July 24, 2020

Russian Role in the Western Balkans: A Power or Security Maximizer?

By Firdavs Kobilov


The realists tend to argue that the inherent nature of the international system provides the actors to seek power, and the different approaches explain it based on the final goal of the states. For instance, defensive realism or structural realism of Kenneth Waltz points out that the strong desire for power is the demand of the anarchic world, where the ultimate goal of every state is survival (Waltz, 1979, p. 91). However, the theoretical approach of Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” linked this desire for power with the ambition of the countries for hegemony (Mearsheimer, 2001b, p. 11). These approaches help us distinguish power and security maximization. Consequently, if the states want to survive they try to maximize their security, whilst if they want to be hegemon they aimed to strengthen their power by all means. This paper reviews the Russian interests in Western Balkans and foreign policy instruments for providing these interests. The choice of current region explained with the fact that Western Balkans countries always played a crucially important role in regional affairs because of their geopolitical location, geostrategic importance, and historical background. This region is a linking bridge between West and East, and the main transport route for international trade and energy supply. From a distant history, there have been many clashes of interests of great powers as European and not-European ones. Today the importance of the region is even stronger than ever due to security issues, stability, and migration. Especially, Russia has vital political and economic interests there. Thus, considering the national interests and foreign policy tools that are used to achieve goals, we can understand how Russia acts: a defensive or offensive power. This review bases on defensive and offensive realism concepts of Waltz and Mearsheimer, and tries to implement them to achieve posted goals and objectives. In the first part, there is a review of the main interests of Russia in the region. The analysis of the interests and objectives provides to understand how Russia presents itself in the global arena. The second part examines the main tools and instruments of foreign policy. And finally, the third part discusses the main challenges in policymaking.

Russian interests in Western Balkans

From distant history, the Western Balkans have become an important linking bridge between the West and East, playing a key role in building relations among nations. This region was in the interest of the great powers from Ottoman imperia to Russian imperia throughout history. However, mostly the European powers’ interest in the region was significant. Almost immediately after the defeat of Napoleon, informed historians of international relations began to differentiate between two categories of European great powers. There were firstly those with only European territory and interests, for example, Austria and Prussia. Then there were those, such as Great Britain and Russia, with widespread colonies, influence, and interests outside Europe (Bridge, R.F., Bullen, 2005). In this paper, we review the Russian interest in Western Balkans after the Cold War period. We use the distinctive theoretical approach to understand the nature and the character of Russian intention as a power maximizer or security maximizer. Firstly, we analyze the Russian interest in Balkans within the framework of power maximizer. According to Mearsheimer, the system itself constructed this way that encourages the states to maximize their power. The international system is anarchic, which does not mean that it is chaotic or riven by the disorder. This means that there is no central authority above states – “no government over governments”. Thus, the states understand that the best way to survive in a self-help world is to be the most powerful. That’s why their ultimate goal is power. The pursuit of power stops only when hegemony is achieved (Mearsheimer, 2001a, p. 56). Secondly, in terms of security maximization, the states tend to strengthen their military capability, which leads to the growth of security. Under anarchy, states cannot be confident about each other’s present and future intentions. As a result, states tend to fear each other, and the only way to defend itself from others is to seek and maximize their security by power (Tang, 2009, p. 595). Thus, it affects the behavior and desire of the states to strengthen their military capabilities by all means, which actualizes the security dilemma. To understand the Russian role in the region and to predict further intentions, one should examine the interests of Russia in Western Balkan.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bipolar world system also ceased. The new great powers emerged, bringing the multipolarity to the international system. Irrespective of the presence of the several regional powers, the influence of the one power in certain regions is more than the others’. Hence, in the Western Balkan region the role of the EU is very significant. Firstly, taking account of the historical links and common communistic past of this region to Russia, its overarching goal in the Western Balkans is to bring multipolarity. The ultimate goal is to prevent European integration from playing a key role in building a regional order and managing regional competition and cooperation (Secrieru, 2019, p. 2). Thus, the Russian aim fits more with the explanation – the principal goal is preventing others from gaining advances in their relative capabilities (Carr, 1939, p. 111). But realists consider that competition in multipolar systems is more complex than the competition in bipolar because the states cannot be sure about the intentions (Mearsheimer, 2001a, p. 55) and comparative capabilities (Waltz, 2000, p. 6) of the other states; that is why the states seek the power. Thus, if Russian could be able to weaken the influence of the EU in this region by bringing multipolarity, it will strengthen the Russian voice there. Morgenthau explained this dilemma as the states’ inherent behavior connected with the will to gain power (Morgenthau, 1948, p. 27). However, his view associated it with human nature and its will to gain power. But this paper mostly focuses on defensive and offensive realism, excluding the human factor.

Secondly, from a geopolitical point of view, the region is a shield from the threat spreading from Western counterparts. If we review the initial goal of the establishment of NATO, there is little doubt about the threat to Russia coming from this organization. The crucial important aim for Moscow is trying to hinder NATO enlargement efforts toward Eastern Europe. Already Slovenia (2004); Albania, Croatia (2009); Montenegro (2017); North Macedonia (2020) have become members of NATO. Western observers point out that NATO must make an effort to involve Serbia as much as possible in its institutions without insisting on full membership. Serbia must, in exchange, limit its security ties to Russia to the arms trade and training arrangements (Graham et al., 2018, p. 18). The further enlargement of the rest countries of the Western Balkan might result in totally losing the Russian positions, worsening the geostrategic perspectives. From a theoretical point, it will destroy the balance of power among regional powers in the region because of the preponderance of one actor, ceasing Russian influence. Consequently, it causes Russia to act offensively and to seek ways to strengthen its position to maximize its security. It strengthens Russians in the opposite direction, closing ties with China. Slowing down EU and NATO expansion is achievable, but halting the process altogether appears to be a difficult task (Bechev, 2018, p. 8). Here arise questions for theoretic, the inherent nature of the international system provides the states to keep the balance of power with potential hegemony in the global scope and with several regional powers (“unbalanced multipolarity”) or a system without a potential hegemony, and there is power asymmetry among their members (“balanced multipolarity”)? (Mearsheimer, 2001a, p. 60) However, despite the political and economic dominance of one state in the global arena, the possession of nuclear weapons by other actors ceases total supremacy of hegemon state, threatening its security. Thus, in the nuclear era, the total supremacy is impossible due to the almost identical military potential of the nuclear powers.

Thirdly, from economic points, Russia proposes to improve comprehensive pragmatic and equal cooperation with Southeast European countries. The Balkan region is of great strategic importance to Russia, including its role as a major transportation and infrastructure center used for supplying gas and oil to the western European countries» (Petrillo, 2013, p. 3). Thus, the Balkan region can play important linking bridge Western Europe with Russia, providing a geographic preponderance for supplying the energy resource and increasing the commodity circulation. Also, the Western Balkans region has become a geostrategic partner as a transit route for the integration of Russia into the global energy world market (Mulalic & Karic, 2014, p. 97). The Balkan states itself are highly dependent on Russian energy resources. Energy trade has been a common denominator in the persistent trade deficits of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia. In all three countries, crude oil and natural gas comprise between 75 and 95 percent of imports from Russia (Vladimirov et al., 2008, p. 21). Hence, there is an acrimonious debate about Russian political interests; we can conclude that from economic view Russian aim is to strengthen its political influence by energy diplomacy in the region.

At least but not last, the common cultural and historical relationship is vital for Russia’s religious diplomacy, which is often consistent with the agenda of the Russian state. In the 1990s, however, Russia’s policy in the region regained a religious dimension, returning to the Tsarist tradition of utilizing the Church in its policy in the Western Balkans. Consequently, Russian reliance on religious diplomacy considerably increased in the 2010s. There are sizable Orthodox communities in the Western Balkans (Serbia 88%, Montenegro 72%, North Macedonia 65%, Bosnia and Herzegovina 31%) and religion plays a crucial role in people’s private lives and their definitions of national identity (88% of respondents in North Macedonia, 72% in Serbia and 71% in Montenegro declared themselves to be religious) (Secrieru, 2019, p. 5). Religious diplomacy is soft power, and it is more focused on maintaining ties with the region, which is associated with common cultural heritage.

After setting the goals and clearly defining their interests, there is a need to find out the ways of achieving them. Thus, every state can use various means for the accomplishment of aims. The instruments Russia has used to increase its presence in the region are not new: political pressure; soft power, including cultural, media, and religious campaigns; and economic support ranging from the control and acquisition of critical energy assets to the financing of political parties and media (Vladimirov et al., 2008, p. 7). According to the means used by the states, we might understand their self-determination and further behavior in the international arena.

The main instruments of Russian foreign policy in relation to the region

Today Russian is a country with a huge reserve of natural gas and oil in the region. And without any doubt, many states of Europe highly depend on Russian energy sources. Thus, firstly, one of the most influential instruments of Russian foreign policy toward Western Balkan and Europe as well as the Energy policy. Here the role of the region is twofold: firstly, as one of the biggest markets and consumers of the Russian oil and gas; secondly, with regards to the transportation of gas Western Balkans as a transit route is determined to fully realize South Stream project. The regional energy resources are not rich, some countries do not possess even. Albania has the biggest reserves, and Croatia and Serbia also have a sufficient percentage of resources with comparison total countries’ consumption. Montenegro, FYROM, and BiH do not have oil reserves. Thus, Western Balkan as the big consumer market is highly dependent on Russian energy resources. For instance, in Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, and FYR Macedonia, where crude oil and natural gas comprise between 75 and 95 percent of imports from Russia (Hake & Radzyner, 2019, p. 7). Moreover, Russian state firms have control over oil gas production and their distribution network. For example, in the Republika Srpska and Bosnian oil refineries are under the control of Russia, while joint companies have the exclusive rights in gas and oil extraction (Bieri, 2015, p. 7). Serbia and Croatia are not net importers of oil products because their domestic products cover some percentage of the total country’s demand. The export of oil to Serbia is secured from Russia, while Croatia imports its needs mainly from Azerbaijan (39,3%) and Russia (29,3%), but also from Iraq (17%) (Markovic, 2017, p. 14). Moscow’s goal is to use energy as a weapon to rebuild Russia economically and militarily, while also using it to hollow out European membership in NATO and the EU so that these institutions become shells that are in fact incapable of extending security or managing it beyond their present frontiers (Blank, 2013, p. 7). Thus, we can say that the importance of this territorial area for Russian energy policy is crucial because of the presence of the huge consumption markets, and maintaining security and having exclusive rights of transition, especially, to strengthen its influence and voice in international affairs.

Furthermore, from geopolitical and power maximization point Russian energy policy in the Balkans could be viewed as part of the competition for access, control, and influence over the oil and gas business, especially in the Caspian basin and in Central Asia (Simurdić, 2010, p. 3). Possession of these crucial vital regions might provide access to rich global markets and strengthen its influence in these regions and to exporting regions as well. By gathering these factors together, we can make a statement that if one considers foreign policy as an extension of internal policy of a kind, then that postulate can significantly promote the analysis of Russian energy policy, including its implementation in the Balkan region. Consequently, from this point, Russia acts as a regional power, which aimed to expand its influential power in regional issues by energy diplomacy.

Secondly, Russia bases on a financial tool: by doing investment flows to the economies of the Balkan countries. Russia’s main partner in the Western Balkan is Serbia. The close relationship between the two countries can be traced back to the role of the czarist imperialism as the protector of all Slavic peoples (Bieri, 2015). Russia has expanded its presence in the Serbian economy through not only corporate investment but also via direct government-to-government loans. During the Serbian fiscal crisis in 2012 – 2013, Serbia asked Moscow for a loan to buttress the Serbian budget (Vladimirov et al., 2008, p. 16). Data points out that Russia’s economic influence in the Western Balkans is most obvious in Montenegro, where Russian FDI compounds almost 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Montenegro’s economy strongly depended on Russian investment until the independence of the country 2016 from Serbia. Then the government tried to practice the political and economic independence from Russia. But Russia still tries to exercise political power via the opposition and the Serbian minority. Russia’s impact is least pronounced in Macedonia, where Russian FDI is at only one percent of GDP. The economic support is about equal in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. For example, Russia uses direct and indirect control over nearly 10 percent of the economy of Serbia, essentially in key sectors such as energy and banking, and accounts for more than eight percent of FDI in Bosnia and Herzegovina – down from an all-time high of 9.8 percent in 2010 (Vladimirov et al., 2008, p. 14). But the Russian FDI in the region is not competitive with the EU or China because its investment is focused on a little number of strategic sectors such as banking, energy, metallurgy, and real estate (Vladimirov et al., 2008, p. 13). However, the EU provides mostly investments directed to the infrastructure development in the region with its Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II for the period 2015-2020) (Holzner et al., 2015, p. 17). Thus, the difference between Russian and the EU financial aid is that the Russian investment is more oriented to the sectors which have a great interest in doing business. While the EU focus on the economic recovery and structural reforms of the region for further engagement to the European integration. However, one should not underestimate the Russian economic impact and financial assistance, because it is smaller with comparison to the EU, but, overall it is significant.

Thirdly, the next instrument of bringing multipolarity to the region and displace the significant role of the EU is greater regional coordination with Turkey and China. According to Russian specialists, a ‘concert of powers’ – where Russia is one of the multiple actors of the Western Balkans – is the only way to escape the current regional rivalry and move towards better cooperation. Turkey has historical and cultural ties with this region from the Ottoman Empire period, which left cultural and religious-ethnic diversity. Today Turkey plays an active role in bringing stability via the NATO, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, and Stability Pact. From economic points, Turkey has the benefits of geographical closeness, which provides for a reduction in transportation expenses, as well as an existing similarity in consumption habits. Thus, Turkey has signed free bilateral trade agreements with Albania (20089), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003)10, Kosovo11, FYROM12, Montenegro (201013) and Serbia (200914) (Hake & Radzyner, 2019, p. 6). Turkey uses its soft power to strengthen the economic influence in Western Balkans, even some scholars consider the possibility of the spreading the ideas of “Neo-Ottomanism” by exercising the religious and cultural closeness with large parts of the population in the region. Unlike Russia or Turkey, China does not possess a longstanding historical, cultural, and ethnic relationship with the region (Hake & Radzyner, 2019, p. 8). But today the growing economic influence of China provides the opportunity for playing a significant role, especially since 2015. China’s interest in Western Balkan has more economic character than Russia or Turkey has. The One Belt and One Road initiative strengthened the importance of the region as the transition route. Geographically, the Western Balkans with Greece forms the final chain of China’s new Maritime Silk Road. China primarily invests in regional infrastructures, such as ports, railroads, and highways, mainly by the so-called “16+1 format” which includes Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Since 2015, the 16+1 format also introduced an investment fund of USD 10 billion to finance different projects in Central Eastern and South-Eastern Europe (Hake & Radzyner, 2019, p. 9).

Both external actors have a great interest in Balkans, and constructive dialogue and equal cooperation will provide the expected outcomes for Russian interests. For Balkan countries, some actors are primarily important in the field of economic cooperation, such as China or the UAE, but without meeting political or societal ties. Others, such as Russia and Turkey, often develop greater political or societal ties but maintain more limited economic ties. Thus, no single actor is deeply engaged with the Western Balkans in all dimensions (Bieber & Tzifakis, 2019, p. 15). Besides these instruments, Russia relies on a much wider array of actors for support than before: intelligence officers, political operatives, oligarchs, ultranationalist organizations, state companies, hackers, illegal private military companies, state-owned media outlets, and etc (Secrieru, 2019, p. 5). These informal tools might also play decisive factors in the internal affairs of the Balkan states. Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has the right to veto every decision aimed at Western Balkan countries that do not match Russian interests (Zoric, 2017, p. 11). Hence, here also Russia acts as a power maximizer regional hegemon.

The main challenges for Russia

In this section of our paper, we aim to review the main challenges to Russian political, economic, societal interests, and security issues. Notwithstanding the economic ties, Russia’s economic partnership with the Western Balkan states has declined in the last years. Russia’s share in the region’s foreign trade and investment has been declining for several years, falling from one of the region’s top economic partners at the beginning of the century. Such a decline is the result of several factors. Firstly, Russia’s approach in the Western Balkans in the 2010s was considered as an aggressive act by West because of the association with the political and diplomatic conflict with Europe triggered by the illegal annexation of Crimea. And, the second reason is the cancellation of the Russian sponsored South Stream gas pipeline. We pointed out that cooperation with other external actors will displace the controlling role of the EU, providing the opportunity to strengthen the Russian voice. However, the growing role of China and Turkey as emerging actors will challenge the Russian position. The economic support of infrastructures without political pressure might change the direction of Western Balkan states toward China. There are a big number of Muslim population states among Balkan countries which also could be decisive factors for choosing Turkey’s side. Moreover, China supports the integration of Western Balkan states to the EU. This strategy relies on the opinion that the Western Balkan countries will considerably catch up, integrate into the EU, and thereby build a bridge for Chinese companies to the main EU markets (Hake & Radzyner, 2019, p. 8). China and Europe can cooperate on several backbone infrastructure routes, and promote the development of the region together (Chen, Xin, 2018, p. 4). Therefore, if Russia could not cooperate with external factors, the presence of them might threaten its interests. Especially, the Chinese support for further integration toward Europe is the opposite of Russian interests. But some observers point out that the EU accession of countries with which it shares strong ties and religious and cultural affinity implies that the number of EU members that may function as ‘Trojan horses’ in foreign policy matters and weaken the unity of purpose may grow (Bieber & Tzifakis, 2019, p. 15).


After the Cold War, the political, economic, and military tension relieved in the international system due to the end of the arms race between two powers. But the system was challenged by the emerging new regional powers, bringing multipolarity and uncertainty to international affairs. The number of regional powers increased. If during Cold War two great powers tried for Global hegemony and to be the supreme power, now regional powers’ intentions might be various. Some states still seek the ways of being global hegemon like the US, while some states strengthen their military capacity for security issues. In conclusion, my main point is that states, especially, the great powers’ aim is to be regional hegemony. Great powers aim to gain hegemony in the region, to influence other regions as well. And they are able to do so because their military capabilities, economic development, and other resources as population and territory allow them to accomplish these tasks. Only under these circumstances, they could provide security and survival. In this paperwork, we reviewed the Russian intentions and political views in international affairs in the case of Western Balkans. Based on the national interests, we can conclude that Russian mainly acts for strengthening its political and economic influence in the region. However, expanding NATO toward the Russian western borders is more about security concerns. Besides, another security issue is providing energy security, its transportation through this region. However, according to the national interests and instruments, Russia uses for reaching its goals and objectives, we can conclude that it acts as a power maximizer with the intention to strengthen its political and economic influence and presence in the region. Consequently, Russia’s goal is not only survival but also regional hegemony, which combines the further spread of its political and economic influence in the regions, ensuring its national interests in other regions and creating alliances. The outcome of these efforts depends on good governance, which consists of the effective functioning of domestic and foreign policy, right decision-making and its implementation, and efficient usage of national resources.


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About the Author


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