On August 26, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement settling a dispute over the movement of citizens across their borders after more than a month of high tensions. Josep Borrell, European Union (EU) foreign policy chief, enthusiastically tweeted: “We have a deal.” However, it is too early to celebrate this agreement as a victory.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to undermine stability in the region via its well-known hybrid warfare efforts. It is high time that Western powers wake up to the threat that the Balkans pose to their security. An ounce of prevention may very well prove to be worth a pound (or several) of cure.
In July, demonstrations along Kosovo’s northern border escalated sharply. Tensions were high, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announcing that Kosovo would attack Serbia before October 1.
Protests erupted following a law requiring Serbs living in Kosovo to switch their license plates from Serbian to Kosovan. Kosovo’s government also declared that anyone with a Serbian passport or other formal ID must acquire another document to enter the country. Both laws were supposed to go into place on August 1, but since the protests, Kosovo’s government postponed the start date to September 1.
Russia’s goal in the Balkans is to “escalate to de-escalate” and position itself as the sole mediator. This plan accomplishes two goals – strengthening Moscow’s standing in the region, while giving Russian President Vladimir Putin leverage over Western powers who don’t want violence to spiral further.
At the same time, Vučić’s goal is simply to remain in power. Chaos in the region would allow him to frame himself as a source of stability in the Balkans, giving the West no option other than to support him. He is notorious for his balancing strategy between Russia and the West in to strengthen his position.
When Vučić agreed to abolish exit/entry documents for Kosovan ID holders this weekend to please the West, he also took a concrete step to satisfy Moscow by cancelling an upcoming international LGBT EuroPride event in September. This provided a concession to thousands of religious conservative protestors who marched and demanded the event’s cancellation to protect Serbian “traditional values.”
Serbia’s decision to abolish entry/exit documents for Kosovo ID holders is the direct result of NATO demonstrating its resolve in the region. In August, NATO increased its peacekeeping troops in northern Kosovo and sent a clear signal that it would be ready to intervene in the event of further escalation. Last week, two U.S. B-52s conducted low approach flyovers over North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. Vučić is no fool – he knows that Serbia is surrounded by NATO members, whose combined military strength greatly outmatch Serbia’s.
Before the agreement was signed, Russia and Serbia had been using information operations to set conditions for further escalations in the Balkans. Russian media has painted the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo as a Western attempt to open another front for the war in Ukraine, and the same outlets portray the conflict as another Western attempt to infiltrate Serbia. Despite Vučić’s statement against the likelihood of Russian military bases in Serbia, Russian media has continued to push the narrative that such bases are feasible.
When the U.S. government said that it is time to forget the narrative that “Kosovo is Serbia” and start saying that “Kosovo and Serbia are actually Europe,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded “Never.”
Believe her when she says it. For The Kremlin, Kosovo is not about some romanticized Slavic Brotherhood or the Serbian monasteries located there. By keeping Kosovo locked in a frozen conflict, Putin can use it to negotiate with the West in the United Nations Security Council as a “precedent” for Crimea, and to control Moscow’s far-right proxy groups in Serbia.
How the West must respond
The agreement over identity documents is a step in the right direction, but Russia and Serbia can heat up this frozen conflict again when it suits their interests. To counteract these efforts, the West must counter Russian information operations that are run via local media, blogs and social media. NATO previously sent a specialized counter-hybrid warfare support team to Montenegro to deter Russian hybrid attacks, and they should send the team back to the region to counter Russian information operations.
Executive Order 14033, signed by President Joe Biden in June 2021, allows the U.S. to authorize sanctions against persons who are involved in corruption activities or who undermine security or democracy in the Western Balkans. For American sanctions to fully work, the EU should join this effort.
Moscow does not need to roll into Kosovo with tanks to achieve its objectives. By sowing chaos, a renewed Serbia-Kosovo escalation would continue to undermine regional stability, allow Putin to distract Europe from his war in Ukraine, and allow Serbia to continue to balance itself between Moscow, Washington and Brussels. But, if the West acts now, it can hinder this game plan.