Moscow is concerned over Washington’s attempts to increase its influence on the politics of the Balkan states and draw them into NATO. Andrey Kelin, Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department of European Cooperation, said that the US wants to “fully master the Western Balkans, and, after Montenegro, to draw other countries into its orbit too.” According to him, any wave of NATO expansion, especially at a time of poor relations between the bloc and Russia “is an additional factor complicating European security.”
The statement comes after the report entitled ‘Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region’, was published by the Washington-based Atlantic Council on Nov.28. It warns of increased Russia’s influence, blaming Moscow for “attempts by Russia to capitalize on the region’s lingering pathologies to undermine the European project” and other alleged wrongdoings. The authors claim that Russia is seeking “leverage” by making “as big a mess as possible” in the Balkans region, citing unconfirmed assertions and invented stories as evidence. For instance, the report states that Moscow has been “cultivating a client” in Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska. Russia’s “playing games” in Kosovo is another example. The list can go on. Not a single fact is adduced to support the stories.
The Russia bogie is used as a pretext to justify the calls for a permanent American military presence in the Balkans, a “historic rapprochement” between the US and Serbia, and for the US to regain its reputation as an “honest broker”. The authors believe that establishing a permanent US military presence in the region would “anchor the United States’ ability to influence developments“. Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, which is built on Serbian land without consulting with the government of Serbia, is believed to be ideal for this purpose.
The report does not shy away from advocating outright interference into internal affairs. It singles out Serbia, saying “Belgrade can and should be a close partner and ally in the region, but it can only become one if it begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia.”
The Atlantic Council is a meeting place for heads of state, military leaders, and international leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. It has great influence on the US foreign policy decision-making process. Some proposals unveiled in the report align with prior calls by US policy hawks, such as Senator John McCain, who in April called for a substantially strengthened US commitment to the region.
Looks like his calls are heard and recommendations are followed. Hoyt Brian Yee, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, will soon take up the post of US Ambassador to Macedonian capital Skopje. “For a long time, the United States is present in the Western Balkans, and we are planning to stay there,” he said at the conference organized by the Atlantic Council in Washington the next day after the report was published.
James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation Vice President, has come up with a plan of his own, offering guidelines to boost US diplomatic, economic and military efforts to drive Russia from the region and make it dominated by the United States. He believes that “The Balkans remain a soft spot in US transatlantic policy. We need to be more proactive there – and sooner rather than later.”
With Montenegro having joint NATO recently, Macedonia appears to be next. The Atlantic Council’s report offers to launch mediation efforts aimed at putting an end the long-standing row between Athens and Skopje over Macedonia name and, thus, unblock Greece’s ongoing objections to the latter’s membership in NATO. The center-left government, which came to power in late May, sees NATO membership as a top priority. The Macedonian people think otherwise. According to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), Macedonian support for NATO membership is at its lowest level since 2008.
It all goes to show that the US views the Balkans not as a region with prospects of economic cooperation and partnership on equal terms but rather as a battlefield against Russia. What the United States does is enforcing an openly destructive choice between the West and Russia on the Balkan countries. Such a policy will lead to increased tensions and destabilization on the European continent as well as in the region. The last thing the region needs is US military presence to oppose Russia – the country with strong historic and cultural ties to the Balkan states.