The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has served as a stark reminder to old minds and new, that perspectives between the West and the Kremlin have never been more combative since the climax of the Cold War.  Many observers continue to debate if the Cold War has returned, with some claiming that it never concluded and that the divide between Western and Russian perspectives has only continued to escalate over the decades that followed.

It is now at the point where nations are being asked to pick a side. NATO and the EU have called on former and current allies of Russia to support sanctions against Putin, whilst the Russian President has condemned the enlargement of NATO’s presence in the Baltic states, remaining firm in his stance on the situation of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

Over the course of months of tit-for-tat backlashes, not to mention countless political sanctions that have resulted in numerous European and Russian politicians being expelled from various countries, the political rhetoric is set to branch out to new regions of Europe. One in particular that serves as a key battleground to counter the foreign policies of both ‘warring factions’ are the Balkans.

In the years that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the region remains divided on a number of issues, most notably ethnicity and nationalist identity. Corruption still poses as a pressing issue for many nations in the region and conflicting stances over the independence of Kosovo serve as a pressure point for the likes of Serbia and the Bosnian enclave of Republika Srpska. Cultural and historical relations are aspects that Russia has continued to use in both Serbia and Bosnia, which has sent a worrying chill down many German politicians’ spines, who see the Kremlin as an adversary.

Earlier this week it was reported that the German government remains concerned over Putin’s rising influence in the region and that there were justifications for these thoughts. Recently Russia refrained from voting in favour of extending the EUFOR mission in Bosnia, at a United Nations Security Council summit. Adding the expulsion of Sabine Stöhr – a long-standing employee of the German embassy in Russia – not to mention the recent announcement that several Polish diplomats would also follow Stöhr’s suit, it is becoming apparent that Russia is ready to isolate old ‘partners’ and forge new relationships that are beneficial to its agenda.

Balkan benefits to Russia

Germany, one of the most noted EU states in this example, has been a keen advocate for Union membership to be granted to numerous Balkan states. The likes of Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Bosnia have expressed interests in following Croatia via ascension to the EU. As it stands Montenegro and Serbia are considered to be candidate countries, with ascension negotiations already underway in both states, while Albania attained candidate status back in June. Bosnia on the other hand is still considered to be a ‘potential’ candidate for EU ascension.

On paper the outlook remains positive for EU relations, however the situation is  complex, cultural and far more fragile than it intentionally appears. It does of course involve the energy powerhouse, Russia.

Russian presence in the region is one that has continued to rise over the years. The Kremlin sees the region as a viable partner and energy route for the South Stream Pipeline, now that Ukraine is no longer a sustainable option for Russia’s gas interests. The route of the pipeline will run from Russia through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy, with branches set to reach Croatia, Republica Srpska (BiH) and Austria. The Balkans rely heavily on gas imports from Russia and the Kremlin knows this all too well. Critics have highlighted that the nation is using the ‘catastrophic economic situation’ to fulfil its own ends.

Aside from the transportation of gas, the Kremlin has invested in multiple economic ventures across the region. Russia owns a third of companies within Montenegro and is already modernizing infrastructure projects – notably the national rail network – in Serbia. The economic benefits to Russia are fairly clear, in that the Kremlin has a lot to gain from establishing various financial projects in the region. Due to the deteriorating economic health of the region, these actions are likely viewed as a gesture of good faith and serve towards influencing hearts and minds amongst the public and various governments.

Uncertain future ahead

In light of the divided opinions regarding Russia’s activities within Serbia and Montenegro, it has exercised a clear strategy to fill a vacuum that has been left in limbo since the conclusion of the Yugoslav conflicts. The impact and effects  of the wars still remain and the economic burdens that have plagued countries such as Bosnia have had little treatment from progressive Western nations.

Actions speak louder than words. Whilst many pro-EU critics speak out against Russia’s actions in the area, those actions are proving to be rather successful. The German government believes so. Russia’s investment in local Serbian oil and gas distributors has improved the country’s prospects in regions that were heavily damaged by NATO bombardments during the 1990s, according to German officials.

It is also likely that many EU member states will continue to remain opposed or uncertain of enlargement with the euro crisis now behind them, leaving prospective Balkan nations in limbo for the years ahead. Despite where the ascension talks lead, it may prove too late for those who wish to counter Russia and its actions. It is a delicate and complex matter that is likely to continue in Europe’s backyard in the years to come.

 

Sources:

Germany worried about Russian influence in the Balkans –  http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/germany-worried-about-russian-influence-in-the-balkans-a-1003427.html

Russian advances in the Balkans a cause for concern – http://www.dw.de/opinion-russian-advances-in-the-balkans-a-cause-for-concern/a-18071327

United States ‘fully engaged’ in Balkans – http://www.b92.net/eng/news/region.php?yyyy=2014&mm=11&dd=21&nav_id=92326

EU – Enlargement – http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/countries/check-current-status/index_en.htm