MS Risk Blog

Will Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Spell War for an Already Unstable Balkans?

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves through Europe and the rest of the world, no more so than in the Balkans, where a slight action can spark ethnic and political war. The region maintains close ties with the U.S. and Europe, and is aligning their judgement on the situation accordingly, condemning Russia, and supporting Ukraine. However, Russia’s influence stretches far and its ally, Serbia, is not participating in sanctions even after condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.

Serbia is the largest country in the Balkans and holds significant power over the region. That power is now being tested as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić balances Serbia’s loyalties to Russia with Serbia’s ambition to join the European Union. When Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia in 2008, Putin stood by Serbia in denouncing Kosovo and not recognising the country as a sovereign state. Serbia has also been buying military equipment from Russia including tanks, helicopters, and missiles to counter the arms being sold to Croatia by the U.S., making Serbia a well-equipped Russian ally. What Serbia does with those weapons will decide the fate of the region.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are also at a crucial juncture, the tripartite government is close to falling apart, with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik sowing the seeds for a fallout of the likes of 1991. The Bosnian Croat arm of the tripartite government has too joined in, albeit on a much less war provoking level, demanding greater representation in national institutions by changing an election law, or they will start the process of forming their own region in Bosnia. If Bosnia breaks apart again it will leave the Muslim Bosnians at the mercy of Croat Bosnians and their ally Croatia, and Serb Bosnians and their ally Serbia. With that much ethnic tension, and Croatia and Serbia being armed by the most powerful nations in the world, we could see a return to the Bosnian war but with much scarier consequences for Europe.

Russia has also provoked Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia by claiming that these countries have been sending mercenaries, sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, to fight against the separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk region before the conflict broke out and then also to Ukraine during the invasion. These countries denied the accusations, but Putin could spin this in such a way as claiming aggression against Russians in Ukraine. If Putin finds any evidence of foreign troops helping Ukraine against Russia, especially those in the Balkans, it could have massive consequences for the region economically.

Every one of the countries in this region remembers what it was like to have war in Europe, the destruction of their families and homes. Anti-Russian sentiment is at an all-time high everywhere, but the Balkans remains as polarised as ever. Although there is a much greater proportion of people supporting Ukraine, and all but Serbia have implemented sanctions against Russia, there are still those who think the NATO expansion towards Russia is a violation and protests have also been seen that promote Putin and Russia.

These sanctions against Russia will put the Balkan nations in a very difficult situation because of Eastern Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, oil, and food exports. Prices were already high in the Balkans but now it is nearly impossible for people, with some of the lowest average wages in Europe, to afford their necessities. Although currently people are sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, it will not be long for people to start reeling about their own situations. In these cases, blame will become commonplace, and many will compare their lives with Russian oil and gas against their lives without. Blame will be pointed towards the western countries and then will turn to political struggles and with ethnic tensions already high, it will not be long before the potential for a further escalation in the region to return.

There are already factors in place that could transpire to start another war, like the one we saw in 1991. Serbia is stuck between siding with Russia and its own desires in Europe and it will not be long before Serbia’s loyalties are tested. Bosnia is already struggling to keep itself together, with the invasion of Ukraine and pro/anti-Russia sentiment spreading, it will not be long before the politicians reveal which side they are on and how they will help their own ethnic group. Time will tell how hard the sanctions will affect the Balkans, but as prices of essential supplies skyrocket, so will tensions in one of the most tumultuous regions in Europe, one with a storied history of violence and one that the rest of the world must look to stabilise before it’s too late.