The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Thursday that he is worried about the potential for new unrest in the Balkans, where there are signs that Russia is stepping up influence operations as the U.S. has lost focus on the region.
“The area I am concerned about today is the Balkans actually,” U.S. European Command’s Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti said. “Russia is at work in the Balkans and we have kind of taken our eye off the area.”
Scaparrotti, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Russia is posing challenges in several regions. Areas of intense focus for the U.S. and NATO in recent years include the Baltics and Poland, where NATO has deployed more forces in its largest reinforcement since the end of the Cold War.
In the Arctic, Russia is building up and could be in a positon to control northern sea transit lanes in a matter of three years, Scaparrotti said.
“We are not keeping pace,” Scaparrotti said.
Meanwhile, Scaparrotti said the Balkans have been a tinderbox since the wars that followed the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s. NATO still has peacekeepers in Kosovo, where they have operated since NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign that forced the withdrawal of Serbian troops. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, but tensions persist because Belgrade has refused to recognize it.
In recent years, Moscow has made a concerted effort to boost its influence in the Balkans, primarily by using Serbia and the Serb entity in neighboring Bosnia, which share religious and historical ties with Russia, as a foothold.
Moscow has sought to prevent other Balkan nations from joining NATO and the European Union, and was accused of trying to foment a coup in tiny Montenegro last year when it became part of the western military alliance.
Scaparrotti said he is concerned Russia seeks to stoke unrest across the Balkans through misinformation campaigns directed at local populations.
“That is an area we could have problems with in the future,” Scaparrotti said.
For the U.S. military in Europe, countering Russia has largely centered on beefing up its conventional forces to deter potential aggression. The Pentagon plans to spend $6.5 billion in 2019 to enhance operations in Europe, nearly $2 billion more than the previous year.
Scaparrotti said another challenge is countering Russia in areas short of conventional conflict, such as cyberattacks and information operations that seek to undermine U.S. and NATO. EUCOM is also working to build up its own cyber capabilities, Scaparrotti said.
“Russia is carrying out a campaign of destabilization to change the international order, fracture NATO, and undermine U.S. leadership around the world,” Scaparrotti said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, echoed those concerns in written testimony read to Scaparrotti.
“The United States faces a new strategic reality in Europe … We must be prepared to face the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” McCain wrote.
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