The direct Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the scandals of the U.S. presidential campaign, have overshadowed another ongoing Russian power play — one in the Balkans. It's quieter and far less violent than other assertive moves by the Kremlin, but that doesn't make it any less important in the 21st century re-enactment of the Great Game.

Like the former parts of the Russian empire and the Middle East, the Balkans are a longtime Russian playground. While Russia tended to look inward following the Soviet Union's collapse, it could only manage a weak protest when the West oversaw a division of former Yugoslavia that punished traditionally pro-Russian Serbs. The Western view of these objections at the time was aptly described in a recently declassified CIA analysis from 1993: Some Russians ask why the West and the United States in particular should inject itself in an area that Russia always regarded as its traditional sphere of influence. The West shouldn't take this argument very seriously in today's world.

The world is changing, however, and not just due to the nostalgic efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "The U.S. has been withdrawing for some time as the provider of security," Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told the Austrian daily Der Standard in December. If the administration of Donald Trump proves as isolationist as Trump has sounded during the campaign, it will be up to the European Union to maintain the current order in the Balkans. Russia feels pretty confident these days facing a fragmented and fairly toothless EU. So its engagement in the region is increasingly a foregone conclusion.