There is a link between the conflict in Ukraine and brewing tensions in the Balkans

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Vladimir Putin claims that protecting ethnic Russians justifies military action against Ukraine. Putin’s concern for Ukraine’s Russian minority is bombastic. His greater global goal is to confront NATO and undermine US leadership to redeem the Russian Empire’s past glory.

The US must be ready for Russian incitement on multiple fronts. While President Joe Biden is focused on Ukraine, another threat is looming in the Western Balkans. Serbia, acting as Russia’s proxy, is intensifying efforts to destabilize Kosovo, a staunchly pro-American country that aspires to membership in NATO and the European Union. Putin calculates that an escalation of deadly violence in Southeast Europe would distract the Biden administration from a resolute response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Ukraine is a tinderbox. More than 120,000 Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, including snipers, tanks, and artillery. It was only seven years ago that Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, part of a sovereign and independent Ukraine, claiming to protect ethnic Russians.

The Russia-Ukraine border is a dangerous flash-point for conflict escalation. When Putin and US President Joe Biden met via teleconference on December 7, Putin demanded guarantees that Ukraine would never join NATO or allow NATO infrastructure on its soil. Biden made no such guarantee. Ukraine is a sovereign and independent state, which makes decisions for itself.   

Putin pursues a bellicose approach to Ukraine, knowing that conflict ill-serves Russia with the international community. He is catering to a domestic Russian audience, which believes that Ukraine is part of Russia and should be disciplined for breaking away from the motherland.         

While the Biden administration is focused on Ukraine, a similar scenario is unfolding in the border between Serbia and Kosovo. Over the last decade, Russia and Serbia have greatly expanded their military cooperation. Serbia doubled its defense budget over the last three years to $1.5 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend when there is no external threat.

Serbia is apparently preparing for war, spending lavishly on sophisticated offensive weapons. It purchased MIG warplanes, T-72 tanks and other armor from Russia. Serbia and Russia- established a “Humanitarian Center” in Nis about 100 km from the Kosovo border. The base is a hub for intelligence operations and a staging ground for special operations, including Russian mercenaries.

In Ukraine, Russia deployed “little green men”, operating undercover without military insignias. Similarly, Russian agents are present in north Kosovo. Russia’s intelligence operations involve extensive cyber operations and malign influence operations aiming to radicalize Kosovo Serbs.

The most recent crisis in Kosovo-Serbia relations was instigated by Serbia in September 2021. The Government of Kosovo imposed reciprocity measures on vehicle license plates with Serbia. In response, Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic deployed military close to the border with Kosovo. Tensions were exacerbated by MIG-29s skirting Kosovo’s airspace.

Belgrade also intensified its support for the Republika Srpska, a separatist entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Agreement provided ample arrangements for self-rule by Bosnian Serbs. Anything more would culminate in Bosnia’s fragmentation, which the EU and US strongly oppose.

Chapter 35 in Serbia’s EU accession talks require mutual recognition and normalization of relations with Kosovo. Maintaining Chapter 35 is the EU’s greatest leverage over Serbia, by setting strict conditions on Serbia’s European prospects. Vucic is unwilling to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence, so Serbia’s EU aspirations are blocked. While Vucic says he will abandon EU membership and seek Eurasian partnerships with Russia and China, this claim is disingenuous. He wants to reorient Kosovo-Serbia talks by provoking a flare-up.

Putin cited the “Kosovo precedent” to justify Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Even Putin’s new best friend, Xi Jinping, opposes international recognition for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, which would set a dangerous precedent for parts of China chafing under Xi’s authoritarian rule. Outside Belarus, there is no appetite in the international community for rubber stamping Putin’s occupation of territories in Georgia.

Echoing Putin’s remarks on Ukraine, Vucic threatened to intervene militarily in Kosovo in order to “protect the undefended Serbian population”. Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, chose this toxic time to inspect Serbia’s military corps, which were in a state of elevated combat readiness. His action was a statement of Russian–Serbian solidarity against Kosovo.

NATO must be ready for the possibility that Serbia, in cooperation with Russia, might instigate a crisis in the northern part of Kosovo, opening a proxy armed conflict. This scenario mirrors Russia’s approach in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Russia and Serbia are testing the commitment of NATO and the US to allies and partners. Putin believes that concurrent “war theatres” in Ukraine and Kosovo would overextend NATO and test Washington’s commitment. Failure to defend Kosovo would open the door for a wider European war, affecting the current world order.

The legendary US diplomat, Richard C. Holbrooke, said of Serbia’s ex-President Slobodan Milosevic: “[He] tries to solve a problem by making a bigger one.” The same can be said of Putin’s policy in Russia’s near abroad and the Balkans.

Putin does not want a live-fire confrontation with the US in the Black Sea. Nor does he want the US to implement biting sanctions. Biden warned Putin that the US was prepared to implement a package of diplomatic and economic reprisals during their recent teleconference. Biden would terminate Nord Stream-2, a critical source of revenue to Russia selling natural gas in Europe in the event of an attack on Ukraine.

Some EU members do not have the appetite for joining sanctions on Russia. They are concerned that Russia could retaliate by curtailing the distribution of its natural gas to consumers in Europe. The EU wants to steer its own course, but it will not let the US implement sanctions on its own. Transatlantic cooperation is most effective when it comes to sanctions aimed at addressing Russian aggression.

Putin thinks he can avoid a major confrontation with the US over Ukraine by creating a crisis between Serbia and Kosovo. Violence in Kosovo would embroil the US and troops from NATO countries that are based in Kosovo. An attack could provoke Albania to intervene. The North Atlantic Council could activate Article 5 of the North Atlantic Alliance charter. “An attack on any NATO ally would be considered an attack against all members of the Alliance”, which would take the necessary actions to assist.

Putin believes that: “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Soviet revisionism and anti-Americanism are defining characteristics of Putin’s imperial rule.

About the author

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David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University‘s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. His recent books include An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.

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Lulzim Peci Director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED). He served as Ambassador of Kosovo in Stockholm and briefly as the first Liaison Officer of Kosovo to Serbia.

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