In the same vein, the free trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union made a big splash in the media, but will change little on the ground. The terms of the deal largely duplicate a free trade agreement Serbia has had with Russia since 2000. Admittedly, the deal adds two more states — Armenia and Kyrgyzstan — to the free trade area, but Serbia's economic ties with them are virtually nonexistent. Serbian trade with the Eurasian Economic Union is dwarfed by that with the EU, falling behind by a factor of ten.
Vucic's frequent meetings with Putin hardly disguise the fact that their dialogue is largely devoid of any substance. The meeting in early December was no exception. The two leaders recited the short list of cooperation areas, which has seen little change over the decade: gas transit, railway modernization, the Kosovo conflict. The ostensibly congenial tone of the meeting concealed the Kremlin's growing suspicion that Vucic had leaked the footage of the Russian agent bribing the Serbian official to the media to endear himself to the West and to make up for the outrage stoked by the S-400 rumors.
North Macedonia's attempts to mend ties with Russia are even less promising. The Kremlin deeply mistrusts the current Macedonian leadership, which it believes was brought to power by a color revolution engineered by the West. Moreover, both Prime Minister Zaev and President Pendarovski won the elections on a pro-European ticket. They are unlikely to be able to outperform their nationalist opponents from the VMRO-DPMNE party if they compete on the pro-Russian field.
All of this suggests that the current flurry of pro-Russian activity in the Western Balkans is clearly driven by local demand rather than by a more proactive or effective Russian strategy in the region. Balkan leaders believe that getting closer to Moscow is the easiest way to make the West less demanding in the negotiations on joining the EU. The Kremlin is eager to play along to bolster its international clout, but is reluctant to switch from its current reactive posture to a more proactive approach to the region.
For Russia, the Western Balkans are still just one of several playgrounds within its badly deteriorated relationships with the EU and the United States. Keeping the region in limbo and out of NATO/the EU helps distract the West from similar pursuits in parts of the former Soviet Union where the stakes for Russia are infinitely higher. With Macron turning his sights on engineering a reset with Moscow, the Kremlin is unlikely to jeopardize such favorable dynamics by making disruptive moves in the Western Balkans, a region where Russia ultimately has limited interests at best.