Countering Russia’s Influence Operations in the Balkans
Even the pandemic has the potential for fomenting political unrest.
In recent days, thousands of Serbs have taken to the streets to protest Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s announced strict curfew in response to a surge in Covid-19 cases. Many have pointed a finger at pro-Russia ultra-right groups and foreign intelligence services for fueling the violent riots.
Moscow denies any “Russian trace” in the unrest. Whether Russia is behind the violent protests in Belgrade remains to be seen. One thing is for certain. The Kremlin’s efforts to sow mayhem in the Balkans would not be new; this would merely be the latest attempt by a resurgent Russia to threaten Euro-Atlantic security and challenge the United States’ ability to defend its interests in Europe.
Russia is promoting its interests in the Western Balkans through the widespread use of disinformation and cyberwarfare. The U.S., however, isn’t helpless. It has an opportunity to obtain insights into these efforts and counter Russia's influence campaigns. It is time to confront Russia's strongman Vladimir Putin's cyber games before American interests are permanently damaged in the Balkans.
The U.S. and the E.U. have long been ambivalent about defining their interests in the Western Balkans. Russia has capitalized on these years of neglect and leveraged a power vacuum in the former Yugoslavia to gain economic and political influence. The region is now at the forefront of Russia's use of low-cost strategies to expand its global influence and undermine western interests.
Russian disinformation, aided by repeated cyberattacks on government institutions, was instrumental in the 2016 Moscow-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro. In North Macedonia, Russia spread disinformation prior to the name-change referendum that finally enabled North Macedonia to join NATO. It also established hundreds of North Macedonia-based “troll factories," from which Russia pedaled fake news against the 2016 U.S. elections. Facebook recently banned troll farms from North Macedonia that pushed COVID-19 disinformation.
Moscow has also been investing in critical sectors in Croatia. With its strategy of fomenting political divisions, the Kremlin has been exploiting internal conflicts in Albania. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, disinformation campaigns have sown ethnic and religious discord, while promoting the secession of ethnic Serb regions from Bosnia. In response, the U.S. should encourage the transatlantic integration for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Western Balkans’ most fragile country.
Russia has used state-sponsored media to promote nationalist and anti-Western narratives in Serbia, including the opening of a Sputnik office in Belgrade. Also, Russian-run “Humanitarian Center” in Serbia is very close to the main NATO based in Kosovo (Camp Bondsteel). Some European and American officials fear that it serves as a base for the Kremlin intelligence-gathering activities to eavesdrop on U.S. interests in the Balkans.
Russia’s preeminent goals in the Balkans have been to refine their disinformation tactics and erode Western influence in the region, including in Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, which are all NATO members. The West needs to aggressively respond to this Russian posture, including using a cyber-focused campaign to counter Russia's provocations.
For crafting such a strategy, the West should look to Estonia. After the 2007 Russian cyberattack on Estonian government institutions, Estonia became a global leader in cybersecurity and home to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, which is a cyber-defense hub that supports member nations with cyber-defense expertise. A similar approach by the West would benefit the Western Balkans, where information and communication technology sector is the most promising and the fastest growing economic sector in the region. In Serbia alone, the I.T. sector generates more than 10% of GDP with a similar trend in other countries in the region, which have some of the highest numbers of outsourced I.T. workers per capita in Europe.
An American-led strategy should focus on creating a regional cyber-security infrastructure in the Western Balkans, modeled on Estonia's example. Given that countries in the Western Balkans share the same cyber-security threats from Russia and, more recently, from China, a regional hub for cybersecurity would allow states to cooperate among each other in cyber deterrence, attribution of attacks and collective countermeasures.
Several countries in the Western Balkans have joined NATO, but alliances are notoriously unreliable, especially among the smaller states. Countries in the Western Balkans need strong NATO and E.U. ties to withstand Russian influence. Cyber-security is one of the areas where they can strengthen their positions in allegiance with the western democracies.
The timing is excellent for the U.S. to establish a regional cyber-security hub in the Western Balkans. Immediate steps need to be taken to halt malign Russian influence. With elections approaching this year in the U.S., North Macedonia, Croatia and Montenegro, countries should continue cooperating to counter malicious Russian cyber activities.
The U.S. can learn more about Russian cyber tactics at the same time. One way to send a strong message would be to deploy a cyber-team to strengthen NATO’s countries’ cyber-capabilities in an effort to thwart future Russian network intrusions such as the one that was undertaken by Russian intelligence operators in Bulgaria in 2017.
Serbia, a key ally to Moscow in the region, remains the biggest obstacle to countering Russian influence. Serbia just had parliamentary elections boycotted by the opposition that resulted in Vucic's Serbian Progressive party winning a landslide victory and further strengthening his power. The close Russia-Serbian relationship can make it difficult to detect Russia's subversive activities.
Of all the Western Balkans countries, Serbia had the highest military expenditure in 2019, and President Vucic thanked Russia for making Serbia’s military 10 times stronger since NATO intervention in 1999. After Russia employed an S-400 missile system in Serbia for a military drill, the Pantsir S1 air-defense systems were delivered this past February, despite a looming U.S. sanctions threat.
Should Serbia continue obtaining Russian weapons, Washington should impose sanctions. Serbia must understand that its strategy of neutrality is unacceptable to the U.S., as are its claims to balance their interests among Russia, China and the West. The U.S. should remain solidly committed, leading efforts to solve the Kosovo dispute and wrest control of that narrative from Russia.
While variances in the national interests may complicate cooperation among the Western Balkan countries, they share similar vital objectives that make cooperation possible and even attractive under U.S. leadership. Among these are the historical fear of Russian domination and a desire for E.U. and NATO membership. A U.S.-led strategy with NATO country participation to enhance their cyber-capabilities will improve their security in countering nefarious Russian influence while enhancing cooperation between Balkan nations.
Moscow is determined to expand its influence in the Western Balkans, using cyber-warfare at the expense of U.S. and western interests. To prevent it, the U.S. should design a new strategy for the Western Balkans that demonstrates that the U.S. is committed to countering Russia's disruptive activities in the Western Balkans and beyond. The time for that response is now.