Under Biden, Balkans to Remain Flashpoint in US-Russia Relations

The United States under Joe Biden must resist turning a blind eye to Russia’s provocations in Kosovo and across in the Balkans in exchange for deals elsewhere.

The Biden administration faces a myriad of challenges managing relations with Russia.

It must renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, address recent cyberattacks, and deter Russia’s regional provocations in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Kosovo is also a flash point that could escalate, embroiling the US and Russia in a broader confrontation.

Do not expect a reset in US-Russia relations. However, both sides will seek common ground to avoid escalatory confrontation. Arms control will be a priority.

New START expires on February 5, 2021. Bilateral talks, leading to a freeze on both strategic and tactical warheads, can extend the treaty for a year, while the US and Russia negotiate a longer and more durable agreement.

New START is complicated by China’s rise as a nuclear power. The US and Russia both want to prevent China’s modernisation of its strategic nuclear forces, which represents a possible area for cooperation between Moscow and Washington. New START can either incorporate non-proliferation targets for China in a trilateral agreement, or encompass bilateral agreements between Beijing and Moscow and between Beijing and Washington.

While working with Russia, the Biden administration will respond to Russia’s nefarious cyber warfare. Joe Biden has vowed to impose substantial costs on Russia for its cyberattacks, which penetrated 250 US government agencies, critical infrastructure and private sector entities. The US must act with strength and discretion to punish Russia for such actions.

Arctic cooperation

Regional issues can be a platform for US-Russia cooperation. The Arctic is one area where both countries can work together.

Russia has more than 7,000 miles of Arctic coastline. To enhance its interests, Russia’s militarisation of the Arctic includes a submarine fleet in the North Atlantic, coastal missile batteries, and air defense systems. The US has responded by increasing patrols in the Barents Sea by the US Navy’s 2nd and 6th Fleets.

The Arctic Council, chaired by Russia through 2023, is a platform for multilateral and consensus-based cooperation in the security, economic, and environmental fields. As the Biden administration rejoins the Paris Protocol on Climate Change, it can empower the Arctic Council with expanded responsibilities on climate and other issues.

Even if the US and Russia find common ground in the Arctic, contestation is more likely than cooperation in other places. The Eastern Mediterranean could be a flashpoint.

Russia relies on transit through the Black Sea into the Eastern Mediterranean to access the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal.

At the same time, NATO views the eastern Mediterranean as its southern flank. In light of Washington’s deteriorating relations with Turkey, the US and Russia could collaborate to stabilise the eastern Mediterranean. Though Turkey is a NATO member, the US can still strengthen security cooperation with Russia, which would have the added benefit of advancing the interests of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.

Of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin will resist any action that advances NATO’s agenda. Putin’s overarching goal is to shed sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s land-grab of Crimea.

Balkans still a ‘tinderbox’

With Syria and Ukraine relatively quiet, it’s more likely that Putin will focus on Kosovo as the frontline of Russia’s anti-American agenda.

Putin has a simmering resentment of NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, as well as Washington’s role coordinating Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. He wants to prevent countries from integrating into the EU and NATO, and adopting Western-style democracy.

To this end, the Kremlin vigorously obstructs Kosovo’s efforts to gain greater global recognition. It uses its permanent membership in the UN Security Council, UNSC, where Russia has a veto, to block Kosovo from joining the world body.

It also undermines the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue led by the EU and supported by the United States. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, insists the UNSC approve any deal between Serbia and Kosovo.

In addition to its diplomatic backing, Russia has armed Serbia with sophisticated offensive weapons. These include MiG-29 jets, with modern missiles, radar, and communication systems, as well as tanks and armoured reconnaissance vehicles. Serbia also seeks BUK anti-aircraft systems and S-300 surface to air missiles.

Extensive commercial ties include the energy sector. Serbia imports nearly two-thirds of its oil and gas from Russia. Gazprom, a Russian multinational energy corporation, has a significant position in Serbia’s state-owned energy company. Gazprom is Russia’s largest company in terms of revenue.

The Balkans are a tinderbox. Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia threatened to boil over in January 2017 when Belgrade provocatively sent a Russian-manufactured train to Mitrovica, in north Kosovo, that was decorated with signs in Cyrillic and Russian declaring “Kosovo is Serbia.” When the Kosovo government objected, Serbia threatened military action.

Kosovo Serbs also built a wall in Mitrovica and threatened to secede. They covered the wall with posters of Putin. Tensions were exacerbated by anti-NATO propaganda spread by Sputnik, a Kremlin-financed media conglomerate with a major hub in Belgrade. The Serbian information ecosystem is inundated with anti-NATO propaganda.

What Russia says is a disaster relief centre in Nis, southern Serbia, is believed by the US to be a spy base used to monitor western activities in the region. Moscow denies espionage, insisting the base is used for flood relief and fighting forest fires.

Russia contributes to instability throughout the Western Balkans. It supported a controversial referendum by Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina that set the stage for secession by the mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska entity.

In North Macedonia, Russia allegedly coordinated a physical assault on pro-western legislators in 2017, while in Montenegro 20 Serbian agents were arrested for plotting a coup in 2016 and the government accused Russian “state organs” of complicity.

Putin heralds Slavic and Orthodox solidarity. But he cares little about Serbia. To Putin, the Balkans represent a vulnerable underbelly of the West. Embroiling the US in regional conflicts serves Putin’s broader geopolitical agenda.

The US and Russia found areas for cooperation during the Cold War. Despite looming conflict today, there are still opportunities for selective engagement to make the relationship more predictable and transparent.

The Biden administration must be steely-eyed, working with European allies in response to Russia’s provocations in Kosovo and elsewhere. It must not turn a blind eye to Russia’s meddling in Kosovo and other regional hot-spots in exchange for New START or softening sanctions over Russia’s cyber warfare.

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