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Deteriorating Croatian-Serbian relations, a flashpoint for NATO and Russia

Major increases in Serbia’s military budget, supported by China and Russia, coupled with a war of words between the leaders of Croatia and Serbia have reignited the Balkans as a potential flashpoint for Russia and NATO expansion.

Major increases in Serbia’s military budget, supported by China and Russia, coupled with a war of words between the leaders of Croatia and Serbia have reignited the Balkans as a potential flashpoint for Russia and NATO expansion.

Border crises in Eastern Europe, Russian troop movements, reciprocal sanctions between European powerhouses and Russia’s allies, and flash points in the Black Sea. The year 2021 tested both NATO and Russia’s resolve in protecting and expanding their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

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Following such a tumultuous year, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin conducted a phone call earlier in the new year to address the range of concerns held by the superpowers.

"I'm not going to negotiate here in public, but we made it clear that he cannot – I emphasise cannot – move on Ukraine,” President Biden announced.

While it remains unclear what concessions – if any – the US and NATO had made to the Russian President, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that "President Biden made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine".

While civil unrest continues to rage in Ukraine, the US has seemingly drawn a line in the sand.

Russia’s political, military and economic posturing over 2021 relied on four key pillars to strengthen their bargaining power against their NATO opposition:

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  • Destabilisation: weaponising the migrant community illegally crossing from Belarus into Poland;
  • Threats: massing troops on the boarder of Ukraine, with a suspected invasion imminent;
  • Influence projection: bolstering the relative power of their Serbian and pro-Serbian allies in the Balkans; and
  • Economic and energy coercion: holding Europe hostage over the use of Russian gas.

Indeed, the symbiosis of all four pillars of Russian foreign policy provide a perfect storm for NATO and the European Union. Across the entirety of Eastern Europe, from the Polish border though to Ukraine, NATO faces a broad threat environment characterised by the full gamut of hybrid conflict: kinetic, non-kinetic and grey zone activities.

However, while much focus has remained on political instability in Belarus and conflict in Ukraine, Russia has sought to re-extend their sphere of influence into the Balkans, sparking fears of a new military arms race in the region.

Over recent years, a war of words between Serbia and Croatia has sparked large-scale investment in military technology throughout the Balkans.

“In 2019, Serbia spent $1.14 billion on its military, an increase of 43 per cent on 2018 that saw the country outstrip its NATO neighbour Croatia in terms of total spending,” Sasa Dragojlo wrote in BalkanInsight.

Croatia’s 2019 military budget just topped $1 billion. Even Albania increased their military spend by 11.8 per cent between 2020 and 2021.

Political basis for Balkan division

Russia’s theatre of influence operations across Eastern Europe has extended from the Belarussian-Polish border right through to the Balkans. In the latter, Russia has actively supported their Serbian allies and undermined pro-European peacekeeping efforts in the region.

George Barros and Kateryna Stepanenko analysed Russia’s broad foreign policy tools in November’s Russia in Review, published by the Institute for the Study of War.

“The Kremlin politically weakened the Office of the High Representative (OHR), a key US and EU-backed international institution devoted to maintaining the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian War,” the pair noted.

“The Kremlin seeks to end the EU peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, expel NATO’s headquarters in Sarajevo and increase Russian influence in the Balkans.”

To strengthen their influence, Russia has also come to the aid of pro-Serbian secessionist movements in neighbouring countries, including aiding the pro-Serb Bosnian politician Milorad Dodik.

“Dodik claimed on October 8 that Republika Srpska’s army, tax administration and judicial system would fully separate from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s central government by the end of November 2021. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) condemned international criticism of Dodik’s secession statements as ‘demonisation of the Serbian people’,” Barros and Stepanenko noted.

The pair’s assessment on Russian influence among Serbian ethnic movements as a vehicle to exert competitive control in the region was reflected by Boguslaw Jagiello in the article The Balkan Kettle: Russia's policy toward the Balkans published in Security & Defence Quarterly.

“The influence of Russia in Serbia and among Serbian minorities in neighbouring countries is a shuttle for its interests in the Balkans. They are also part of a broader plan to stop the integration of the Balkan countries into Euro-Atlantic structures and to maintain an area of instability and frozen conflicts in the immediate vicinity of the EU,” Jagiello argued.

Indeed, Jagiello’s analysis goes as far as to suggest that Russian operations in the Balkans reflect elements of Russian hybrid war in Ukraine.

“Russia’s hybrid actions were even directed at Serbian youth. With the consent of Serbia, Russian representatives organised a summer camp in the Serbian resort of Zlatibor, the aim of which was to instil patriotic values in Russian-Serbian youth. As it turned out, one of the organisers was a retired Soviet army officer, Colonel Valery Shambarov, known for his imperial views and associated with organisations directing fighters to the conflict region in eastern Ukraine,” Jagiello argued.

Russian intelligence and military agencies rely on several vectors in order to assert control and gain social influence among Serbian populations. Not only do they leverage ethnicity, but they also rely on Orthodox Christianity to build in-group characteristics and like-mindedness between Serbia and Russia and have even gone as far as to create charities and humanitarian organisations to act as vehicles to undertake information and intelligence collection.

“Russia is conducting a hybrid war against the current pro-Western authorities of Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo, and supporting Bosnian Serb separatism and paralysing the functioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It seeks to maintain Serbia outside of Western structures,” Jagiello continued.

Indeed, so deep are the cultural, linguistic and religious similarities between Serbia and Russia that Serbian volunteers even travelled to Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists during the ongoing War in Donbas.

Mladen Obrenovic in As Ukraine Conflict Intensifies, Serb Volunteers Prepare for Battle for BalkanInsight recalls the stories of Serbian volunteers who enlisted for the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

“The Union of Volunteers of Donbas, an organisation operating in separatist-held eastern Ukraine that is involved in recruiting fighters, has also said it is getting ready for a potential escalation,” the report read.

“Dozens of pro-Russian military volunteers who came to Ukraine from Serbia and Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska have already fought under its umbrella in eastern Ukraine.”

Military build up

While military expenditure has increased in the region, analysts have presented more sobering views on the build-up. Rather than imminent war in the region driven by opposing world views, many argue that the Croatian-Serbian war of words demonstrates a desire from the respective leaders to build support domestically.

“In modernising outdated military hardware left over from the Yugoslav era, Belgrade and Zagreb are not driven by strategic competition or fears of conflict with one another. Rather, elites in both countries are using the process of buying new weapons to advance broader foreign policy goals and, most importantly, improve their domestic political standing,” Vuk Vuksanovic and Marija Ignjatijevic wrote in War on the Rocks.

“Over the past six years, Serbian and Croatian leaders have happily fed the narrative of an arms race as they engaged in a series of high-profile weapons purchases. The good news is that actual procurement has sometimes lagged behind the rhetoric, and, to date, neither side has exceeded the arms control provisions of the Dayton agreement.”

This argument has been evidenced with many glimpses of regional cooperation.

Recently, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic supported Bosnian Croat political parties working with Bosnian Serb political entities led by Milorad Dodik to air similar grievances held between the ethnic Serb and Croat populations in Bosnia. Moreover, during Croatia’s earthquake last year, Serbia provided €1 million in aid, volunteers as well as emergency goods.

Nevertheless, the Balkans have become a theatre of competition for the NATO-Russian quests for control. As Europe’s eastern border erupts, there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that it can easily spread southwards.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deteriorating Croatian-Serbian relations, a flashpoint for NATO and Russia
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