The fresh crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West is having a ripple effect in many countries and regions – including in the Balkans and Central Europe – where Russian and Western interests collide.
In his first foreign policy speech, new US President Joe Biden summarized his international agenda in one sentence: “America is back.”
Paradoxically, Moscow may have been somewhat relieved to hear that chaotic confrontation with the US under Donald Trump will be supplanted by a more orderly, albeit tougher, relationship with Biden.
Biden’s speech also confirmed that the Kremlin should brace itself for numerous challenges both at home and abroad. The new US administration, more experienced and better coordinated than its predecessor, means business when it says Russia needs to be contained.
The Kremlin is already putting itself on full combat alert to counteract the reinvigorated US on various fronts, ranging from Europe and the Balkans to the post-Soviet states and even domestic politics.
Biden and his foreign policy team are known quantities in Moscow, and their calls to be tougher on Russia are taken seriously there. In any case, the Kremlin sees an anti-Russian tinge to almost all the key points of the new US administration’s agenda.
When Biden pledges to restore ties with Europe, the Kremlin assumes this will be done by othering Russia.
Washington’s readiness to show greater flexibility in its dealings with China is viewed in Moscow as a desire to concentrate more resources on pressuring Russia.
Biden’s promise to restate America’s support for democracy sounds to the Kremlin like an intention to promote regime change in Russia’s neighborhood and in Russia itself.
Recent developments in the latter have already pushed tensions in Moscow’s relations with the West to new heights.
For the Kremlin, it is no coincidence that its veteran critic, Alexei Navalny, returned to Russia just two days ahead of the US presidential inauguration, after spending months in Germany, where he was undergoing treatment following his poisoning with a deadly nerve agent in August 2020.
West’s support for protests seen as ‘declaration of war’
In the Kremlin’s eyes, recent protests across Russia, and the West’s harsh condemnation of Navalny’s imprisonment, and its pledges to support Russian civil society in its standoff with the authorities, amount to a declaration of war.
The perception is that the West launched a coordinated offensive against the Kremlin as soon as the new president moved into the White House.
Hence the reaction of Russian officials to Western criticism. Besides the usual stonewalling, they are portraying the crackdown on Navalny’s supporters as a legitimate defence against Western attempts to undermine Russia’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy.
The frosty welcome of the EU High Representative Josep Borrell in Moscow, and the expulsion of three European diplomats during his visit, serve the same purpose: the Kremlin aims to underline that it holds the West responsible for the protests, and has no intention of tolerating that.
The new crisis in Moscow’s relations with the West is having a ripple effect in many neighboring countries where Russian and Western interests collide.
In Ukraine, tensions are growing as Kiev closes down pro-Russian media while Moscow flirts with the idea of formally annexing the separatist self-proclaimed republics in the country’s war-torn east.
In the Caucasus, the issue of granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan, MAP, may resurface at the next NATO summit. In Moldova, the new pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, drew an angry rebuke from Moscow when she called for Russian troops in the country to be replaced with a civilian observer mission.
Kremlin eyes NATO moves in Balkans warily
The Western Balkans may become another focal point of standoffs between the Kremlin and the West.
Washington views the settlement of the region’s lingering conflicts as a opportunity to put into practice its resumed cooperation with the EU and score a foreign policy victory. The new US administration has already called for a resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict and reiterated its support for major reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
These statements did not pass unnoticed in Moscow. Recently, Russia has kept a low profile in the Western Balkans and avoided forays into the region’s unruly politics, even at opportune moments.
It paid little attention to the victory of ostensibly pro-Russian parties in the Montenegrin elections in August 2020, for example.
Russia has also stayed out of the new brawl between Bulgaria and North Macedonia over language and identity issues, in sharp contrast to its past interventions in the Greek-Macedonian dispute.
Even the region’s acute deficit of a COVID vaccine has failed to trigger Moscow’s intervention beyond Serbia.
The Kremlin may be ignoring Western Balkan states that have recently joined NATO, but it is unlikely to watch the alliance’s new wave of expansion in the region with indifference.
Now, Moscow is less concerned with Serbia, whose path to deeper integration with the EU and NATO is in any case blocked by its decades-long conflict with Kosovo. Notwithstanding the recent renewal of talks between Belgrade and Pristina, the chances of a breakthrough between the two sides in the near future remain slim.
It’s a different picture in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Western pressure is mounting on Sarajevo to go beyond the dysfunctional system of ethnic politics established by the Dayton peace agreement, 25 years ago.
Russia fears that Western-backed reforms, which aim to redistribute powers between national and municipal levels of government, will undermine the ability of its Bosnian Serb allies to influence foreign policy decisions and open a path to NATO membership.
For years, Moscow has called for the abolition of the office of the High Representative for Bosnia, the OHR, in order to demonstrate that the current system of two entities with wide veto powers is not a temporary fixture but a permanent solution to the Bosnian conflict.
The Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, recently reiterated Russia’s stance on this issue and warned that Moscow would block the appointment of the new High Representative.
The ambassador’s comments echoed earlier statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his December tour of the region. In an indirect response to Western calls to go beyond the Dayton accords, Lavrov voiced opposition to such changes and raised the specter of “grave consequences” if they are undertaken.
The Kremlin can rely on a wide range of local allies to obstruct the Western-backed reforms in Bosnia. Its outreach is no longer limited to Milorad Dodik, veteran leader of the Bosnian Serbs.
Moscow has developed a working relationship with the Bosnian Croat leader, Dragan Covic. Due to the diminishing numbers of ethnic Croats in the country, a switch away from ethnic quotas in government is likely to strip Covic and his party, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of most of its political influence.
Neighbouring Croatia is also likely to support Russia in opposing changes in Bosnia. The two countries’ relations are lukewarm at best, yet Moscow and Zagreb put aside their disputes and displayed rare unanimity on the issue of Bosnia during Lavrov’s visit to Croatia in December. This odd alliance, of Russians, Serbs and Croats, may present an unfamiliar and formidable challenge to the West’s effort to reform Bosnia.
Russia spies opportunities in Visegrad states
New developments in Russia’s relations with the West may also impact the so-called Visegrad states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Longtime members of the EU and NATO, they are unlikely to draw as much of Moscow’s attention as the Western Balkans, where many countries remain in geopolitical limbo. Still, the constant bickering of Visegrad populist leaders with Brussels makes the Kremlin view those states as a weak link in transatlantic unity.
Biden’s arrival in the White House is forcing the Visegrad capitals to reconsider their foreign policy calculus. They can no longer count on a like-minded leader in Washington helping them to balance out Brussels’ pressure on rule-of-law issues.
Facing a united front from the US and EU, they will have to search for a new leverage in their relations with the West. Deeper cooperation with Russia will be one option.
Poland’s leaders are probably most affected by Trump’s defeat in the US. The country previously enjoyed the status of America’s top ally in Europe. Now it faces the prospect of being isolated in the West.
Nevertheless, this is unlikely to push Warsaw to reach out to Moscow. Poland will instead try to offset its demotion in status by assuming a greater role in the US policy of containing Russia. The Kremlin, in turn, believes the current Polish leadership is so intrinsically anti-Russian that it will not bother to make any attempts at rapprochement.
But the other three Visegrad states are a different story. In Slovakia, the ruling coalition has few problems with Brussels and recently expelled three Russian diplomats, rendering an alignment with Moscow improbable. However, pro-Russian sentiment in Slovakia is among the strongest in Europe and the current coalition government is prone to internal crises.
This combination might make the country revert to more eurosceptic and pro-Kremlin policies, like those it pursued under Robert Fico’s government in 2012-18.
The state of affairs in the Czech Republic is more precarious. Prime Minister Andrej Babis is under EU investigation for the misuse of funds, although he still plans to run for re-election this autumn.
Mercurial and populist, Babis is unpredictable. This situation is exacerbated by the excesses of President Milos Zeman, who has little real power but professes strongly pro-Russian views. Zeman was the only EU leader who publicly doubted that the EU should support Navalny in his standoff with the Kremlin.
The two politicians may seem like an ideal recipe for a sudden U-turn in Czech foreign policy towards Russia – especially now, when the country is considering expanding the Dukovany nuclear plant – and Russia’s Rosatom is among the bidders.
However, Czech-Russian relations have been plagued by so many scandals and mutual expulsions of diplomats that cooperation between the two countries is unlikely to flourish in the near future.
Finally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is sure to bolster his image as the most Kremlin-friendly leader in the EU. Mired in multiple disputes with Brussels, he has few options other than to double down on his pro-Chinese and pro-Russian policies.
Hungary was the first country in the EU to procure the Russian COVID vaccine, Sputnik V. The chances are high that it will also be the first country in the EU to host Russian President Vladimir Putin following the Navalny crisis in Russia-Europe relations.
Still, the number of joint projects run by the two countries is limited, and both sides realize that it would be very difficult to expand the existing cooperation into new spheres.
Notwithstanding the wavering of their populist leaders, the Visegrad states are too deeply integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions to allow for a major alignment with Russia, while Moscow tends to display greater restraint in dealings with the NATO countries. Even the current profound shifts in Russia’s relations with the West are unlikely to significantly change this reality.