Plans for a permanent new US military base to counter Russian influence in the Balkans have materialized, along with a new plan for how to approach US – Serbia relations. Meanwhile, China’s big infrastructural project in the region just got underway too. Is there room enough for everyone?
The Atlantic Council has released a dramatic new report directing the United States to establish a permanent military presence in the Balkans. This means that in addition to the archipelago of CIA black sites we’re probably operating here, there may soon be a permanent military base. The plan envisions transforming the existing US military base, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, into “the first permanent military base in southeastern Europe”. While Bondsteel does not currently have a runway, the US plans on building an airstrip as part of the overall investment in expanding the base’s facilities.
Why does the US appear on the verge of establishing a permanent military base in the Balkans? Russia “adventurism” and Russia’s close relationship to Serbia is one reason. Generally, the report describes the Western Balkans as “in a flux”. By now, the region was supposed to have been pretty much under control. Instead, it’s still fragile, corrupt, and worst of all, only several of the countries in the region have joined NATO. And at its core, the true aim of the Atlantic Council is to get countries to join NATO.
A few passages from the report give you an impression of what are identified as some of the region’s “problems”:
Persistent unemployment, political gridlock, and pervasive corruption are a recipe for the radicalization of the region’s young Muslim population. And the last two years have seen breathtaking attempts by Russia to capitalize on the region’s lingering pathologies to undermine the European project.
Belgrade can and should be a close partner and ally in the region, but it can only become one if it begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia. This is not a trivial pivot for Serbian leadership, but neither should it be something on which the United States or the EU should compromise.
The report tries to stoke a sense of urgency about the need for this base:
Without the traditional mix of constraints and inducements provided by the West since the late 1990s, the Western Balkans have become a much more dangerous place. Pervasive political and economic stagnation is exacerbating long- simmering grievances, and is undermining trust in the rule of law and democratic forms of government. While Islamist radicalization among the unemployed youth in Kosovo and BiH may be the dog that has not barked yet, the region’s pervasive political and economic stagnation means the West cannot get too complacent.
The alleged “botched assassination/coup attempt” of Montenegrin dictator Milo Djukanovic by alleged Kremlin agents appears in the report. That incident remains shrouded in an air of almost masonic secrecy, and there are many compelling reasons to doubt the official story. Still, it provides one of the more urgent claims as to why the Balkans need a strong US military presence to combat Russian “adventurism”.
The report acknowledges that the US has “ignored” the creeping authoritarianism of leaders who are “promising progress on vexing regional issues.” It has vowed not to do this any longer. In addition, the report contains a revised approach the US plans to take to certain leaders, particularly Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. This approach to Vucic appears radically different — at least superficially. Vucic has long been praised by the US and EU as a reformer and guarantor of stability. This report casts him in a very different, often critical light. One reason the US would open a permanent military base in Kosovo would be to work on something called the “Historic” Rapprochement with Serbia. Vucic would be shown less tolerance by the US when he played it too coy with Russia. He would also work with the American diplomats on ensuring positive stories about America and Americans got through to the wider Serbian public. There would be penalties for things like a disproportionate amount of Putin-worship in the tabloids. Vucic might be denied attention, and even have to endure a period of isolation to see “what it’s really like with no one but Russia as your friend.”
Taken together, the entire report immediately raises several concerns. Dramatically ramping up US military presence in Kosovo could be easily misinterpreted in Serbia – whether willfully or not — as a deliberate provocation and incur a response in the form of tabloid hysteria or diplomatic drama. Even the tightly government-controlled media would struggle to contain the narrative if it’s a story about a permanent US military base in Kosovo.
In addition, people in Kosovo have also been asking for more autonomy from the West — for more true “self-determination”. A permanent military base is going to reinforce the idea that Kosovo is a colony of the United States. It will also leave Kosovo vulnerable to criticism that it’s a “failed state”.
Tuesday was apparently a big day for the Balkans and the great powers. In addition to the publication of the Atlantic Council report, reconstruction of the railway line linking Belgrade and Budapest was officially inaugurated in Belgrade, representing the beginning of Beijing’s most ambitious effort to expand its rapidly growing influence in the region. The final cost of the high-speed rail line is expected to be about $3.8 billion. Serbia borrowed $297.6 million from China’s Exim Bank back in May to start modernizing the first segment of track. At Tuesday’s opening ceremony in the Belgrade neighborhood of Zemun, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stressed the historic nature of the reconstruction project for the country’s deepening economic relationship with China. Chinese economic power is both bigger and more visible than Russian power in the Balkans now. If the US builds a permanent military base in Kosovo, will it permit countries in the region to continue to pursue their rapidly evolving relationships with China?
Cover photo credit: Program Executive Office/flickr/some rights reserved