How Putin’s War May Affect the Western Balkans

Russia's competitive footprint in the Western Balkans has long been unmistakable

23 May 2022

The ‘black swan’ of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the incredible escalation of the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West have escalated the Balkans into an ‘either-or’ situation.

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine marked a tectonic turning point in the system of international relations. In a matter of days, Russia became a pariah state, and the West moved from its previous policy of selective isolation of Russia to a policy of exclusion from previous contacts, programmes, projects and other activities — both at the level of bilateral relations and at the level of international organisations. This has left the Western Balkans in an uncomfortable place.

Ukraine is fighting bravely, the countries neighbouring Russia and Ukraine — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Romania — are strengthening their defences, and two neutral Scandinavian countries — Finland and Sweden — have applied to join NATO — the former after 70 years of neutrality, the latter after more than 200 years.

In a globalised world, events in one region have echoes on the other side of the globe. Thus, the Russian-Ukrainian war has repercussions not only in the immediate neighbourhood of the parties to the conflict, in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in more distant places, for example in East Asia, where the leaders of Communist China and democratic Taiwan are watching with bated breath the struggle of the Ukrainians against the Russian invaders.

But even in a region much closer to the battlefield than East Asia — the Western Balkans — the course of the Russia-Ukraine war is being closely watched. They are also watching how Europe is reacting to the war and what conclusions it is reaching in the context of its policies in other regions.

The Western Balkans in the G7 and EU Lens

The Western Balkans have for many years been living in a state of uncertainty regarding the prospects for its participation in the European integration process. Without the completion of this process, Europe, according to the well-known saying, can be ‘neither free nor whole’.

The situation is all the more serious because Russia’s competitive footprint in the Western Balkans has long been unmistakable — from the networking of pro-Russian associations to the formation of corruption schemes aimed at economic and energy blackmail, to the fomenting of ethnic tensions and coup attempts.

What is remarkable is the way in which the West, including the European Union, is now turning its attention towards the Western Balkans. The West is clearly worried that unfavourable scenarios may come to fruition here, from which the aggressor in the Kremlin will be able to profit. G7 foreign ministers at their recent meeting expressed concern about the deepening of the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina and condemned efforts to undermine the territorial integrity of that country — let us add that these efforts are openly supported by the Kremlin.

The G7 diplomatic leaders expressed support for the swift start of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia — welcomed that the Western Balkans is united in condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine — and appreciated that Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have aligned their foreign policies with the Union.

The final document of the April 2022 EU foreign ministers’ meeting states, ‘The [EU’s] strategic engagement in the region, complementing the enlargement process, is even more important in the changing geopolitical context following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.’ After the meeting, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: ‘It is very important that we do not disappoint not only Ukraine, but also the countries that have long seen their future in the European Union, that we keep our promise for their membership of the EU, namely the countries of the Western Balkans, especially Albania and Northern Macedonia. 

It is our responsibility to finally open accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia in the first half of this year. This is a long-awaited step. The same applies to the other countries of the Western Balkans, which have made it clear in these days and weeks that they see their future and their security in the European Union. Most of them have therefore joined the EU sanctions [against Russia].’

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell agrees with the German minister: ‘The EU should start negotiations on the admission of Albania and North Macedonia as soon as possible, the delay harms the EU and strengthens Russia’s position.’

Five Possible Scenarios According to Visegrad Insight

In early March 2022, the Visegrad Insight magazine published an analytical and prescient text, The Future of the Western Balkans: Five Scenarios to 2030, co-authored by experts from the Western Balkans and Central Europe. The authors included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia in their thinking.

The editors of the text, Tetiana Poliak-Grujić and Spasomir Domaradzki, briefly characterise each of the five scenarios in their introduction: ‘For the period up to 2030, this report identifies five possible scenarios: Integration of the Western Balkans into the Union (‘Forcing Hand’), a continuation of the unsatisfactory and potentially explosive status quo (‘Dark Future’), an endless process of accession negotiations (‘Elusive Europeanisation’), robust economic cooperation between countries that nearly erases mutual grievances from the past (‘Defragmentation of the Western Balkans’), and countries coming together around global challenges (‘Coming Together’).

The ‘Black Swan’ Has Arrived

Each of these scenarios is supported by a rich factual record of developments to date, evaluates more or less visible trends, and works with a number of specific variables. The context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine (the editors frankly admit that they did not foresee anything like that) and the hinted action of Europe in relation to the Western Balkans (one of its manifestations is the European Council’s agreement to open accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia) increase the interest in the two contrasting scenarios.

The first is the successful ‘Forcing Hand’ scenario, based on an active EU approach and an effective accession process, reinforced by internal reforms in individual countries. The second is the unsuccessful ‘Dark Future’ scenario, based on the failure of countries to integrate, political instability, the persistence of ethnic animosity and the assertion in the region of two foreign authoritarian powers hostile to democracy and the West — Russia and China.

Real developments are always marked by elements of hybridity, a combination of desirable and problematic trends (in the next three scenarios we could find just such elements), but the ‘black swan’ in the form of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the incredible escalation of the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West have escalated the situation to an ‘either-or’ situation from an analytical point of view. This escalation corresponds to the aforementioned contrasting scenarios: either the countries of the Western Balkans finally become fully integrated into European integration, or they face a terrifying ‘dark future’. Such a statement may be a message to both European and Balkan politicians on how to proceed. If Europe wants to be free and whole, the Western Balkans must be an integrated part of it.

Two Different Paths for the Balkans

Here is a short sampling of what could happen in the event of either favourable or unfavourable developments, as outlined in a study published in Visegrad Insight.

Favourable development: the Union accelerates the accession process, pushing back the efforts of Russia and China to assert themselves politically and economically in this vulnerable region. The prospect of Union membership encourages deep internal reforms. The interdependence of the accession process and democratic reforms is becoming a voluntary national choice in the Western Balkan countries. 

The EU is shifting from its previous role as a promoter of routine stability maintenance to one of fundamental reform, enabling the countries to successfully address pressing demographic challenges, including brain drain. The expected economic growth is removing obstacles to regional cooperation, reducing the intensity of mutual prejudices, sharpening the edges of historical disputes and contradictory narratives linked to national identity. The fulfilment of this optimistic scenario leads to EU membership and thus completely redefines the situation in the region.

Unfavourable developments: the unsatisfactory and potentially explosive status quo, including regional disintegration, continues. Democratisation is not complete, the phenomenon of ‘state capture’ persists. Prospects for Union membership are declining, the Union remains halfway through the so-called Berlin Process (economic and infrastructure cooperation without EU membership) in its approach to the region’s integration chances. 

The unattractive status of non-member countries complicates their ability to address global challenges together with Member States. The region is becoming an arena for internal political crises. Russia feeds regional conflicts and uses them to its advantage. Risky economic cooperation with China leads individual countries into a debt trap. Thawed conflicts cause further fragmentation, creating a direct threat to the stability, security and prosperity of the region.

Today, more than ever, the path the Western Balkans will take depends on the European Union.


The original text was published on

This article is part of the Western Balkans Futures project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Picture: Marko Vucicevic from Serbia, Military Parade Belgrade 2014 – Serbian Soldiers with Russian Knights – The Swifts (16637403998)CC BY-SA 2.0

Grigorij Mesežnikov

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist and the President of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) in Slovakia. He has published expert studies on party systems’ development and political aspects of transformation in post-communist societies, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies, populism, nationalism and hybrid threats in various monographs, collections and scholarly journals in Slovakia and other countries.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.