Serbia: Russia's Eyes on the Balkans

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Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic and Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu signed a deal on Wednesday to set up by 2012 a humanitarian center for emergencies in Nis, a city in southeastern Serbia. At a press conference, the ministers said the center would be a regional hub for emergency relief in southeastern Europe, and that it will include a mine-clearance center.

To those familiar with the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations and its longtime minister, this announcement should give pause. It has the potential to redefine how the world looks at the Balkans and Russia's involvement in the region.

Given the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the independence of Kosovo, the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the EU and NATO, and the general enlargement of NATO to the Balkans, the West has had the luxury of being able to forget about the Balkans, for the most part. This is historically anomalous, considering the region's generally unstable past and its penchant for causing wide-ranging conflagrations. Certainly, trouble spots remain: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are still overt Western protectorates with potential for flaring up, and Serbia is generally dissatisfied with Kosovo's independence. However, with Serbia practically surrounded by NATO members or candidates, the West has believed that it has the time to digest the remaining Balkan problems at a leisurely pace.

Enter the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations.

This is anything but a minor ministry in the Russian government. Shoigu has essentially run the ministry since 1994. He is a member of the powerful and selective Russian Security Council -- a key advisory body to the Russian executive on national security -- and has roots in the foreign military intelligence directorate, better known as the GRU, which is one of the most powerful and shadowy institutions in Russia. The ministry is an unofficial wing of the GRU and an outgrowth of its activities. It handles more than natural emergencies: It is involved in the suppression of militant activity in the Caucasus and is in charge of the Russian civil defense troops -- which basically gives the ministry its own paramilitary force, as well as access to the rest of the Russian military. In addition, it has considerable airlift capability due to Russia's vast geography and often inhospitable climate, which means that in many situations the only means to deliver supplies to an area in need is by aircraft.

It is not clear what this arrangement with Serbia might entail in terms of logistical capability. The region is prone to a variety of natural disasters, especially forest fires, and the center could have a role in aiding their resolution. However, all neighboring countries are either member states of NATO or the EU, or on their way to joining one of the two organizations. And though Serbia's West-friendly neighbors can always use the extra help, they hardly need a regional logistical center manned by Moscow and Belgrade.

Therefore, if one considers the links to the GRU and the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations' experience with airlift and related logistics, it has to be considered that Moscow might lay logistical groundwork that -- intentionally or not -- has military value. This could range from nothing more than surveys of the airport's capability to the prepositioning of logistical equipment, allowing the facility to be ramped up into a proper base in times of crisis. The United States has littered the Balkans with exactly such installations, referred to as lily pads -- most notably in neighboring Romania, where it has four. These are a threat to Russian interests in Moldova and Ukraine, and something Moscow has wanted to counter.

Nis is an interesting location for the new emergency center because it long has been a military hub - first for Yugoslavia and later for southern Serbia. It is located on a key north-south transportation link in southeastern Europe, has a major airport and is home of the Serbian special forces' 63rd Paratroopers' Battalion, quite possibly Belgrade's (if not the region's) most effective fighting force.

There are some serious impediments to an effective Russian lily pad. First, Serbia is practically surrounded by NATO states, which means its airspace easily could be closed off during a crisis. Second, there is only so much equipment Russia can set up in Serbia before the "equipped logistical base" starts to look suspicious. Third, Russia is, ultimately, a land-based force, and despite the recent rhetoric about the need to establish expeditionary forces, there has not been much concrete movement in that direction.

Despite these limitations, which make the move largely symbolic for the near future, Moscow is on its way to setting up its first logistical center with potential military uses outside of the former Soviet Union. In addition, the center will be run by a ministry that serves as the wing of the Russian military intelligence unit. If one puts this in the context of the recent visit to Belgrade by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, with his pledge for a $1.5 billion loan for credit-starved Serbia, it must be concluded that Russia is moving into the Balkans with enthusiasm.

Belgrade likely hopes that Russia's moves in the region will spur the West into action over Serbia's long-delayed, but much-promised, integration into the EU. This strategy seemed to bear immediate fruit: The EU countered Russia's lending with loans of its own, including a proposal for a $1.5 billion investment over five years.

However, there is danger in this strategy. It is one thing to play one loan off of another and quite another to be seen as a potential ally of Moscow. Serbia easily could find itself in the middle of a whirlwind, with the potential reopening of the Balkans as a major point of contestation between the West and Russia.

A Stratfor Intelligence Report.
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