Indisputably, Russia uses many different instruments to assert its interest. These include hard military power, as demonstrated in the interventions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria; the manipulation of economic ties; interference in other countries’ domestic politics through various allies, affiliates, and proxies; and targeted information campaigns to influence public opinion.
The Russian toolbox includes coercion, co-optation, and subversion. Coercion refers to the use of punishment, such as military force or economic sanctions or the threat thereof, to shape the behaviour of other states. Cooptation works through the extension of incentives to political and business elites and individuals in strategic positions aimed at creating relationships of dependence, which in turn provide Russia with advantage. Lastly, subversion is directed at society at large rather than at specific actors and is geared towards undermining adversaries rather than compelling another party to abide with Russian preferences.
As a rule, coercion through hard power is of lesser significance for the Western Balkans than for other regions exposed to Russia. Moscow has no boots on the ground in former Yu- Yugoslavia but its military holds influence in the wider region of Southeast Europe, particularly in Black Sea littoral countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, which have been confronted with the build-up of Russian forces and capabilities over more than a decade. At the same time, soft coercion verging on disruption and interference in domestic affairs is far from rare. A case in point would be the support Russia has given to nationalist activists in pro-EU and NATO countries such as Montenegro and North Macedonia. Peaceful political action (anti-government demonstration) could spill over in violence. Other examples of soft coercion, practised in the post-Soviet space and in the Balkans include trade embargoes and cyber- attacks. Montenegro, once Russia’s best friend in ex-Yugoslavia, became a target in the final lap before it joined NATO in 2015–17.
Having included Podgorica in its counter-sanctions in 2014 in tit-for-tat for the Montenegrins siding with Western sanctions, Russia imposed a visit ban on Prime Minister Milo Djukanović (now President) and on the leadership of the governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), as well as restricting import of local wines. Russian officials discouraged travel to Montenegro yet did not follow through on threats to cancel the visa-free regime.
Co-optation is Russia’s instrument of choice in the Western Balkans. Moscow has built partnerships and alliances with local power holders in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska. Motivations for choosing to work with the Russian state, or its proxies and subcontractors, differ; some benefit from direct monetary gain in the form of rent, others gain advantage in terms of managing the inter-state balance of power at the regional or domestic levels. Thus, Serbia has aligned with Russia to gain leverage over the Kosovo issue but also because successive governments sought to draw benefits from investment and business ties, no doubt including kickbacks and side payments.
Russia has also proven an indispensable ally for Milorad Dodik in the effort to consolidate his grip over Republika Srpska and resist pressure from the West, from the major Bosniak parties favouring greater centralisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and from the opposition in the Serb-majority entity
Subversion, generally executed through covert means, is often referred to as ‘hybrid’ or ‘political warfare’. The term is widely debated by academics and experts. There is no agreement, for instance, whether hybrid action is a step in an escalatory ladder towards the direct use of armed force (‘kinetic action’) or a tactic that can be implemented in parallel or independently without necessarily reaching the threshold of overt military aggression.
Subversion is exemplified by tactics such as (dis)information campaigns and open or covert support for radical anti-Western actors (parties and civic associations). In the Western Balkans, the best example is furnished by efforts to block the accession to NATO by Montenegro (in 2015–16) and North Macedonia (in 2017–18). In both cases, Moscow fanned the flames of internal crises to thwart NATO’s expansion.
One benefit of subversion is its low cost. Russia does not have a long-term plan for the Balkans, aside from obstructing the West, and is not prepared to expend scarce economic and military resources and run risks, such as a direct confrontation with NATO. What it does instead is exploit weaknesses and blind spots in Western policy to claim a co-equal status and possibly generate leverage that could be used as a strategic bargaining chip with the US and Europe.
Another merit of subversion, as well as of co-optation, is that it is amenable to outsourcing. Indeed, Russian influence works through both formal and informal channels. State institutions such as Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are the tip of the iceberg. Multiple other players, both within the state and outside it, are also involved. In the case of Montenegro, for instance, there is a reason to believe that the main institution in charge was Russian military intelligence (GRU), overseen by Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council and former head of the Federal Security Service (FS-B). United Russia, the governing political party, is also active in nurturing links to sister parties in the Balkans, such as the signatories of a 2016 declaration against NATO expansion.
Private actors play an equally important role. The understanding that Russia is locked in a ‘political war’ provides justification for the state, on occasion, to mobilise assets and players nominally outside the public realm. These include influential Russian businessmen (for example, the ‘Оrthodox oligarch’ Konstantin Malofeev, or Ivan Savvidis in Greece and Sergey Samsonen- ko in North Macedonia), who are dependent, one way or the other, on the patronage of powerful figures within the state hierarchy. From the perspective of the Kremlin and the Russian state more broadly, ‘outsourcing’ influence in the Balkans to non-state, or rather, parastate actors is beneficial as it ensures ‘plausible deniability’.