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Zelenskyy says Russia wants to spark conflict in Balkans


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is sounding the alarm over what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to foment conflict in the troubled Balkans region.

The Ukrainian president warned Putin is looking to distract from Russia’s failed military efforts in Ukraine by stoking tensions in a region of Europe where Russian culture still holds significant sway.

“Pay attention to the Balkans. Believe me, we’re getting information. Russia has a long plan. … If our partners do nothing now, there will be another explosion,” Zelenskyy said.

“Zelenskyy is correct. A conflict has been brewing in the Balkans for months now, if not longer,” Rebekah Koffler, a strategic military intelligence analyst and the author of “Putin’s Playbook,” told Fox News Digital. “While Russia is unlikely to start a full-blown war at this time — as Putin has committed most of his manpower and material to the battlefield in Ukraine — it’s an almost certainty that Moscow will continue its covert destabilization operations in the Balkans.

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a photo of a destroyed tank

A destroyed tank in Mariupol May 30, 2022, during the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

“Russia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. The breakup of Yugoslavia was a gut punch for Putin. So, reversing the situation in Kosovo is his strategic goal. Hence, we will likely see more and more instability in the Balkans, especially now that the United States is hyper-focused on the Middle East.”

Russian forces expected a quick victory over the Ukrainian armed forces and little resistance from the population during the initial invasion, with many predicting the fall of Kyiv within days. During nearly two years of combat, Ukraine, with steadfast military and financial support from the U.S. and NATO, pushed Russian forces back to the east and liberated conquered territory. Recent figures provided by the U.K. estimate that over 300,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded and tens of thousands have deserted.

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If Russia is intent on sowing instability in the Balkans to distract from military failures in Ukraine, it would not come as a surprise to any observers of the region.

“Zelenskyy is absolutely right. Putin indeed wants to foment conflicts in other parts of the world to distract from Ukraine as he considers the war in Ukraine to be an existential fight for Russia and will stop at nothing to win it,” a diplomatic source with expert knowledge of the region told Fox News Digital.

a photo of Volodomyr Zelenskyy walking through Kherson, Ukraine

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits a flooded area after the Nova Kakhovka dam breached during Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kherson, Ukraine, June 8, 2023. (REUTERS/Stringer)

The U.S. has tried to nudge Serbia and other Balkan nations to make the necessary democratic reforms to fulfill their commitments and join the EU. A centerpiece of this project is Serbia’s normalization of relations with longtime foe Kosovo. 

Some observers and policymakers feel the U.S., under successive administrations, hasn’t engaged with the Balkans sufficiently enough as the focus has shifted to other more urgent foreign policy crises in Ukraine, Israel’s war on Gaza and China’s ambitions against Taiwan.

“While Russia continues its action to increase its influences in the Balkans and has succeeded in Montenegro, where pro-Russian parties rule the country, the West and U.S. continue with their naive appeasement policy toward Belgrade and their efforts to bring closer a Russian satellite country such as Serbia,” Agim Nesho, former Albanian Ambassador to the U.S. and the United Nations, told Fox News Digital.

“The lack of a clear U.S. strategy for the Balkans enables Russia to enact its revisionist projects in the region.”

The Western Balkans is fertile ground for fomenting conflicts, and Russia possess many cultural assets to make it happen. Putin wants to keep the Balkan region divided and prevent it from comfortably integrating into NATO and the EU. 

Montenegro elects new leader

Montenegrin Serb nationalists hold an ancient flag of Montenegro as their candidate, Jakov Milatovic, won the second round of presidential elections April 2, 2023, in Podgorica, Montenegro.  (Getty Images)

Russia has deep historical, cultural and religious connections to the Balkans, and narratives sympathetic to Russia often emanate from the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). Through the SOC and other entities, Russia is able to spread disinformation through friendly pro-Russian media outlets and social media to influence elements of society that have pro-Russian sympathies, mainly ethnically Serb communities in Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro, as well as Serbia itself.

“Russia, of course, continues to exert influence mainly through its propaganda warfare, which remains strong, especially in Serbia, which has not imposed sanctions against Russia,” Helena Ivanov, associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told Fox News Digital.

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This wouldn’t be the first time Russia was accused of trying to destabilize an eastern European country with ties to the former Soviet Union. Moldova’s government alleged Russia planned to foment a coup to overthrow its pro-European government in March.

The U.S. did not believe there was an immediate military threat to Moldova, but National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said at the time the U.S. believed Russian assets, with possible ties to Russian intelligence, were looking to stage protests and launch an insurrection against the Moldovan government.

Putin ukraine

In this photo taken from video released by a Russian TV pool March 19, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin waves to residents after visiting their new flat during his visit to Mariupol in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region of Ukraine. (Associated Press)

While it is true Russia seeks to influence political and cultural outcomes in the Balkans, there’s no legitimate fear Putin will launch or instigate a Ukraine-style conflict in a region that is tightly integrated into NATO and increasing its ties with the EU.

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“The Ukraine scenario in this region remains extremely unlikely due to the fact that KFOR troops remain in Kosovo and serve as a strong deference which prevents either side from escalating tensions into an all-out war. The continued engagement of KFOR thus remains crucial,” Ivanov cautioned.



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