May 14, 2022 | The Hill

Biden administration can’t overlook the Balkans when sanctioning Russia

May 14, 2022 | The Hill

Biden administration can’t overlook the Balkans when sanctioning Russia

Excerpt

As Western economic sanctions tank Russia’s economy, the Kremlin and its supporters are scouring the globe for jurisdictions to use to evade sanctions. Moscow appears to have set its sights on the Western Balkans, long plagued by corruption and malign Russian influence. Washington and its Western allies must work to combat Russia’s illicit financial networks and broader malign influence in the Western Balkans while expanding our own economic ties to the region.

Exploiting corruption in the Western Balkans is central to the Kremlin’s efforts to cultivate influence in the region. This problem began decades ago. As the former Yugoslav states liberalized their economies after the 1990s, festering corruption exposed openings for Russian manipulation. Under Vladimir Putin, Moscow has used the corrupt actors who benefited from this kleptocracy to exploit economic, ethnic, and religious fissures in Balkan societies, in order to use that instability to challenge the United States and our allies. Western disengagement has compounded the problem, allowing Russia and China to fill the void through corruption and “debt-trap” investments in critical areas such as energy and security.

This inattention may ultimately weaken the impact of Western sanctions against Russia. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Russian influence is particularly strong, have refused to sanction Russia. Serbian media reported in early April that nearly 300 Russian persons, including many in the IT sector, had opened companies in Serbia since Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, likely reflecting an attempt to dodge Western sanctions by re-registering Russian firms in Serbia. And although Albania, Montenegro, and others have developed Russia sanctions regimes in line with EU sanctions, they may be unable or unwilling to enforce them if Moscow can prevail upon their leadership through either political pressure or corruption.

Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Foundations of Defense of Democracies (@FDD) and Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the FDD. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow the authors on Twitter @ivanastradner and @MatthewZweig1

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Issues:

Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance