Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 20 March 2024



Opinion | Putin Wants War in the Balkans

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

As all eyes are on Ukraine, another conflict is brewing in Europe. Three decades after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, recent clashes between Serbia and Kosovo have reignited lingering ethnic conflicts. While Serbia is driving events on the ground, Moscow is fanning the flames.

Vladimir Putin has been candid about his desire to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and restore Russia to its historical borders. But with Russian forces suffering losses in Ukraine, Moscow has much to gain by fostering trouble elsewhere on the Continent. The right regional crisis would give the Kremlin an opportunity to gain local influence through arms dealing and mediation, while diverting attention from Ukraine and giving Russia leverage over Western leaders.

The Western Balkans are a perfect candidate. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina aren’t NATO members. Just as Moscow seeks to dominate what it calls the “Russian world,” Serbia has long called to unite the “Serbian world.” In 1998, that concept spurred Serbia to invade Kosovo—a conflict that ended only with NATO’s March 1999 military intervention to end Serbian human-rights abuses against the ethnic Albanian population.

Though thousands of NATO soldiers still remain in Kosovo as peacekeepers, tensions are high. In 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia and received recognition from many Western countries, including the U.S. But Serbia still doesn’t recognize its sovereignty. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić is tightening his grip on power at home and over the past year, with Russian backing, has pressed Kosovo.

In May, Serbia placed its troops on combat alert following a clash between ethnic Serb rioters and international peacekeepers that injured 90 NATO soldiers. It was a Kremlinesque move, using ethnic tensions as a pretext for military movement. In September, Mr. Vučić borrowed another page from the Putin playbook. Thirty heavily armed ethnic Serbs, whom Kosovo alleges were equipped by Serbia and linked to Mr. Vučić, attacked a police patrol in Kosovo, leaving four dead. The Serbian president denied having armed the attackers.

Serbia used the incident as a pretext to mass heavy weapons and troops on the border with Kosovo in late September. The White House grew “very worried that Serbia could be preparing to launch a military invasion,” a U.S. official later told Time. Such a conflict could easily spill into neighboring North Macedonia, a NATO member. Concern about the brewing crisis prompted Washington to release declassified intelligence regarding Serbia’s military buildup and the attack on the Kosovo police.

Days later, Serbia withdrew from the border, but it’s evident Belgrade and Moscow are preparing a second campaign of violence and provocation for 2024. Russia is conducting influence operations with pro-war messaging in Serbia and sending weapons. China is shipping arms, too. Serbia has pledged to ramp up military spending this year and continues to host a Russian-run so-called humanitarian center close to NATO’s main base in Kosovo, which Western officials say serves as a Russian spy center. Serbia and Russia deny this. The Serbs seem eager for a pretext to act—in February, Serbia said that Kosovo’s ban of the Serbian dinar as currency amounted to ethnic cleansing.

And this isn’t the only powder keg in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also teetering on the verge of collapse. Late last year, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, another Russian ally, threatened that his semiautonomous region, Republika Srpska, would secede from the country. In the coming months, this could reignite the ethnic violence that killed more than 100,000 people during the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

In a Feb. 5 report, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it expects an increased risk of interethnic violence in 2024 in the Western Balkans. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned late last year that Russia has plans to destabilize the Balkans, a worry British Foreign Minister David Cameron echoed in January.

Western powers must prevent further instability in the Balkans. NATO should refocus military and diplomatic resources there and reinforce military commitments in Kosovo. A coalition of willing NATO members should publicly commit now to provide military assistance if Serbia or Russia take aggressive steps in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. should continue to impose sanctions on officials who undermine security in the Western Balkans, and the European Union should join. Washington and its allies should also continue to use declassified intelligence to support their diplomacy. And NATO should deploy counter-hybrid warfare teams to combat Russian and Serbian propaganda campaigns with improved cybersecurity.

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary and Mr. Putin sustains more losses in Ukraine, Moscow is attempting to open a new front in the Balkans. Moscow doesn’t need to send its army to the region. Russia need only to rely on Serbia to incite violence and instability, betting NATO will dither.

Ms. Stradner is a research fellow and Mr. Montgomery a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Speaking at the 2024 AFA Warfare Symposium, Gen. James Hecker described what the U.S. has learned from unmanned aerial vehicles—or UAVs—in Ukraine, and how they will change warfare. Images: AFP/Getty Images/U.S. Air Force via AP Composite: Mark Kelly

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