The crisis caused by Russia’s invasion will not be contained within Ukraine’s borders. Sir Roderic Lyne, a former UK ambassador to Moscow, warned in a ThinkIn this week that Putin could also menace the Baltics, cause havoc in the Balkans and even make trouble in Libya.
Threat: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all former Soviet Republics with significant minorities of Russian-speaking people. Putin could manufacture grievances on their behalf as he has in eastern Ukraine. Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis warned last month that “the battle for Ukraine is a battle for Europe. If Putin is not stopped there, he will go further.”
Risk level: “There’s a certain degree of nervousness about the Baltic republics,” says the LSE’s James Ker-Lindsay. “But of course the Baltic republics are Nato.” Their Nato membership makes military intervention by Russia unlikely – the more so since the arrival of more troops, ships and planes to defend Nato’s eastern flank in recent weeks.
Threat: The Balkan states weren’t part of the Soviet Union so Putin doesn’t have any territorial claims over them (real or imagined). But they are vulnerable to Russian influence as Europe’s “soft underbelly” according to a recent paper by Oxford’s Othon Anastakis.
The Balkans are easily exploited because they’re only partly integrated into the rest of Europe. Only Croatia and Slovenia are EU member states. Five are Nato members (Albania, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia) but Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are not, and Nato’s 1999 bombing campaign in the fight over Kosovo left many in the region suspicious of the alliance.
Serbia in particular maintains close ties with Russia. It’s one of only two European countries not to have imposed sanctions on Russia since the start of the invasion (the other is Belarus), although it did back this week’s UN resolution.
Risk level: There’s a risk that as tensions between Russia and the West ratchet up the Balkan states could become “a proxy hybrid battlefield”, Anastakis writes – especially in Serbia and the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, where the Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been threatening to secede and beefing up his police force with Russian support.
The Western Balkans are protected from direct Russian antagonism by distance and the Nato members in their midst, but there are other ways Putin could make trouble.
A Russia-linked information war has been raging for years, in which local media regularly reproduce disinformation and anti-Western propaganda. Experts say it’s difficult to imagine any kind of military intervention in the Balkans (not least because Russia is short of money as a result of sanctions) but an increase in disinformation seems more likely.
“Disinformation is a low cost and very effective type of information intervention,” says Dr Jessie Barton Hronešová, a political scientist and expert on East Central and Southeast Europe. “They [the Russians] have been doing it for a while and I think they will keep doing it even more.” Disinformation keeps local opinion divided on key political issues like EU and Nato accession – and that suits Putin well.
Moldova and Georgia
Threat: If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia could be next. They share two key vulnerabilities: neither are members of Nato and both are ex-Soviet republics.
Risk level: Moldova’s security concerns are the most immediate. It’s bordered by Ukraine and the fighting is close: “You can hear the noise of the bombs across the border,” Moldova’s president Maia Sandu said this week. Much of Moldova’s Ukrainian border is flanked by the Russian-backed separatist region of Transnistria where Russia maintains a military presence. Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008 and Russian troops are still stationed in two Russian-backed separatist regions inside its borders. Fearing Russian aggression, both countries have applied for EU membership in recent days.
Putin is busy in Europe for now, but Kremlin-linked proxies still have the bandwidth to project his influence further afield. The Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries is still operating in Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya.