Kosovo, A New Theater For Russia's War With The West?
After meeting with the Russian ambassador, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has now demanded NATO take over security in northern Kosovo, days after a deadly shootout between Serbian gunmen and Kosovar police. The violent clash has raised tensions in the Balkan region, with some Russian authorities drawing parallels with another European conflict — the one in Ukraine.
The deadly clash in northern Kosovo on Sunday is reverberating far beyond the Balkans. At first glance, distant histories seem to be repeating: World War I starting in Sarajevo, the breakup of Yugoslavia drove 1990s geopolitics.
Yet there may be much more recent history at play: is the conflict linked to the war in Ukraine?
The latest incident began with ethnic Serb gunmen blocking a bridge with armored vehicles and opening fire on approaching Kosovar policemen, killing one officer. The gunmen then barricaded themselves in a monastery, where at least three were killed by sniper fire. The incident has escalated tensions between Kosovo and Serbia that have been festering for years.
Indeed, Kosovo has long accused Serbia of receiving Russian support to destabilize the Balkans. Belgrade meanwhile has alleged ethnic cleansing of Serbians in Kosovo, and has refused to recognize Kosovo’s unilateral proclamation of independence, withome of the rhetoric has harkening back to the prelude to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Is Russia behind the latest incident? If the situation blows up in the Balkans, could there be spillover that escalates the showdown between Moscow and NATO?
Amid the Sunday siege, speculations ran rampant in the local media regarding the gunmen's identity.
Albanian online news outlet, Albanian Post cited “unofficial sources” who claimed the armed group included members of the far-right Serbian group “Obraz” as well as people wearing uniforms of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group and Russian special forces (Spetsnaz).
No official source has confirmed these speculations as the Kosovo Ministry of Internal Affairs consistently indicated that the gunmen were members of the Serb minority. Still, in months prior, some Kosovo politicians had previously suggested the presence of Wagner PMC members on their territory.
The Israeli-based "Terror Alarm" group even asserted in a late May post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that conversations on the Wagner telegram chat suggest some of its members had been sent to Kosovo.
The President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić (left) and the Russian Ambassador in Serbia, Aleksandar Bocan-Kharchenko on Monday.
As news of the clash broke, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić condemned the killing of the Kosovo policeman, but continued to imply the clash was a rebellion by ethnic Serbs against “[Kosovo Prime Minister Albin] Kurti’s terror.”
While ethnic Albanians make up 90% of Kosovo's 1.8 million population, tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs, primarily residing in the northern part of the country near the Serbian border, have never accepted Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, a stance shared in Belgrade, Moscow and other capitals around the world.
The Kremlin stands as Serbia’s closest ally on the Kosovo issue. On Monday, Vučić met with the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, where they discussed the “brutal ethnic cleansing” of Serbs, according to Vučić’s Instagram post.
Following the meeting, the Russian ambassador accused the West of inciting the tensions in Kosovo.
“The parallels between the deteriorating situation in and around Ukraine and Kosovo — influenced by the West — are becoming increasingly clear,” he stated according to Russian state-owned news agency Ria Novosti.
The tensions align with Russian interests.
This was not the first time a Russian official drew parallels between Ukraine and the Balkans. In April 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the precedent of Kosovo as a justification for the illegal recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.Die Welt noted some experts believe the tensions align with Russian interests, as they hinder the attempts to bring both Kosovo and Serbia into the EU, and destabilize Europe and the West.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, strongly condemned the recent violence in northern Kosovo. His office reported that Borrell had engaged in discussions with both Prime Minister Kurti and President Vučić.
Kosovo and Serbia are candidates for EU accession, but their path to membership hinges on normalizing their relations. Prolonged and escalating tensions jeopardize their accession aspirations.
A NATO-led peacekeeping mission KFOR (Kosovo Force) has been present in the country since the Kosovo War in 1999, meaning any Serbian military intervention in Kosovo would mean a clash with NATO peacekeepers.
Though immediate Serbian military intervention seems unlikely, it may become the place on the world map where the war in Ukraine spills over into something even bigger. History is never far behind.
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