFOR in Kosovo. The former has recently been augmented to 1,100 troops, while the latter numbers 4,000. In recent years, both have shown themselves to be capable, as well as swift to react to brewing crises. Given their permanent presence in the region, it is difficult to conceive how a tense standoff in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Northern Kosovo could escalate into large-scale violence, even if Wagner or other Russian proxies manage to perpetrate a major provocation there.

The war against Ukraine has fueled Russia’s appetite for foreign policy adventurism and made it far more willing to resort to violence in pursuit of its aims. But it has also put the country’s resources under severe strain. Right now, Moscow is already struggling to meet its existing military commitments abroad: be that peacekeeping in Nagorno Karabakh, underpinning Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, or resolving violent border disputes between its Central Asian allies. And even Wagner, with all its international notoriety, is no magic wand for those difficulties.

Given how thoroughly Ukraine has overshadowed all other Russian foreign policy objectives, it seems unlikely that Moscow would embark on another risky undertaking with unclear prospects in the Western Balkans. The degradation of the decisionmaking process in the Kremlin and the growing autonomy of violent quasi-private enterprises like Wagner increase the risk of blunders and uncoordinated, poorly conceived actions. But despite the permissive appearance of the Western Balkans, this is not the region most likely to face that danger. As long as the West has a strong security presence on the ground and local leaders cling to the benefits of the status quo, Moscow’s potential attempts at destabilization are unlikely to yield results.

Source: Carnegie Endowment