The question as to whether Russia would come to the military aid of Serbia if it was subject to a Syrian style proxy/hybrid war is a question that most Serbs have privately wondered and some have openly vocalised. In 1999 when NATO bombed the final incarnation of Yugoslavia on behalf of KLA/Albanian terrorist proxies, Russia was not in a position to execute a meaningful foreign or military policy. Today, Russia is once again one of the world’s three leading military superpowers along with a titanic China and a declining but still extremely powerful United States, thus the geopolitical dynamics have changed greatly since 1999.
Serbia stands on the threshold of a future so known that it is unknown. Serbia has several options, it could take the plunge and do everything the EU/US want it to do in order to become a bastard child in the wider pro-western family, against the emotions and even economic interests of many Serbs, or it could try to pursue a path of multipolarity under the justification that in spite of being surrounded by largely pro-western governments, the EU and US are both past their prime as presently constructed and therefore, in spite of an apparent geographical disadvantage, the country should hold out against EU pressure and wait for traditional Eurasian partners to become even stronger while the EU and US decline throughout that same waiting period. Finally, there is a path that is a hybrid model of both which is to do as little as possible in both directions while making it look otherwise. This final option is a kind of ‘wait and see’ minus the strategy.
The historic fraternal relations between Serbia and Russia are still strong, in spite of the changing political landscape of the Balkans. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the following regarding his recent visit to Belgrade,
“Crowds of people, who came to the Russian embassy in Belgrade, those who in the snow and rain participated in the ceremony of laying wreaths to the memorial, devoted to Belgrade’s liberators – nobody made them come, that was their own choice. These are the relations we have, as we love our countries, and the Serbians love Russia, and Russians love Serbia”.
While everything that Lavrov stated is both obvious and accurate, it is also true that Russia has begun pursuing new relations with pro-western EU member Croatia, while also slowly attempting to warm ties with the de-facto American client state of Albania. This too should not be surprising. Russia is pursuing multipolar relations with regimes throughout the world that have not been historic Russian partners, let alone fraternal/friendly peoples like Serbia, so in this sense, Russia’s Balkan strategy is no different than its strategy anywhere else.
All of this has been compounded by the fact that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is a kind of self-styled king of no man’s land who on the one hand speaks warmly of prospects for trade with Russia, speaks warmly of Serbia’s historic fraternal bonds with Russia and asserts that the legal status of NATO occupied Kosovo and Metohija is non-negotiable. On the other hand, Vučić is slowly pushing his country in a pro-EU direction, has not offered a single original plan for how to cooperate more meaningfully with Russia and has stated that everything is negotiable, which in the context of Serbian politics indicates that he could sell out Kosovo and Metohija for an ‘offer he could not refuse’, much to the expense of Serbia’s dignity. With a weak leader like Vučić, there is little more Russia can do other than rhetorically defend Serbia when being insulted. In this sense, Vučić is a bit like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a man who knows what his country’s cause is, but remains unable to choose a single way in which to pursue it.
While things are calm in Serbia for now, there is a lingering fear that Albania may annex Kosovo and Metohija, in spite of guarantees from the NATO occupiers that this will not happen. Furthermore, many Albanian politicians are keen to launch a guerrilla war against Serbia and all of its other neighbours as part of the so-called Greater Albania project, which is analogous to a European version of the so-called ‘Greater Israel’ project or its Takfiri cousin, the project to create an ‘Islamic State’.
For the moment, Albanian extremists have their eyes on The Republic of Macedonia/The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for several reasons. The most overt reason is that Albanian ultra-nationalist parties have formed an alliance with Zoran Zaev, the current Prime Minister in Skopje who has made what many see as a pact with the devil which seeks to turn the small state into a kind of polyglot ‘Second Albania’. Secondly ,with Zaev and his Greek counterpart engaged in talks to settle the Macedonian naming dispute, many Albanians could be further emboldened to change the structural and cultural identity of the country at the same time as a proposed name change could come into effect.
Just as the 1999 NATO war on Yugoslavia spilled over the Macedonian border with Albanian radicals pouring in under the guise of being ‘refugees’, so too could the inverse happen if Albanians in Macedonia decide to take their Macedonian war to parts of southern Serbia they have long sought to conquer.
Such a scenario is remarkably similar to that which occurred in Syria. While Daesh was spawned from an Al-Qaeda off-shot in Iraq, which itself came into being as the result of an illegal US/UK war on Iraq, so too could Albanian extremists take their Macedonian struggle into Serbia, just as Daesh took its war in Iraq into Syria. There are no prizes for drawing a parallel between the US and pro-US states in the Middle East funding and encouraging the destruction of Syria with the desire of the US and pro-US states in the Balkans (such as Albania) to launch the same kind of hybrid war against Serbia.
Under such a horrific scenario, one could imagine Serbia being occupied by various Albanian nationalist terrorist groups, pro-Albanian Daesh, (as after all there are many ethnic Albanian Daesh members even though the mainstream media pretends they don’t exist), loyalist Serbian factions and pro-Serbian volunteers from various primarily Orthodox nations. Finally, it cannot be discounted that some Serbian factions would try and ally with the US in the hopes of leading a post-conflict rump-state, all the while collecting as many bags of US Dollars as possible. This group might be hypothetically called the Free Serbian Army and could post for photo-ops with John McCain and Albanian mobsters in front of the CNN cameras.
At such a time, if a loyalist government in Belgrade were to call on Russia’s help in the same way that the Syrian government did, would Russia intervene? While Syria is more geographically strategic for Russia as it is for all major powers, Russia could foreseeably intervene to save Serbia, if Moscow felt that the US had violated Russia’s good will in the Balkans by launching a Syrian style hybrid war.
When one talks of Russian good will, this is to say that Russia has thus far refused to declare itself Serbia’s geopolitical ‘knight in shining armour’ even though one could be forgiven for thinking so if all one read was mainstream media fake news about the region. Russia would ideally like a situation where all Balkan countries are on reasonable terms with Russia and one another, while Serbia and possibly Greece retain a relationship based on something that is not just healthy but positive. While Russia would never encourage the betrayal of Kosovo and Metohija, Russia is no longer willing to risk its relations with other Balkan states based on this issue alone. Frankly, if even some in Serbia are contemplating a stab in the back strategy for Metohija, why should Russia stick its neck out for an issue that has become mired in the doldrums of the international agenda?
If a war were to throw this ‘balanced’ status quo off kilter, Russia could just say that they have had enough, in the same way that they did so in Syria, having failed to do so in Libya in 2011. Again, this is purely hypothetical, but it bears consideration given the similarities that would be involved in such a conflict.
All of this is admittedly a lose-lose situation as even if Russia were to rescue Serbia in a war like situation, it would still mean war, and war after all is not a desirable condition for any legitimate state. Thus, we see that Russia’s hands in respect of Serbia are effectively tied. Unless Serbia were to come under the rule of a government that had some original ideas to create a win-win balance between Russia and the EU/US, there is little that Russia can do other than try its best to exploit opportunities that Serbia has not been forthcoming with under the current leadership.
This is the tragedy of the entire scenario. Unless Serbia’s leaders show some real multipolar initiative, it would take a war that Serbia neither wants nor needs to fully draw Russia into the Balkan orbit, in the way that Syria drew Russia back to the front and centre of wider Middle East geopolitics.