Janusz Bugajski, September 2021

Russia’s stage-managed parliamentary (Duma) and regional elections on September 17-19 demonstrate that the Kremlin views democracy and decentralization as a threat to the survival of the Putin regime. Repressive measures on the eve of the Duma elections, including banning independent candidates, blocking websites, outlawing civic initiatives, and prohibiting public rallies, indicate growing fears in the Kremlin over the fragility of the system even though officials control the entire election process.

The misnamed Russian Federation is a centralized structure in which state institutions including parliaments and governments serve the interests of the presidential administration and its oligarchic allies and state bureaucrats and do not defend the rights of ordinary citizens. To protect the ruling clique from concerted opposition, Russian courts manipulate the concept of “extremism” to include almost any expression or activity critical of the regime.

The law on “Countering Extremist Activities,” asserts the vague notion of “undermining the security of the Russian Federation” or violating its territorial integrity. It is used to persecute independent activists, journalists, and scholars, and bans all Putin critics from the mass media. The regime uses “anti-extremism” measures to disguise its violation of civil liberties and punish dissent. State Duma deputies also introduced a bill in May 2021 to retroactively ban employees, volunteers, and donors of “extremist” organizations from running as candidates in elections.

At the regional level, all local political parties are banned even though almost every federal region resents Putin’s “power vertical.” The growing list of grievances now includes incompetence in handling the pandemic, environmental devastation, economic decline, and the unfair appropriation of natural resources by Moscow. Protest movements have already been visible in several federal units from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Coast, while governmental unaccountability amidst the deepening economic depression will fuel more widespread demands for devolution and self-determination.

Although comparison have been made between Putin and Stalin, the current regime seems incapable of applying the kind of extensive repression characteristic of communism. It evidently calculates that mass murders, expulsions, and imprisonment will imperil its survival. Soviet methods could significantly increase Moscow’s isolation on the international arena through more stringent sanctions, economic collapse, and violent clashes in Russian cities. As a result, the Kremlin tries to impose a sufficient measure of repression with the threat of escalation to terrorize the population into submission. However, the continuous ratcheting up of repressive measures indicates that the administration is failing in its ability to pacify all citizens.

The Kremlin has organized the murders or imprisonment of the most prominent opposition organizers and investigative journalists. However, political murders and the confinement of popular figures such as Alexei Navalny or the trials of protest organizers in Ingushetia and other republics, betray the Kremlin’s weakness. If Putin has to resort to assassinations and imprisonment to eliminate viable alternatives to his rule he must have concluded that his political survival is indeed under threat.

Russian officials display their paranoia about state disintegration and are trying to avoid repeating Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at reforming the Soviet system in the late 1980s. Paradoxically, such fears will continue to preclude the economic and political reforms that are necessary to prevent a systemic collapse. Putin and his security services and the privileged class of civil servants are not prepared to endanger their power and purses by pursuing reforms that would give citizens a choice through democratic elections. But without economic modernization and market diversification, in combination with political democratization, decentralization, and genuine federalism, Russia will not only stagnate and decline, above all it will slide toward an existential crisis.

Some state officials appear to be cognizant of the oncoming dangers. In a recent speech at the All-Russia Youth Education Forum, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu compared Russia to the former Yugoslavia, warning about external pressures in combination with internal threats that could divide the country along nationality, class, and religious lines and result in disintegration. What he failed to point is that it is precisely Moscow’s policies of hyper-centralization and manipulation of Russian ethno-nationalism that can drive the country toward a violent implosion instead of the relatively peaceful rupture witnessed during the dismantling of the Soviet Union.


Janusz Bugajski, September 2021

Russian officials have publicly welcomed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as a major defeat for the United States. But behind the scenes the Kremlin will struggle to prevent the spread of Talibanism to Central Asia and into Russia itself. It has staged rapid military exercises in Central Asia and along Russia’s borders as a show of strength. And one major way for Moscow to deflect the looming threat is to aim the new Kabul regime against Western interests in the wider Middle East and even globally.

State media and Russian officials have reveled in the sudden and bloody American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The rapid collapse of the Afghan government allegedly demonstrated that the U.S. is a declining global power that cannot be trusted to defend its allies and partners and that NATO is a spent force. Both Russia and China may also test other U.S. commitments in Europe and Asia at a time of acute global uncertainty and the pressure will mount on targeted states such Ukraine, Georgia, and Taiwan.

Moscow’s intense propaganda campaign will also be accompanied by moves to steer the Taliban into new anti-Western offensives. The objective is to subvert other Muslim-majority states, spread an authoritarian religious ideology, scale down the American presence, and undermine President Joe Biden’s agenda of democracy-promotion and women’s emancipation.

The more immediate threat to the West and to moderate Islam is a revival of global terrorism. Afghanistan can again be effectively used as a base to recruit, train, and deploy jihadists from different states against Western facilities, allies, and civilians throughout the Muslim world. New attacks on the U.S. homeland and in Europe cannot be discounted and the younger Taliban generation may prove more sophisticated in disinformation campaigns and more capable in cyber war and in deploying bioweapons and other mass casualty devices.

The Biden administration may endeavor to develop ties with the Taliban regime to limit its assaults on the West. There is some hope in Washington that the new leaders in Kabul would be willing to engage in diplomacy in return for a measure of international legitimacy. An alternative option would be to exploit Afghanistan’s ethnic, tribal, and regional divisions to weaken the Caliphate by supporting anti-Taliban forces, particularly those gathered by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary anti-Soviet mujahideen commander. Massoud has pledged to resist the Taliban from his stronghold in the Panjshir valley and to recruit experienced combatants.

Moscow has not evacuated its embassy in Kabul after cultivating cordial ties with Taliban leaders over the years and receiving pledges that they will not aim their Islamic revolution against the secular Central Asian states. But the Kremlin’s trust in the Taliban may be misplaced. Moscow’s primary goals in Central Asia are to maintain the region in its sphere of influence, keep the West at a distance, and prevent the infiltration of radical Islamist groups into Russia. It will undoubtedly expand its military presence in the region, including border guards and special forces but this could mean a drawdown of troops in other regions where Russia is already engaged in wars or outright occupation, including Ukraine and Georgia.

Despite the reinforced military presence by Central Asian states along Afghanistan’s northern borders, the regime in Kabul can facilitate the infiltration of various ultra-Islamist groups into neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan and promote radicalization among disaffected locals. A sizeable number of jihadists will also be returning from the war fronts in Afghanistan and the robust heroin trade will help fund insurgency and terrorism.

In trying to block the rise of regional jihadism Beijing is also seeking commitments from the Taliban that it will not assist terrorist groups inside China and will not lend support to the Xinjiang independence movement among Muslim Uyghurs. Beijing will also pursue its economic agenda across Central Asia and will want to entice Afghanistan into its commercial routes across the continent while pushing out American influence throughout the region.

In Russia itself fears are rising about a new upsurge in jihadist militancy and anti-state terrorism, as anger at Moscow’s policies has accelerated during the pandemic and amidst economic decline. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will inspire Islamist rebel groups in the North Caucasus, the Middle Volga, and other Muslim-majority regions, with many experienced fighters returning home from Afghanistan.

A new round of terrorist attacks in Russian cities can be expected over the coming months, especially if they are supported and funded by the Taliban regime. Afghans have a long memory of the mass murders perpetrated by Moscow during the period of Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The head of the Chechen republic Ramzan Kadyrov has warned of the imminent danger to Russia after the fall of Kabul. He is evidently fearful that his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin may be undermined by a new generation of anti-Moscow Islamists.

A sizeable jihadist movement can reemerge in the North Caucasus and other Muslim areas, aimed at the creation of an Islamist caliphate similar to Afghanistan. In recent days, the arrest of dozens of alleged members of the radical Islamist group Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad in police raids across Russia indicates growing anxiety in government circles. The special operation was conducted jointly by the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the National Guard (Rosgvardia) in several far-flung cities including Moscow, Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, and Krasnoyarsk. Those arrested were suspected of promoting terrorist ideology, financing and recruiting activists, and transporting them to war zones.

The ensuing challenges to Russia’s state integrity can also unleash a plethora of ethnic, national, and regional demands throughout the fragile Russian federation. Paradoxically, while Moscow may now view the Taliban victory as a defeat for the West, the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan may have the most destabilizing consequences inside Russia itself.


Janusz Bugajski, August 2021

Under the rule of President Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia is desperately trying to imitate Russia. It seeks to be the dominant power in the Western Balkans and is mimicking Putin’s “Russian World” ideology with a smaller “Serbian world” variant. But the problem for Belgrade is twofold: its expansionist agenda will be resisted by all neighbors and international agencies, while its pursuit of “greatness” will ensure that Serbia becomes ever more dependent on Russia’s geopolitical calculations.

In its Russian World (Russki mir) agenda, the Kremlin declares an obligation to defend all Russian speakers or people born in the Soviet Union and their descendants. This includes the right to intervene in the affairs of neighboring states and even the necessity of conquest and partition to allegedly protect Russians-speakers, as already witnessed in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

In the Serbian “younger brother” version of Srpski Svet, as recently declared by Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, all Serbs have the right to be united and live together in one state. Just like Russians, the Serbs are portrayed as the long-suffering victims which hostile foreign powers are conspiring to assimilate or eliminate. Belgrade therefore claims the right to protect Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosova, North Macedonia, and Croatia. In addition to political intervention on their behalf, this means expanding an army capable of ensuring Serbian interests through possible military conquest.

As the former propaganda minister for Slobodan Milošević, Vučić, is well versed in the tactics developed by the Soviet political police, intelligence outfits, and state media to distort reality and mobilize citizens against the imaginary enemy. And just in case too much Westernism has rubbed off on Vučić, Putin’s henchmen and operatives are ready to stiffen his spine and provide the propaganda and agitation needed to stir the Serbian populace.

Vučić’s Serbia acts like a deferential sibling toward Russia, viewing its “elder brother” as a tough and wise leader that can help junior achieve his regional ambitions. But under this fraternal surface, the Kremlin is manipulating Belgrade to serve its geopolitical goals through an unequal relationship based on four dependencies: diplomatic, economic, military, and political.

Serbia is diplomatically beholden to Russia and Belgrade has pledged its loyalty to Moscow. Among other acts of submission, the government has vowed never to impose economic sanctions on Russia, despite calls from the European Union that Serbia must align its foreign policy with that of the bloc if it is serious about membership. Unlike Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania, Serbia did not join the Western embargo on Russia following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine or the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Belgrade evidently does not view Ukraine as a brotherly Slavic state and welcomes the elimination of political dissidents.

For the Kremlin, the small “Serbian world” is becoming part of a much larger “Russian world” and it expects the Vučić’ administration to demonstrate its gratitude. Vučić seems to be permanently indebted to Putin for blocking Kosova’s entry into the United Nations and refusing to recognize its independence. The speaker of parliament Ivica Dačić has praised Russia as Serbia’s best ally that protects its “territorial integrity” and defends it in international fora. In stark contrast to the submissive current government in Belgrade, Tito the communist stood up to Moscow’s arrogance and successfully resisted Stalin. Even Milošević maintained his independence from Russia and exploited Yeltsin to his advantage against Western powers.

Serbia’s economic dependence on Russia continues to expand, particularly in the energy field. In January 2021, Belgrade defied U.S. calls to reduce its addiction to Russian energy and diversify its supplies. Instead, it officially launched a new gas link via Bulgaria and Turkey with a 400 kilometer section of the Turkish Stream pipeline for Russian gas that will cross Serbia toward Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia has so far received Russian gas via Hungary and Ukraine, but Moscow intends to circumvent Ukraine in order to deplete its budget, strangle its economy, and reduce its role as an energy transit state to Europe. Serbia depends almost entirely on Russian energy suppliesand this bolsters Russia’s controls over the Balkan state.

On the military front, Serbia appears to be following Kremlin commands. Above all, Moscow is adamant that any Serbian moves toward NATO membership will not be tolerated and could result in the replacement of Vučić. Serbia is being groomed as a military outpost of Russian power and has been armed with warplanes, tanks, and anti-aircraft systems. Vučić recently visited an air defense unit near Belgrade that has been equipped with Russia’s Pantsir-S1system, designed to defend targets on the ground from cruise missiles, drones, and low-flying aircraft. And of course the Russo-Serbian “humanitarian center” in Niš serves as an intelligence and special operations facility for Moscow.

Serbia’s military build-up is viewed with concern by all neighboring states. For Putin, Serbia provides a valuable option of stirring conflicts and even triggering armed clashes in the West Balkans to distract attention from conflict zones that Moscow engineers in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus, and to disguise mounting unrest in the Russian Federation itself. At some point, Vučić could be pushed or provoked into a military confrontation on the pretext of defending the little “Serbian world” and may even appeal to the larger “Russian world” for assistance.

The dependence of the Vučić government on Moscow’s political approval is also escalating. Kremlin support for assorted nationalist groups, its extensive influence in Serbia’s information space, and its espionage penetration of key institutions is intended to keep Vučić in check. The coup in Montenegro in October 2016 was both an attempt to dislodge the pro-NATO government in Podgorica and a signal to Vučić that the Kremlin can replace him if he steers away from the Russian orbit. By surrendering to Putin in every major domain, Serbia has in effect become a willing victim of Moscow’s policies.


Janusz Bugajski, July 2021

Summits with U.S. Presidents have never dissuaded Russia’s President Vladimir Putin from launching new attacks against Western democracies and snatching territories from independent neighbors. For the Kremlin, the purpose of the Geneva summit on June 16 was to gain Joe Biden’s recognition of Russia as a great power with global interests. And it has calculated that without persistent attacks on the West or its neighbors, Russia would widely be viewed as a declining power with limited global relevance.

For Biden, the Summit was an opportunity to place Moscow on notice that any further violations of Western security, including cyberattacks on America’s critical infrastructure, will trigger a strong counterattack. While Biden has called for a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, this is exactly what Putin does not want, as it would limit his country’s significance. The stage is now set for Putin to test Biden’s resolve after concluding that the White House is so preoccupied with other challenges that it wants to avoid any conflict with Russia.

The Kremlin may temporarily desist from interfering in the U.S. but it can always stir fresh conflicts along Russia’s long borders and gauge Washington’s reactions. Until now the Kremlin has been careful in its interventions not to provoke a major NATO response. But it will become more emboldened where it meets little resistance or may miscalculate and overreach in its ambitions.

There are several scenarios of new aggression beginning with Ukraine. The Russian navy can blockade Ukrainian ports along the Black Sea, including Odesa, while using Crimea as a bridgehead. Having built up its maritime capabilities, Moscow is in a strong position to ward off any countermeasures by NATO to reopen sea-lanes. Moscow’s goal would be to strangle Ukraine economically, weaken the government in Kyiv, and increase its vulnerabilities in conceding to Russia’s territorial and political demands.

A provocation involving ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Estonia or Latvia could be staged to justify an incursion to protect allegedly endangered national minorities. Undercover Russian agents and disinformation outlets can provoke or inject separatism, similar to the Ukrainian Donbas model, in Russian speaking areas of eastern Estonia (Narva) and eastern Latvia (Latgale) or stir ethnic conflicts in Riga and Tallinn. This would test whether there is sufficient Alliance cohesion to subdue Russian proxies short of a military intervention.

Several developments could destabilize Belarus. Moscow may seek to replace President Alyaksandr Lukashenka with a more compliant leader. It can push toward a closer union between Russia and Belarus and a permanent presence of Russian troops. This would raise fears along NATO’s eastern flank that Moscow was preparing to link up with its forces in the Kaliningrad exclave and cut off the Baltic states. Having incorporated Belarus into a single state, Moscow would also be in a better position to threaten Ukraine from the north as well as the east.

In the Western Balkans pan-national movements will be exploited by the Kremlin to advance its presence. Under President Aleksandr Vučić the “Serbian World” agenda, mimicking that of Putin’s “Russia World,” is intended to dominate neighboring states and eventually incorporate territories with large Serbian populations. Serbian irredentism is directly backed by Moscow to disrupt the region and create a stronger Balkan ally. Moscow may not start armed conflicts in the region but it is certainly prepared to incite and exploit them to its geopolitical advantage.

Moscow also manages conflicts in the South Caucasus to increase its influence and prevent the development of closer ties between the three South Caucasian states and the West. Its new peace-keeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh gives Moscow a military foothold in all three states – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In September 2020, war reignited between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories. Russia used the war as a pretext to inject its troops as “peacekeepers” and apply more pressure on both states not to stray from a Moscow orbit. Both Baku and Yerevan remain dissatisfied with the results of the war and one can expect new conflicts over borders, territories, and transportation routes which Russia will try to steer to its advantage.

Another option for the Kremlin to help mobilize support for Putin at a time of falling domestic support is the outright annexation of separatist territories, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Transnistria from Moldova, and the Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine. Alternatively, the curtailment of economic subsidies to these entities during Russia’s economic decline could lead political instability, power struggles, factional wars, and even collapse, as they remain heavily dependent on Moscow for their survival.

The unfreezing of conflict zones will also encourage fractured states to try and regain their lost territories through economic pressure or outright military intervention. They may calculate that Moscow is focused on other disputes and not be in a position to wage several simultaneous wars. In the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia the conflicts could also spill over the border into Russia’s North Caucasus, with different republics and militias supporting South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence in order to buttress their own claims to statehood.

NATO will need to calculate how to respond to numerous potential crises, many of which do not directly involve Allied members but could spill over their borders, impact on their ethnic kindred, and test their security. When planning for potential threats NATO must be imaginative. Few policy makers imagined the rapid disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union over thirty years ago, or the violent implosion of Yugoslavia. Western governments should not be taken so starkly by surprise again, as that would drastically reduce the effectiveness of any responses. NATO planners and military forces must be better prepared for the unexpected – psychologically, politically, and militarily.


Janusz Bugajski, June 2021

Negotiations between Serbia and Kosova, which restarted in Brussels on June 15 under the auspices of the European Union, hold the key for stability in the Western Balkans. Without an agreement on mutual recognition as independent states the festering dispute will unsettle borders, curtail economic development, and preclude EU integration. For the talks to succeed, the Biden administration needs to play a more active role in the process. Whereas the EU is viewed in the region as divided and unreliable, the U.S. retains credibility because of its leadership role in resolving previous Balkan conflicts.

The Biden administration has confirmed that mutual inter-state recognition between Serbia and Kosova is the only viable solution. The acceptance of final borders would allow for economic development in both states and inhibit the Kremlin’s corrupt regional inroads. Without a bilateral agreement the region could again descend into conflict propelled by Serb and Albanian nationalist ambitions

Since Kosova declared independence in 2008 and was recognized by the U.S. and all but five EU members, Serbia’s government has dedicated its foreign policy to blocking the new country’s entry into international institutions. It has worked closely with Putin’s Russia in trying to delegitimize Kosova’s statehood and promote its expansionist agenda.

Under President Aleksandr Vučić the “Serbian World” agenda, mimicking that of Putin’s “Russia World,” is intended to dominate several neighboring states and eventually incorporate territories with large Serbian populations. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Montenegro stand on the front lines in defending their sovereignty but feel they receive insufficient political assistance from the EU. Meanwhile, Serbian irredentism is directly backed by Moscow to disrupt the region and create a stronger Balkan ally.

Belgrade’s objectives toward Kosova are to indefinitely delay a bilateral settlement, maintain uncertainty about its future, and potentially absorb some of its territory. In the case of Montenegro, Vučic’s policy is designed to subdue its sovereignty and subordinate its foreign policy to that of Serbia. Belgrade works through Serbian nationalists included in the new governing coalition who want to backtrack on the country’s Western orientation even though Montenegro is already a NATO member.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the third major target of pan-Serbianism. The country remains dysfunctional primarily because of the blocking policies of the autonomous Republika Srpska (RS). Its leader, Milorad Dodik, periodically threatens separatism to create a new Serbian state and merge with Serbia. Although Vučić has avoided openly campaigning for Bosnian partition, he calculates that a wider regional crisis combined with conflicts within Bosnia itself will provide opportunities for secession and unification with Serbia when the West is distracted.

Pan-Albanian aspirations will be driven by the lack of realistic prospects for EU accession for Albania and Kosova and for countries with sizeable Albanian communities such as North Macedonia and Montenegro. Resentment of EU policy is compounded by what is widely viewed as Western tolerance of the Greater Serbia project and an unwillingness to strongly confront Russia’s interference throughout the region.

Ambitious politicians can exploit numerous grievances while promising national unification across existing borders. There is widespread anger with corrupt politicians and institutions that contribute to economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and the emigration of young and educated people. Elections change little as the state is dominated by interest groups who use their period in office to enrich themselves and remain in power. In Serbia’s case the government has also become increasingly authoritarian in eroding civil liberties.

Frustration with Brussels has been compounded by painfully slow progress in providing coronavirus vaccines in much of the Balkans and the denial of visa liberalization for citizens of Kosova – the only country in Europe that lacks such an arrangement with the EU. For Albanians, paralysis in the Prishtina-Belgrade talks, the non-recognition of Kosova’s statehood by five EU members (Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia), and Kosova’s inability to enter major multi-national  institutions such as the United Nations have deepened public resentments.

In these challenging conditions, the idea of national unification in one state structure can hold a promise of progress and historical justice. Kosova’s unification with Albania would evidently ensure its protection under the NATO umbrella and provide Prishtina with greater global access. For Serbs an enlarged Serbia would finally bring the entire nation into a single state. But moves toward state enlargement would inevitably spark conflicts with neighbors and spur demands for border changes among other ethnic groups. Although political leaders repeat the formula that nationalist aspirations will be neutralized through pan-European unification, they must also be calculating how to benefit from nationalist sentiments if the path to the EU is indefinitely blocked.


Janusz Bugajski, June 2021

As grievances among Albanians in the Western Balkans continue to intensify, the vision of pan-Albania lurks on the horizon. Widespread disappointment with governments, mainstream parties, economic conditions, and international agencies can be exacerbated by ambitious politicians to promise national unification. Five key developments will fuel the pan-Albania project: domestic frustration, stifled EU aspirations, Belgrade’s Greater Serbia agenda, American missteps, and positive visions of unification.

In Albania and Kosova grievance and frustration are widespread with corrupt politicians, economic stagnation, unemployment, and poor governance in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Elections change little as the state is dominated by interest groups who use government to enrich themselves and remain in power. Limited job opportunities force young, educated, and ambitious people to emigrate. The new Vetëvendosje government in Kosova has committed itself to stamping out corruption and stimulating the economy, but the public will only be impressed by results.

Lack of any realistic prospects for EU accession also contribute to public resentments. The Union’s reputation has taken a severe blow and will further deteriorate if it fails to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The process has been postponed mainly because Bulgaria is playing the nationalist card by insisting that its dispute with Skopje over history and language must be resolved before the talks can begin.

Numerous other EU failures have deepened the malaise. Brussels has proved painfully slow in providing coronavirus vaccines to the Balkans, convincing some to turn to China and Russia. The denial of visa liberalization  for Kosova makes Albanians the only ethnic outcasts on the continent. Inadequate EU economic investments in the poorer Balkan states contribute to out-migration and helps fuel poverty and radicalization.

Albanians grievances are compounded by EU tolerance of Belgrade’s Greater Serbia agenda. President Aleksandr Vučić has revived a project to incorporate neighboring territories with large Serbian populations and to dominate nearby states. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, and Montenegro stand on the front lines in defending their sovereignty but receive insufficient political and security assistance from the EU. Meanwhile, Serbian irredentism is directly backed by Moscow.

For Albanians, the inconclusiveness of the Prishtina-Belgrade talks, the non-recognition of Kosova’s statehood by five EU members, and Kosova’s inability to enter major multi-national  institutions such as the UN, drives perceptions that pan-Serbianism is condoned in EU capitals.

Another danger is U.S. missteps in dealing with the region. This includes Washington’s failure to confront the coalition government in Montenegro that is heavily influenced by Belgrade and whittling down Montenegro’s independence. Selective bans on Albanian leaders from entry to the U.S. because of corruption charges, as is the case with former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, may be viewed as discrimination against Albanians if other high-profile Balkan politicians under corruption allegations are excluded from sanctions.

In these depressing conditions, the idea of Albanian national unification in one state structure can become a message of hope for ordinary people. Kosova’s unification with Albania would consolidate its separation from Serbia, ensure its protection under the NATO umbrella, provide Prishtina with greater global access, and enable Kosovars to gain Albanian passports. If support for unification mushrooms then a broader array of politicians will start competing on the pan-national agenda. Some major political figures are already toying with the notion, both to send a signal to international actors and to gauge public reactions.

Albanian unification is reportedly gaining traction, with opinion polls indicating that in the event of a referendum a majority in both Albania and Kosova would vote in favor. Before his election Prime Minister Albin Kurti claimed that if a referendum was held on Kosova joining Albania he would vote “yes.” Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has asserted that a common state is inevitable, although in Tirana this is usually couched in terms of an internally borderless EU. But the longer EU membership is postponed the more appealing will state merger become.

Belgrade manipulates the specter of a Greater Albania in asserting that Kosova must remain part of Serbia in order prevent destabilizing the entire Balkan peninsula. North Macedonia and Montenegro are also concerned by potential pan-Albanianism, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro are subject to Greater Serbia pressures and fear that the two major “pan” movements will strengthen each other. In an optimistic scenario, all state enlargement projects will be successfully neutralized through pan-European unification. In an alternative scenario, the grievances that drive them will become a ticking time bomb in an already volatile region.


Janusz Bugajski, May 2021

Despite his stated resolve to repel Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western campaign, President Joe Biden is in danger of being hoodwinked by the Kremlin. This “Putinization” process has been evident in the early days of each U.S. administration and is based on three misplaced virtues – faith, hope, and charity: faith that America’s and Russia’s interests are compatible; hope that Summits and agreements will bring durable cooperation; and conviction that charitable concessions will satiate the Kremlin’s appetite.

Two recent decisions by the Biden administration indicate that the pattern of previous administrations may be repeated. The planned Summit in June will give Putin fresh legitimacy as a global statesman rather than distancing him as an expansionist dictator. It seems that the more Putin threatens Russia’s neighbors with war, as is the case with Ukraine, the more eager Washington becomes for Summits to avert wider conflict. But such responses simply embolden the Kremlin. A Summit will again raise hopes that durable agreements can be forged with Moscow in such arenas as arms control or climate change and lull the West into a false sense of security until the next Kremlin assault.

Second, White House unwillingness to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) natural gas pipeline to Europe, by exempting the Russian company overseeing the project from sanctions, may appease German business interests but it can also estrange allies along NATO’s eastern flank who view NS2 as Moscow’s attempt to strangle Ukraine by eliminating its energy transit revenues. Although U.S. officials are negotiating with Berlin on ways to protect Ukraine’s energy security and compensate for impending budgetary shortfalls, any deals involving the Kremlin should not be accepted at face value.

Regardless of which administration is in the White House, U.S.-Russia relations are fundamentally adversarial. Instead of assuming that current disputes are the result of specific policy decisions that can be rectified, American officials need to dissect the root causes of conflict. Washington and Moscow are global rivals as long as Russia remains an autocratic neo-imperial power seeking to dominate its neighbors and undermine America’s alliances. Three core incompatibilities lie at the root of this rivalry: identity, system, and interests.

American identity is based on inclusive non-ethnic citizenship, in which civic status transcends ethnic, national, regional, religious, linguistic, and class differences. It is successful in integrating all nationalities because it is not constructed around a single dominant ethnic category. Russia’s identity is grounded in the predominance of the Russian ethnos, founded upon Tsarist and Soviet imperial conquests. The russification process generates resentment among diverse national and regional groups both inside and outside Russia. Putin’s “Russian world” crusade is the most recent illustration of this expansionist and assimilationist campaign.

In the political domain, American and Russian systems and ideologies are incompatible. The U.S. is a democratic federation with significant autonomy among all fifty states. Elections are free contests, power is separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and each state has a voice in Washington. Russia is federal in name only. In practice, it is a centralized state in which elections are rigged, political opposition is banned or repressed, institutions are controlled by Putinist loyalists, and local governors are appointed and supervised by the Kremlin.

The key reason for the U.S.-Russia conflict are antithetical international interests. While both states have “spheres of influence” the distinctions between them are stark. Washington respects the right of each country to choose its alliances, while Kremlin officials seek to impose security arrangements on their neighbors. Countries enter NATO voluntarily because membership reinforces their national security. States are induced into Russia’s orbit as a result of pressure and threat. The Kremlin also capitalizes on disputes between Washington and other powers such as China to weaken American influence. The notion that Washington can entice Putin through summits and concessions to help push back against Beijing is a strategic illusion.

U.S. policy should not be based on the forlorn hope of partnership with Russia. Strategy needs to be rooted in reality, in which Western vulnerabilities are rectified and Moscow’s anti-American actions are combated. If a U.S. ally or partner is subverted or attacked then Washington must bolster their security, including in the energy domain. And if America’s democracy or critical infrastructure are attacked by the Kremlin or its proxies then policies must be pursued to limit future offensives by targeting Russia’s domestic and international fragilities. Faith, hope, and charity have no place in confronting a predatory power.


Janusz Bugajski, May 2021

The terrorist bombing in Kabul that killed 85 schoolgirls demonstrates that Afghanistan will experience increasing turbulence in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal. The escalation of fighting between government and Taliban forces can also create a security vacuum throughout Central Asia and encourage Moscow and Beijing to push for regional dominance. To reduce the security risks following the military drawdown, Washington needs to expand its political and economic engagement with the Central Asian states by promoting their peace-making potential and boosting economic development and regional integration.

Central Asian countries can play a valuable role in the Afghan peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. Kazakhstan, the largest country in the region by GDP and territory, has offered its capital as a neutral venue and has substantial experience as a regional convenor. Under the leadership of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev it facilitated several international mediation efforts, including negotiations between the Syriangovernment and opposition and over Iran’s nuclear program.

Following Kazakhstan’s independence in 1992, President Nazarbayev initiated an international forum to promote regional security. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was launched in 1999 and today counts 27 full members and 8 observers. Israel and Iran are active members and participate in the forum and its committees. CICA can play an active role in bringing together regional powers to mediate a political agreement in Afghanistan.

Central Asia and Afghanistan have long historic ties and hosted important segments of the Silk Road connecting different parts of Asia. Over the last two decades, Central Asian states provided access for NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network. Today they supply humanitarian assistance, technical know-how, affordable energy resources, and market access for Kabul to the outside world.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can become key economic partners for Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is expanding its supply of electricity that will increase production capacity and create jobs. Kazakhstan’s flagship Bolashak education program has trained more than 1,000 Afghan students in Kazakh universities and provided over $80 million of assistance through its foreign aid agency KazAID, with an emphasis on infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and gender equality initiatives.

The U.S. can play a vital supportive role in these endeavors through the State Department’s C5+1 initiative, launched in 2015 with the Central Asian states. This regional framework must also involve Afghanistan in expanding the region’s economic and infrastructural integration and developing Afghanistan’s transit potential. Its Economic Working Group fucuses on crucial areas such as public health, agriculture, tourism, transport, and information technology. It can attract private sector investment to strengthen cooperation in energy and the environment, including introduction of renewable energy technologies.

The U.S. initiative can also promote secure borders to enable the free flow of goods and combat the trafficking of persons and illicit goods. The C5+1 Security Working Group is focused on curtailing online recruitment by terrorist networks and holds joint and regional counterterrorism training. And in the energy field, unblocking the construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) will also help promote Afghanistan’s development. A stable Afghanistan would serve as a vital bridge between Central Asia and the enormous markets of South Asia.

All such initiatives with U.S. engagement will help balance the involvement of Russia, China, and Iran in the region. Moscow’s primary goal is to maintain Central Asia in its sphere of influence and keep the West at a distance. It uses the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its control of oil and gas pipelines connecting Central Asia to Europe to assert itself as the regional hegemon. Russia’s approach is resented by countries that value their independence and Western connections.

China is becoming increasingly involved in Central Asia through its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative that builds east-west transit routes for Chinese exports. Although Chinese investments are welcomed, no country wants to be ensnared in debt traps, pressured into military agreements, or become subordinate to Beijing’s strategic objectives. Iran is also expanding its presence in the region and seeking membership of the Moscow-directed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which it hopes to turn into an anti-American initiative in Central Asia.

In such a challenging strategic environment, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries are reaching out for American support to provide greater regional equilibrium and preclude the dominance of any single outside power. Nazarbayev multi-vector policy, continued by his successor President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, underscores the importance of U.S. and EU involvement in supporting regional initiatives such as energy corridors, transportation routes, and infrastructure projects. Despite its military disengagement Washington can become a facilitator for Afghanistan’s stability and development by helping to integrate the country in a broader Central Asian framework.


Janusz Bugajski, May 2021

In the wake of Russia’s Victory Day military parade on Red Square on May 9, marking the 76th anniversary of the end of World War Two, Russian lawmakers plan to ban any comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.The bill follows President Vladimir Putin’s orders to legally prohibit publicly equating the role of the two collaborationist powers during the war. Such moves illustrate that Putin’s expansionist ambitions not only involve the revision of post-Cold War borders but also the rewriting of European history.

The key event in Putin’s restorationist mythology is the “Great Patriotic War” that ended in victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. The Kremlin’s historical myths have become state scripture and entail the omission of key events and the whitewashing of Soviet crimes. Official history in Russia remains silent about Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler. The two dictators jointly launched World War Two with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 after signing a Nonaggression Pact to carve up and incorporate Central-Eastern Europe in their growing empires. Putin has criticized the European parliament and neighboring capitals for officially condemning the Soviet-Nazi pact.

During years of collusion between Berlin and Moscow the Gestapo and KGB learned from each other’s techniques of incarceration, torture, and mass murder. Moscow supplied Germany with fuel, food, and other materials for nearly two years during the war to help Hitler defeat Moscow’s main enemy, the capitalist West. Berlin also enabled Moscow to forcibly annex Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and seize large parts of Romania and Finland.

The Soviet Union did not fight against Nazi Germany until it was attacked in July 1941 when Hitler turned against his partner Stalin. Contrary to Moscow’s depictions, the subsequent Soviet victory on the eastern front was far from glorious and did not “liberate” Europe. The Kremlin’s security forces deported entire nations into the depths of Siberia and Central Asia, eliminated all national liberation and democratic movements across Europe’s East, and implanted repressive communist regimes for almost half a century.

To suppress these facts, Moscow has introduced legislation to prosecute criticisms of the Red Army offensive during World War Two, including chronicles of  mass murders, expulsions, and rapes committed along their route to Berlin. It also equates Soviet war losses with Russian casualties, thereby whitewashing the deaths of millions of non-Russians along the Eastern Front.

The officially promoted historical narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” has been employed as a source of national unity and loyalty to the state. The war is a key element in Moscow’s self-glorifying propaganda. This “cult of victory” possesses a rigid dogma that both the state and Russia’s Orthodox Church staunchly defend. Putin uses this creed to legitimize his own rule, to justify his elimination of political opposition, to pursue his neo-imperial project toward vulnerable neighbors, and to rationalize his anti-Westernism. Putinism is officially depicted as essential for raising Russia as a great power and defeating the West, just as Stalinism was allegedly necessary to modernize the state and defeat Nazi Germany.

Similarly to his Soviet predecessors, Putin is evidently entitled to violate human rights and capsize living standards in order to restore the glory of the “Russian world.” The official portrayal of World War Two manufactures two stark stereotypes: people who support the Kremlin are automatically labelled “anti-fascists” and those who oppose Putin’s policies are “fascists” or “Russophobes” regardless of their political persuasions. Hence, the war against Ukraine is presented as a continuation of the Great Patriotic War against the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.

Legitimate celebrations for the end of World War Two and the defeat of Nazism cannot take place in one of the capitals that launched the hostilities and assisted the Nazis. And certainly not in a capital which hides historical facts about the war and engages in new offensives to undermine the independence of neighbors and the integrity of their territories.

In his battle with history, Putin is trying to recreate what Stalin first assembled through the murder of millions of civilians and the enslavement of entire nations. Until Russia’s leaders, like those of post-war Germany, apologize and atone for the crimes of their predecessors and refuse to follow in their footsteps, the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow are simply another example of propaganda and disinformation.


Janusz Bugajski, April 2021

The Russian government is escalating its confrontations with the West in order to test the resolve of the new U.S. administration. But contrary to some assertions, we are not witnessing a second Cold War, which was essentially a stalemate until the Soviet empire imploded. Instead, President Putin’s Kremlin is engaged in an intimidatinginternational offensive to regain world stature, reconstruct a Muscovite empire, and divide the West.

Russia is reinforcing its military deployments along Ukraine’s borders and raising the prospect of another invasion. It has increased its maritime presence in the Arctic and persistently provokes its Western adversaries through overflights of U.S. and NATO ships in the Baltic and Black Seas and close to Alaskan airspace. Such actions have three main objectives: to demonstrate that Russia is a global power, to probe for soft spots in Western defenses, and to distract attention from growing internal turmoil in the Russian Federation. The danger is that Putin’s strategists and generals will miscalculate and precipitate an armed conflict that will rebound against Russia.

The Cold War was a frozen conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain across Europe demarcated their spheres of influence and neither threatened to seize territory outside their domains. The Soviets sought to expand their influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America by supporting communist movements, while the U.S. endeavored to stem them. But both sides avoided direct military confrontation even while Moscow crushed anti-communist revolts in Europe’s east.

Putin now presides over a revisionist regime in which the consequences of conflict between Russia and the West are less predictable. Moscow does not recognize the independence or integrity of neighboring states that were liberated from its previous empire. The situation is reminiscent of the struggles one hundred years ago when dozens of nations sought independence from the collapsing Tsarist empire while the Bolshevik regime launched wars to reverse Russia’s imperial disintegration.

In rebuilding its dominion Moscow propagates the notion that Russia was “humiliated” when the Soviet empire collapsed. In reality, the liberation of independent nations ended their humiliation at the hands of the Kremlin and sealed their determination to avoid future subservience. Although the Cold War division of Europe is obsolete, Putin’s officials are applying immense pressure on all former Soviet republics to abandon their Western aspirations and rejoin the “Russian world.”

Western officials claim there is no zero-sum competition with Russia over the allegiance of any European country. In reality, the fundamental conflict persists between the freedom to choose one’s international alliances and Moscow’s insistence on subordination. Putin’s Russia denounces Western integration as conflicting with its own historical, cultural, and geostrategic claims that the post-Soviet countries must remain outside all Western alliances. This would not only extinguish national sovereignty but threaten the democratic freedoms of ordinary citizens.

A credible trans-Atlanticism that marshals the strength of NATO and the EU must be geared toward ensuring the freedom of states throughout the Wider Europe. If they fall under the control of the Kremlin’s imperial kleptocracy then the vulnerability of neighbors to the west will also increase. It is imperative for Washington to grasp the leadership role just as it did during the Cold War, because European policy remains divided and is perceived as weak and indecisive by Moscow. In addition to providing the spine in the NATO alliance, the U.S. must intensify its cooperation with its allies and partners to counter Kremlin subversion in all key domains, whether cybersecurity, disinformation, political corruption, or energy blackmail.

Putin becomes especially offensive when public support is slipping, the economy is stagnant, and members of the elite question his leadership. At such times, he needs a foreign victory to help subdue any political alternatives. However, by setting Russia on a permanent war footing, the Kremlin risks pushing the country toward economic ruin and state disintegration, similarly to the Soviet leadership thirty years ago. By defending its allies, principles, and interests, Washington will signal that this will be the ultimate price of Putin’s foreign escapades.


Janusz Bugajski, March 2021

Collaboration between Russia and China to undermine the global influence of the United States is a marriage of strategic convenience. It is likely to culminate in a shot-gun divorce as Russia’s internal problems and China’s external aspirations accelerate. Beijing will be at the forefront among Russia’s many neighbors in claiming territories that were once seized by Moscow.

In its Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist guises, Muscovite Russia has been an expansionist imperial structure. But every empire assembled through conquest and colonization faces contraction or collapse at some point in its history, including the current Russian Federation. Russia’s state failure will be accelerated by renewed claims on its territory from neighboring countries harboring historical grievances.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc thirty years ago marked the collapse of Russia’s external empire. But it did not address the future of Russia’s internal empire, consisting of 85 federal subjects, including 22 ethnic republics and several distinct regions deprived of self-determination and subject to increasing centralization, repression, and impoverishment.

China dwarfs Russia in population and economic might, and is approaching military parity other than in its nuclear arsenal. It is also more assertive and confident in its long-term development. Beijing’s encroachment into Russia’s sparsely populated far eastern possessions will be based on historical claims and on China’s military maps that have not redrawn the borders.

During the 19th century, a weakened China lost about 600,000 square miles of its northeastern territories to Russia. These extensive areas in Siberia and along the Pacific coast are viewed by a growing number of Chinese as “lost territories.” Historical claims are backed by enormous population disparities. Over 130 million people live in three Chinese provinces bordering Russia regions where the population is less than 8 million. China is already displacing Russia as the dominant power in Central Asia and the need for resources and living space will increase demands on Moscow.

China’s claims will be the tip of the iceberg. Japan seeks the return of four islands in the Kuril archipelago that were seized by the Soviet Union at the close of World War Two, after Tokyo had already surrendered to the U.S. Japan asserts that these Northern Territories are illegally occupied by Russia and belong to its province of Hokkaido.

The Kaliningrad exclave is another leftover from World War Two that Stalin seized from Germany and incorporated in the Russian Federation. The final status of Kaliningrad remains undetermined and contestable. Despite de facto control, neither the USSR nor Russia have held de jure title to its final status through a peace treaty. Proposals have been lodged to declare it as a separate Baltic state or to divide the territory between neighboring Poland and Lithuania.

Several European states have more recent claims to territory annexed or occupied by Putin’s Kremlin. Ukraine can use the opportunity of turmoil inside Russia to retake the Crimean peninsula and occupied areas of Donbas. Georgia and Moldova will also press for the return of territories occupied by Russia and its proxies. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were forcefully taken from Georgia and declared as independent states, while the Russian-occupied Transnistria region keeps Moldova unstable.

Although Turkey has no territorial claims on the Russian Federation, it has extensive linguistic, religious, and cultural connections with several nations that will seek autonomy or outright separation. Russian officials are worried about the threat of pan-Turkism through a union of Turkic nations, several of whom have ethnic republics inside Russia but lack genuine autonomy. Ankara’s engagement can embolden Tatars, Bashkirs, Karachays, and Balkars as well as non-Turkic Muslim-majority nations, including Circassians, Chechens, and Ingush, to seek sovereignty in unsettled regions of the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga.

Growing involvement by China and Turkey and any ruptures in the Russian state would encourage other nations to pursue independence, including resource rich republics such as Sakha-Yakutia and formerly independent states such as Tuva. Several others can gravitate toward neighboring countries due to long-standing ethnic and linguistic links even if there are no vocal claims to Russian territory. This is likely between the Buryat republic and Mongolia and the Karelian republic and Finland. In the unstable years ahead, Moscow will be hard pressed to extinguish all the spreading fires of national liberation.


Janusz Bugajski, March 2021

In the Western Balkans another year brings  another crisis. While the political impasse in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the recognition dispute between Serbia and Kosova both need urgent resolution, the stability of Montenegro is also under increasing threat, with Belgrade and Moscow aiming to weaken the country’s independence.

The broad coalition government in Podgorica elected in August 2020 was widely viewed as a fresh start after three decades of rule by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). Western capitals hoped that the new administration could root out corruption and enable Montenegro to make faster progress toward EU membership. But instead of a “clean hands” approach, the coalition government has demonstrated its vulnerability to the underhand Belgrade-Moscow agenda.

At the core of the threat to Montenegro is Belgrade’s non-acceptance of the country’s distinct national identity and separate statehood. In his Greater Serbia ambitions President Aleksander  Vučić is scheming for a Serbia-Montenegro Union, presumably modeled on Putin’s drive for a Russia-Belarus Union, with Montenegro as the junior partner. In such an arrangement, Belgrade would determine Montenegro’s foreign and security policy, weaken Montenegrin identity, and sideline the Albanian and Bosniak minorities.

The strongest political force in the leading coalition, the Democratic Front, is committed to reversing  Montenegro’s independence. But instead of pursuing a fast-track approach that could fracture the government, it envisages a step-by-step process of forging tighter links with Serbia and using the tripartite coalition as a camouflage to maintain a parliamentary majority. Conversely, the two junior governing coalitions evidently calculated that they needed the Democratic Front to gain power and pursue their reformist platform. However, one often discovers in the Balkans that it is easier and more profitable to promote nationalism than to conduct reforms.

The Russian connection with the new government is becoming clearer. Montenegro’s appeals court revoked the sentences of the October 2016 conspirators who sought to overthrow the previous government under the direction of Russian intelligence services. Moscow clearly applied pressure to reverse the decision and enhance its role in Podgorica.

Negative trends are also evident in Montenegro’s security sector regarding several problematic appointees. Milan Knežević, leader of the Democratic Front involved in the 2016 coup plot, was emplaced as chairman of parliament’s Security and Defense Committee. With other appointments in the security sector evidently coordinated with Belgrade and Moscow, NATO may freeze sharing sensitive information with Podgorica to avoid being compromised. Serbia and Russia are also targeting Montenegro’s strategic assets, including plans to purchase the port of Bar and the country’s electric company.

But despite some early successes, Belgrade’s unification project faces several obstacles. The government coalition remains brittle and hangs by the slimmest parliamentary majority. The smallest pro-reform party may conclude that its clean government idealism cannot be implemented with Serbian nationalists embroiled in corrupt foreign deals with Russian oligarchs. The government could face charges of corruption and mismanagement that would undermine its initial public support.

The resistance and backlash of the Montenegrin majority will also become more visible during attempts to undermine their identity. The law on religious property, designed to strengthen the role of the autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church, has been overturned. Further anti-Montenegrin maneuvers may include the introduction of dual citizenship, so that non-resident Serbs can register in the census and vote in elections, and the pursuit of cultural and educational campaigns to turn Montenegrins into Serbs.

The DPS lost power largely because of public anger with corruption and cronyism, but it still remains the largest party and has a chance of rallying Montenegrins around a program of national self-defense. But it will need a broader political coalition, calculating that Serbia’s assault may actually strengthen Montenegrin identity. Support for statehood and NATO membership is reportedly rising in the country, with some polls indicating that 67% of citizens now back independence and 55% support NATO membership, with only 7% wanting a common state with Serbia and 20% a loose union.

The Biden administration must become more active to undercut Vučić’s Greater Serbia goals through a three-pronged approach. First, the Serbia-Kosova dialogue has to be given teeth in line with Biden’s recent letter to Vučić calling for mutual state recognition. Second, a multi-national initiative must be launched to implement necessary constitutional changes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and develop a fully functioning state. And third, Vučić must be warned that political interference in Montenegro’s politics will rebound negatively against a government with destabilizing foreign connections. The tentacles of Kremlin influence in Belgrade and Podgorica need to be unearthed and amputated.


Janusz Bugajski, February 2021

Continuing mass protests against the arrest of opposition activist Aleksander Navalny in dozens of Russia’s cities foreshadows growing public rebellion. Not since gaining absolute power twenty one years ago has President Vladimir Putin faced such a confluence of crises compounded by his own domestic policy failures.

The Russian Federation, held together by the Kremlin’s power monopoly, is approaching a period of turmoil precipitated by several simultaneous crises. The economy was shrinking even before the pandemic struck and the global recession began. International financial sanctions on Russian companies involved in the war against Ukraine and the subversion of Western democracies contributed to the decline, but it is Moscow’s over-reliance on revenues from energy exports and lack of economic diversification that has precipitated an even deeper downturn.

Inadequate government responses to the pandemic have exacerbated divisions between Moscow and numerous federal entities. Citizens in the capital have much easier access to vaccines then people outside. Putin’s popularity has further nosedived because of cutbacks in welfare spending, unequal access to health care, lockdowns that were seen as violating human rights, and insufficient economic assistance to ordinary people.

Russia is also failing politically, as Putin seeks to cling to power through constitutional amendments that would ensure that he is President for life. The Kremlin is fearful of the voices and actions of ordinary citizens and is trying to tighten its grip through police repression. But given the size and diversity of the volatile Russian state, Moscow may be unable to control the approaching spiral of unrest.

The biggest danger for the Kremlin may not come from opposition figures such as Navalny but from growing public anger in many of Russia’s 85 federal entities. Democrats in Moscow are unlikely to transform the country into a liberal state by replacing Putin’s authoritarian regime. The Kremlin will be most acutely challenged by regionalists, autonomists, and frustrated ethnic groups. Even though Navalny himself does not support a multi-national state but a Russified civic option, public protests against his arrest may be a catalyst for a diversity of movements to proliferate.

If the current protests fail to lead to a state-wide democratic breakthrough, then the only solution will be regional self-determination and even a rupture of the artificial Russian state. The regional insurrection will be based on an accumulation of grievances, particularly economic stagnation, government corruption, Moscow’s exploitation of regional resources, attacks on language rights among Russia’s numerous nations, unaccountable Kremlin appointments of regional governors, and threats to eliminate or merge federal units. At the core of unrest will be a growing conviction that without Moscow’s political dominance and economic exploitation, the regions will be more capable of ensuring their development and progress.

The Putin administration has broken the unwritten “social contract,” first devised in Communist times, whereby the state guarantees sufficient material welfare in return for political passivity. Revolt is even more likely in a society where rising expectations of material well-being, especially among an ambitious younger generation, have been thwarted by repeated failures in government policy. The Kremlin can no longer take public acquiescence for granted and must be anxious that citizens in numerous regions have become involved in open opposition, as this will disperse and weaken the regime’s response.

Russia’s escalating crises does not signify that Moscow is incapable of inflicting serious damage on its neighbors and its international rivals. Despite its economic and demographic decline Russia will continue to challenge the West through its nuclear arsenal and revived military. It will also pursue its campaign of subverting Western institutions through a range of low-cost tools – including disinformation, cyberwar, promotion of ethnic and national conflicts, and the funding of political extremists.

Russia’s domestic failures make the current regime even more dangerous, as Moscow will camouflage its increasing fragility through external aggression. State failure and federal fracture may convince the Kremlin that it has limited time to disrupt and divide the West.

Instead of banking on containment or cooperation with Moscow, the Joe Biden administration needs to prepare for an imploding Russia that will present a multitude of challenges for Western security. The scenarios of Russia’s domestic upheaval, rebellion, and division need to be comprehensively analyzed by policy makers and preparations made to manage their impact on neighboring states and regions. A lack of planning will leave the West surprised and vulnerable, just as it was when the Soviet bloc collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated.


Janusz Bugajski, January 2021

President Joe Biden will face a crucial international test in balancing U.S. democracy promotion with trans-Atlantic security. The Western alliance is premised on the notion that democratic values and security interests coincide and that membership of NATO and the EU strengthen democracies. This premise did not foresee the emergence of new social and national grievances, populist parties, and disruptive threats such as pandemics.

Donald Trump’s administration de-emphasized democracy promotion in foreign policy. In rightist political circles democracy programs were viewed as disturbing the sovereignty of allies and imposing a “liberal” social agenda. For leftist populists, Washington was too embroiled in assisting other states instead of focusing on America’s internal inequities.

The election of Biden, a centrist internationalist, has been optimistically received among most of America’s allies, but some fear that Washington’s emphasis will now shift from security to democracy. Biden’s proposal to hold a “Summit for Democracy” and renew America’s commitment to spreading democracy may misfire if it excludes states that defend Western interests, even if their internal politics are not fully compatible with democratic norms.

The new President should be cognizant of Europe’s evolution and not create divisions among allies by prioritizing democracy over security. Indeed, a formula must be found in which both sovereignty and internationalism are bonded to strengthen the Alliance. International security must not be weakened by ostracizing states such as Poland and Turkey because of their democratic shortcomings. These two allies are vital for U.S. national security, as they directly confront an expansionist Russia along NATO’s eastern flank.

U.S. policy makers need to closely examine recent history. As emerging European democracies entered the EU and others were excluded, questions of sovereignty, culture, identity, tradition, religion, and historical memory came to the forefront. At the same time, the two halves of Europe converged in terms of partisanship, political polarization, and suspicion of international institutions that appeared to impose uniformity.

Assumptions that EU integration would diminish national differences and forge a pan-European identity proved illusory. Indeed, historical memories of the communist project in erasing national identities and creating a uniform “socialist man” reverberate in today’s Euroscepticism. There are widespread perceptions that the “Brussels bureaucracy” limits the sovereignty of member states and imposes policies that undermine traditional values.

The “Brexit” decision in England was a reaction to such perceptions about the EU, and in 2021 Europe will discover whether the pandemic and resultant economic disruption actually weaken or strengthen the EU project. The coming few years will also demonstrate whether the remaining West Balkan states will be welcomed as new members or pushed away indefinitely.

Throughout Europe the traditional left-right political spectrum has become less clear-cut, as new parties combine policies from both leftist and rightist ideologies. For instance, governing parties such as Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland blend a distributive leftist economic program with a rightist social conservative platform. Social, economic, cultural, urban-rural, and inter-regional divisions have widened and economic inequalities have expanded in almost all countries. At the same time, nationalism, populism, and traditionalism have mushroomed as shields against rapid change and potential loss of national sovereignty.

Several political formations have exploited confusion and fear in parts of Central-Eastern Europe to engage in political “state capture” through which they try to control key institutions, shape society in their ideological image, and prolong their rule in future elections. This authoritarian trend, visible particularly in Hungary and Poland, is intended to ensure greater executive and parliamentary supervision over the legal system and the mass media. It has also been evident in several Balkans states, including Albania and Serbia.

The balance between democratic rules and political ambitions tests the resilience of national institutions, and the same process has been visible in the U.S. Countries in Europe’s East have already demonstrated the strength and durability of a democratic civil society. If they were able to defeat communist totalitarianism then they are more than capable of overcoming aspiring domestic autocrats.

Heavy-handed outside intervention to promote democracy by excluding certain governments from democracy summits or other Western initiatives may simply stiffen the resolve of nationalists and populists and increase domestic polarization. It will also provide new opportunities for Moscow to widen divisions between NATO states and penetrate their political structures. And where sovereignty is undermined, democracy is further imperiled and international security is endangered.