Russia & Eastern Europe

Reports and papers

Russian influence in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro

17 Aug 2023 - 14:08
Source: Meeting of Aleksandar Vučić and Vladimir Putin on January 17, 2019 in Belgrade (Serbia) / Wikimedia Commons,
Little substance, considerable impact

This Clingendael report explores the role of the Russian Federation in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It examines Russia’s objectives in its relations with the three countries, as well the various sources of influence the Kremlin holds in each of the three countries. The report places this analysis within the changed geopolitical circumstances resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s main objectives for the Western Balkans are threefold. First, the Kremlin seeks to project great power status globally. Second, it seeks to obstruct the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region by advocating against NATO and EU integration and by raising instabilities. Third, the Kremlin uses the Balkans, especially the Kosovo issue, as an argument for its foreign policy agenda elsewhere, particularly when it comes to defending its perceived dominance over its near abroad.

Instead of building a sustainable, all-encompassing, and meaningful relation with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Montenegro, Russia instead pursues an opportunistic approach depending on fragmented entry points for influence in each country. The Kremlin displays moderate ambitions for building positive relationships with the three countries, which is reflected also in the instruments it uses to influence the region. It nurtures contacts with, and influence through, a wide range of individual politicians, the Orthodox Church, the media and malign proxy groups, making use of energy links as well as local tensions and historical memories. Moscow pursues this approach deliberately, and it has proven relatively successful.

At the political level, Russia’s clout stretches especially to (pro-)Serb politicians, who often make use of similar narratives and use Russia as an external supporter to promote their own ideas. In particular, its position on Kosovo, Russian support for Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik and its Orthodox Church links remain important entry points for Russia’s political influence in the region at large. Of the three countries, entry points for Russian influence are most widespread In Serbia, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Economically, Russia’s influence is outperformed substantially by that of the EU, especially in terms of trade. Russia’s far-reaching influence in the energy sectors of BiH and Serbia, however, yield substantial political leverage, even if its investments often prove economically inviable.

When it comes to military influence, Russia seeks to maintain its military cooperation with its main partner, Serbia, while also supporting the militarisation of Republika Srpska. Belgrade is satisfied with its current degree of cooperation with Moscow but seeks to avoid becoming Russia’s foothold in the Balkans. Factually, Russia is only one of multiple security actors in the Balkans, overshadowed by NATO and challenged by China.

While presenting itself as a partner to Serbia and Republika Srpska in particular, Russia also resorts to malign instruments which have often proven to be effective in shaping the political environment of the Western Balkans. Lacking a military presence in the region, Russia supports far-right nationalist figures and organisations, which generally better resemble organised crime groups than paramilitary organisations, to attain its goal of destabilisation by stirring up polarisation and anti-Western sentiment.

The Kremlin is perhaps most successful in the field of media and disinformation. Russian propaganda penetrates Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina through Russian-funded portals, local media and social media. Russian disinformation and narratives have penetrated the region to such an extent that considerable sections of society hold a positive image of Russia and its political leadership.

In all these fields, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has moderately affected but not fully altered Russia’s approach towards Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. While the invasion has led to sharper dividing lines between Russia and the West and decreases in Russian financial and diplomatic capacities, we observe continuity in terms of Russian strategies and objectives. Russia’s sources of influence in the three countries have been moderately strained, among other causes as a result of BiH and Serbia’s first steps to diversify energy sources and Western pressure to diminish their political and security links with the Russian Federation. For the time being, this has not yet affected Moscow’s ability to act as a spoiler to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the three countries.

The extent to which the European Union and NATO are effective in countering Russian influence in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro will be part of a follow-up Clingendael report to be published in fall 2023. As part of the same research project, analyses of societal and political perceptions towards Russia in the three countries will be published in summer 2023 by Clingendael partners the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, and the Atlantic Initiative in BiH.

Read the full report