Bulgaria breaks up Russian spy ring.

Russia warns Bosnia and Herzegovina against seeking NATO membership.

Tensions between Biden and Putin continue to rise.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warns of the possibility of additional sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Russia talk up relationship with China

Good Old Soviet Joke

Boris Yeltsin is calling President Clinton:
– Mr Clinton, I would like to express my sincere condolences for the crash of your space shuttle.
– But our shuttle won’t take off for 5 more minutes!
– Oh, I’ll call later then.

Policy & Research News

Bulgaria breaks up Russian spy ring

Bulgarian prosecutors have charged 6 individuals with spying for Russia. The group, who were arrested in a raid last week, were Bulgarian citizens and included senior defence and military intelligence officials. A spokesperson for the state prosecutor said that the group’s leader used his wife to pass information to the Russian embassy in Sofia and that their actions had “posed a serious threat for the national security by collecting and handing to a foreign country information which constitutes state secrets of Bulgaria, NATO and the European Union”.

The day after the revelations, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov called on Russia to stop spying in Bulgaria, referencing his country’s friendship with Russia, and warning that diplomatic expulsions could ensue. Surely enough, however, on Monday this week, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry announced that two Russian diplomats accused of espionage would be expelled from the country in the next 72 hours. This development in particular has drawn the ire of Moscow, with the Russian embassy in Sofia stating that “the Russian side reserves the right for retaliation.”

This is not the first time that Russia has been caught spying in Bulgaria. Since October 2019 the South-Eastern European nation, an EU and NATO member state, has expelled five Russian diplomats and embassy employees accused of espionage. In the wake of this latest scandal, the United Kingdom has expressed its support for Bulgaria against Russian “malign influence”, while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also remarked at a press conference Monday that NATO is “following closely the investigation by the Bulgarian authorities” into the spy ring.

Russia warns Bosnia and Herzegovina against seeking NATO membership

On March 18, Russia warned Bosnia and Herzegovina that it would regard steps to join NATO as a “hostile act” to which Russia will “have to react.” The remarks followed a March 18 University of Mostar conference on ‘Euro-Atlantic Processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ at which NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană spoke about regional NATO commitments. Apart from Kosovo and Russia-ally Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only Balkan country without NATO membership. However, the country has been party to the NATO Membership Action Plan since 2010 and a national Commission for Cooperation with NATO was established in February 2021. Russia’s reaction to potential NATO expansion in an area of historic influence is set against the backdrop of the ongoing Defender-Europe 21 NATO exercise, in which all Balkan countries except Serbia are participating.  

Representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency offered different reactions on March 19. On the one hand, the Croat member Željko Komšić said that “twisted threats” were unacceptable, representatives of Bosnian Muslims branded Russian comments “inappropriate meddling,” and NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu emphasised that “third parties” should not intervene in NATO partnerships or accession processes. Meanwhile, the representative of Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska – Milorad Dodik – maintains a close relationship with Russia and remained opposed to a Bosnia and Herzegovina NATO membership.

US Developments

Tensions between Biden and Putin continue to rise following Biden interview

In an interview with ABC News, President Joe Biden responded in the affirmative when he was asked if he thought President Vladimir Putin was a killer, before stating that the Kremlin is “going to pay” for Russian interference in the 2020 election. Foreign interference was revealed last week in a US intelligence report. Following these statements, the Kremlin recalled its Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow to “discuss ways to rectify Russia-U.S. ties that are in crisis.”

Blinken warns of the possibility of additional sanctions on Nord Stream 2 pipeline

While the Biden administration has held back from imposing further sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and involved entities, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a warning against its continued construction. In a press release on March 18, Blinken stated that “the Department reiterates its warning that any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline.” The warning was appreciated by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who released a previously-placed hold on President Biden’s nominee to the position of deputy secretary of state in response to Secretary Blinken’s statement.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Charm offensive: Russia talk up relationship with China

After the Trump era, China has been looking for a reset in relations with the US, although they have stopped short of offering an olive branch and have repeatedly claimed that the US is meddling in Beijing’s affairs. The Russia-China relationship has taken a different course.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian and Chinese leaders Putin and Xi Jinping will issue a joint statement on the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. The Treaty, signed in 2001, is expected to be automatically extended, according to Lavrov, who called for closer relations between the two states.

The Russian Foreign Minister argued that it is necessary to move away from Western-run payment systems, stressing that Russia and China can reduce sanctions risks “by strengthening our technological independence.” He added that attempting to use sanctions to punish Russia and China “is simply unwise.” The Russian Foreign Minister was also keen to label Russia and China as model international actors. 

According to Lavrov, the West has forgotten how to use classic diplomacy, unlike Russia and China, who have been actively promoting these values. The highlighting of interactions between Russia and China continued, with Lavrov praising work between the two states as an example to be followed, while outlining mutual interests in a number of areas. Meanwhile, the Russian state-backed press provided a great deal of commentary on China.

RT has focused on the narrative of the US interfering with the sovereignty of China, while also providing commentary on US-China talks, with headlines such as, “Team Biden slapped around by China.” Elsewhere, Sputnik has done much to highlight Lavrov’s press conference, providing quotes that present the Russia-China relationship as a unique diplomatic partnership.

While the Russia-China relationship has not always run smoothly, there has been a clear effort on the part of the two states to strengthen ties, as the balance of power on the international stage remains at risk of changing.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.