Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Here is the final version of my part of the project on Russia. I hope to be able to publish here the team’s final report, which includes an analysis of competing hypotheses on Russian Reorganization of the Civilian Nuclear Energy Sector, a cost benefit analysis of Russia – Ukraine energy security relations, and a social network analysis of Dmitry Medvedev’s Leadership Network. However, I’m waiting for the permission of the other team members and the instructor to do so.

A brief evaluation of the effectiveness of the technique in relation to the topic

Using situation assessment to analyze Russia’s foreign policy toward the Balkans has as both its principal advantage and disadvantage the flexibility and resulting breadth of scope it offers. On the positive side, this flexibility functions to fill deficiencies in more formalized methodologies, where restriction of sub-methods and limitations of scope can result in an exaggerated focus on the particular details, failing to detect an over-arching pattern or structure. On the negative side, the potentially limitless options this method offers to the analyst can result in either oversimplification through generalization, or a lack of focus altogether. One way to avoid losing the string would be to commission situation assessments not of individual analysts but of an inter-disciplinary team. I believe this would only add to the potential multi-faceted direction this method is open to, while at the same time, keep the more wild fancies on a leash of peer review.

The elements I chose to include in this situation assessment, which in retrospect were best suited to the topic were the various IR theories on power and regionalism. In this spirit, I would advocate the use of open source analyses by various think tanks, especially if the analyst is not an area specialist. The potential pitfall of arriving at politicized information could be safeguarded against by a thorough source reliability check, which would take an infinitely shorter time than self-education of the analyst on a broad theme under the duress of a deadline.

Finally, the informal, descriptive nature of a situation assessment is conducive to writing in a narrative style, which is less prone to jargon and offers the analyst the opportunity to engage and “talk” to his/her client/decision-maker as the analysis unfolds. Not only does this make the reading experience of a person tired of reading report after report with uninspiring technical and/or management, or worse, bureaucratic language, but has the potential to establish good rapport between the two sides, minimize misunderstandings hidden in vague and ambiguous language, and add a dialogue-element to the analyst’s otherwise rather lonely job.

Introduction to Situation Assessment on Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans

I’m having so much fun writing this! The final product should be ready by Wednesday. Last minute comments welcome as always.

Russian Foreign Policy toward the Balkans: A Situation Assessment


Situation assessment as a methodology aims to provide the context for strategic planning, decision-making and action. As such, it is primarily a descriptive methodology that examines events in the present and looks for patterns from the past. While the ultimate purpose of a situation assessment is future-oriented in that it serves as the starting point for generating hypotheses for alternative futures, the process of gathering and analyzing information that makes up a situation assessment does little in terms of logical speculation of the data by the analyst. This, at least, is the traditional approach of this methodology whether applied in the context of national security intelligence, business/competitive intelligence, assessment of military capabilities, or academic research of international relations and political science. Although the definition of situation assessment may vary slightly across disciplines – compare, for instance, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis in business, Case Study in international relations and politics, and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) in military intelligence – the main characteristic of this methodology is its focus on providing a descriptive observational design.

The present situation assessment will try to demonstrate that a descriptive analytical method need not be confined to observational variables alone, but offers the analyst opportunities to present his/her decision-maker with a highly inferential, evaluative and nuanced assessment. I will argue that situation assessment is a particularly useful methodology for looking at complex, interconnected and interdependent environments, not only because it can provide simultaneously a detailed (microscopic) and big picture (telescopic) view, but also because it opens the possibility to distinguish between perception and reality.

One of the more important advantages of situation assessment as a method is its qualitative (open) rather than quantitative (restricted) selection of the variables – I prefer to call them elements – that constitute the observation. This allows the analyst the flexibility to adapt these elements as well as juxtapose them in different ways on the surface of the analytical landscape, with the gained benefit of exploring different perspectives, and by extension, make qualitative judgments about perception and reality, much in the same way one would analyze a picture.

This situation assessment begins with an introduction to why this particular methodology was chosen by the analyst to examine the topic of inquiry, namely, Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans. The first part is a discussion of the methodology itself, what elements and why they were chosen to constitute the situation assessment. In this section I examine the aptitude of applying a situation assessment technique to the study of a country’s foreign policy. Next, I attempt to determine the viability of analyzing a country’s foreign policy through international relations and political science theories by looking at both the epistemological (positivist and post-positivist) and constructivist camps. Given the distinctly regional dimension of the research topic, I focus in particular on theories with specific application to power distribution, balance of power and power transition. Having identified ‘energy’ as one of the two distinct means toward the end in Russian foreign policy toward the Balkans, I explore applications and implications of a theoretical model developed by Buzan and Weaver, known as Regional Security Complex Theory and its extension to energy security.

I then focus on Russia’s second regional power weapon – identity politics – through a descriptive analysis of historical, cultural linguistic and religious factors, with emphasis on the particularly Russian cultural ideology of Eurasianism as the counter-balancing ideology of the Anglo-Saxon “west”. This discussion concludes my traditional approach to the examination of a country’s foreign policy in a regional aspect, and I turn to alternative analysis as a complement to the more established methods of conducting a situation assessment.

Because I treat a situation assessment as a picture, i.e. as a snapshot frozen in time, or rather, in non-time, I introduce art history analysis as a possible analogy in looking at “the picture”. I believe a comparison of a situation assessment analytical landscape to 17th century Dutch still life is particularly appropriate in shedding light both on my original technique (cf.Greek ‘techne’ – art, craft) and topic for a number of reasons.

First, the significance of Dutch development and preoccupation with optic instruments such as the microscope and telescope in the 17th century bears a resemblance to current trends of strategic thinking, most notably the emphasis on “big picture”, holistic visions of reality. This offers a basis for comparison, especially where a situation assessment is concerned because its purpose is to piece together the details, so as to offer a bird-view (God-view?) of the situation. That said, I do not believe that this is entirely possible due to sheer cognitive limitations, so in my evaluation of the technique, I will argue that holistic analysis is an idealized ambition: it can open more doors, but it will not open all doors.

Second, still life as an artistic genre is comparable to a situation assessment in that it offers a picture of reality suspended in, what would appear to be the present moment, but could well be argued that it is a representation “out of time”. And third, the role of perspective and depth on the canvas is not unlike what various foreign policy tools aim to do in shaping both external perceptions of the state by other states, and creating self-perceptions of national identity. Hence, I believe, such alternative analogy could be useful to the intelligence analyst trying to distinguish between perception and reality by becoming aware of the deception inherent in the image.

Part I concludes with an evaluation of the technique in application to the particular topic.

Part II of this paper is where the technique comes “alive” in action to form the actual content of the situation assessment. It begins with an overview of Russian foreign policy, the traits and trends that define Russia’s role on the global scene. This overview borrows heavily from international relations and political science theories, and resembles what a political scientist might refer to as foreign policy analysis. This section is followed by a discussion of the soft and hard power tools available to the current administration in Moscow, and aims to answer three specific questions.

First: Is Russia aiming to regain its sphere of influence on the Balkans by building complex interdependencies among the countries in the region by means of securing bilateral pipeline deals? Second: How is Russia exploiting the issue of “common” identity in the region and why? Third: Assuming that no state on the Balkans currently holds regional leadership, can Russia fill this gap by transcending the geographical limits, which define the region and achieving political, economic and cultural hegemony on the Balkans?

The last section of the analysis uses an alternative technique, namely an art analogy, to look at the individual players on the Balkans as well as the region’s periphery (Turkey and Cyprus) as though we were looking at a still life painting. The contradiction in the title of this section, “A still life of Balkan regional dynamics” is intentional. It aims to show that while a situation assessment and a still life can be perceived as static representations out of time, each country’s perception of each other along a spatial and temporal perspective, as well as its relation to the “blank” surface, exhibits a dynamic that is not apparent from a static snapshot of the situation. Since the more traditional approach to a situation assessment is closer to a static image, I felt justified in exploring an alternative technique to supplement the assessment with a more dynamic representation of reality.

It is important for this exercise to distinguish between allegory and symbol. A detailed discussion on this topic is out of the scope of this paper; for our purposes, the Oxford English Dictionary definitions will suffice, and I hope, convincingly justify my preference for an allegorical over a symbolic representation for each country on the grounds that each has a story to tell on the still life canvas of our situation assessment, rather than function as an idealized symbol, which would doom the actor incapable of change.

Allegory – a story, play, poem, picture, etc. in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically

Symbol – a mark or character taken as the conventional sign of some object, idea, function, or process

Thus, through the process of allegory, Bulgaria, with its machinations to please and benefit from both its NATO/EU partnership and Russia, becomes Janus – the Roman god of the gate and door who looks both ways. Romania, with its long history of fending off vampires becomes the garlic that would help keep Russia away from breathing distance. Greece, with a stable record of adhering to its proverbial reputation – “don’t trust Greeks bearing gifts – becomes the Trojan horse. In the Western Balkans, Serbia’s vocal support of Russian cultural kinship and little hesitation to assert its cultural and historical claims on the region, becomes a Kalashnikov. Kosovo, with its ambition to proclaim its “otherness” has finally got its own flag to show for it if nothing else. And Bosnia and Herzegovina is sweetening its bitter wounds with a lethargically brewing Turkish coffee pot.

In the background, but gaining in proportion are the S300 missile Cyprus, loaded not only with Russian ammunition, but a fat Russian wallet, and Turkey – holding tight to its application for EU membership as sticky Turkish delight. Russia – emperor of the surface, the “blank” – space absorbs these unfolding dynamics with the anticipation of the Minotaur waiting for his royal breakfast of seven youths and maidens.

The alternative analysis section of the situation assessment draws no conclusions. As a complementing alternative technique, its aim is to raise awareness of different perspectives and “throw” the more traditional parts on their heads, so to speak. As such, it is an exercise in thinking, not a logical argument.

The paper concludes with some thoughts on methodology in intelligence analysis in general and a summary of the experience in preparing this paper.