Since February 2022, Ukraine has unquestionably been the epicenter of hostility between the West and Russia. Nonetheless, tensions between EU members and the U.S. on one side and Moscow on the other also play out in the Western Balkans. Russia has a record of approaching ethnic cleavages, social divisions, and irretractable tensions in this part of Europe in ways which are problematic for Brussels and Washington. Throughout the foreseeable future, Moscow’s clout in the Western Balkans will remain a source of concern for EU and U.S. officials.
From supporting the separatist drive of Republika Srpska’s strongman Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to allegedly backing the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, Russia has for years leveraged its influence in the Western Balkans to create trouble for Western powers. Such policies factor into Russia’s desire to project power in a part of Europe where Moscow had essentially no influence in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion. Since the overt Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the West has come to see that the need to challenge the Kremlin’s agendas in Europe’s “inner courtyard” is increasingly dire.
One consequence is EU members coming back to supporting the bloc’s eastward enlargement, which slowed down in the 2000s. There is an increased desire in European capitals to bring more Balkan states, such as BiH and Montenegro, into the EU. Despite not belonging to the bloc, the U.S. fully backs plans for adding Western Balkan countries to the EU amid a period of intensifying great power competition and accelerated East-West bifurcation on the international stage. The logic is simple: If these countries do not join Western institutions, such as the EU and NATO, the Russians and Chinese will fill the voids.
Russia and the Kosovo question in a historical context
President Vladimir Putin came to power only six months after NATO stopped bombing Serbia and Montenegro. The 78-day military campaign ended the 1998-99 Kosovo War, which broke out following years of conflict between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo (then a Serbian province) and Serbian security forces. That conflict resulted in 10,000 deaths. According to officials in Belgrade, NATO’s strikes took the lives of at least 2,500 people and injured roughly 12,500 others, while damaging about 25,000 houses and apartment buildings along with the destruction of more than 1,000 kilometers of roads and railway. However, Human Rights Watch estimated a much lower civilian death toll at roughly 500.
The 1998-99 Kosovo war ended with Serbian forces having to leave Kosovo and was followed by the establishment of Kosovo as an independent and ethnic Albanian-run nation-state in 2008. Still, to this day, Serbia and many countries worldwide do not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, but rather a breakaway southern province belonging to Serbia.
Since 1999, Moscow has played off Serbian grievances and resentment from the conflict and Belgrade’s loss of control over Kosovo. Russia’s support for Belgrade during the 1998-99 conflict and Moscow’s continued non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence have given Putin and his country a special place in the hearts of many Serbians who still see Kosovo as an important part of their homeland. A popular narrative in Serbia is that NATO is a malign and expansionist force while Russia is a benign power.
According to a poll conducted last year, only 26 percent of Serbians fault Russia for the conflict in Ukraine, which speaks volumes about anti-NATO and pro-Russian sentiments among the country’s population. Despite Serbia’s economic dependence on EU countries such as Germany and its EU candidacy since 2013, Belgrade was left with no choice but to resist Western pressure to implement sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine. Had Serbia joined the EU and U.S. in doing so, the leadership in Belgrade would have faced an intense domestic backlash.
Despite Russia not being the reason for the Belgrade-Pristina divide, the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs on one hand and Kosovo’s government on the other serves Moscow’s interests. Russia was mostly on the sidelines of the flareups between Serbia and Kosovo in late 2022. Yet, the Kremlin has reason to encourage Belgrade to take an increasingly aggressive stance toward Kosovo, mindful of how this tense situation can distract the EU and U.S. from the war in Ukraine while enabling Moscow to further challenge the post-Cold War European order.
Russia has veto power at the United Nations Security Council, which makes Moscow a critical partner for Belgrade to rely on when the international community debates recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Russia has all the reason to want this dynamic in Belgrade-Moscow relations to remain in play. “In the eyes of the Kremlin, Russia has very little to gain and, potentially, everything to lose if the Kosovo conflict is resolved,” wrote Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Full recognition of Kosovo would end Serbia’s dependence on Russia’s continued international backing.”
Pristina officials have expressed concerns about Moscow’s interest in heightened tensions in northern Kosovo. “Now that Russia got severely wounded in Ukraine after its invasion and aggression, they have interest in spillover,” said the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, in December 2022. “They have interest in outsourcing their war-mongering drive to the Balkans where they have a client who’s in Belgrade.”
Western efforts to normalize Kosovo-Serbia relations
Since Russia’s February 2022 attack on Ukraine, EU and U.S. officials have been increasingly motivated to put diplomatic energy into calming friction between Kosovo and Serbia, given the extent to which Moscow stands to gain from intractable tension in the Western Balkans. However, such EU- and U.S.-driven efforts to bring Kosovo and Serbia toward normalization predate the Russian-Ukrainian war’s eruption.
“The U.S. and EU seem to be doing what they can. Since the early 2000s, they’ve provided Serbia with a vector or an opportunity to join the EU in crude terms in exchange for recognizing Kosovo’s independence,” explained Matthew Bryza, who served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009. “So, the U.S. and EU have created the structure that provides a great incentive for resolution of the conflict.”
In March 2011, dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia began under EU auspices with Brussels seeking to help push Pristina and Belgrade toward normalized relations. On April 19, 2013, the EU brokered a historic deal between Kosovo and Serbia. The pact, signed 14 years after the war of the late 1990s ended, did not require Serbia to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence. But the deal basically permitted Kosovo to operate independently while also ensuring protection for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo and promising Serbia a path to EU membership.
At the time, the French journalist Piotr Smolar praised the pact for “raising hopes of a virtuous circle for the region” and hailed it as “a very welcome success for European diplomacy.” Nonetheless, implementation of the deal always raised difficult questions and a decade later Pristina and Belgrade have still not normalized bilateral relations.
From a Western perspective, one problematic reality is that support among Serbians for joining the EU has declined remarkably. According to a poll by Ipsos (a Paris-based multinational market research consultancy) in April 2022, 44 percent of Serbia’s population opposes their country’s accession to the EU, with only 35 percent supporting it and the rest unsure.
Throughout the second half of 2022, the delicate situation in northern Kosovo became increasingly tense with Brussels warning that Kosovo and Serbia’s failure to resolve their problems risks bringing these two countries back to their violent past.
An event that did much to exacerbate much of this longstanding tension in Serb-populated northern Kosovo came in early September 2022, when the Pristina government announced that motorists in Kosovo would need to exchange their Serbian license plates for those issued by the Republic of Kosovo. Kurti defended this decision as “nothing more or less than an expression of the exercise of sovereignty.” Nonetheless, that declaration from Pristina fueled much anger in North Mitrovica and elsewhere in northern Kosovo.
In November 2022, Brussels brokered a deal to solve this bureaucratic dispute in Kosovo over license tags. According to the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, under this agreement, Serbia’s government will cease to issue license plates with denominations for cities in Kosovo while Pristina will no longer demand the re-registration of Belgrade-issued plates. Although the government of Kosovo initially resisted this EU-led effort to defuse the tension over license tags, Pristina agreed to the deal after coming under pressure from Washington.
Meanwhile, there has been a Franco-German proposal for normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which has been better received in Pristina than in Belgrade. This proposal, which Paris and Berlin sent to both Kosovo and Serbia after the Berlin Process Summit wrapped up in early November 2022, contains nine points concentrating on both countries’ territorial integrity and mutual respect for jurisdiction. The proposal calls on Pristina and Belgrade to establish “good neighborly relations based on equal rights” in order to “resolve disputes by peaceful means.” Under this proposal, “neither side can represent the other in the international sphere,” meaning that Serbia would need to recognize Kosovo’s independence and sovereignty with the country having full-fledged membership at the UN, the Council of Europe, and so on.
In December 2022, Kosovo-Serbs expressed their rage over the arrest of a former Serb police officer, one of the roughly 600 Serb policemen who had resigned in protest over the license plate issue. His alleged involvement in attacks against Kosovo’s police was the basis for his arrest. Kosovo-Serbs established roadblocks in the north to signal their rage, resulting in the EU’s rule of law mission, known as EULEX, beefing up its presence in this part of Kosovo and Pristina deploying ethnic Albanian police there. In this increasingly heated environment, there were violent exchanges between Kosovo police and some unknown groups, as well as a stun grenade being thrown at one of EULEX’s reconnaissance patrols.
Pristina’s announcement that it had set elections in northern municipalities for December 2022, fueled more anger among Kosovo-Serbs, resulting in Kosovo’s dominant Serb party boycotting the elections. Pristina responded by deploying ethnic Albanian police to northern Kosovo—a move that heightened concerns about the tension. In mid-December, authorities in Pristina took stock of the tense situation and decided to postpone these elections until April 2023. Western governments welcomed this decision, believing that the move could help ease friction in northern Kosovo and, by extension, throughout the Western Balkans.
On December 10, 2022, President Aleksandar Vucic, citing UN Resolution 1244, said that Belgrade would request permission from NATO for the deployment of 1,000 Serbian security forces to northern Kosovo. The Serbian president said that the aim this move would be to ease the tension and protect ethnic Serbs in their “homeland”. Vucic acknowledged, however, that the chances of NATO granting such permission were extremely slim.
Many Kosovo-Serbs and Belgrade officials accuse the Pristina government of subjecting Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority – which makes up six percent of the country’s population – to discrimination and human rights violations. Kosovo’s leadership claims that this accusation is baseless and merely serves to legitimize what Pristina perceives as Serbian aggression toward Kosovo.
Western governments find the specter of any such direct Serbian intervention disturbing and EU officials have been busy warning that such action would risk returning the Western Balkans to the violence of the late 1990s. Mindful of NATO’s on-the-ground presence in Kosovo in the form of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), it is safe to assume that there will be no such deployment of Serbian security forces into northern Kosovo.
Over the years, KFOR has played a stabilizing role in Kosovo, preventing flare-ups from reviving the 1998-99 Kosovo War. Today, this NATO peacekeeping force remains the main guarantee that Serbian security forces will not enter Kosovo. On December 16, 2022, Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, who leads the KFOR peacekeepers, insisted that the NATO force has “full capability, including personnel, to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities, everywhere in Kosovo.” He also affirmed that, since October 2022, KFOR has been “reinforcing [NATO’s] presence, including with additional troops and patrols in northern Kosovo.” Nonetheless, KFOR’s presence is not bringing Pristina and Belgrade toward resolving the root causes of their problems.
In December 2022, Kosovo’s prime minister claimed that Wagner Group mercenaries arrived in Serbia against the backdrop of deepening defense cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow. Vucic, however, firmly denied this claim in January 2023. The Serbian president even condemned the Wagner Group’s efforts to recruit more Serbians to fight with the Kremlin-linked mercenary force in Ukraine, constituting a rare rebuke against Russia on Belgrade’s part.
“The EU has to put more pressure on Serbia, and also find a mechanism to prevent future escalations,” explained Florian Bieber, the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group and the Jean-Monnet Chair in the Europeanisation of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz. According to John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus, it is important for the EU to advance Serbia’s accession to the bloc and ensure that Kosovo joins too. He argued that rather than trying to pressure Belgrade into implementing sanctions against Moscow, the EU’s focus should be on the requirements for EU membership.
“Given that EU membership has dropped in popularity in Serbia, the EU has to work harder to make sure that accession is more of a carrot. The EU should also accelerate its efforts to advance political agreements between Belgrade and Pristina. To help that, the U.S. should push for a renewal of the provision in the Washington agreement of 2020 by which Serbia accepted a one-year moratorium on its de-recognition efforts—but that will also require the U.S. to put some pressure on Kosovo to extend its own moratorium on applying for membership in international organizations,” stated Feffer.
Unfortunately, vitriol on a people-to-people level and in the media makes diplomatic efforts to resolve tensions between Kosovo and Serbia extremely difficult. As Bieber points out: “The reporting on both sides and especially in Serbia is leaning towards hate speech and emphasizing the other side as a threat, and this is contributing to the atmosphere.”
Nonetheless, the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany have remained determined to continue putting diplomatic energy into resolving tensions between Pristina and Belgrade, and between the government of Kosovo and the country’s Serb minority. Yet, efforts by Western nations to push through a peace deal aimed at reducing friction have not progressed, largely due to the proposal’s failure to address the difficult issue of mutual recognition.
The proposed deal’s provisions entailed Belgrade not recognizing the independence of Kosovo but agreeing to cease lobbying efforts against Kosovar membership in the UN and other international institutions, while granting self-governance to Kosovo-Serbs. But officials in Pristina, including Kurti, have concerns about Kosovo-Serbs receiving self-governance status in northern Kosovo. A fear is that such an entity could become a Belgrade- and Moscow-aligned proto state similar to Republika Srpska in BiH. U.S. officials have also voiced their strong opposition to “any form of entity that resembles Republika Srpska” in northern Kosovo.
Experts such as Gezim Visoka, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Dublin City University, argued that this deal touted by Western powers appeared to be “designed more for conflict avoidance rather than building a lasting peace between Kosovo and Serbia,” still leaving room for ambiguities concerning mutual recognition.
In early 2023, Vucic attempted to warn politicians in Belgrade that failure to move ahead with EU-backed plans for peace would jeopardize Serbia’s access to pre-accession funds from the EU and derail the country’s path toward EU membership. Yet, there are Serbian lawmakers who view the deal as requiring Belgrade to essentially surrender to a de facto recognition of Kosovo as an independent nation-state. Vucic has been under immense pressure from these right-wing nationalist elements in Belgrade’s political arena, limiting his ability to move ahead with this EU-backed plan. On February 28, 2023, Vucic vowed to not sign the deal pushed by Western governments. When Serbia’s head of state was asked about the chances of the Western-proposed deal being changed, he said there were “none”.
Russia’s foreign policy aims
Looking ahead, Russia’s main foreign policy focus will be the war in Ukraine. Nonetheless, Moscow’s networks in the Western Balkans will continue providing the Kremlin with opportunities to pursue its agendas while hiding behind plausible deniability. It is through much fog, links to shadowy non-state actors, and disinformation campaigns that Russia can effectively enhance its leverage in the Western Balkans, in ways that undermine Brussels and Washington’s interests in southeastern Europe.
Viewing the expansion of the EU and NATO into southeastern Europe as a threat to Russia, Moscow will attempt to make Western Balkan countries pay steep prices for moving closer to the West’s orbit of influence. Unresolved tensions and economic problems will make it easier for Russia to continue projecting its power in Europe’s “inner courtyard” in ways that deeply unsettle the EU and U.S.
Within this context, the Kremlin will likely play spoiler to Western-led efforts to ease friction between Pristina and Belgrade. The reactivation of conflict and inflaming of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have much potential to shift Western attention, money, and other resources away from the warfare in Ukraine toward the Western Balkans. From Moscow’s perspective, such circumstances could increase the chances of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine succeeding.
 Hamza Karcic, “Putin’s Most Loyal Balkan Client,” Foreign Policy, October 7, 2022, http://bitly.ws/BWST; Andrew Higgins, “Finger Pointed at Russians in Alleged Coup Plot in Montenegro,” New York Times, November 26, 2016, http://bitly.ws/BWTj.
 Matthew Bryza, Interview with the Author, December 13, 2022.
 Florian Bieber, Interview with the Author, December 14, 2022.
 John Feffer, Interview with the Author, December 13, 2022.
 Florian Bieber, Interview with the Author, December 14, 2022.
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