By David B. Kanin*
The poor performance of Russia’s military has galvanized a Western alliance that appeared disoriented and divided in the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Breathless rhetoric has called Putin’s war “suicidal,”  questioned his sanity, and speculated as to how he can find an off-ramp. Meanwhile, a bloodied but stolid Russia adjusts its sights and prepares to bludgeon eastern and southern Ukraine before returning to re-assault the country’s capital and the West. Russia has lost the first six weeks of the war but shows no sign of giving up on eventual victory, no matter how ugly its strategic and operational performance. If Moscow is to lose this war it will have to suffer much more serious setbacks than have been evident so far.
Ukraine’s ferocious resistance has led some Western pundits to wax enthusiastic about a supposed revival of the liberal world’s hegemony. On March 17 I attended a Zoomfest organized by an American Balkans watcher who invited a number of analysts and academics from the region to comment on the impact of the war on their countries and the Balkans as a whole. Before he let any of them speak the American laid out a series of triumphalist slides declaring the victory of democracy, defeat of autocracy, robustness of nation building, and retreat of populism. (He went on for a long time and then put pressure on each of his many guests to cut their presentations short – those speakers presented more sober views of the situation).
The organizer alleged that Russia’s failure marked the end of the line for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s policy of balancing his relations with Russia and the West. Vucic, the argument goes, will have to choose between falling in line with US and EU support for Ukraine or lash himself and Serbia to a losing Russian war effort. Similarly, Western media assessments have labeled Vucic as a Putin ally and linked him with Hungarian strongman Victor Orban. Such simplistic categorizations underestimate the subtlety and durability of these leaders’ policies. They also ignore the existence of nationalist and anti-war sentiment in Hungary and nationalist and pro-Russian feeling among Vucic’s constituents. And, by the way, the slant of this analysis overstates the attachment of each of these figures to Putin.
It should be remembered that non-alignment is far from a new concept in southeastern Europe. Josip Broz (Tito) confounded expectations when he survived his split with Stalin and Stalin himself but also managed to keep Washington and NATO at arms -length even as he accepted economic and financial assistance from the West. Tito was proud of his role as a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement and the memory of this stance continues to resonate in Serbia. Non-alignment helped orient a rickety structure that survived Tito’s death for a decade. The collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe did not cause the collapse of Yugoslavia, but the end of non-alignment’s relevance in wake of the events of 1989-91 removed one prop on which the Yugoslav identity and sense of purpose had rested.
Hungary, a former member of the Warsaw Pact and now in both the EU and NATO, never has been non-aligned. Nevertheless, Orban’s politics and security policies have morphed a bit like those of Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik. Previous posturing as a young pro-Western democrat gave way to enthusiastic embrace of populism and friendlier relations with Russia.
Vucic came to his neutrality from a very different direction, starting out as a nationalist associated with Vojislav Seselj but becoming a pragmatic, skillful politician able to establish good relations with Angela Merkel as well as Putin. Orban and Vucic achieved their latest victories in elections on the same day (April 3). In both cases, the system was skewed in the incumbent’s favor but there is little doubt these leaders’ opponents did not have the popular support needed to force regime change.
- Ukraine’s cause clearly did not move the needle in either case; it is important to stress that, like Vucic , the Serbian opposition refrained from supporting Western sanctions against Russia.
Going forward, there is no reason either of these newly reelected men needs to abandon their strategies. The EU is punishing Orban by threatening to withhold funds related to disputes preexisting and unrelated to Ukraine. This issue also failed to help his electoral opponents and likely has been discounted in Budapest. Orban’s offer to host peace talks includes invitations to France and Germany as well as Russia and Ukraine but not the US and so plays to Moscow’s goal of splitting NATO and marginalizing European security. The fact Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz continue to make futile phone calls to Putin suggests their interest in proving the EU is more than a marginal security actor might tempt them to accept what Putin would try to mold into a replay of the 1938 Munich agreement.
Vucic also can be relatively comfortable in his stance on the war. The fact there exists no credible path to EU membership for Serbia or the other Balkan non-members removes much of the leverage the Eurocrats would like to believe they have in Belgrade and other Balkan capitals. The well-trod argument that the West’s outrage at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is hypocritical in the context of its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 still carries much weight with the Serbian public. Vucic likely will keep as low a profile as possible as the conflict evolves – there is no reason for him to compete with Orban and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan for pride of place as potential mediator.
The emerging war crimes horror around Bucha and other towns in Ukraine recently evacuated by Russian troops so far does not seem to be changing this dynamic. The war coincides with the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia. BBC and other Western media have paid attention to this history and have reminded audiences of the Srebrenica genocide and other atrocities. Some have raised the trajectory of the war crimes trials after the Bosnian and Kosovo crises as cautionary tales relevant to possible criminal charges against Putin and Russian miscreants operating in Ukraine. So far, there does not appear to be an appetite to force Dodik out or to demand that Serbia act toward Ukraine differently than some believe it acted in Bosnia and Kosovo.
China is its own stool
In my view, it is nonsense to suggest China somehow faces great dilemmas about the war in Ukraine or that Beijing is missing a chance to prove it is a responsible actor in an international system that benefits it. China is properly looking out for its interests in an international system it is in the process of changing to suit those interests. The idea that China’s integration in the global economy will or should lead it to cooperate with Western “partners” is one of the silliest fantasies emerging from the West’s enthusiasm over the Putin-inspired renewal of its sense of supremacy. The current situation has its dangers but overall works to China’s benefit. The other two superpowers are at each other’s throats in a conflict Beijing can stay out of. China’s economy will suffer some pain, but nothing unmanageable.
Meanwhile, China will benefit from what is becoming Putin’s Mussolini moment. Well into the 1930s, Italy was the senior partner in the relationship with Nazi Germany – in 1936 Mussolini mobilized troops at the Austrian border to deter Hitler from trying to impose Anschluss. Within a short time that relationship reversed as Mussolini’s Italy floundered and then collapsed.
Now, Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine and the imposition of Western sanctions much broader, deeper and – I believe – longer lasting than Moscow expected is making Russia increasingly dependent on Chinese economic support. For now, China probably will be judicious in how it uses this growing leverage over junior partner Russia because both countries share the primary goal of bringing down the US and the declining Western-dominated order. Nevertheless, Moscow and Beijing are engaged in what over time will become an increasingly competitive tussle for influence in Central and South Asia. A similar dynamic eventually will emerge elsewhere, including in the Balkans. Orban and specially Vucic will be able to look to Beijing as an alternative partner to both Russia and the West.
China’s rise is beyond the scope of the war in Ukraine and out of the control of Western powers and their fictional “international community.” However, NATO and the EU can do a lot to nurture their residual credibility if they make sure it is the Russian stool that collapses under the feet of Orban Vucic and not their own. It is not overstating the case to insist that Western strategic credibility depends on enabling Ukraine to win its war. So far, all the West is doing is helping Kyiv not immediately lose. Part of Putin’s calculus in risking this invasion was the certainty that the West would not fight. Now, a bloodied Russia has as its goal an outcome in the field and/or at the negotiating table in which the West loses without firing a shot. This goal is attainable and, if attained, will strengthen Russian influence in places where its influence remains significant – in the Balkans that includes Bulgaria, North Macedonia, the Republika Srpska, and Montenegro as well as Serbia and Hungary.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
- For example, Nina Khrushcheva in an interview on MSNBC on April 6, 2022.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.