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Europe’s Next Crisis: The Balkans
Republika Srpska Anti-terrorist squad march during a parade celebrating the illegal statehood day of the Serbian entity Republika Srpska, January 9, 2017 (Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Europe’s Next Crisis: The Balkans

Walter Russell Mead

At a recent closed think-tank meeting, a well-informed German official was asked what problem in Europe caused him the most worry. His answer came without hesitation: the Western Balkans, where a new crisis is brewing as Turkey and Russia stir the pot.

In his worst-case scenario, Russia and Turkey would encourage their proxies in the Balkans, Serbia and Albania, to help them redraw the region’s borders. The Serbian government, with Russian support, could annex large portions of Bosnia populated by ethnic Serbs. Turkish support could help Albania pull off a similar maneuver, not only in heavily Albanian Kosovo but also in Macedonia, where much of the large Albanian minority would like to reunite with the motherland.

This course of events is unlikely. Since some of the territory claimed by Greater Albania partisans is in Serbia, it would be difficult for the two countries to agree on a new map. But it’s not an impossible outcome, even if the idea more likely would inspire a James Bond villain than a foreign minister. And increasing numbers of wannabe Bond villains seem to be popping up in world politics these days.

There is a grave reality underlying the German’s concerns. The Balkans are unraveling, and the West now must worry about more than Russian meddling. Turkey is becoming more of a NINO (NATO in Name Only) power, and despite deep Turkish suspicions of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cooperating more closely with President Vladimir Putin.

Turkey and Russia have been brought together by their opposition to Germany and the European Union. Russians don’t just hate NATO; they see the EU as a barrier against Russia’s historical great-power role in European affairs. Turkey has also turned against the EU and is looking for leverage against Germany and its fellow members. For Russia and Turkey, the ability to cause Europe trouble in the Balkans with relatively little risk and cost is too good to pass up.

The prospect of EU membership for countries like Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia has done more than anything to keep the fragile peace in the Western Balkans. Every Balkan country would rather be part of the EU than be allied to either Russia or Turkey.

But hopes of near-term EU membership are fading. Europe is losing Britain and has had a hard time managing relations with members like Hungary and Poland. The 28—soon to be 27—EU members have little desire to take in five obstreperous new Balkan states that would make the union even more ungovernable, and would expect financial aid at a time when the post-Brexit EU budget will already be stretched.

Serbs and Albanians are both signaling that if the West walks away, they will have to look east, and that will mean shifting to a nationalist agenda with Russian and Turkish help.

For the EU, a new round of Balkan chaos would be a disaster: refugees, crime, radicalization among Balkan Muslims, greater opportunities for hostile powers to gain influence at EU expense. But the EU doesn’t think it can manage the Balkans on its own. The U.S. will have to be part of the solution, Germans say.

Will the U.S. play ball? Engaging in distant Balkan quarrels to make Germany’s life easier isn’t exactly Donald Trump’s idea of smart foreign policy. Even as Atlanticist a president as Bill Clinton struggled for two years to keep the U.S. out of the post-Yugoslav wars. Mr. Trump may be even more skeptical of intervention and treat the possibility of a new round of Balkan wars with the chilly aloofness that Barack Obama displayed in Syria. This would be a grave mistake. Although the quarrels in the Balkans are trivial compared with larger problems elsewhere, what happens in the Balkans doesn’t always stay in the Balkans, and NATO as well as the EU could be shaken to the core by another round of Balkan bloodletting. The crisis has the potential to redefine U.S.-EU relations for decades.

Europeans argue that relatively small, short-term American investments—active diplomacy and building up U.S. forces in Kosovo—could go a long way. But we have a president who may not find that argument convincing. Mr. Trump’s core foreign-policy conviction seems to be that the U.S. has let its allies enjoy a decadeslong free ride. Europeans who worry about Balkan peace need to think about how they can persuade a skeptical White House to engage. The old appeals—to NATO solidarity, defense of freedom, fear of Russia—may not be enough. Mr. Trump thinks in terms of deals, and Berlin needs to think about how to bring him to the table.

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