In a New Cold War With Russia, Balkans Become a Testing Ground
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Cradle of the First World War, the Balkans have been a flashpoint, a place where empires, ethnicities and religions abut and contest. Now, analysts warn, the region is becoming a battleground in what feels like a new Cold War.
Russia, they say, is expanding its influence and magnifying ethnic tensions in countries that hope to join the European Union. Its involvement has already spurred Brussels to revive dormant aims for enlargement. It is also prompting fresh attention from Washington about security risks to NATO members.
After the concerted Western response to the poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter, which expelled around 150 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers, “the Balkans become even more important,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
“Russia is looking for ways to retaliate that are asymmetric and provide Moscow opportunities,” he said.
In a new paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Galeotti says that “Russia looks to the Balkans as a battlefield in its ‘political war,’” seeking “to create distractions and potential bargaining chips with the European Union.”
Charles A. Kupchan, who was Europe director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said that “the Russians are taking advantage of the last part of Western Europe that remains politically dysfunctional.”
The situation bears distant echoes of Ukraine, where Russia originally agreed that Kiev could join the European Union — though not NATO — and then changed its mind, leading to the revolution that prompted Moscow to annex Crimea and foment secession in eastern Ukraine.
In the Balkans, the competition with Russia has the potential to sow fresh instability in a region still emerging from the vicious war of 1992-95 that broke apart the former Yugoslavia.
In Sarajevo, many of the scars of the war have been erased. The former Holiday Inn, once a nearly windowless shelter for reporters near Snipers’ Alley during the Bosnia war, is restored and busy. The neo-Moorish City Hall, a monument to multiculturalism that was shelled and burned, has been burnished to a high standard.
Yet Bosnia and Herzegovina, the broken country patched together in 1995 at the end of the war, remains a fragile construct, riven by corruption, weak leadership, and ethnic and nationalist strains among communities — a metaphor for the Balkans.