Russia’s pressure to Syria via the Balkans: The ‘grey zone’

Written by Sally Mann, CNN We’ve all heard the unsubstantiated claims that North Korea is loading missile warheads onto submarines, and they are scaring the bejesus out of people, especially US President Donald Trump….

Russia's pressure to Syria via the Balkans: The 'grey zone'

Written by Sally Mann, CNN

We’ve all heard the unsubstantiated claims that North Korea is loading missile warheads onto submarines, and they are scaring the bejesus out of people, especially US President Donald Trump. But North Korea’s leadership is not alone in facing external challenges — something else — indeed, something more serious — is at stake.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to pressure European nations in the Balkans to leave the so-called “red line” around Russia’s Black Sea military and missile base in Crimea, after Bulgaria took the daring step of temporarily blocking the perimeter wall.

But not all EU members are on board with Mr. Putin’s plan. Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic have said they will not take part in his decision to “break free of the second line of defense” which extends around the enclave.

Meanwhile, an escalating row over NATO and EU efforts to strengthen the Serbian-Croatian border risks boiling over into violence. Eastern European countries including Slovakia, Poland and even NATO’s most powerful army, the US, are protesting against the troop build-up in the Balkans.

The mass mobilization follows a decision by the EU in June to intensify its cooperation with NATO on maritime security — something it may have been doing for years but still needed to formalize. In return, the US has agreed to beef up the NATO mission to protect the Baltic Sea and “return to the old model of European security” that ensured mutual defence — and thus none.

The conflict between the west and Russia has several contributing factors.

But there’s something significant beyond rhetoric and the Kremlin’s attempts to hide behind complicated pretenses: members of the EU and NATO — and most importantly, EU members who don’t have borders with Russia — can no longer ignore the Kremlin’s determination to establish a buffer zone around Ukraine.

“The west’s belated concern over Russia’s actions in Crimea has also heightened awareness in the Balkans of Moscow’s interest in shifting the boundaries of the EU, not to mention Putin’s intentions in the Balkans. The fact that Russia is also the EU’s second-largest donor, after the US, therefore casts a shadow over the region’s internal balance of power.

“The Serbs and Croats together are building this second line of defense around Kosovo, and this is creating a situation where Montenegro, a member of the EU and NATO, finds itself aligned against fellow EU members like Albania and Macedonia. This is in stark contrast to the EU’s approach to Serbia, which has been invited to join NATO but has yet to agree to join the EU, because it cannot convince Brussels that it will curb its crackdown on media, political opponents and civil society organizations.”

The superpowers are not alone in facing a tense standoff: China is still at odds with India and at the height of the Cold War was battling US troops on its border with Vietnam. During a 1998 UN visit to Vientiane, the Vientiane Times reported, the Vietnamese government told the press “China is the enemy of Vientiane and of peace in the entire south-east Asian region.”

Frustrated by Trump’s hands-off approach, the U.S. is striving to inject itself back into a part of the world it left in the 1990s, and the Balkans is the next frontier.

“The so-called Moscow approach has been problematic for some years, because even if Montenegro and other countries do not want to see the United States as an opponent, the United States certainly does,” explains Politico’s Alexander Strohin.

“And then there’s the problem of Russia’s NATO membership, as well. Given the yawning gap between European Union policy and American policy, it’s understandable that the Obama administration was unwilling to make a formal commitment to Ukraine, claiming — despite evidence to the contrary — that Russia’s aggression there was an excuse for not joining NATO.”

Nevertheless, some analysts are wondering whether the region will instead witness a “rampant rise in regional conflict between the Chinese and Russians,” as Strohin puts it.

“A rising China … is leading Beijing to develop both military and diplomatic influence in neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines,” he argues.

“Even there, however, not everything is bad. ‘After all, the presence of China’s counterbalance in the South China Sea did prod the United States to both cooperate with Vietnam and go to the Hague court for a final ruling,’ notes Philip A. Wang, a fellow in the Program on East Asia at the Brookings Institution.”

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