From Belgrade to Ankara, from Sofia to Budapest, dysfunctional democracies, state capture, and the backslide to authoritarian politics are, on the whole, homegrown ills, not an outcome of a sinister Muscovite plot.
Russia's influence in Southeast Europe is real and easily observed. Both before and since the Ukrainian crisis, it affects the region in a multitude of ways. Moscow's rising military might has far- reaching consequences for the security posture of NATO and its members bordering the Black Sea. The Russian oil and gas companies, Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, and Lukoil, still play an enormous role in the local energy markets, despite the headwinds they face and the beefed-up EU legislation aimed at encouraging competition and diversifying supplies.
The cult of Vladimir Putin and the celebration of Russia's resurgence on the world stage reigns supreme. Emboldened, Russia has not shrunk from throwing its weight across Southeast Europe, putting pressure on Europe and America, the two guarantors of the security order in the region. The rivalry is intense and it spans one country to the next and across various policy areas. Despite the hopes of dеtente or even a grand bargain with Russia touted by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, there is no end in sight to the ongoing contest. For all that, it is important to avoid lazy thinking, put the Russian challenge in perspective, acknowledge its limits, and recognize what it is not.
A disrupter, not a hegemon
First of all, it is not a return to the Cold War. There are no blocs or alliances poised against one another in Southeast Europe, a clear departure from the recent past. Russia, moreover, has no permanent allies or coherent ideology to export and sustain. Nor is it in a position to build an economic integration unit, for example by expanding the incipient Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) into the Balkans by accepting as members Serbia, Republika Srpska, Macedonia or anyone else. Even Moscow's best friends gravitate to the EU in economic terms and seek positive ties with NATO and the United States. Russia, for its part, has been perfecting the skill of insertion and disruption, without necessarily trying to establish its hegemony over parts of Southeast Europe, a very costly enterprise by all counts.
Second, we are not witnessing a "back to the future" scenario, a return to the classical era of geopolitics, though certain similarities or flashbacks are certainly present. Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Russia wielded much greater clout over Balkan affairs compared to today-thanks to its recurrent military interventions and the very structure and operation of the Concert of Europe. At no point was it an important economic factor. These days, by contrast, Russian energy firms and investments represent a much more effective tool. Whether we consider the South Stream gas pipeline or the 2015 sanctions against Turkey, the economy plays a central role in Russia's relations with Southeast Europe. What is particularly notheworthy is that the context is set by the unprecedented degree of interdependence and border permeability in post-1989 Europe. Denser links between societies, financial institutions, businesses, government agencies, media, and so forth, along with the world wide web, have facilitated Russia's infiltration and are essential to the operation of its soft power (or foreign policy propaganda, depending on one's perspective). Granted, globalization may not be an entirely contemporary phenomenon and there are antecedents in the long nineteenth century. But were Alexander II, let alone Nicholas I, to be miraculously awakened today, would they even recognize the world we live in?
In the Balkans, Russia is not after the establishment of a new political order or and empire, whether formal or informal. Its goal is to undercut and upset the existing institutions and rules put in place by the West. It is also important to underline the fact that Russia is not acting alone. There have always been willing associates and fellow travelers. They cooperate with Russia to advance their own political and economic interests, always on the lookout for external supporters. Remarkably, some of Russia's associates and partners counted as pro-Western in the not so distant past: for example, Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia, and so on. Others have made the opposite move, dropping Russia in order to align more fully with the West. That is the case of Montenegro's Milo Đukanović. Russian policy may be, at the end of the day, opportunistic, but the fact of the matter is that there are an endless number of political chances on the other side too. This, of course, facilitates Moscow's job of asserting its influence, along with the plethora of problems dogging the region such as the painful legacy of wars, pervasive state capture, and the absence of the rule of law.
Russia's footprint in Southeast Europe, which expanded dramatically in the 2000s, became more visible only more recently thanks to the confrontational turn in relations between Moscow and the West. There are divergent factors invoked to account for this downturn: from the Putin regime's quest for internal legitimacy in the face of a stagnant economy and a dwindling public trust in "the system," to the desire to assert Russian interests in a growingly multipolar but also uncertain world, to the anti- interventionist
mood within the United States and the EU's chronic malaise.
Whether due to the mechanics of power politics, as scholars of a realist persuasion contend, or because of the push and pull of domestic factors, as liberals might argue, Russia is prepared to challenge America and its allies. It wants to be an international agenda-setter, not an agenda-taker. Fears of Western plots to foment "color revolution" and Maidans inside Russia itself mould the foreign policy thinking of Putin and his inner circle.
Of course, "the near abroad" or, to use Brussels speak, the Eastern Partnership countries, are where Russia's pushback is at its strongest. Yet Moscow has reinserted itself in other regions and political arenas. The military intervention in Syria has broadened its footprint in the Middle East beyond recognition. Even in the United States itself, the issue of suspected Russian meddling and cyber espionage came to the forefront of the 2016 presidential elections. The Obama administration has styled Russia as a declining regional power. But, in reality, the Kremlin's outreach goes well beyond post- Soviet Eurasia.
Europe is and is likely to remain the key battleground. Yet, Russia projects influence far beyond the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. Post-communist East- Central Europe, including former Yugoslavia, is the obvious target. As also is Turkey: Moscow has the means to co-opt Ankara as its relationship with the United States and the EU frays. Western sanctions and the dramatic fall in oil prices have put the Kremlin on the backfoot, but it does know how to play the game of influence and exploit weaknesses and opportunities across Europe's multiple peripheries.
Pitinization is a home-made product, not a Moscow strategy
For all that, one should resist the notion that the Kremlin is pulling all the strings in this game. Across Europe, political and civic leaders, governments, and business interests have been more than willing accomplices, enlisting Russia's support to attain all kinds of goals-balancing against external threats, maximizing payoffs and redistributing the spoils, hedging and pushing for concessions from the West, sidelining and outfoxing domestic rivals, muzzling critics. The list goes on and on. This sort of behavior is not unique to Southeast Europe, where historical connections to Russia admittedly play a role. It no doubt has its adepts in many other corners of the continent, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, and, not least, Germany. Whatever the weather, there will be always X number of players willing to do business with or to influence Russia.
Is the rival power that Russia has become in a position to undermine the EU from within, starting from its more vulnerable southeastern states? Probably not. For one, despite the belief to the contrary in many quarters, the Kremlin does not appear to have a coherent model that is exportable beyond the post- Soviet space. Neither "the managed democracy" or "sovereign democracy" of Putin's first two terms, nor the more recent praise of conservative values and religion more broadly as well as the celebration of Russia as a unique civilization opposed to global liberalism, quite do the job, irrespective of the fact that there is no shortage of cheerleaders across the EU. From Belgrade to Ankara, from Sofia to Budapest, dysfunctional democracies, state capture, and the backslide to authoritarian politics are, on the whole, homegrown ills, not an outcome of a sinister Muscovite plot. As much as "Putinization" represents a threat, it is worthwhile reconsidering who the real Putinizers are. Even more important, Russia does not appear to have the economic resources for costly ideological crusades nor the will to bankroll friendly regimes. The record in the Balkans proves the point. The EU might be in the doldrums, facing a succession of existential crises, but it still has allure thanks to its market, the sizeable financial transfers, and, to a lesser degree, the power of its foundational narrative.
So what one is left with is a rivalry between an opportunist, which has a clear set of goals though lacks the means to achieve them, and a terminally disoriented West that possesses the power assets but is not of one mind about how to respond to the challenge. This applies both to the EU where member states have always found it difficult to "speak with one voice" on Russia, and the United States where the right balance between containment and engagement continues to be a hotly debated subject. In the meantime, Southeast Europe will navigate the murky waters of this new contest. For the most part, the states of the region will jump on the West's bandwagon but hedge their bets and keep their options open. It would be foolish of Putin to just stand idly by and not take advantage. But, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango.