The EU begins to adopt Belgrade’s two stool approach to Russia’s war against Ukraine (sort of).
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By David B. Kanin
European notables owe an apology to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. For years they have been demanding he bring his country’s foreign and security policies in line with those of the EU (assuming he could figure out what they were) as a condition for eventual membership. For years he has deftly deflected such ukazes and maintained friendly relations with Moscow while insisting Serbia intends to join the European club. Now, it is clear Vucic can navigate Europe’s security crisis while his big power critics cannot.
Those in Europe and the US who insisted Vucic would have to choose between European and Russian “stools” after Vladimir Putin unleashed his war dogs on Ukraine have been, are being, and will continue to be proven wrong. Think of Vucic what you like, but the fact is that his security policy, like his Open Balkans Initiative, projects a sure-footed understanding of the regional and overall security context in which Serbia lives. It also effectively meshes with his domestic policy, enabling a condition of stability possessed neither by his Balkan neighbors nor those who presume to lead ”Europe.”
EU mavens may like putting the screws to Vucic but as the war drags on they increasingly are trying to do what he is doing. They are not doing it as well. Balancing on two stools works only if at least one of those stools is steady. Instead, the Europeans express support for Ukraine, chide Putin for making a mistake, and give the Russians lectures on human rights — but at the same time promise not to “humiliate” Moscow and attempt to engineer a cease fire that will humiliate Ukraine. What is one to make of an approach to security that rests on stools labeled “values” and “surrender”?
French President Emmanuel Macron’s pathological inability to stop himself from phoning Putin while waving a rhetorical white flag has helped Moscow overcome the poor public relations optic of its blunt and unimpressive military performance. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s weakness has been quieter but just as damaging. Berlin is so committed to Russia being part of Europe that it is willing to relegate Ukraine to being a supine part of Russia. When local critics point this out Scholz just shrugs his shoulders.
To be sure, the Baltic states, Poland, and, to varying extents, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova recognize the direct danger they face from Russian aggression. Nevertheless, not even the remarkable development of Finnish and Swedish NATO applications can shake Franco-German (and, therefore, EU) torpor.
- UK support for Ukraine has been exemplary. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s domestic problems and the Brexit squabble between Britain and the EU over Northern Ireland disqualifies London from any leadership role in the Continent.
In this context, Putin can continue to kill as much of Ukraine as his ammunition supply will allow while letting Macron prepare the ground for another ceasefire favorable to Russian interests. Moscow’s longer-term strategy will be to further weaken Europe’s limited sanctions policy while working quietly to help Donald Trump regain the US Presidency. If all goes well, in two and a half years Putin will have a fellow traveler in the White House, whatever is left of Western unity will evaporate, the EU will look like an enervated gentlemen’s club, and Ukraine will cease to exist.
All this and obstruction from Turkey and Hungary seriously undermine hope that NATO and/or the EU can provide or enable limits on Russian imperial ambitions. Going forward, the best option would be for Washington, London, and Warsaw to lead a coalition of the willing, to include the Baltic States, Romania, Moldova (assuming its current government survives) and anyone else who wishes to participate in a muscular effort to arm and otherwise support Ukraine. This group should impose a no-fly zone over the as yet unconquered rump Ukraine no matter the risk of a direct conflict with Moscow.
This would go some way toward redressing a difference between current security conditions and those existing during the Cold War that works against Western interests. Cold War security rested on the much-maligned condition of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Neither superpower could assume the other would not respond in a devastating fashion to outright military aggression in Europe (which was and is a theater of great power conflict, not an active security agent in its own right). As a result, the US and Soviet Union constructed agreements and verification choreography around arms control intelligence monitoring.
Now, MAD and the stabilizing arms control regime are gone. Russia can both blame its lethal behavior on NATO provocations and be confident the Alliance will not use kinetic means to prevent or react to Moscow’s devastating use of force. Those in the West willing to take the risk of altering Putin’s calculus need to act independently of those who are not.
It will be worth watching how Serbia and other Balkan states adjust if what started as a heroic Ukrainian resistance to Russian brutality descends into a teaching point that military conquest remains a central, viable tool of statecraft in the 21st century. Since their creation in the 19th century (20th century in Albania’s case) Balkan states have rarely acted independently of influence from great powers. These outsiders have had in common a tendency to promise more than they can deliver, subordinate the needs and interest of Balkan peoples to their own interests and rivalries, and order the locals around. For their part, Balkan princes and Big Men have curried favor with and manipulated the outsiders while sloughing off on them responsibility for managing the region’s problems.
Vucic and a few willing partners (Hashim Thaci and Edi Rama come to mind) have tried tentatively to forge their own solutions to specific problems but have allowed themselves to be thwarted by foreigners unwilling to accept any idea not hatched in Washington or West European capitals. At times, even Milorad Dodik has found discussion partners in Bosnia, only to face the wrath of Western diplomats. These efforts should continue and those making them should become more willing to directly reject outside direction – whether from Moscow or the West.
But this would mean local leaders would shoulder the burden of their policies. They would face the difficult problem of encouraging domestic opponents to engage in policy debates – and disputes – designed to produce constructive action rather than sectarian, patronal, and personal gain. So far, the concept of “loyal opposition” is totally foreign to politics in Serbia and other Balkan states. (Increasingly, that also is the case in the US and some other Western countries). If societies in this region are to develop improved politics and competent governance unburdened by self-serving outsiders this will have to change.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.