But Russia also has a soft spot for Serbia, said Dimitar Bechev, a political scientist and analyst of Balkan-Russian affairs. Russia sees Serbia as a fellow victim of the West, he argued. “Serbia is seen as a smaller Russia, but with no nuclear weapons to defend itself, and as having been preyed on by NATO,” Bechev said.
Putin’s interest in Serbia, besides maintaining a symbolic Balkan foothold, also rests on the fact that he has a personal stake in the way the Kosovo issue will ultimately be resolved. After all, Putin has expansionist interests in the Russian near abroad that he is keen to someday present as legal in the eyes of the international community, whether in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine under the control of Russian-led proxies since 2014.
“If the Kosovars have the right to self-determination, why should people on Crimea not have it?” Putin commented in 2016, ignoring that fact the Crimean separation referendum is seen as an illegitimate farce by the international community. If Kosovo has its way, Putin might not like it, but the example would be a useful one for him.
“If Kosovo has its way, Putin might not like it, but the example would be a useful one for him.”
Indeed, Putin continues to be more than happy to use the Kosovo precedent, a Western pet project, against the West itself, having declared at the time of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 that it would “come back and hit them in the face.”But the current tone of Serbia’s relationship with Russia might have long-term consequences on the postwar transition in the region. On Jan. 17, Vucic reiterated his gratitude for Russia’s blocking of a Security Council resolution that would see the U.N. formally designate the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina a genocide—even though the U.S. Congress, European Parliament, and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have already defined it as such. The move was warmly welcomed by those in Serbian society who feel that the brunt of the blame for the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which saw more than 100,000 casualties and involved Serbian, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim combatants, is placed solely and in their view unfairly on the shoulders of Serbia and Bosnian Serbs.
With the increased interest of the U.S. press on unveiling the extent of President Donald Trump’s involvement with the Russian government both in the lead-up to his presidency and afterward—alongside high-profile instances of Russian meddling in Western Europe—there is a tendency to interpret any Russian presence in the region as a concerted effort to completely pull countries like Serbia off their European integration paths and into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
But Putin’s success in the region, added Bieber, is based more on the weakness of the EU and the United States and less on any particular strengths or skills displayed by the Russian leader. Putin’s influence in the region is only as strong as local leaders allow. “He is playing his limited resources, energy, and symbolic emotional support well, but there is little on offer,” Bieber said. “As his main interest appears to be to limit NATO and EU success, he does not need to offer an alternative or have a coherent strategy beyond disruption.”