By: Andrej Vastl
The Balkan region has long been subjected to a complex ethnic and political history, and it is once again facing growing tensions, particularly between Serbia and Kosovo. The dimensions of this conflict are unfolding against the backdrop of geopolitical ambitions and the influence of various international actors, highlighting the role of Russia, and raising questions about stability and security in the region.
In September, Serbia deployed advanced weaponry along its border with Kosovo, marking one of the largest military build-ups by Serbia in almost a quarter of a century since the end of the Kosovo War. A spokesperson for the United States National Security Council deemed this move “inappropriate”.
Aleksandar Vučić’s leadership in Serbia, which seems to exploit the crisis in Kosovo as a way to divert attention from domestic political challenges, reflects the opportunistic nature of current policies rather than being grounded in nationalist principles. While historical and ethnic connections between Serbia and Kosovo exist, tensions have escalated due to political challenges that extend beyond purely domestic frameworks. Additionally, Aleksandar Vučić has enhanced his “international hand”. By establishing and resolving crises in Kosovo, Vučić has positioned himself as an arbiter of stability in the region. This role allows him to negotiate with Western countries, promising to ease tensions if they meet his demands for economic support. Negotiation of this kind is just one way in which Vučić has/will “outsmart” the United States and Europe. European leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, express a desire to integrate Serbia into the EU. Vučić has somewhat theoretically agreed to EU accession, but he does so only because membership brings assistance, while in reality, he wants Serbia to remain on the long and endless path to accession. Essentially, Aleksandar Vučić does not want accession, as it would force him to strengthen the rule of law.
Putin’s cunning logic
In this context, Russia, which does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, has gained a crucial role. Moscow actively conducts information operations, creating divisions between citizens of Kosovo and Serbia, and significantly increasing its influence in the region, primarily through strategic connections, military means, and energy promises. Why is Russia “happy” to encourage the historical conflict between Kosovo and Serbia? This burdens NATO resources and weakens U.S. power in Europe. In 1999, NATO “forced” Serbia to withdraw from Kosovo, and since then, the alliance has maintained a small peacekeeping military force in the Balkans.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin uses the so-called “Kosovo precedent” to justify his illegal invasion of Ukraine. According to this cunning logic, expressed in a speech by the Russian permanent representative to the UN earlier this year, Putin argues that the annexation of Ukrainian territories is justified by Kosovo’s independence. The illegal and brazen annexation is thus carried out on occupied Ukrainian territories, similar to Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Serbia over two decades ago.
NATO, maintaining a limited peacekeeping presence in Kosovo, is facing the challenge of preserving regional stability in light of growing conflict tensions. Preventing further escalation of the conflict is crucial, requiring strengthened international presence and clearly defined guidelines, along with active information operations aimed at preventing tension escalation. This includes a focus on extreme nationalist groups in Serbia. It is essential to raise awareness of the fact that Russia does not provide necessary military support in the event of a conflict, as further escalation on Kosovo could lead to chaos in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leader, Milorad Dodik, who has close ties to Putin, has recently threatened secession of Serbian territories in Bosnia. In October, Dodik emphasised the need for Serbs to “create one state” composed of Serbia, Republika Srpska, and Montenegro.
Despite this, it is crucial to prevent the spread of the conflict to other countries in the region, as further destabilisation could affect the wider Balkans. Growing tensions may lead to increased instability and destabilisation throughout Europe, which would serve Russia’s interests, as Putin seeks to divert attention from Kyiv and Ukraine.
It is urgent for the international community to recognise and appropriately respond to the increasing geopolitical tensions in the Balkans. Stability and security in this part of Europe are crucial for maintaining the balance of power and preventing the spread of Russia’s influence. Strong international cooperation is necessary to prevent the spread of conflict and maintain peace in the Balkans and the broader European context.