[Opinion] : The easy way out leads to failure

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer

Washington, 09 March 2023, / – Russian military aggression in Ukraine has a counterpart in the Western Balkans. There the aggression is via hybrid warfare directed from Serbia, mainly against Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and (North) Macedonia.

If Russia succeeds in gaining territory in Ukraine, we should expect a far more aggressive effort in the Balkans. If Russia fails in Ukraine, it will fail as well in the Balkans.


Why then, you should ask, has the State Department been so soft on Serbia, Russia’s main agent in the Western Balkans ?

The US has allowed billions of dollars of development bank investments to go to Belgrade. The Pentagon is trying to revive military cooperation with the Serbian army. The State Department backed unproductive and unjustified decisions by the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina that favored Croat extremists and sanctioned Serbs. American officials befriended and encouraged a narrowly elected pro-Russian government in Montenegro. They have insisted on early formation of an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities in Kosovo, a proposition that would weaken the still young Kosovo state.

Some regard these moves as recent. But they are better regarded as part of a long history of taking the easy way out in the Balkans. As difficult as they were, the Dayton accords seemed easier to Washington in 1995 than defeat of Republika Srpska (Serb entity).

After Milosevic fell to the 2000 election in Serbia, the Americans quickly gave unequivocal support to his successors. They cut off funding to the Otpor Resistance movement that intended to keep a sharp eye on the democratization process. Senator Biden argued in a hearing several years later that it would be better to get Serbia into the EU accession process than to insist it earn candidacy on the merits.

Serbia‘s response

The Serbian government took advantage of that support to reject the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo’s independence. It instead established Serbia as a militarily “neutral” country. Belgrade rearmed as best it could, mainly with Russian help. When Serbia’s disappointing but relatively liberal “democrats” lost the 2012 election, Washington lined up behind their nationalist successors.

Many thought they could be convinced to resolve the Kosovo issue in a “Nixon to China” move. Presidents Tomislav Nikolic and then Aleksandar Vucic declined to do so. President Vucic’s minions now talk openly about a “Serbian world.” That is analogous to Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” and a synonym of Greater Serbia. It is only a matter of time before Serbia walks away from the French-German proposed agreement that Vucic refused to sign last month.

Washington however has been unresponsive and ineffective. Vucic’s unwillingness to sign, Republika Srpska’s “national day” display of force, Belgrade’s threats of military action in Kosovo, the Bosnia HiRep’s decision to change the way votes are counted the day after an election, the compromise of NATO secrets by Montenegro’s pro-Russian government, control of the press, harassment of liberal democrats, and corruption in Serbia—none of these developments have elicited an effective response from Washington.


The explanation is far less than edifying. Washington doesn’t give a hoot about the Western Balkans. The region is too complicated, too peripheral, too aggravating. So it delegates hegemony to a “pivotal state.” The State Department thinks that is Serbia, which is central geographically, larger than its neighbors, a bit better off economically, and a far more consolidated state than the other former Yugoslav republics.

If you delegate a pivotal state to control a region, you have to put up with most of its behavior, both in the region and at home. If the pivotal state in addition maintains good relations with your adversaries, you will fear a tilt in that direction. Hence the US government’s reluctance to call out Belgrade, even when it sides with Moscow and Beijing in foreign policy and slides inexorably toward autocracy at home.

This is a sad commentary, not only on American diplomacy. It sadly favors a Russian proxy over states truly aspiring to join the West. That’s ugly. But it is also sad for the region, which has good reason to fear instability. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro all face threats to their sovereignty and territorial integrity as a result of America’s treatment of Serbia as the pivotal state in the Balkans.

But it is sad also for Serbia, which no longer meets the Copenhagen democracy criteria for EU membership. Vucic can do what he pleases domestically, without concern about constraints on his power. And it is sad for Kyiv, which should worry that whatever the Americans agree in the Balkans they may copy in Ukraine. How about an Association of Russian-majority municipalities in Donbas?


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This text is his speech at US-Europe Alliance panel on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the Western Balkans and was originally published at his website.    

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of   

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