With Russia and China increasingly aligned, Western policymakers and analysts are sounding the alarm over their influence in the Western Balkans. With so much focus on the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, they warn that the Western Balkans should not be ignored.
U.S. Representative Pete Sessions told VOA on Wednesday that Russia has been a part “of destabilizing the Balkans for a number of years,” and that it has demonstrated it uses misinformation and military force to fulfill its objectives.
“Destabilizing the Balkans is something that each of the countries there see,” he said. “And they see these not only happening, but they see whether it’s a deliberate attempt to undermine these nations.”
Sessions said the United States needs to stand behind these nations and “work within established parameters, the EU, NATO and other organizations. … The United States needs to be front and center to say, ‘We support this, and we will stick together.’ That is what these nations need. The United States of America standing strong with them individually and as a group.”
‘Part of Putin’s strategy’
Edward P. Joseph, a Balkans analyst at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, agrees.
“The Balkans are part of Putin’s strategy. He wants to divide Europe from the United States, and he wants to divide Europe within itself. And the Balkans are a prime avenue for him to do that,” he told VOA on Wednesday.
Sessions and Joseph participated this week in an annual security forum in Congress focused on this issue and held around the time of the National Prayer Breakfast. They were joined by politicians and lawmakers from Europe and the Western Balkans, a region of six countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Analysts say Moscow uses political interference and disinformation that it deploys through its historically close ties with Serbia and other friendly actors in the region.
“Russia is active with its operations in the Balkans at very low cost,” Joseph said. He cited as an example Serbia hosting the Russian media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik.
“These are platforms that are giving pro-Russian narratives around the region,” he said. “And that’s only one of the ways that Serbia affects, in a negative way, advancing Russian agenda.”
Focus on integration
During the security forum, Naz Durakoglu, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said the U.S. is very concerned about the influence of China and Russia in the region and works in a variety of ways to strengthen democracy in those countries. These include foreign aid, a focus on the fight against corruption and promotion of reforms “to help integrate Western Balkan countries into the EU and with each other.”
Albania is a NATO member and works closely with the United States. Its former defense minister, Fatmir Mediu, is one of the organizers of the security forum.
“The way that forces such as Russia and China act is, first they try to ignite new conflicts,” he told VOA. “The second is to create a kind of status quo regarding certain situations and unresolved problems to prevent membership in the European Union and NATO and expand their geoeconomic and geopolitical influence.”
China Belt and Road
Durakoglu said that while Russia exerts its influence through gas and disinformation, China furthers its interests mostly through economic and infrastructure investments.
Valbona Zeneli, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has written extensively about the Chinese and Russian influence in the Western Balkans.
“The Western Balkans has seen a significant expansion of Chinese influence over the last decade, in line with Beijing’s geo-economic and diplomatic vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the broader strategic context of China-EU relations,” she wrote in recent research paper. She is also working on a book on the topic.
“The geo-strategic position of the Western Balkans is perfect as a bridgehead to EU markets and a key transit corridor for the Chinese BRI. Chinese interests in the region are strongly related to infrastructure projects and privatization opportunities, where demand for preferential lending is high and acquisition prices are low,” she said.
‘We hold the cards’
As Russia and China align their positions in opposition to the West, experts say they want to divert attention from the major world conflicts, such as Ukraine, Middle East and China’s increasingly hostile posture in South China Sea.
To Albania’s Mediu, it is clear that “there is a move by Russia but also by China, maybe also by Iran to create problems in the Balkan region, to have another point of conflict and to shift attention from Ukraine.”
In countering this influence, the U.S. is supporting allies in the region. The Pentagon has confirmed last month’s approval by the United States of the potential sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kosovo for an estimated $75 million.
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security of the United States by improving the security of a European partner which is an important force for political and economic stability in Europe,” the Pentagon said.
It added that the sale “will improve Kosovo’s long-term defense capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity to meet its national defense requirements.”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed “deep disappointment” at the decision. Russia also “strongly condemned” the plans.
The proposed sale comes during tensions between Kosovo and Serbia that the EU is seeking to resolve. In its continued rejection of its former province’s independence, Serbia has had the firm support of Russia and China.
With all the concern over Russia’s and China’s forays in the region, Joseph of Johns Hopkins University said the good news is the West holds the cards.
“This is not like Ukraine. Russia is too far to bring in land forces. The NATO members surround the Balkans. All the countries in the region except Serbia want to join NATO. And some are already members of NATO,” he said.
The European Union, he said, “is by far the main trading partner. So, we hold the cards. We have to use them correctly.”