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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Russia: A partner and ally, or a Cold War competitor?

David Madden (SEESOX Associate, Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

Dr Dimitar Bechev spoke at SEESOX on 4 March on Russia and the Balkans in the seminar series Global South East Europe. Roy Allison of St Antony’s chaired.

He started by providing a snapshot of some recent developments: the triumphalist visit by Putin to Belgrade in October 2014 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the city; statements by the new Syriza government in Greece apparently opposing sanctions against Russia; Russian naval visits to Cyprus; and the announcement of “Turkish Stream”, tying Russia and Turkey closer together on energy issues. At the same time there was a harder line coming out of Western European capitals in response to what appeared a challenge from Russia in the region.

Dr Bechev suggested that Russia did not have a special policy towards the Balkans: what happened there was a consequence of Russia’s overall relationship with the West. He divided the post-Soviet period into three phases. Under Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister (1991-96), there was an opening to the West. Russia supported efforts to resolve West Balkan conflicts. Russia was sympathetic towards Serbia, but not excessively so: Milosevic had blotted his copy book by hedging his bets during the 1991 putsch attempt. With Yevgeny Primakov and Igor Ivanov there was a harder line. But the game was still more about Russia’s global role than about the West Balkans per se: and the stand-off at Pristina Airport lead to a climb-down, and strengthened the case for Bulgaria and Romania to join NATO.


Post-Yeltsin, Putin brought energy into foreign policy as a key focus for leverage. Up to the Iraq War, Putin still acted reasonably constructively in the West Balkans benefiting from political and economic stability underwritten by the US and the EU. The turning point came in 2008. Kosovo’s declaration of independence underlined Russia’s inability to block this move; and war in Georgia, when the Kosovo precedent was referenced, worsened relations with the West. At the same time, the economic crisis exposed the vulnerability of the region, the EU model started to lose its shine, and South Stream was launched amid fanfare (its sudden cancellation in 2014 hit Bulgaria and Serbia hard).

The stress on cultural affinities between Russia and some countries of the region was real, but should not be exaggerated. The Russian approach was hard-headed and realistic. The real focus of the elites in the region was on energy, and business (and in some cases kick-backs). Exactly the same was true of Turkey, where the ties of religion etc were totally lacking.

For Putin’s Russia, playing a role in the Balkans with the help of its energy weapons was part of asserting Russia’s continuing Great Power role. The region’s energy market was certainly an important issue (though gas was generally not significant in the regional energy mix), as was using the region in support of Russia’s other goals (national sovereignty, ethnic links, discrediting ideas of Europeanisation). But ex-Yugoslavia was no longer a global issue.

Two main conclusions emerged. The country in the Eastern Mediterranean which was of most interest to Russia was Turkey; but Russia would need to work really hard on this relationship. Secondly, although Russia was now a competitor with the West in the West Balkans, it was not a genuine counter-weight.

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