May 31, 2022 | Atlantic Council of Montenegro

The War in Ukraine and the Western Balkans

Lessons Learned and Recommendations
May 31, 2022 | Atlantic Council of Montenegro

The War in Ukraine and the Western Balkans

Lessons Learned and Recommendations

Excerpt

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is merely a continuation of the war it began 2014. Although he thought he would be able to seize Kyiv in a matter of days and install a pro-Kremlin regime, he likely miscalculated his military capabilities and the resolve of the Ukrainian army. Putin is now focusing on the next phase of Russia’s war, which focuses on the Donbas region. Given Russia’s military shortcomings in Ukraine, many in the West are already celebrating his failure. However, it is too early to do so, in part because Putin still has a powerful non-military tool at his disposal: information weapons. Russia has intensively used these information weapons since Putin came to power, and it is searching for weak links to distract the West. In particular, Russia is exploiting Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkans as potential new avenues to undermine Europe where Russia resorts to its well-known playbook of exploiting existing divisions and exacerbating secessionist tensions. The war in Ukraine also has an impact on the Western Balkans and the West should look for early warnings in the information space, as they are good indicators of Russia’s moves. Understanding these operations is essential in shaping an appropriate response from the West. That response must actively challenge and counter Russia’s information operations in the Western Balkans.

THE WAR IN UKRAINE

Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, which is the continuation of Russia’s war since 2014. The initial Russian offensive consisted of 4 main advances: on Kiev from the North, on Kharkiv from the Northeast, on Donbass from the East, and on Kherson/Mariupol from the South. Russia’s advance on Kiev reached the outskirts of the city, but failed to take the capital city. Russia’s advance on Kharkiv similarly failed to advance beyond the outskirts of the city. Russia’s offensive in Donbass succeeded in reaching Mariupol from the East, but failed to achieve a broader breakout. Russia’s offensive in the South was the most successful, capturing Kherson and reaching and capturing Mariupol from the West.

Russia retreated back to the Belarusian border from its failed assault on Kiev in late March, and retreated from its failed assault of Kharkiv in early May. Russia then redirected those troops to the Donbass front where it began the second phase of its offensive. With much more limited war aims, Russia is currently attempting to seize the entirety of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. Despite the increased concentration of Russian forces in the Donbass, Russian troops are making slow and limited gains. A recent breakthrough near Papsna may allow Russian forces to encircle the large Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk. However, even if Russia seizes these cities, they still have to capture the well-defended cities of Slavyansk and Kramotorsk to seize the entirety of the Donbass. If the rest of this war is anything to go by, achieving this task will be a long and bloody affair.

How did we get to this point in the war in Ukraine? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 should not surprise the West given that Putin has been working on his goals for more than two decades. The West failed to counter Russian hybrid wars and actively challenge Moscow’s information operations. The West has taken numerous defensive measures to prevent Russia from interfering in their elections or manipulating the information space. However, the West did not use offensive information measures to counter Russian information operations globally. The West also failed to constrain Putin’s financial illicit activities and global corruption. The West also naively treated Putin as a partner and allowed him to escalate military tensions and then de-escalate the crisis that he manufactured by positioning Russia as a mediator.

PUTIN’S GOALS AND THE WESTERN BALKANS

Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, which prevented Russia from remaining one of the world’s great powers. During his two-decade tenure, Putin has worked to restore a multipolar world. Putin also wants to recreate a sphere of influence within the former Soviet Union and control his near-abroad, especially Ukraine and Belarus. Putin has also aimed to break NATO and demonstrate that the alliance will not honor its Article 5 commitment to its members. Although Russia does not have a “grand strategy” for the Western Balkans, the region is Europe’s weak link and it is part of Moscow’s game. Putin has no intention of occupying the Western Balkans. Putin wants to profit from creating the risks of conflict in the Western Balkans and then de-escalating the crisis he created by positioning himself as a mediator.

Given the ethnic and religious differences rife among the Western Balkan states, Putin understands well that a “divide and conquer” strategy works well in the region. Putin’s campaign in the Western Balkans is a case study of the methods it uses to pursue its global objectives. Now that the Kremlin is using those differences to trigger new tensions via its proxies in the Western Balkans, continued peace in the region is no longer a guarantee. Russia’s “modern war” and “nonmilitary methods” playbook is well-known – It includes demonstrations, sabotage or subversion accompanied with the information campaign. This is a prelude to Russia’s mediation process and conducting peacekeeping operations.

Why does Putin continue to push the region to the brink? Because doing so allows him to accomplish three of his chief foreign policy objectives in one fell swoop: to invalidate the collective self-defense of NATO, to weaken the EU; and to distract the West from the war in Ukraine. By successfully escalating tensions in the Western Balkans towards outright violence, Putin can functionally demonstrate that neither NATO, the EU, nor their constituent societies are credible partners for any of the peoples of the region.

Dr. Ivana Stradner serves as an advisor to FDD’s Barish Center for Media Integrity, where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity, particularly Russia’s use of advanced forms of hybrid warfare and the threat they pose to the West. Ivana studies Russia’s security strategies and military doctrines to understand how Russia uses information operations for strategic communication. Ivana also analyzes Russian influence in international organizations. Follow her on Twitter @ivanastradner. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

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Russia