Consortium Leader: Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’
Consortium Member: European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
Subcontractor: Royal Institution of International Affairs (Chatham House)

EU Geopolitical Approach in the Western Balkans

Submitted by Inge on Mon, 02/05/2024 - 14:48

Towards an EU Geopolitical Approach on Transformative Terms in the Western Balkans

This policy brief assesses the EU response after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, asking how the EU can pursue a geopolitical EU enlargement approach while maintaining its transformative objectives. The brief first provides a concise assessment of the instruments that the EU employs to strengthen democratic resilience and to counter Russian influence in the three countries. We argue that the EU has a comprehensive and effective range of instruments available, even if Russia has maintained its ability to project especially ‘soft’ power. However, when looking at the overall EU political approach towards these countries, we observe negative effects of the manner in which geopolitical imperatives for enhanced engagement are currently converted into strategy and discourse. More specifically, an insufficiently overarching firm and confident EU political approach towards the Western Balkans undermines the transformative potential of the EU’s impressive toolbox for the region. The brief concludes that by becoming more confident and upfront, sticking to its values and making use of negative conditionality besides offering positive incentives, the EU can pursue a more effective geopolitical approach on transformative terms towards the Western Balkans.

The Author

Wouter Zweers - Clingendael Institute 

Milena Rossokhatska - PhD Candidate at the University of Amsterdam 


Ukraine’s State-Civil Partnership to Reform the Security Sector

Submitted by Inge on Thu, 09/28/2023 - 10:56

Work in Progress: Ukraine’s State-Civil Partnership to Reform the Security Sector

This report analyses the changing role of Ukrainian civil society by investigating seven examples of key reforms of the security sector and puts forward recommendations for Ukraine’s international partners regarding their cooperation with Ukrainian civil society organisations (CSOs).


The authors

Julia Soldatiuk-Westerveld, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute

Bob Deen, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute


Russian influence in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, & Montenegro

Submitted by Inge on Mon, 09/11/2023 - 10:22

This Clingendael report explores the role of the Russian Federation in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It examines Russia’s objectives in its relations with the three countries, as well the various sources of influence the Kremlin holds in each of the three countries. The report places this analysis within the changed geopolitical circumstances resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


The authors

Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute

Niels Drost, Junior Researcher at the Clingendael Institute

Baptiste Henry, Research Assistant at the Clingendael Institute


The EU in the South Caucasus

Submitted by Inge on Mon, 05/22/2023 - 13:32

Navigating a geopolitical labyrinth in turmoil

The tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting in such a profound way that has not been seen since the end of the Cold War. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has not only increased tensions between the world’s major powers, but also severely impacted the regions in which they traditionally strive to project their power. This applies especially to areas in the wider Eurasian region that the Russian Federation unjustifiably considers as part of its sphere of influence, such as the South Caucasus. Russia’s failure to achieve a quick and decisive victory in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not only forced the Kremlin to limit its objectives on the battlefield, at least for the time being, to Ukraine’s east. It has also reduced the credibility of the Russian military that much of its power projection has depended upon – and has reduced its attractiveness as a security partner for countries that have traditionally regarded Russia as such. Russia has had to withdraw some of its troops and military equipment from the South Caucasus, its leadership is preoccupied with Ukraine, and it has not lived up to its security commitments to Armenia. This has contributed to a geopolitical vacuum and uncertainty in the South Caucasus that other actors are eager to exploit.

Overzicht van de geopolitieke actoren en relaties in de Zuid-Kaukasus. © Clingendael
Overview of the geopolitical actors and relations in the South Caucasus  © Clingendael

While both Russia and much of the rest of the world were focusing predominantly on Ukraine, in the meanwhile violence has once again flared up between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the situation both on the military and on the diplomatic fronts is changing rapidly. Both the US and the EU have made attempts to increase their leverage in the region at Russia’s expense. Most notably the US sent its Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Armenia in September 2022, in the highest-level visit by a US official since Armenia’s independence, in order to project US support. The EU has tried to seize the initiative as a facilitator and mediator between Yerevan and Baku and has sent an EU Mission to Armenia, first as a temporary monitoring capacity in October 2022 and in January 2023 with a dedicated field operation despite Azerbaijani objections. In Georgia, where the EU has had such a field presence since 2008 and has mediated in the protracted conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it has also recently taken a central role in mediating between the different factions that are dominating Georgia’s polarised political landscape, using Georgia’s newly obtained status as a potential EU candidate country as political leverage.

The EU’s increased level of geopolitical ambition and its desire to expand its influence in the South Caucasus creates a degree of competition with regional powers that have long dominated the region such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. The EU’s ability to effectuate change in this complex geopolitical environment is still relatively modest. Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to provide momentum for the EU to assert stronger agency towards the protracted conflicts that continue to hinder the development of the countries of the South Caucasus and that undermine stability in the region at large, including not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The EU could thereby make optimal use of the leverage stemming from its bilateral agreements with Georgia and Armenia, the Georgian EU perspective and Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s participation in the European Political Community (EPC). The big question is how to meet this challenge. In this context, this report examines further options for an enhanced geopolitical role of the EU in the South Caucasus. Therefore, the main research question of the report is:

How can the European Union contribute effectively and in a balanced way to the resolution of ‘protracted conflicts’ and a decrease in geopolitical tensions in the South Caucasus?


Bob Deen, Senior Research Fellow & Coordinator Russia and Eastern Europe Centre at the Clingendael Institute

Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute 

Camille Linder, former research intern at the Clingendael Institute

On patrol in Field Office Gori Area of Operations © EUMM

Ten guidelines for dealing with hybrid threats

Submitted by Inge on Mon, 04/17/2023 - 16:50

A policy framework

Rival states increasingly use hybrid tactics to influence democratic processes and exploit the vulnerabilities of their opponents. As a response, Western governments have progressively enhanced their situational awareness and developed capabilities to minimise damages from hybrid threats. In addition, they have also started to respond proactively to hybrid threats by implementing a range of policies to not just increase resilience and bolster defence but also to shape the adversary’s behaviour through deterrence measures. However, deterring hybrid aggressors remains a difficult task.

Therefore, this new HCSS report by Mattia Bertolini, Raffaele Minicozzi and Tim Sweijs provides a set of non-technical policy guidelines for a counter-hybrid posture for small and middle powers (SMPs) that explains how core good practices of cross-domain deterrence can be developed, applied and embedded into policies and practice. The report focuses specifically on active measures associated with deterrence by punishment to provide policymakers with useful insights to craft proportional and effective strategies to deal with actors operating in the grey zone. It also describes the steps needed to manage escalation and anticipate potential second- and third-order effects. Importantly, in conjunction with a counter-hybrid deterrence posture, positive reassurances and incentives should be communicated to the adversary to encourage good behaviour.

A five-stage response framework is set forth consisting of

  • (i) the Preparation Stage;
  • (ii) the Detection & Attribution Stage;
  • (iii) the Decision-Making Stage;
  • (iv) the Execution Stage, and;
  • (v) the Evaluation Stage.

These stages are further subdivided into ten distinct steps, each including specific actions. The proposed response framework offers practical guidelines to develop, apply, and embed good core practices of cross-domain deterrence into an effective counter-hybrid posture.

Hybrid Deterrenc visual

The feedback loop of the five-stage, ten-step response frameworkCreated by Assistant Analyst Ella McLaughlin.


Mattia Bertolini, HCSS

Raffaele Minicozzi, HCSS

Tim Sweijs, HCSS


Walking the tightrope towards the EU

Submitted by Inge on Fri, 09/30/2022 - 14:31

When the Council of the European Union decided on 23 June 2022 to grant Moldova the status of EU candidate country, it boosted the morale of a beleaguered government in Chișinău trying to circumnavigate a daunting series of crises. Since Maia Sandu ousted Socialist President Igor Dodon in the presidential election in 2020 and her reform-oriented Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) obtained a parliamentary majority in 2021, Moldova has barely had a chance to catch its breath. In the year that followed, the country experienced an energy crisis that almost deprived it of gas in the winter of 2021-2022, a budding economic crisis with rampant inflation, and a security and refugee crisis as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The war in its immediate neighbourhood, with Russian troops advancing in the spring along Ukraine’s southern coast to barely over 100 kilometres of Moldova’s borders, has further complicated the already difficult geopolitical balancing act of successive Moldovan governments. It has also aggravated existing security risks. For years, Moldova has balanced its aspirations to join the EU with its constitutional neutrality and its many dependencies on the Russian Federation. While President Putin was quick to congratulate Maia Sandu on her election and has so far refrained from open hostility towards her government, there are still many vulnerabilities that Moscow already leverages and could further exploit if it chose to destabilise Moldova. Not only is Moldova’s economy highly fragile and dependent on Russian energy, there are also political forces and regions that see their interests threatened by the reforms of the PAS government in Chișinău – and over which Moscow has different degrees of influence. Two of such regions are the separatist region of Transnistria in the east and the autonomous region of Gagauzia in the south of the country. A better understanding of these key vulnerabilities could help the EU and the Netherlands to assist Moldova in reducing them and to increase the stability and resilience of the EU’s newest candidate country.

The central question of this research report therefore is to what extent Russia’s influence over Moldovan domestic politics as well as the regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia poses risks to the internal and external stability of Moldova.

Read the full report on Moldova’s vulnerabilities amid war in Ukraine.


The authors


Bob Deen, Coordinator of the Clingendael Russia and Eastern Europe Centre (CREEC) and Senior Research Fellow of the Security Unit of the Clingendael Institute

Wouter Zweers,  Research Fellow at the EU & Global Affairs Unit of the Clingendael Institute.

Photos by Colby Gottert for USAID / Digital Development Communications

Overcoming EU dividing lines in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue

Submitted by Inge on Tue, 04/05/2022 - 14:29

Last year saw the 10th anniversary of the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. While leading to results on technical matters, political normalisation of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo has not been achieved. As part of a broader study on EU foreign policy effectiveness, this policy brief discusses the ways in which EU internal factors have hampered the EU’s effectiveness in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Specifically, the paper assesses the positions and influence of EU member states vis-à-vis one another and the European institutions, asking how contradictions could be overcome in the future. This assessment is placed in the wider context in which the dialogue takes place, taking into account the state of EU enlargement and foreign power influence.

Read policy brief.


Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
Myrthe de Boon, intern at the Clingendael Institute


All eyes on Ankara

Submitted by Inge on Tue, 03/29/2022 - 14:42

A scenario exercise focused on the 2023 elections

Over the years, foreign policy has become a source of tension in the European Union’s relationship with Turkey. Although the EU has repeatedly disapproved of Ankara’s (military) interventions in Syria, Libya and Iraq as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean region and the South Caucasus, it has so far not been able to counterbalance Ankara’s actions. In that light, Turkey’s 2023 elections serve as a crucial moment. Seen through the lens of two theoretical scenarios – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the People’s Alliance win the elections, versus Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the Nation Alliance win the elections – this policy brief provides an insight into the instruments the EU has at its disposal to influence and/or respond to Ankara’s potential future foreign policy. It shows that while neither scenario will be hassle-free, the EU has most room to manoeuvre and can make best use of its instruments, ranging from diplomatic engagement to military cooperation, in a situation where Kılıçdaroğlu and the Nation Alliance win the elections in 2023.

Download policy brief


Nienke van Heukelingen, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute


The EU as a promoter of ‘stabilitocracy’ in the Western Balkans?

Submitted by Inge on Tue, 02/08/2022 - 17:58

Through its enlargement policy, the EU seeks to foster democratisation in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, also called Western Balkans six (WB6). Despite years of efforts, the EU’s policies have not brought about the expected change. The enlargement process has lost both efficacy and political momentum. Instead of experiencing decisive democratic reform, the WB6 have slowly developed into ‘stabilitocracies’: countries with obvious democratic shortcomings that at the same time claim to work towards democratic reform and offer stability.

The report identifies eight flaws in the EU’s strategies, policies and their implementation that are believed to contribute to stabilitocracy formation:

  1. The EU’s overly technical approach to enlargement fails to foster deep political and societal transformation.
  2. A lack of clarity in rule of law definitions hinders the adequate transposal of EU values.
  3. Inadequate reporting on reform progress dilutes actual political realities in the WB6.
  4. The EU often fails to speak out against and act upon standstill or backlash, implicitly offering tacit support to autocratic tendencies instead.
  5. The EU regularly proves unable to reward progress because it is unable to find common understanding among its member states, thereby harming its credibility.
  6. An overly leader-oriented approach towards the WB6 reinforces and legitimises the position of Western Balkan political elites who use the EU’s public endorsement to reinforce their grip on society.
  7. Party political relations between political families in the EU and their WB6 counterparts lead to undue support for WB6 parties even when they display non-democratic behaviour.
  8. A lack of interim timelines leaves the EU unable to monitor reform progress and hold governments of the region accountable for not carrying out necessary democratic reforms.

In each of the WB6 countries, concrete cases exemplify how EU influence has unintentionally contributed to stabilitocracy formation and what factors have determined whether the EU approach has been constructive or not. The technical approach is the most prevalent flaw in the case studies. Examples range from the EU’s inability to harmonise the interests of different ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, structural weaknesses in the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), the failure of technical safeguards to counter blurred boundaries between branches of power in Montenegro, an overly technical focus in progress reports on democracy and rule of law reforms in North-Macedonia, and an overly technical fixation in the application of the revised methodology in Serbia.

To avoid the traps of further stabilitocracy entrenchment, we put forward recommendations and critical reflections on how to improve the EU’s role in the region. Recommendations include focusing more on genuine feedback to WB6 governments, better reporting on the state of progress, enhancing communication with citizens, and specifying benchmarks while accompanying them with more tangible timelines.

However, fixing the technical process is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the EU accession process and its democratisation agenda for the Western Balkans. Therefore, the EU and its member states need to seriously consider proposals for a further overhaul of the enlargement process in order to allow for a staged accession trajectory for the WB6. At the same time, the EU could speed up engagement with the WB6 beyond the enlargement framework in order to not lose grip in a region subject to increasing great-power competition. Lastly, it is recommended that the Netherlands takes further action to substantiate its ambitions as a critical but engaged member state.


Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
Giulia Cretti, Junior Researcher at the Clingendael Institute

Read online report.


Beyond Turkey’s ‘zero problems’ policy

Submitted by Inge on Wed, 01/19/2022 - 15:18

Motives, means and impact of the interventions in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus

Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, but especially after the failed coup d’état in 2016, Turkey’s foreign policy has shifted from ‘zero problems’ to the pursuit of strategic depth and autonomy in its neighbourhood. In 2020, Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus became three theatres for Ankara’s new hard-power tactics, a policy that may well be here to stay (at least until the elections in 2023).

This policy brief explores the strategic motives, the means of intervention and the impact of Turkish operations in these three conflict areas. While Turkey’s strategic considerations, modalities and consequences vary greatly from case to case, certain parallels can be drawn. They reveal an overall pattern of a much more assertive Turkey that is increasingly willing to deploy a combination of political and military means to secure its strategic objectives in its immediate neighbourhood.


Nienke van Heukelingen, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
Bob Deen, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute