What’s the role of Russia in the Western Balkans? Is Serbia’s neutrality sustainable? What does the newly-formed Kosovo Army mean for the security of the region, and what does North Macedonia’s membership mean to the Alliance? We interviewed Alessandro Politi, NATO Defense College Foundation Director, to find out more about these questions.

European Western Balkans: Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report assessing the Western Balkans as the environment most vulnerable to Russian influence. Just some weeks ago, the Serbian public has been shocked by a spy affair involving a former Russian diplomat. How do you see Russia’s role in the Balkans?

Alessandro Politi: I have not seen the report (it does not seem to be published online), but Russian influence is unfortunately much more insidious and effective in some Western countries than in the Balkans. As analogous vast intelligence collection operations have proven in other countries, spying against one’s own ally does not seem a taboo. No further politically relevant development has followed the publication of the meeting between a Russian officer and an anonymous Serbian one.

Evidently Russia is carrying out a rearguard action in the region, but for the moment with modest strategic results, since Montenegro entered NATO and North Macedonia might soon. Spies, diplomats, propaganda are largely Cold War instruments, while I believe and warn since 2017 that the new frontier of Russian influence is the grey area between business and politics. Unfortunately, this is shown very clearly through different political, business, influence peddling and money laundering scandals.

Some niets to further integration of the region might do more damage than Moscow could dream about.

EWB: Taking into account all of these circumstances, is Serbia’s military neutrality possible? Are Serbia and the region less secure?

AP: Since the Nineteenth century, Serbia has had remarkable relations with Russia, but always at arm’s length, as Ilija Garašanin’s secret memorandum (Načertanije) and the subsequent political orientation of Tito showed very clearly.

Serbia is opportunistically trying to get the best possible deal from both sides but knows that only Europe can rescue its very shaky economy. Unless European leaders do not make serious mistakes, Serbia will enter the European Union with the other regional partners.

As for the neutrality issue, NATO has several neutral partners and sometimes even countries in a rather Russian orbit, without any problem also at the operational level. In fact, NATO’s official position is that it is up to Belgrade to choose its own status.

EWB: During your career, you were quite involved in Kosovo. Can you tell us the importance of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue for the regional security and how do you see the outcome?

AP: The importance of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue goes well beyond security: it is one of the pillars for a sustainable Western Balkan region. One should be very clear that this is not a fad of the international community, but it is a vital interest of the people and the governments of the area: no integration, no viable economies, more depopulation and emigration from already demographically fragile countries.

There are elite sectors in both capitals that exploit nationalist slogans to continue their own business as usual at the expense of impoverished populations. This will and is backfiring, provided that European leaders lead the integration process seriously.

I am confident in the outcome, but I would like to be reassured on timings.

EWB: The Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, General Milan Mojsilović, said at the Seventh NATO Week that Serbia is concerned about the initiative to transform Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into armed forces, and that NATO’s position on the issue was not clear to him. What’s your opinion about this initiative and how does NATO perceive it?

AP: NATO is very clear on this issue: enhanced dialogue is possible only with the Kosovo Security Force because some countries have no political appetite (and for solid reasons) in stirring divisive debates also in their own turf. Some countries do not care, but risk to be drawn into local quagmires instead of reducing their external commitments.

The political reasons why some politicians in Pristina want a Kosovo Armed Force are obvious, but they seem tenuously connected to a credible national security guarantee. KFOR is the guarantee until both sides close the dossier. It would be much more productive to continue minority recruitment in the KSF and to answer to the political demands of the Serb Kosovar citizens in a way that increases Pristina’s soft influence in these municipalities, instead of polarising public opinions.

EWB: When Montenegro joined the Alliance, there was considerable doubt as to how much such “small” country could contribute to the Alliance. We now have a situation where somewhat “larger” North Macedonia is close to joining. So, how does the accession of North Macedonia improve the security of NATO and the Western Balkans region?

AP: Frankly, in an Alliance that is based on a serious political covenant and on shared fundamental values, the “size” of a country was not and is not an object. NATO has countries from different “sizes”, but each capital can and wants to give a unique contribution that turns out to be very important in specific situations.

I have seen small countries giving invaluable support with their special forces or with new sanitary structures, both badly needed.  I have also seen allies shouldering very heavy political and operational burdens in serious crises, despite their low defence/GDP contribution. When money is an object, trust fades away and everybody is more alone and vulnerable.

Montenegro and North Macedonia are already capable to contribute with their distinct experience and knowledge to KFOR in a very concrete way.

EWB: What are your expectations NATO Leaders Meeting and what can the Western Balkan countries expect?

AP: Democracies are facing serious internal political weaknesses that are undermining the cohesion of the Alliance much more than any foreign power conspiracy. This translates in the risk of lower collective credibility and to this challenge all leaders should rise with deeds and responsible behaviour. There are reasonable chances that a communique will facilitate the evolution of a functional Alliance.