One war in Europe is quite enough: time to stop another one from breaking out in Kosovo


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Inhabitants of London, where I am currently based, like to joke that they wait a long time for a bus and then three come along at once. So it is too with wars in Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, there was fighting in Georgia, clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the ethnic Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh, and most tragically of all, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. This collapse spawned four separate conflicts between Slovenia and Serbia, Serbia and Croatia, and Kosovar Albanians and Serbia in Kosovo; the most violent of all took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where over 100,000 civilians were killed and 4.5mn displaced in fighting between Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs, which dragged on for three years between 1992 and 1995. Along the way were acts of genocide, mass rape, the building of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing of local populations. There could well have been a fifth conflict in North Macedonia in the 2001-2002 timeframe, but speedy action by NATO and the EU, working together for the first time to manage a crisis, nipped this conflict between Slav Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in the bud. They met at Lake Ohrid in 2004, agreed to lay down their arms and signed up to a new constitutional settlement that has held ever since.

Once NATO had driven Serb forces from Kosovo in June 1999 and replaced them with its own Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers, there were hopes that the violent turbulence in Europe resulting from the collapse of the communist system and its regimes had now come to an end. A pacified Europe could turn its attention to reconstruction, market economic reforms and integrating the former communist bloc of central and eastern Europe into the institutions of the triumphant West, notably NATO and the EU. Conflicts were now things that happened outside Europe, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen or the endemic civil wars and insurgencies in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, the United States was often, although not always, in the lead, and Europe was willing to help out in a secondary role within its means and military capabilities. Yet with peace in Europe, military units could safely be stripped of equipment and spare parts to ensure that battalions sent to Afghanistan and Iraq were fully equipped. There was little risk that they would suddenly need to be called back to deal with a crisis in Europe.

The European peace, however, has proven to be short-lived. It already broke down in August 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. A peace not even lasting a decade was surprising given the euphoria that surrounded the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sense at the time of the all-encompassing victory of Western liberal and democratic values. This was in marked contrast to the end of previous titanic struggles in Europe – for instance, the end of the 20-year Napoleonic Wars in Europe in 1815 or the end of both the First and Second World Wars in 1918 and 1945 respectively – when the great ideological struggles instead of being resolved simply continued: between revolutionary republicanism and reactionary monarchies in 19th-century Europe, and between liberalism and authoritarianism or between capitalism and communism in the 20th century. By contrast, the ‘end of history’ in 1989 presaged a more stable and durable European peace order built around the universal acceptance of liberalism and the quest for economic prosperity through cooperation and integration. As “a rising tide lifts all boats”, to borrow the phrase of John F. Kennedy, everyone would benefit from accepting and supporting the new integrationist European order. There would be only winners and no losers.

To ensure the long-term peace and stability of Europe, Ukraine’s war objectives have perforce become those of the EU as well

Russia’s two military invasions of Ukraine – the first in March 2014 and the second in February 2022 – put paid to this theory and the optimism about the future that accompanied it. At least for some years to come. It is not only Ukraine that is fighting Russia but also the great majority of the 31 member states of NATO and the 27 belonging to the EU. They may not be on the ground in Ukraine and suffering casualties, but they have actively taken sides and provided weapons and ammunition to Kyiv to the point of national stockpile depletion. Slovakia, Poland and the United Kingdom have all pointed to their empty military warehouses over the past fortnight and the need to replenish their own armies first and foremost. At the Warsaw Security Forum this week, the Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, said that these shortages apply to NATO as a whole and that the allies are “staring at the bottom of the barrel” in terms of what can still be given to Ukraine before Kyiv has to wait for defence industries to restart production – a potentially lengthy process given that the new contracts are only now being concluded.

Yet this effort to keep Ukraine in the war has been justified by the idea that resisting Russia’s unprovoked invasion is essential for the security of NATO and the EU. A victorious Russia would bring the culture of aggressive militarism back to Europe and make further Russian attacks more likely, without mentioning the impact on dictators elsewhere who are contemplating the use of force to settle disputes with their neighbours. The way in which Azerbaijan has used force in two military campaigns, in 2020 and 2023, to gain full territorial control over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and present the international community with a fait accompli is disturbing in this connection. Nearly all the 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the enclave have fled to Armenia, fearing repression and ethnic cleansing by the Azeris. In this way, the Armenian heritage and culture will be extinguished from this region of Azerbaijan and the government in Baku will not have to confront the well-known European challenge of how to handle a minority.

If the European order of peace is to be restored, Russia has to leave Ukraine and the latter has to have a secure future as an independent and sovereign European country. The European interest is for the war to be short – an increasingly difficult objective – to limit the damage and destruction and to ensure that Ukraine emerges stronger, in terms of cohesion and economic and judicial reforms, and Russia emerges weaker, in terms of the effectiveness of sanctions and Moscow’s capacity to launch future aggressions. The war in Ukraine has become tied up with the future of the European project itself as in the EU’s enlargement to ten new member states, its future credibility as a security and defence union with military teeth, and its ability to sustain its internal cohesion and solidarity when faced with a protracted external struggle. Thus, unsurprisingly, the EU’s energies have been fully engaged in making sure that its considerable military, humanitarian and budgetary aid to Kyiv is as effective as possible, not just to keep Ukraine in the fight but to help it to prevail. To ensure the long-term peace and stability of Europe, Ukraine’s war objectives have perforce become those of the EU as well.

It is not enough to double down on the war in Ukraine. This is such a full-time job that the EU and NATO cannot afford to be distracted elsewhere or spread their energy and resources over too many crises at the same time. Yet, this is precisely what risks happening in Kosovo. Just two weeks ago a violent incident in the village of Banjska in northern Kosovo considerably escalated the tension between Pristina and Belgrade. This is unsurprising given the escalatory impact of a provocation on a scale that we have not seen before. Thirty well-armed gunmen in paramilitary uniforms, looking very much like Wagner mercenaries, and using armoured vehicles bearing the KFOR logo of the NATO peacekeepers were infiltrated into Kosovo before opening fire on the local Kosovo police and then taking up position in a nearby monastery. In the ensuing shootout, one Kosovo policeman and three of the gunmen were killed. The fate of the others is not clear, although it is believed that they managed to escape back into Serbia. Given the presence of a group of pilgrims in the monastery and the arsenal of weapons that the paramilitaries carried – including heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and bulk ammunition – it is miraculous that civilians were not killed. What is worrying the Kosovo government in Pristina is that this incident was not a spontaneous roadblock or riot by ethnic Serbs in the north, unhappy to remain part of Kosovo or angry at decisions on car number plates or municipal elections, as have occurred in recent months, but a planned and well-equipped operation supported from outside Kosovo. The network that provided the recruitment, training, funding, equipment and organisation of this military unit can no doubt send others to cause similar havoc in the future.

At the same time, the US, the EU and Pristina all expressed alarm at the sudden build-up of Serbian forces with artillery and armoured vehicles on the border – or administrative line, as Belgrade likes to call it. These sudden surges of Serbian military power on the Kosovo border have occurred during the recent crises in northern Kosovo which is where most of the ethnic Serbs remaining in Kosovo reside. The main city in the area, Mitrovica, is bitterly divided between the ethnic Serb and Albanian communities. The international community had hoped that the animosity between the two communities would abate over time as memories of the war of 1998-1999 faded and that they would find ways to reconcile and live together. But as we have seen in Northern Ireland and Nagorno-Karabakh, the mistrust and hostility resulting from old conflicts sustained by legend and propaganda have a long shelf life. Separation becomes self-reinforcing even from one generation to the next. Compromise is portrayed as surrender and identities, as well as political careers, are forged around the narrative of protecting the community against the alleged threat from the other. Hence the absurdity of a big country like Serbia seeing itself and its culture threatened by tiny Kosovo and the war-like rhetoric that surges from every incident of unrest, no matter how minor.

Russia will clearly try to exploit this conflict to divert the West’s attention away from Ukraine and weaken the West’s position in the Western Balkans

This said, it seems unlikely that Serbia is planning a full-scale invasion of Kosovo to annex the northern region, if not to regain the entire territory that it lost de facto in 1999. Such a move would risk a conflict with NATO, which has 4,500 troops in Kosovo and has pledged to maintain peace and stability throughout the entire country. More of the NATO troops will be stationed in the north of Kosovo in future, making an immediate clash with invading Serb forces inevitable. A rash move like this would also scupper Belgrade’s negotiations to join the EU for many years to come. Beyond the immediate risk, we also need to ask ourselves how Serbia would benefit from trying to annex northern Kosovo. Its 50,000 ethnic Serb inhabitants are poor, organised crime is endemic and, with the exception of the derelict Trepča mine complex, the area has few valuable economic resources. It would therefore be a considerable financial burden on Belgrade, in addition to being an illegal and unacceptable action in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, which demands that Serb forces leave and stay out of Kosovo. There have been some proposals coming out of Belgrade and Pristina in the past regarding a land swap, whereby Belgrade would gain northern Kosovo in exchange for Kosovo annexing ethnic Albanian districts in Serbia’s Preševo Valley. Yet these have never been seriously negotiated because no concrete plan acceptable to both sides has ever been agreed. The international community has also opposed this land swap – rightly in my view – as it did not include Serbia’s formal recognition of Kosovo, the only basis of long-term stability in the Western Balkans.

The comparisons with Russia are telling. Moscow has not accepted Ukraine as an independent, sovereign country in the same way that Belgrade has refused to do so vis-à-vis Kosovo. Both exaggerate grossly the dangers facing Russian and Serbian speakers in eastern Ukraine and northern Kosovo respectively and claim the right of interference to ‘protect their compatriots’ even if they are formally citizens of another country and subject to its laws and jurisdiction. Both have used hybrid warfare tactics and the periodic build-up of military forces along borders to undermine and intimidate their neighbours. The inflated rhetoric – Russian President Putin calls Ukraine “a fascist state” and Serbian President Vučić calls Kosovo “a terrorist state” – is also part of this nationalist agitation. The one difference is that Russia has invaded Ukraine and announced the formal annexation of four of its provinces. Belgrade has not so far crossed this Rubicon. Kosovo has NATO and US troops on its territory; Ukraine did not. So, deterrence works in one case but tragically not in the other.

Belgrade’s actions thus far are calculated to intimidate and undermine Kosovo and prevent it from moving ahead as a normal, independent state, preventing it from joining international organisations like Interpol or UNESCO or trying to block international recognition. The tense situation in the north can be periodically exploited to stop the ethnic Serbs from cooperating with Pristina or integrating into Kosovo politics and society. It ensures that Kosovo remains the dependent ward of NATO and the EU and US and European diplomats have to spend more time troubleshooting between Belgrade and Pristina. Support for Belgrade over Kosovo also gives Moscow a convenient entry point to exert influence in the Western Balkans at a time when the region has gravitated towards NATO and the EU. So, diversion tactics and raising tensions into new crisis points is the aim here rather than starting a new hot war in Europe. Yet it is a risky strategy as leaders who instigate or escalate crises need to be certain that they can then control them. Unintentional wars from badly handled crises have blighted Europe’s history, as well as instances of naked aggression.

At the same time, Belgrade’s policy is somewhat self-defeating because while it prevents Kosovo from moving forward; it also guarantees that Kosovars will never accept to live under Serb rule again and so Kosovo will not be part of Serbia. Russia will clearly try to exploit this conflict to divert the West’s attention away from Ukraine and weaken the West’s position in the Western Balkans. In the past, Russia and Serbia have interfered in elections in Montenegro, ahead of this country joining NATO, and Moscow has backed the efforts of Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska in BiH to undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement and reject the powers and authority of the federal government in Sarajevo, including threats of secession. Russia has long been a supporter of Vučić and a major supplier of weapons to Belgrade, as well as an investor in its energy industry. Moscow also invariably backs Belgrade’s line on Kosovo and its interpretation of events and the attribution of blame. Yet, this said, we need to be cautious about seeing the hand of Moscow behind every act of violence in Kosovo, including the attack by 30 heavily armed Serb gunmen just last week. As previously mentioned, there was undoubtedly a network of arming, equipping, training, financing and organisation behind that deeply worrying attack and it is urgent that we find out who is running this network. Clearly, we need to have the evidence before pointing the finger at Russia. Yet Moscow has a clear interest in the current context to stir up trouble in the Western Balkans. The Turkish and British soldiers sent to reinforce NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo and the additional 100 soldiers announced by Romania this week cannot be sent to Poland or the Baltic states.

Although so far only two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, there seems to be no viable alternative to Kosovo gaining this universal recognition in due course. After the long history of Belgrade’s misrule of its erstwhile province and repression of ethnic Albanians, the latter will not accept to be governed by Serbia again. Indeed, the two communities lived in separate universes well before the war of 1998-1999 and the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army. In truth, not many Serbs wish to reunite with Kosovo either given the strength of Kosovar Albanian nationalism and the economic burdens, but few Serb politicians have the courage to recognise the loss of Kosovo and advocate a more realistic and constructive approach. Harking back to the past and endorsing the hard line is much easier.

It should be clear to Belgrade too that its future membership of the EU is conditional on its formal recognition of Kosovo

The Kosovar Albanians look overwhelming to NATO and the EU for their future while Serbia is still unsure, sitting on the fence between East and West but unwilling to publicly proclaim and defend its Western orientation. Kosovo seeks every opportunity to draw closer to NATO and the EU even if the date when it can begin formal negotiations to enter these institutions is still far into the future, given the recognition issues but also domestic problems of weak governance, corruption and organised crime. Yet NATO’s Partnership for Peace and French President Macron’s European Political Community, which held its third summit this past week in Granada, offer pragmatic possibilities for Kosovo to move closer. It is up to NATO and the EU to find opportunities to engage by expanding the menu of cooperative activities on offer, from military exercises and training and equipment programmes to lifting visa restrictions on Kosovars to travel to the EU. The EU can do a lot to help Kosovo develop its science and technology, improve its infrastructure and bring its higher education sector up to European standards. Kosovo has one of Europe’s youngest populations. The recent decision of EU leaders meeting in Albania to adopt a more flexible approach to EU enlargement – extending benefits progressively rather than only after actual membership – should help Kosovo, provided that it does not have to achieve formal candidate status first. Six EU member states still do not recognise Kosovo.

The key to unlocking Kosovo’s potential lies in a normalisation of its relations with Serbia. This will expedite universal recognition and help Kosovo to gain formal EU candidate status. The resulting improvement in stability will also help to attract foreign investment and increase intra-regional trade. But normalisation is not something that politicians in Pristina or Belgrade are capable of negotiating themselves. There are no Nelson Mandelas or Frederik Willem de Klerks who are willing and able to reach out beyond their roots in their sectarian political movements and engage the opposite party, establish trust and a common objective along the way – and take risks vis-à-vis their more extremist party members to achieve peace as Mandela and de Klerk were able to do in ending Apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. Vučić and Kurti have a notoriously bad relationship. So, the EU, NATO and the US will have to play the bridge-building role instead, applying equal and consistent pressure on both sides to move forward and increasing sharply the penalties for escalatory and obstructionist behaviour.

The first priority is to conduct a thorough international investigation into the incident at Banjska and not leave it to Pristina and Belgrade who inevitably will refuse to cooperate and draw their own conclusions. If Serbia is found to have organised or at least tolerated the activities of paramilitary training camps on its territory, then the EU needs to impose sanctions on Belgrade and freeze its membership negotiations. The Serb authorities have arrested a Kosovo Serb politician, Milan Radoičić, subsequently release, who has boasted of his involvement in the Banjska operation. His background in Serb nationalism, organised crime and possibly the assassination of the moderate Kosovo Serb politician, Oliver Ivanović, some years back certainly make Radoičić a natural suspect. Yet to put all the blame on one man for such a complex operation would be too easy, especially as its sophisticated weaponry suggests the involvement of an army or intelligence service.

NATO and the EU need to get to the bottom of this paramilitary network and uncover its financial, training and weapons supply chains. If Serbia is involved, pressure is required to oblige Belgrade to dismantle the network and its parallel structures in northern Kosovo. The EU may be reluctant to impose sanctions on a candidate country, but an aspiring EU member state needs to demonstrate its respect for European values and its solidarity with the EU’s political objectives. So far, Belgrade has refused to impose sanctions against Moscow after the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. It has bought large amounts of Russian weapons and has allowed Gazprom and other Russian companies to gain a dominant stake in its energy network and infrastructure. The EU should insist that Serbia permanently reduce its forces along its border with Kosovo and provide the EU and NATO with advance notification of exercises and changes in its force posture. Belgrade needs to police its border better and clamp down on cross-border arms trafficking or the infiltration of gangs and extremists bent on causing trouble in northern Kosovo. It should be clear to Belgrade too that its future membership of the EU is conditional on its formal recognition of Kosovo and the normalisation of bilateral relations.

Yet the Kosovar Albanians need to act too. They need to work with the strengthened NATO KFOR troops to create a much more consistent and rigorous security blanket in the north so that planned provocations like the one at Banjska can be spotted and neutralised before they have a chance to use violence. Simply increasing the NATO presence in Kosovo without developing a much better security plan and rapid reaction capability will not make much difference, notwithstanding the media optics of announcing the deployment of more troops. In response to EU sanctions imposed on Pristina after it tried to impose unelected mayors on four municipalities in the north last June, Kurti adopted a more conciliatory line, offering to re-run the municipal elections in the hope of securing much greater Kosovo Serb participation and reviewing the unpopular presence of the special Kosovo police anti-riot units. But he needs to do more and persuade the many Serbs who left the Kosovo police service and public administration after previous unrest in the spring to return to their posts. He also needs a better communications and public diplomacy strategy to start to win the trust of the ethnic Serb community, all too exposed to the propaganda and fear-mongering coming from Belgrade. It will not be easy but that is not an excuse for not trying.

The political conflict in Kosovo is acquiring a dangerous military dimension and a return to war is no longer unthinkable

Ultimately, Pristina needs to move forward with the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities in the north. This is expected by Belgrade and by the local Serb community as a means to give the Serbs a degree of control over their own affairs, but Pristina is understandably nervous given the way that the Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik has exploited the relative autonomy of his territory to reject the Bosnian constitution and the authority of the federal government in Sarajevo as well as that of the international High Representative. Dodik is constantly threatening to secede altogether from the Bosnian Federation. So, unsurprisingly many Kosovars fear that the Association of Serb Municipalities could be the thin edge of the wedge in encouraging the Kosovo Serb community to refuse integration and agitate with Belgrade for the partition of the country. Consequently, the scope and devolved powers of the association need to be carefully circumscribed, and the association needs to be firmly embedded in the Kosovo constitution and the federal structures of the state. In return for the setting up of the association, the Serb community should accept the legitimacy of the state’s presence in the north

Yet despite the pessimism and the mistrust, Belgrade and Pristina are capable of reaching agreements. Last spring, Vučić and Kurti agreed to a ten-point plan when they met in North Macedonia. It gave Pristina a number of important concessions, such as the recognition by Belgrade of Kosovo state symbols and documents, as well as a promise to stop blocking Kosovo’s entry into international organisations. Yet the problem is always moving from principle to implementation and the question of who moves first. The periodic outbursts of violence in the north give politicians on both sides of the border the perfect excuse to row back on implementation and return to mud-slinging. The task for the EU-sponsored Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue is to try to compartmentalise the dialogue away from the day-to-day flurry of incidents and mutual recriminations and persuade Kurti and Vučić to commit to a concrete implementation timetable. This has to go hand in hand with a clampdown on violence in the north secured by a much larger and permanent NATO presence and NATO liaison in a joint body with the Serbian army on the border.

The war in Ukraine is already a major challenge for the transatlantic community. Russia’s interest is to start as many other bushfires in Europe’s trouble spots as it can to divert NATO’s and the EU’s attention and resources away from the central front in the Donbas and along the Black Sea coast. A successful Western diplomatic strategy will prevent this from happening. Serbia is not Russia and the EU has much more leverage over its critical choices. Yet the political conflict in Kosovo is acquiring a dangerous military dimension and a return to war is no longer unthinkable. Napoleon famously said that it was “excusable to lose a battle but not to be taken by surprise”. The transatlantic community needs to bear this in mind and keep a close eye on Kosovo in the weeks ahead.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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