WASHINGTON -- The United States should establish a permanent military presence in the Southeastern Europe to help stabilize the Western Balkans and prevent further inroads by Russia, a Washington-based think tank says.
A new report published by the Atlantic Council ahead of a November 29 conference on Southeastern Europe in Washington said that such a move "would demonstrate an enduring U.S. commitment to security in the region and anchor the United States' long-term ability to influence developments."
The report titled Balkans Forward – A New U.S. Strategy For The Region called the Western Balkans a "region in flux" and cautioned over Russia’s aggressive moves in the area.
It cited "notable progress" and movement toward the West among Southeastern European countries, but stated that the "final outcome" was no longer assured.
"The Western Balkans remain the unfinished business of a Europe whole and free," it said. "As the United States and Europe focus on internal concerns, Russia and other countries are reshaping the geopolitical landscape across the region."
It said a U.S. military presence could be modeled on the current Camp Bondsteel facility in Kosovo. Camp Bondsteel, established in the late 1990s, is the main U.S. Army base in Kosovo and is used by NATO forces.
"Troops would be used both to help strengthen local authorities' terrorist interdiction capabilities through training and sharing of best practices, and to provide aid in humanitarian catastrophes, should they arise," it said.
U.S. Embassy Downplays Idea
The U.S. Embassy in Belgrade downplayed the suggestion in the think tank report.
"Many academic and research institutions in the United States participate in public debates on foreign policy issues on a daily basis and this is an important part of the democratic process," the embassy press office said in a statement.
"Discussions and debate on ideas help the public and policymakers to better understand the important issues that we face in the world, but these academic and research institutions do not have a formal role in creating the official U.S. policy," it added.
The Atlantic Council report also said the United States and the European Union should pursue a "historic" rapprochement with Serbia in an effort to move it toward the West and away from traditional ally Moscow.
"Belgrade can and should be a close partner and ally in the region, but it can only become one if it begins to meaningfully distance itself from Russia."
"This is not a trivial pivot for Serbian leadership, but neither should it be something on which the United States or the EU should compromise," it added.
Other recommendations by the Atlantic Council urged the United States to play the role of "honest broker," especially in longstanding disputes between Montenegro and Greece and between Serbia and Kosovo.
The report stressed the importance of maintaining peace and stability and warned of the dangers of potential Russian actions in the region.
"If a Balkans political crisis escalates to the point of skirmishes or civil war, it would speed up the weakening of already fragile states like Macedonia and Kosovo," it said.
"As they serve as buffer states for refugee flows, destabilization could lead to a radicalization of heretofore secular Muslim societies, both in Macedonia and Kosovo, and critically, further north in [Bosnia-Herzegovina]," the document said. "Either outcome poses a looming threat to European security and represents a positive outcome for the Kremlin.”
The report said that the last two years have seen "breathtaking attempts by Russia to capitalize on the region’s lingering pathologies to undermine the European project," including the "failed Russian-backed coup" in Montenegro, Serbian "agitprop" on the border with Kosovo, and "lingering tensions" in Macedonia.
It also warned of Turkish efforts to "cultivate its clients," mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania.
The U.S. military and NATO have already begun bolstering their presence in Eastern European NATO-member states in the face of a more assertive Russia after its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service