By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
Photo Credit: World Politics Review
The past month has seen a dramatic rise in tension between Serbia and Kosovo following several high profile diplomatic incidents, raising the specter of a new war in the Balkans. In the short term, such a conflict is unlikely due to several inhibiting factors. But in the long term, conditions are in place that—if left unchecked—could severely destabilize the region and set the stage for a new conflict.
In mid January, a train bound from the Serbian capital of Belgrade—the first such rail link since 2008—was denied entry by Kosovar police into the town of North Mitrovica. The train was covered with the phrase “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 different languages, which was perceived as an explicit challenge to Kosovo’s sovereignty, as Serbia does not recognize the nation’s unilateral declaration of independence. Following the incident, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic claimed that Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority was trying to use the event to provoke renewed conflict and take full control of Kosovo’s largely Serbian north.[i] President Nikolic went on to claim he would deploy Serbia’s military to Kosovo if it was necessary to protect ethnic Serbs, thereby seemingly threatening war.[ii] Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, countered by claiming the train contained weapons and paramilitary fighters, and that the Serbs planned to seize Northern Kosovo in the same way Russia seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.[iii]
While tensions remain high in the aftermath of these exchanges, the likelihood of another conflict between Serbia and Kosovo such as that seen in 1998-1999 is low in the short term for multiple reasons. One of the most significant stabilizing factors is the presence of a significant number of NATO troops in Kosovo. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) has nearly 5,000 troops at its command, including nearly 700 Americans, almost 800 Germans, and over 500 Italians.[iv] Though these forces are outnumbered by the Serbian military, their current presence in Kosovo could serve the same purpose as NATO forces deployed to the Baltic States currently: a tripwire to deter aggressive acts by an enemy force.[v] If Serbia were to invade Kosovo and come into conflict with KFOR, it would risk bringing the entirety of NATO bearing down on it in retaliation.
Another important factor reducing the likelihood of conflict is Serbia’s European Union ambitions. Serbia applied to join the EU in 2009, and began formal negotiations on accession in 2014. Indeed, the Serbian government has openly declared that EU membership is one of its top priorities for the nation.[vi] With that goal in mind, unilateral military intervention in Kosovo could detrimentally affect Serbia’s EU aspirations. Many of the EU countries are not only also members of NATO—and contribute troops to KFOR—but have also recognized Kosovo’s independence. Thus, an invasion of Kosovo could completely derail Serbia’s EU aspirations and would represent an extremely poor strategic decision.
These factors make a Serbian attempt to retake Kosovo highly unlikely in the short term. But, if left unabated by NATO and the EU, Serbian policies and actions have the potential to incrementally undermine these impediments; there are signs this may be occurring already. For example, Serbia has begun to express frustration with the drawn-out EU accession process. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic cut short a December visit to Brussels over claims that EU member-state Croatia had stalled Serbia’s accession over objections regarding Serbian treatment of its Croat minority.[vii] A pro-EU NGO in Serbia has also reported increasing amounts of anti-EU political rhetoric, with opinion polls suggesting Serbian enthusiasm for EU membership is declining.[viii] If EU membership decreased in importance or ceased to be viewed as a primary policy objective, Serbian officials could become less inclined to exhibit a certain degree of self-restraint as it pertains to relations with Kosovo.
Additionally, Serbia has been developing stronger ties with historical ally Russia, which could also represent a shift away from the EU and Europe. Russia has been working to cultivate ties with Serbia as well, in part as a means to counter NATO influence in the region, and has announced plans to donate 6 MIG-29 fighters, 30 T-72 MBTs, and 30 BRDM-2 AFVs to the Serbian military, with further donations or sales of military hardware possible[ix]. Indeed, Russia’s NATO concerns have led Moscow to pursue more active cooperation with the Serbs.[x] In the context of Russia’s actions in Ukraine—having intervened under the pretense of protecting Russian-speakers—Albania’s concerns that a similar strategy could be used by the Serbs in Northern Kosovo, and backed by Russia, may not be misplaced.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s emerging relationship with new US President Donald Trump could further aggravate the Kosovo situation. A crisis in Kosovo may prove to be an early test for President Trump’s relations with Putin, whom he has spoken of positively in the past. So far, Trump has shown no indication of changing US policy in the region, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis maintaining that US troops assigned to KFOR should remain in the country.[xi] However, all of this remains uncertain, as Trump himself has expressed no clear policy on the Balkans in general or on Kosovo in particular.[xii] Trump has also been inconsistent on NATO, alternating between calling the alliance both obsolete and necessary. If he were to change course again on NATO, prioritizing a rapprochement with Russia, it might give Putin greater freedom to exercise Russian influence throughout Europe[xiii] which could make it far easier for Serbia to act on the Kosovo issue.
For now, Kosovo remains at peace. Yet, inattentiveness to regional fault lines, inaction on the part of NATO and the EU, and US disengagement could all lead to a conflict surpassing that of 1998-1999. The EU needs to take constructive steps to make sure it does not further alienate Serbia, but more importantly, the US needs to clearly state a renewed policy of support for NATO and its goals in the Balkans. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s recent statement that he would encourage President Trump to back NATO membership for Montenegro might have been a step in the right direction,[xiv] but the administration needs to clarify its Balkan policy and maintain vigilant watch for incremental undermining of regional security.
[iii] Bahri Cani, “Hashim Thaci: ‘Serbia is distributing arms in northern Kosovo,” Deutsche Welle, January 29, 2017, accessed February 7, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/hashim-thaci-serbia-is-distributing-arms-in-northern-kosovo/a-37320626.
[iv] “Kosovo Force (KFOR): Key Facts and Figures,” NATO, February 2016, accessed February 7, 2017, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_02/20160209_2016-02-kfor-placemat.pdf.
[v] Kęstutis Paulauskas, “On Deterrence,” NATO Review, 2016, accessed February 12, 2017, http://www.nato.int/docu/Review/2016/Also-in-2016/nato-deterrence-defence-alliance/EN/index.htm.
[vi] “EU Integration Process of the Republic of Serbia,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, accessed February 8, 2017, http://www.mfa.gov.rs/en/themes/public-consultation-on-the-eu-strategy-for-the-adriatic-and-ionian-region.
[viii] Maja Zivanovic, “Anti-EU Tide is Rising in Serbia, NGO Warns,” Balkan Insight, February 9, 2017, accessed February 9, 2017, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/governments-anti-eu-rhetoric-affects-serbian-citizens-02-07-2017.
[ix] Igor Bozinovski, “Russia to donate MiG-29s, T-72s to Serbia,” IHS Jane’s 360, December 22, 2016, accessed February 9, 2017, http://www.janes.com/article/66503/russia-to-donate-mig-29s-t-72s-to-serbia.
[x] Leonid Bershidsky, “Russia Re-Enacts the Great Game in the Balkans,” Bloomberg, January 19, 2017, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-01-19/russia-re-enacts-the-great-game-in-the-balkans.
[xi] Slobodan Lekic, “Rising tensions in Kosovo could serve as early test of US-Russia relations under Trump,” Stars and Stripes, January 31, 2017, accessed February 11, 2017, https://www.stripes.com/news/rising-tensions-in-kosovo-could-serve-as-early-test-of-us-russia-relations-under-trump-1.451799.
[xii] Mark MacKinnon, “With Donald Trump in the White House, the Balkans whisper of war,” The Globe and Mail, February 06, 2017, accessed February 9, 2017, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/with-donald-trump-in-the-white-house-the-balkans-whisper-ofwar/article33920572/.
[xiii] “Donald Trump seeks a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin,” The Economist, February 11, 2017, accessed February 11, 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21716609-it-terrible-idea-donald-trump-seeks-grand-bargain-vladimir-putin.
[xiv] Andrew Hanna, “Flynn to recommend Trump back NATO membership for Montenegro,” POLITICO, February 6, 2017, accessed February 11, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/trump-nato-montenegro-michael-flynn-234697.