The New Cold War has been filled with many twists and turns ever since it started in late-2013 following the advent of “EuroMaidan”, but one of the most surreal shifts has to be the recent overtures that Russia has made towards Croatia.Few experts could have predicted that these two countries would ever find common ground with one another, especially considering their diametrically opposite relations in regards to Belgrade, a factor which has previously kept Moscow and Zagreb at arm’s length with one another.
The latest series of moves undertaken by Russia points to the irrefutable realization that Moscow is serious about entering into a rapprochement with Zagreb, which could obviously have wide-ranging consequences for Russia’s Balkan strategy and its broader policies towards the EU and NATO. The purpose of this research is to explore the changes that have taken place in this relationship while highlighting the contradictions which many observers thought would have otherwise been insurmountable obstacles in keeping them apart.
Comparing the reality of their recent rapprochement with the set of previously presumed impediments, it’s possible to conceptualize what Moscow’s grand strategy might be in this regard and how the anticipated betterment of its ties with Zagreb is supposed to contribute to that end. This bold policy, however, isn’t without its share of risks, and these will also be examined in drawing attention to what might be some of the inadvertent shortcomings of this gambit.
Part I of the research therefore focuses on the changes and contradictions marking Russian-Croatian relations, while the second part focuses on the grand strategic concept that Moscow is trying to promote through its emerging rapprochement with Zagreb. Part III, the last installment of the article series, then examines the challenges facing Russia’s envisioned strategy and deliberately approaches it from a critical angle in order to hopefully spur valuable feedback about its viability. The author intends for the reader to learn about much more than just the bilateral relations between these two countries, but also how Russia might be shifting its policies towards the Balkans in the pursuit of a New Détente with the West in the New Cold War, and the various rewards and risks that this could possibly entail.
Russian-Croatian relations were for the most part friendly and stable ever since the latter’s 1991 independence, even though Moscow was extending significant political and at times military support to Belgrade in the years since. There weren’t really any diplomatic events of significance between the two during this time except for President Putin’s high-profile 2005 awarding of the memorial anniversary medal “60 years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War” to then-Croatian President Stipe Mesic, which was a symbolic act designed to showcase the growing ties between each side. It should be noted, however, that other foreign leaders such as the Albanian one received the same award at this time too, so it wasn’t exclusive to the Croatian President. That being said, it did present a high point in the relationship and could be seen as an important milestone underscoring the trust that was developing between both sides, driven primarily as it was by business contacts less so than anything concretely related to geostrategy.
The relationship took a sudden turn for the worse, however, during the opening stages of the New Cold War. Croatia joined with its EU and NATO allies in sanctioning Russia, which had resulted in over $334 million worth of losses for the Balkan country as of September 2016. Eager to prove its bona fides as a NATO member and eerily repeating what it did during the Second World War, Croatia decided at the end of 2016 to dispatch military forces to the Russian border as part of a German-led mission. It had previously entered into a missile race with Serbia the year before as part of the larger New Cold War proxy competition between the US and Russia, so it can be safely concluded that Zagreb has been trying to overcompensate for its small size and latecomer status to NATO by volunteering to serve as part of the vanguard of the group’s anti-Russian “containment” measures. As Russia’s relations with Croatia markedly deteriorated due to Zagreb’s unquestionable loyalty to its NATO partners, Moscow’s ties with Belgrade only blossomed, which made many people believe that this cycle of competition was nowhere near ending anytime soon.
Observers were in for a major shock, however, during the Munich Security Conference that took place last week. In the run-up to event and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Russian-Croatian relations, Russian Ambassador to Croatia Anvar Azimov essentially bragged about the role that Moscow played in persuading Yugoslavia to refrain from ordering troops to Zagreb, which in effect doomed Yugoslavia to dissolution. He also spoke glowingly about how Russia broke the air blockade on Zagreb. Then, on the sidelines of the actual conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Croatian President and former NATO Assistant Secretary General Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic to discuss bilateral ties. Taken together, these two coordinated moves revealed that Russia and Croatia are indeed engaged in an undeclared rapprochement which has caught the entire region off guard.
This would have been unthinkable last year when Russia canceled an economic forum with Croatia back in November and snubbed Zagreb’s proposal to emulate the 1990s “peace agreement” (i.e. the ethnic cleansing campaign of Operation Storm) in Ukraine, but lo and behold, earlier this month Ambassador Azimov declared that Russia was interested in improving its economic ties with Croatia and subsequently removed part of its brief ban on some agricultural imports. This prompted the sudden “discovery” of famous Russian paintings which had been missing for years and for negotiations on their rightful return back to the country. ‘Sweetening the deal’, so to speak, Grabar-Kitarovic told the Munich Security Conference attendees that “we should not make Russia to be an enemy”, which must have certainly surprised her Western partners coming from a former high-ranking NATO official such as herself.
The unexpected rapprochement between Russia and Croatia is all the more surprising because of the myriad of obstacles which stood in its way, not least of which is Moscow’s fraternal partnership with Belgrade which many people thought would have made such an eventuality impossible for obvious reasons. The contradictions which will be elaborated on below could still undermine the incipient détente between both sides, seeing as how fragile and untested it is given the tense strategic atmosphere of the New Cold War, therefore it’s important not to lose sight of these variables so as not to be caught equally off guard by the possible abrupt failure of this revitalized partnership:
Croatia is in the midst of a fascist revival which is evinced most clearly by the government and its ‘civil society’ allies’ support for World War II revisionism. The present Croatian leadership, drawing off of the trend first unleashed in the 1990s, glorifies the genocidal Hitler-aligned Usthase regime which ruled over the so-called “Independent State of Croatia” during the war. Shockingly, in an ironic twist of fate, Ustashe-apologist and former Croatian President Mesic was awarded the memorial anniversary medal “60 years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War” by President Putin in 2005, though it can certainly be assumed that the Kremlin had no idea about this at the time otherwise it would never have given such a prestigious and symbolic accolade to a fascist sympathizer.
The fascist infestation of Croatia has gotten so bad in recent years that neo-Nazi goons have travelled to Ukraine to volunteer with its anti-Russian military forces. This is extremely disturbing because Kiev’s battalions are notorious for the numerous war crimes that they’ve been accused of, which include indiscriminately shelling civilians and raping them, among many other vile deeds which also include assassinations. Suffice to say, there’s an obvious contradiction occurring between Russia’s stated desire to oppose fascism in Ukraine while simultaneously entering into a rapprochement with fascist-espousing Croatia. The author isn’t rendering judgement on Moscow and will later explain the grand strategic concept behind this move and how it relates to the bigger picture of Russia’s envisioned plans for the New Cold War, but this uncomfortable fact can’t be brushed under the rug and is best addressed head-on.
Croatia is a troublesome state which carries out the West’s divide and rule policy in the Balkans. Zagreb has been very vocal about the rights of ethnic Croats in Bosnia, and its compatriots inside of the country have called for the creation of their own federal state. This would technically violate the Dayton Accords which ended the Bosnian Civil War and has been fiercely opposed by the Muslim “Bosniaks” which are presently united with the Croats through the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If these demands are pressed too strongly and acquire Zagreb’s backing, they might provoke a conflict which could subsequently lead to Bosnia’s complete unravelling and a larger regional war.
Croatian-Serbian relations, as can be expected given the missile race, aren’t doing so well, and Zagreb has also behaved quite aggressively towards Belgrade as it relates to the rights of Croats in the northern Serbian Province of Vojvodina. Croatia blocked part of Serbia’s EU negotiations on the partial grounds that it wasn’t respecting the Croatian minority in this region, which had previously demanded that 186 textbooks be published in their dialect. The reason why this topic is even worth discussing is because some hyper-nationalist Croats have laid territorial claims to this historic Serbian region, and while Zagreb doesn’t have any formal demands in this regard, it might end up stirring unrest here one day just as it stands to do in Bosnia for similar reasons.
The last main example proving Croatia’s irresponsibility as a regional actor relates to the NATO-occupied Serbian Province of Kosovo and Zagreb’s unsubstantiated allegations that Belgrade is a threat to peace. There wouldn’t be any need to pay attention to Croatia’s rhetoric if it remained solely in the realm of words, but its leadership is now lobbying together with Albania for NATO to revise its ‘peacekeeping’ mission (read: occupation force) in the province in response. Seeing as how the separatist government wants to construct a more formalized “armed forces” in possible contradiction of its own “constitution”, then it’s foreseeable that Croatia might envision itself playing a leading role in this effort or any related workaround in order to further undermine Serbia.
Good Cop, Bad Cop:
Finally, one of the most obvious contradictions in the Russian-Croatian rapprochement is that Zagreb simply cannot be trusted. It already has a long track record proving its worth as the West’s Balkan bulldog, and even during last week’s friendly revival of relations between both sides, the Croatian President was still giving off confusing signals by warning about the “threat” that Russia allegedly poses to EU and NATO expansionism in the Balkans. Supporters of this unforeseen détente might rush to her defense by claiming that she had to pay some degree of lip service to the West in order to ‘cover’ for her new partnership with Moscow, while detractors will undoubtedly state that she was showing her true colors and had in fact been deceiving Lavrov, not her Western partners. In her defense, she says that Lavrov “appreciates honesty” and that he valued their conversation together.
Because of the inconsistency between the visibly positive inroads that Russia wants to make with Croatia and Zagreb’s refusal to fully reciprocate this, it’s impossible to discern what Grabar-Kitarovic’s true intentions are and what she hopes to achieve from this newfound arrangement, thus giving rise to the suggestion that she’s pursuing a ‘good cop, bad cop’ gimmick for as yet uncertain ends. It’ll be described in Part II what Russia hopes to gain from this gambit, but the reader should be reminded that Zagreb still hasn’t gone back on its prior decision to deploy its military forces along Russia’s western borderland, and truth be told, it probably never will unless the US tells it to.
Comparatively speaking, the Croatian military is no match whatsoever for the Russian one, but the fact remains that this is still an aggressive act which was highly publicized by Russian international media at the time (not focusing so much on Croatia itself, but on the multilateral deployment in general) and underscores Zagreb’s duplicity and untrustworthiness. Russian strategists and decision makers more than likely aren’t under any illusions, and it’s very doubtful that they’d allow themselves to be hoodwinked by Croatia, so the author is by no means inferring that Grabar-Kitarovic will outsmart President Putin, but just that Croatia is a very unreliable partner which could just as easily turn against Russia and undermine some of the larger strategic calculations that Moscow is making by entering into this incipient rapprochement in the first place.
(To be continued in Part II)https://regionalrapport.com/2017/02/22/russias-new-strategy-balkans-part-ii/
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.