Currently, Russia is focusing on Ukraine. Are the Balkans next on his list of potential conquests?

2022.02.26 Stand with Ukraine, The White House, Washington, DC USA 057 69024. (Photo: Ted Eytan)

Vladimir Putin’s actions in February 2022 sent shockwaves through the foreign policy community and geopolitical analysts worldwide. However, upon closer examination of the circumstances leading up to Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one might argue that these actions were not entirely unexpected. Understanding the historical context can offer valuable insights into Putin’s decision-making and potential future moves.

Contrary to popular belief, Russia did not invade Ukraine in 2022. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine can be traced back to 2014 when Putin orchestrated the annexation of Crimea.

In February of that year, Russian military forces, operating without insignia or identification, took control of key installations in Crimea, a region of Ukraine. Subsequently, a controversial referendum was held, resulting in the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This move was met with international condemnation as it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The annexation of Crimea followed a period of political unrest and protests in Ukraine, which led to the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Shortly after Yanukovych’s ousting, unidentified armed individuals, widely believed to be Russian military personnel without insignia, began occupying strategic locations in Crimea. On February 27, 2014, the Russian military seized control of government buildings and military installations in Crimea. This was followed by a contentious referendum on March 16, 2014, where an overwhelming majority of Crimean residents voted in favor of joining Russia, a move deemed illegitimate by Ukraine, numerous Western countries, and the United Nations.

Formally, on March 18, 2014, Russia officially annexed Crimea, incorporating it into the Russian Federation as two separate federal subjects: the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol. This action sparked a major geopolitical crisis and escalated tensions between Russia and the Western world. Consequently, the United States, the European Union, and other countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The annexation of Crimea remains a contentious issue with lasting impacts on the region and the overall relations between Russia and Ukraine.

The annexation of Crimea was followed by the emergence of pro-Russian separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine, leading to a violent conflict between Ukrainian armed forces and these groups. There is substantial evidence pointing to Russia’s military support, including the provision of weapons, training, and troops, to the separatists. This ongoing conflict has resulted in thousands of casualties and extensive destruction in the region.

From 2014 to 2021, Russia engaged in a series of actions widely regarded as acts of aggression against Ukraine. These actions included military interventions, information warfare, hacking incidents, and attacks on critical infrastructure. Russia has been accused of conducting extensive information warfare campaigns against Ukraine, utilizing disinformation, propaganda, and fake news disseminated through various channels, including social media platforms. The objective is to shape public opinion, sow division, and undermine the Ukrainian government.

Ukraine has also been a repeated target of cyberattacks attributed to Russian hackers. In December 2015, a coordinated cyberattack targeted Ukraine’s power grid, leading to widespread electricity outages. This attack was attributed to a Russian state-sponsored group that gained access to control systems and disrupted power distribution. In June 2017, a highly destructive ransomware attack infected numerous organizations worldwide, primarily targeting Ukraine. The attack disrupted critical infrastructure, government institutions, banks, and businesses, causing significant financial losses and exposing the vulnerability of computer systems to state-sponsored cyberattacks.

Furthermore, there were incidents in 2014 and 2015 where gas pipelines in Ukraine were targeted by explosions, disrupting gas supplies. These attacks were believed to be part of Russia’s efforts to exert control over Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Additionally, there have been reports of cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s transportation systems, telecommunications, and financial institutions, causing service disruptions and economic damage.

In retrospect, it becomes evident that Russia had been systematically destabilizing Ukraine since at least 2014, potentially preparing the ground for a full-scale military invasion. However, it is crucial to recognize that Ukraine is not the sole target of Putin’s ambitions. Looking ahead, other countries have also been subjected to similar tactics.

Russia has been accused of engaging in various activities in the Balkans that are perceived as threatening by some countries and international observers. These activities involve elements of political interference, disinformation campaigns, economic leverage, and support for nationalist or separatist movements. While not identical to the situation in Ukraine, there are notable similarities in Russia’s approach.

Political interference by Russia in the Balkans has involved efforts to cultivate relationships with politicians, political parties, and influential figures sympathetic to Russian interests. These actions raise concerns about the influence of Russian-backed actors on decision-making processes and the potential undermining of democratic institutions.

Disinformation campaigns have also been prevalent in the Balkans, aimed at shaping public opinion, sowing discord, and manipulating narratives to advance Russian interests. These campaigns often exploit sensitive historical and ethnic issues, amplify existing divisions, and propagate narratives favorable to Russia.

Russia has maintained economic ties with several Balkan countries, particularly through energy projects. These ties provide Russia with economic leverage and influence over the energy sector, which can potentially be used for political purposes or to secure strategic advantages.

Support for nationalist or separatist movements is another tool allegedly employed by Russia in the Balkans. This support can include financial assistance, propaganda, and the fostering of political alliances with like-minded groups, aiming to undermine stability and promote fragmentation.

However, it is worth noting that Russia’s relationship with Kosovo, a disputed territory in the Balkans, has been complex due to its close ties with Serbia. Russia has consistently supported Serbia’s position on Kosovo’s status, which has been a longstanding source of tension in the region.

Russia opposes Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008, and has actively blocked its accession to international organizations such as the United Nations. Additionally, Russia supports Serbia’s efforts to prevent the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by other countries. These positions align with Russia’s broader opposition to perceived Western interference and support for self-determination movements.

The status of Kosovo remains highly disputed and complex. While Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Serbia does not recognize it and considers it an integral part of its territory. Russia, China, and several other countries also do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

On the other hand, Kosovo is recognized as an independent state by a significant number of countries, including the United States and a majority of European Union member states.

In conclusion, reflecting on the events that unfolded in Ukraine and understanding the historical context provides valuable insights into Putin’s actions. While Ukraine remains a focal point of Russia’s ambitions, other regions, such as the Balkans, have also experienced similar tactics. The ongoing power struggle among superpowers and the potential for a darkening global landscape in the future warrants close attention to geopolitical developments in the coming year.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)