A small ceremony held at the end of March in both Brussels and Skopje, involving the striking of the North Macedonian and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) flag respectively, marked the formal accession of the Western Balkan nation into the Atlantic alliance. What in any other circumstance would have been a cause for public celebration of NATO’s 30th member, just months after the alliance’s 70th anniversary, was an understandably sombre affair in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Equally noticeable was Russia’s thinly-veiled attempt to exploit the understandable lack of international media coverage for the occasion, in an effort to shape the narrative into one of insignificance for both North Macedonia and the alliance itself. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that ‘Despite the emergency in North Macedonia, its leaders still took time out to rhapsodise on…the country’s accession to NATO, which supposedly will ensure stability and security to Skopje.’
Attempting to undermine North Macedonia’s accession into the alliance has not come as a great surprise to anyone following Russia’s propaganda campaign in the region. Moscow immediately proclaimed the NATO accession invalid, due to low voter turnout in the national referendum in 2018 which sought public approval for the move to NATO.
Whilst 94% of voters approved the NATO referendum in 2018, voter turnout represented only 37% of the electorate. However, due to the referendum being non-binding, in addition to including constitutional matters – namely changing the country’s name – it was subsequently chaired at the National Assembly where it received the required two thirds of MPs votes to be passed into law. The following of national legislative and democratic practices did not stop Moscow from attempting to shape the NATO accession process as one of invalidity, seeking to undermine its international credibility.
The 2018 referendum was, however, plagued by widespread interference from Russia – a consequence of Moscow’s desperation to halt further NATO enlargement. James Mattis, then United States (US) Defence Secretary, claimed that there was ‘no doubt’ that Moscow had been funding pro-Russian groups during the referendum, transferred money, and conducted a broader influence campaign inside North Macedonia.
Russian attempts to buy regional influence and sabotage national democratic practices were evident prior to this, however. In July 2018 Greece expelled two Russian diplomats accused of supplying funds to pro-Russian groups opposing the North Macedonian referendum, in addition to attempting to bribe both Greek and Macedonian officials.
Using money and violence as means to bring about political ends favourable to Russian interests in the Western Balkans is no new strategy to Moscow. Prior to Montenegro joining NATO, a coup plot identified in 2016, including allegedly assassinating Milo Djukanovic, then Prime Minister, was purportedly funded and organised by Russia according to senior Whitehall officials. Among those sentenced by a Montenegro court in 2017 were Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, two suspected Russian agents, both tried in absentia.
In the face of this Russian propaganda and influence campaign in North Macedonia, NATO members have sought to shore up Skopje’s resilience against Russian interference. In 2018, during a visit by James Mattis, the US announced it would assist against Russian cyber activities. He announced that the US planned to expand its cybersecurity cooperation with Macedonia ‘to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens our democracies’.
To this end, the very nature of Russia’s malign behaviour, witnessed across the Western Balkans over the last years, demonstrates how the region is important to the United Kingdom.
In addition, in November 2019 NATO’s new Counter-Hybrid Support Team went to the aid of Montenegro, at the Montenegrin government’s request. The team was specifically designed to help with the wide range of so-called ‘hybrid’ attacks, a mixture of overt and covert operations, combining military and non-military means of aggression. This is the sort of practical assistance which NATO can offer its members, like North Macedonia, which are subjected to repeated Russian interference.
Even as the NATO flag now flutters over North Macedonia’s capital, Russia’s Foreign Ministry sought to ‘deposition’ the country as a NATO ally. In an intervention on 31 March 2020 it announced: ‘It is evident that Skopje’s membership in the alliance yields no added value to European, regional or national security’. In fact, national security was directly enhanced through US cybersecurity cooperation in 2018 and the NATO Counter-Hybrid Support Team visit in 2019, in addition to being indirectly enhanced through NATO’s Article 5 clause.
Regional and European security has been enhanced through long-term (North) Macedonian military deployments to both NATO’s missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where a mechanised infantry company was deployed, in addition to several medical teams. Collective burden sharing, an alien concept to an authoritarian regime like Russia with few international military allies, has been the backbone of the NATO promise for the last 70 years.
Despite a small though growing economy, the Macedonian defence budget rose by 10% in 2017, and by 5% in 2018 – in line with the commitment allies agreed in 2014 to raise their defence spending closer to 2% of Gross Domestic Product, a commitment Macedonian officials claim their country will meet by 2024.
Unilateral assistance from NATO allies, in addition to NATO’s own institutional expertise, in conjunction with North Macedonia’s ongoing military commitments to NATO and rising defence spending, ensure – contrary to recent Russian remarks – continued stability and security for Skopje.
A secure Western Balkans should also be of keen interest to British policymakers. At a time when the world’s democracies are pre-occupied, even from a distance, with the ongoing civil wars and conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, in addition to Iranian aggression in the Gulf and Chinese revisionism in the Indo-Pacific, Russia has been attempting to make inroads into the Adriatic.
For one, this allows use of geostrategically important ports of the Western Balkans which lead to the Mediterranean, an area of increasing Russian naval activity. But also, and more immediately, the delicate history of NATO in the region is a factor which the Kremlin is eager to exploit to the detriment of the alliance. This observation is shared by Sir Michael Fallon, then Secretary of State for Defence, who claimed that Russia is ‘clearly testing NATO and the West’ by ‘seeking to expand its sphere of influence, destabilise countries, and weaken the alliance.’
To this end, the very nature of Russia’s malign behaviour, witnessed across the Western Balkans over the last years, demonstrates how the region is important to the United Kingdom. If allowed to indulge in subversive and disruptive actions in friendly European, and now NATO, states, Russia will only continue to press its luck in attempting to create fractures in the alliance, sowing propaganda, discord, and ultimately, threatening the British interest.
Seen from another angle, so ineffective has Russia’s propaganda in North Macedonia been in attempting to hide the true character of a mutually beneficial partnership between NATO and its members, that it has actually served to highlight just how robust the Atlantic alliance continues to be in the face of continued threats, both old and new.