While Russian forces continue to fight raging in Eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda operations are still global in nature. From South America to Africa, Russian agitators are working to destabilise and undermine governments it sees as unhelpful to Moscow’s objectives. The influence of these operations surfaced briefly at the Australian Open, where Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic’s father was filmed posing with pro-Russian demonstrators, and reportedly saying “long live the Russians”.
This is no surprise to long-time watchers of the region. Putin has made a particular point of inflaming tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, drawing Belgrade closer into Moscow’s orbit. Now, three decades after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, recent clashes between Serbia and Kosovo have reignited lingering ethnic tensions and stirred unease in the West.
In late December, Serbia placed its troops on high alert, with the Serbian Prime Minister describing the two countries as “on the brink of armed conflict.” The UK’s special envoy, Sir Stuart Peach, has visited Serbia to calm tensions but the risk of future clashes remains real – especially given Russia’s behind-the-scenes work as a provocateur to distract the West from the war in Ukraine.
Russian influence campaigns in Serbia have a long history. Moscow maintains deep cultural and political influence in Serbia through institutions like the Orthodox Church, while Sputnik, a state-owned Russian news agency, has a major presence in Belgrade and RT recently opened there. Perhaps most alarmingly, the Wagner Group announced its presence in Serbia in December via a “Russian-Serbian Cultural and Information Center of Friendship and Cooperation.” This notorious paramilitary organisation, run by Putin associate Yevgeniy Progozhin specialises in information operations that stir tensions.
The Kremlin’s activities in Serbia are especially concerning, given that Serbia recently appointed a pro-Russian politician as director of its intelligence agency who called for the creation of a “Serbian world” – a Balkan parallel to Putin’s “Russian world” – designed to unite all Serbs under a common cultural framework.
Serbia has never recognised Kosovo’s independence and has encouraged Serbs living in Kosovo, who are a majority in the north, to resist Pristina’s directives. Tensions heightened in August, after Kosovo announced a requirement for Serbs living there to register for Kosovar licence plates and documents, prompting many Serbs to walk off their jobs. The arrest of a former Serb police officer in December inflamed tensions further, with Serbs throwing up roadblocks until he was released.
Serbia and Russia both benefit from the intermittent chaos caused by these tensions. For Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic, escalation distracts Serbs from domestic issues. For instance, Vucic put Serbia’s army on high alert in late December on the same day an ammonia leak from a cargo train derailed because of poorly maintained tracks hospitalised more than 15 people. Also, Vucic’s “escalate to de-escalate” strategy allows him to frame himself as a beacon of stability in the region.
Ultimately, the question is, why does Putin seek to push Kosovo to the brink? Because doing so would allow him to accomplish several foreign policy objectives: distracting the West from Ukraine; invalidating NATO and positioning Russia as the sole regional mediator; and giving Putin leverage over Western powers who do not want the region’s violence to spiral further.
The Russian ambassador to Serbia insists Belgrade can count on Moscow’s support and described the situation in Kosovo as “on the verge of a wider conflict.” To some extent, this is cheap rhetoric, as Moscow is in no position to assist Serbia militarily in the event of open conflict. As Igor Strelkov, a Russian army veteran and former defence minister of the Donetsk puppet state, explains, “Russia is deeply bogged down on the territory of Ukraine. How can we help Serbia? If only by entering into a full-scale war with NATO, and we are completely unprepared for it.”
Yet whatever Russia’s limitations as a Serbian ally, it will undoubtedly continue to promote tensions that keep the Serbia-Kosovo pot boiling. Meanwhile, in an address to the nation on Monday, Vucic announced that Serbia is under Western pressure as his refusal to accept a French-German proposal to normalise relations between Serbia and Kosovo, means EU accession negotiations and Western investments in Serbia will grind to a halt.
But as we have seen in Ukraine, nothing Moscow plans is inevitable. The Kremlin is in no position to help Belgrade militarily or economically, and the West could easily step in to defuse the situation. All that is required is a sufficient application of leverage; using counter-hybrid warfare methods to kill off Russian information operations, NATO peacekeeping missions removing new road blockades to make clear that the West will intervene in any genuine escalation.
Vucic’s success in consolidating his power means that in some ways it is easier for him to back down. In particular, his control over the media allows Vucic to easily spin any information he likes; he could set informational conditions to normalise relations with Pristina without any fear that the far-right groups will retaliate.
Defusing this situation now will undermine the Kremlin’s objective of stoking a new flare-up to drag attention off Ukraine.
Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote to The Telegraph.