Security in the Western Balkans

In the context of the war in Ukraine

14 April 2022

The war in Ukraine has become a security threat throughout Europe, including the Western Balkans, where there are still some open issues that could follow the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ and create problems.

The war in Ukraine has shaken the European order built after the end of World War II. Since the end of the war in Europe, there have been no cases of military intervention by one state in another or unilateral annexations of territories, even in the Balkans.

While across the world military intervention in other countries has been practically commonplace in at least the last two decades like the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the US interventions in Libya and Yemen, but none of them has resulted in the annexation of territories or the dissolution of the respective states.


The first signs of this upheaval started in the war in Georgia in 2008 which was a limited war but which gave the message that NATO enlargement to the countries bordering Russia should be stopped and that in the future Russia would respond forcefully.

The second case was the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the war in the Donbas. Sanctions taken by Western countries against Russia in that period were not enough to cause so much harm as to restrain Russia. On the contrary, sanctions make Russia even more immune and invulnerable to sanctions and even more self-reliant.

The current war in Ukraine is essentially a clash between Russia and the US / NATO over control of Ukraine. In recent years, following the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian governments have taken several steps towards integration with NATO with the prospect of possible future membership.

Meanwhile, Russia in Ukraine was losing territory that has historically been part of the Russian Empire and in which almost 30 per cent of the population has Russian as its mother tongue, but at the same time it risked the establishment of NATO bases near Crimea, a territory which Ukraine claims as its own and which from the Russian point of view would increase the possibility of a military confrontation with NATO in Ukraine. The war is an attempt to stop Ukraine’s full integration with NATO and to turn Ukraine into a buffer zone between Russia and the US / NATO. 

Geopolitical Consequences of Ukraine

To better understand the geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine for the Western Balkans, we still have to see what the end of the conflict will be. The first scenario is that the end of the conflict would be a victory for Russia in terms of achieving its objectives such as Ukraine’s neutrality, non-NATO membership, demilitarisation of Ukraine and securing the territory connecting the Donbas with Crimea.

The second scenario is that Russia fails in Ukraine to achieve its above-mentioned goals and the third scenario is that Russia and Ukraine reach an agreement that meets only some of Russia’s conditions but without including Donbas and the territory connecting Donbas with Crimea.

According to the first scenario, Russia would emerge much stronger geopolitically from the conflict. It would have shown that through force it managed to force a state to stop the approach of a sovereign state with NATO, and even to dismantle and hypothetically annex a part of its territory. One consequence of this would be that enlargement and rapprochement with NATO on Russia’s borders could end as other states would try to avoid what happened in Ukraine. 

Another consequence would be Russia’s geopolitical strengthening in the Balkans at two points in particular: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Due to the strong rift between Russia and the West, the Russian (but also Chinese) veto against Kosovo at the UN would become even stronger, which would strengthen Serbia’s position as Russia’s ally against Kosovo in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. In Bosnia, Republika Srpska could try to do the same as Donbas in Ukraine and seek the help of Russia, which would not fail to come. 

In the second scenario, Russia would emerge from the conflict much weaker and lose some of its geopolitical weight in the Balkans. One consequence would be that Serbia’s position in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue would deteriorate and Serbia, as an ally of Russia and not participating in sanctions against Russia, would be placed by the US and the EU before the possibility of choosing between Kosovo and the West and the hypothetical possibility of sanctions. if he tried to further block the process.

In the third scenario, Russia would continue to exert its geopolitical influence in the Balkans but if it did not have the expected success in the Donbas it would significantly weaken the efforts of Serbs in northern Kosovo and Republika Srpska’s efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina to move as far away as possible from the central government of the respective states. Donbas’s lesson from the third scenario would be that such efforts are not successful and the economic, political, military and human cost is too great. The example would serve as a deterrent to any similar effort in the Western Balkans. 


The war in Ukraine has become a security threat throughout Europe, including the Western Balkans, where there are still some open issues that could follow the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ and create problems. Two of the most vulnerable areas in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine are Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue launched a decade ago, has achieved little so far. Kosovo and Serbia have not moved a step towards mutual recognition and the positions of the parties seem completely different on the main issue which is the direct recognition or indirect recognition of Kosovo’s independence and statehood by Serbia. 

Meanwhile, the three Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo continue to operate to a large extent beyond government control in Pristina and pose a threat to the security of the state of Kosovo. The war in Ukraine could push Serbs in northern Kosovo to take the same action as the Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk towards secession and then seek Serbia’s help, just as Donbas sought Russia’s help. In Kosovo, this ‘Ukrainian scenario’ is less likely.

First, in Kosovo, there is an important NATO base with a presence of not a few American soldiers but also from other NATO countries, who in any case are ready for external and internal threats.  

The area most threatened by the aftermath of the war in Ukraine is Bosnia and Herzegovina. For years a dysfunctional state due to the division of power between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats who obstruct each other in almost every law.

For years, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has spoken of the independence and secession of Republika Srpska, territorially half of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is in Republika Srpska that the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ is most likely, where Bosnian Serbs can declare independence and be helped by Serbia or Russia itself, seeing the area as an opportunity to open a front against the West. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia has considerable influence in Republika Srpska, an influence that does not exist in Kosovo.

But many of these consequences depend on the continuation and end of the war in Ukraine. The loss of Russia, or it’s very weakened exit from the conflict, would have a good impact on the security of the Balkans as it would reduce Russian influence in the Balkans firstly and secondly give a warning to any other state or entity. That would try to do the same by showing that sanctions and reactions from the West would be unaffordable. 


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

Picture: “20140525 Kosovo IMG_7964” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Mr Ulster

Ledion Krisafi

AIIS Researcher


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