(As continued from Part II)http://regionalrapport.com/2017/02/22/russias-new-strategy-balkans-part-ii/
The second part of the research comprehensively explained the details and nuances behind Russia’s efforts to reach a New Détente with the West in the New Cold War, interestingly by means of its Balkan diplomacy and the unexpected rapprochement that it’s entered into with Croatia. The five interconnected phased objectives elaborated on in the previous section spell out the larger strategy and hopes that Moscow might be placing in its latest moves, yet they don’t come without a high degree of risk. This final section addresses the challenges that each of Russia’s five analyzed steps entail and raises awareness about what could go wrong at each point.
The author does not intend to infer that disaster awaits, but just to highlight how risky this whole gambit is. Correspondingly, no judgment is being rendered about the wisdom of Russia’s speculated strategy in the first place in spite of all of the possible impediments to its success, since it’s understood that Great Powers regularly take great and decisive action in promoting their grand interests. If it’s indeed the case that Russia is following some or all of the steps that the author has previously analyzed, then it should be assumed that Moscow has nothing but the best intentions in mind in trying to retain and strengthen the formally peaceful status quo in the Balkans between all sides in order to propel its chances for reaching a New Détente which would benefit everyone in the world if it’s ever achieved.
Finally, it should go without saying that the author is deliberately playing the role of devil’s advocate in order to stimulate a thought-provoking conservation and reflection on some of the more uncomfortable points of this larger strategy. The author isn’t endorsing any of these positions, but is presenting them in order to widen the range of discourse on this very important topic and hopefully inspire others to partake in their own critical analyses either as confirmation or refutation of both the earlier and following points. The goal is to expand the scope of the analytical research on Russia’s Balkan policy and the relationship that it has with Moscow’s greater hopes in reaching a New Détente with the West in the New Cold War, approaching it from both supportive (Part II) and critical (present article) angles.
1. Breaking The Balkan Firewall (Challenge: Efficacy)
For as pleasantly sounding and logical as Russia’s strategy of Breaking the Balkan Firewall might appear on paper or in academic circles, there’s surprisingly little evidence available that it has actually accomplished anything of tangible value. The sanctions war is still waging and NATO has built up its forces in Eastern European unabated, so none of Russia’s Balkan partners have had any effect whatsoever on the current situation. Even expanding Moscow’s set of partners to include Hungary and the Czech Republic, the effect is nonetheless the same – nothing has been achieved. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been useful – it has, at least even if in only symbolic terms – but that it still leaves a lot to be desired if the objective is to prompt physical change.
It might just be that such a policy intrinsically takes time to mature, which is very possible, and that it’s still much too early to properly judge its progress. After all, some voices suggest that Russia is trying to build up a coalition of pragmatic partners within the EU and NATO which could ‘check and balance’ these blocs from within and counteract their openly anti-Russian policies, but even if that’s the case, it’s questionable exactly what influence Croatia and the other smaller countries presumably involved in this possible policy could play on changing the decisions of much more powerful states such as Germany, France, and of course the US. It doesn’t hurt to have friendly partners within hostile blocs, but one needs to be realistic about the extent to which they can influence the larger course of events, especially if they’re only relatively minor players.
2. Strengthening St. Stephen’s Space (Challenge: Blowback)
While a convincing argument can be made for why Russia should proactively strengthen its relations with Hungary, Croatia, and the other entities predicted to form a part of St. Stephen’s Space, there’s a very real chance that this could result in a strong degree of blowback further down the line. Strengthening Budapest to the point of it becoming a Central European heavyweight all around its former civilizational sphere could embolden its decision makers to formally embark on geopolitical revisionism in restoring some of the borders that it was forced to punitively cede as part of the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon.
A Pandora’s Box of conflict could erupt between Hungary and its Slovakian and Romanian neighbors over what might by that time be Budapest’s formal irredentist claims or open desire to legally reunify with the neighboring diaspora which was forcibly shut out of the nation-state’s borders. There’s no telling what effect intra-bloc tensions between these Central European states could have on the EU and NATO, and while cynics might encourage this in order to ‘divide and rule’ these unipolar organizations from within and by their very own hand, others might rationally point to the fact that this process could also involve Russian-ally Serbia as well due to the historical particularity of its northern province of Vojvodina.
If Hungary became inadvertently emboldened to pursue this series of scenarios because of the deepening partnership which it and its close Croatian ally might have with Russia by that time, then Moscow might be blamed for ‘giving the signal’ to this chaos despite that never having been Russia’s intent at all. Even if Moscow isn’t unfairly singled out as the ‘culprit’ if ‘anything goes wrong’, it could still receive a lot of harm to its interests if hyper-nationalist forces take control in Hungary and decide to advance these designs, which is one of the most powerful explanations behind why Russia provides zero support to the Jobbik party and doesn’t want to guide Orban anywhere near the direction of conflict with his neighbors.
3. Balancing The Balkans (Challenge: Backfire)
There’s a lot of good that can come out of Russia’s efforts to balance the Balkans, but also a lot of bad which could backfire against Moscow’s interests and result in supreme losses to its influence. The most obvious one is that the Serbs might not properly understand Russia’s overtures to Croatia and could be under the impression that this is aimed against their interests, whether out of unstated spite for Serbia “not doing enough” to open up its businesses to Russian investors or out of the self-interested desire to acquire a coastal partner and a new (safe) tourist destination for its holidaymakers. Whatever the details behind this narrative may be, the fact is that it could serve to erode Russian-Serbian relations and might even end up irreversibly damaging them if Serbs feel threatened by Russia’s moves towards Croatia. Losing an historical partner such as Serbia would be a damaging blow to Russian prestige and could upset its entire Balkan policy, though it’s unlikely to result in Belgrade abandoning its Balkan/Turkish Stream and/or South Stream plans for collaboration with Moscow.
The other main point which could go wrong and dramatically backfire against Russia would be if Moscow decides to get involved in whatever capacity it may be in territorially reorganizing the Balkans. Despite having the best of intentions if it ever does seek to mediate the creation of a Croatian federal entity in Bosnia, a Serbian-Kosovo land swap prior to Belgrade recognizing Pristina as an ‘independent country’, and/or Macedonia’s Albanian problem, it might ultimately end up being tricked by the West just like what infamously happened with Count Alexander Izvolsky. This Russian imperial statesman was hoodwinked by Austria to agree to Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia in exchange for the Dual Monarchy’s assurances that it would help the Tsar acquire unrestricted access through the Turkish Straits. Russia preemptively conceded its position on Bosnia in exchange for Austria’s anticipated reciprocal support with the Ottoman Empire, though Izvolsky was tricked because Vienna never had any intentions to follow through on its end of the deal.
Russia therefore has more than enough reasons to be extremely wary of its ‘Western partners’ when it comes to making Balkan deals, since there are no assurances that they will deliver on their end of the bargain and not take advantage of what they may interpret as Russian naiveté and possibly even desperation in wanting to reach a New Détente. The author doesn’t believe that either of these two labels accurately describes Russia, but there’s nothing to say that the West doesn’t perceive Russia this way and won’t act on this false impression. Moscow must be extremely careful if it involves itself to any extent with Timothy Less’ geopolitical revisionist project, even if it’s only doing so out of support for each actor’s own sovereign will and with the intention of safeguarding the fragile Balkan peace. What might seem at the time to be a good idea, such as for example possibly supporting a Croatian federalized entity in Bosnia, might lead to completely unintended consequences which backfire against Russia and instead lead the whole region into war. Thus, Russia must tread carefully no matter what it does.
4. Pipeline Politics (Challenge: Hybrid War)
For as much as Russia might think that it’s mitigating the threat of a Hybrid War or series thereof breaking out in the Balkans via its regional balancing strategy, there’s nothing guaranteeing that it will succeed in preventing the US from sabotaging it regardless of how many regional partners it’s able to bring on board with its peaceful pragmatism. The author explored the myriad of Hybrid Wars scenarios in the Balkans in several articles published for Oriental Review on the topic, which he encourages the reader to check out if they’re interested in learning more about this in detail, but the primary idea is that Washington and its intelligence organs – not necessarily the regional state actors themselves – are the key to catalyzing these conflicts.
There are just way too many moving and oftentimes contradictory variables (such as the ones described regarding Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia) for any governing entity to have full control over each of them, thus opening up the space for a deliberately disruptive third party such as the US to influence events on the ground in provoking its coveted geostrategic outcomes. Just because Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia might end up on the same page as it relates to the latter’s domestic situation (however unlikely it is that this will happen, let alone soon), none of them might be able to stop the US from deploying Daesh terrorists to shake up the status quo and turn all sides against one another in the ensuring confusion. It’s for reasons such as this that Russia, and for that matter China too, can’t ever be entirely sure that the Balkans will remain stable enough to ensure the viability of their envisioned megaprojects.
5. The Stepping Stone To Ukraine (Challenge: Geopolitics)
In a related vein as the third and fourth challenges described above, there’s no ensuring that Russia’s ‘Western partners’ can be trusted, and even in the sense that one or some of them prove themselves worthy, then it can’t be discounted that a third one (the US) won’t seek to disrupt their rapprochement. The whole concept of reaching a New Détente in the New Cold War is predicated on President Trump’s previously positive statements towards Russia hinting in this direction, but if he comes under insurmountable domestic pressure because of this and is unable to deliver, then the whole idea falls through as nothing more than a misleading façade for convincing Russia to enact a series of unilateral concessions (at its very worst scenario). No matter how far along the New Détente might come in expanding off of potential trust-building anti-Daesh cooperation in the Mideast and the speculated deal-making which might come to characterize their Great Power relations in the Balkans, all of that could be for naught if both sides reach a dead end in Ukraine or if Kiev succeeds in sowing distrust and widening the divisions between both of them via a renewed campaign of aggression against Donbas.
Alternatively, there’s also a challenge that might ironically arise in the event that Russia’s efforts to reach a New Détente are successful, and it’s that the rest of the world might come to realize that Moscow is playing by the rules of what the author calls the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard”. This concept states that the geostrategic reorganization of the globe as part of the emerging Multipolar World Order and related New Détente might be characterized by a reversion to the 19th-century policies of disregarding the sovereign interest of small- and medium powers (in the few examples where they existed) in order to advance high-level deal-making between the Great (Imperial) Powers.
It might end up being that there’s no alternative to this reality and that it’s the ‘most effective’ system of International Relations for this point in time (if understood through the Neo-Realist perspective), but nevertheless, it would deal a blow to Russian soft power if Moscow is perceived whether rightly or wrongly as behaving in a similar fashion as its Western peers which it so often criticizes for these same actions.
In such a paradigm as the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard”, however, only the views of the Great (Imperial) Powers would matter anyhow for shaping the bigger picture of global geopolitics, so if they interpret any Russian embrace of this proposed system of International Relations as a sign of impressive strength and something worthy of their respect, then it might matter less to Moscow if its smaller- and medium-sized (former?) partners understand it differently and as something very negative for their interests. In a world dominated by Great Power rivalry over comparatively smaller pieces of territory on the ‘chessboard’, it’s only the Great Powers which have any capacity to change the status quo, though the countries which they compete over such as Serbia and Syria ironically come to hold disproportionate significance in global affairs by being the scene of the said rivalries which could the contours of the future world order.
The research covered a variety of interconnected topics in explaining the relevancy of the surprise Russian-Croatian rapprochement to Moscow’s efforts in clinching a New Détente with the West in the New Cold War, and it’s assumed that these efforts won’t be without controversy. That’s alright, though, since the purpose behind this initiative was to raise awareness about a wide range of topics which are usually skimmed over or outright ignored in the larger mainstream and alternative media discourses. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, but just that observers have either not caught onto them yet, haven’t pieced together their relevancy to one another, or don’t have the desire (for whatever the reason may be) to write on these issues, which is why the author hopes that this particular piece of research will fill a crucial void and establish its anticipated niche in the field of contemporary Balkan geopolitics.
In the pursuit of that end, parts of the text were deliberately provocative – but not necessarily unfounded or formed from blind speculation – so as to spark a reaction which could thus serve to inspire additional researchers to investigate the examined analyses and scenarios further in order to evluate the chances that they’ll unfold. It’s accepted that some Serbs will probably instinctively feel disgust, revulsion, and betrayal at Russia’s incipient rapprochement with Croatia, but it can’t be emphasized enough that Moscow is not doing this out of any contempt for Belgrade or intention to work against its national security interests. Despite this being the case, however, the risk objectively exists that the ‘bigger picture’ and ‘greater good’ won’t be attained as planned, and that this entire initiative and the New Détente that it’s a part of could fall flat on their face and go down in history as an epic failure or a wasted opportunity.
It would be irresponsible to speculate at this point on the chances of that happening, and the author encourages the reader to remain cautiously optimistic about Russia’s latest moves, whether in specific regard to Croatia, the Balkans more broadly, or the New Détente when analyzing it from the global level. To those Serbs which might still feel distraught and unsettled by Russia’s actions, however, they’d do well to remember that Moscow absolutely must cooperate with Belgrade to some extent in order to realize its Balkan megaproject, exempting of course the almost impossible odds of Russia working with the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline instead.
Moreover, Russia isn’t the only multipolar country with such ambitious designs for the Balkans, since China is a key – if mostly silent – player as well, and its Balkan Silk Road high-speed rail project connecting Piraeus with Budapest, and perhaps even one day as far north as Warsaw, Riga, and Saint Petersburg, might stand to provide a more enduring and positive windfall for Serbia than the Balkan Stream pipeline ever could. In fact, if Serbia can succeed in making itself the object of healthy competition between both strategically partnered Eurasian Great Powers, then there would be plenty of reasons for Serbs to look forward to whatever the future might bring no matter what the perceived setbacks might be in the moment.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.