The Trump Administration Kicks (Another) Beehive: Why Is the United States Pushing a “Kosovo Army”?

When it comes to Kosovo-Metohija, we’re playing chess without a queen and a rook and trying to get to a draw, with our king cornered by their pawns. So far, we’ve only lost pieces and haven’t taken any of theirs, and we’re fighting to get to a stalemate now so we can get back to the board and keep playing the game. I can’t just ignore the problem and walk away, because no one is simply going to give us back our queen and rook.
                                            – Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić[1]

Executive Summary

United States Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell averred recently that ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo—formerly an autonomous Serbian province, it unilaterally declared independence in February 2008—“has the right” to transform its internal security force into a professional army. It followed Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi’s declaration that Kosovo has “no more time to waste” negotiating with Serbia. That nation’s position was put forcefully, if idiomatically, a year earlier by Marko Djurić, who coordinates government policy on Kosovo. He suggested colorfully that Kosovo’s many “Albanian politicians . . . who do not understand their place” should “once again listen to and better understand the Serbian proverb — ‘a toad queuing where horses are shoed’.”[2] In other words, sovereign states like Serbia get armies, not provincial breakaway like Kosovo.

To Serbia’s south, the Trump administration presses the demand of Kosovo’s thuggish leader[3] for recognition as a sovereign state and for an army, while studiously ignoring Kosovo Serbs. And to Serbia’s west, the Trump administration just as forcefully opposes ethnic Serb-dominated Republika Srpska demands for greater autonomy from fractious Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Russian influence is progressively weakening in the Western Balkans, albeit at times at a frustratingly slow and uneven pace, this notwithstanding Russia’s adept instrumental use of front groups like Treća Srbija and soft power agitprop. The Prishtinë-based Kosovar Centre for Security Studies asserts, “Russia has used Kosovo as an important card in its relationship with Serbia” and “triggering nationalistic mobilization by calling for Kosovo’s cause will remain a part of their strategy.”[4] Fair enough. So how does America’s interest in containing Russian influence square with Assistant Secretary Mitchell advocating, in this Western Balkan flashpoint, a new national army, one demanded by the same Kosovo government that campaigns openly, as The New York Times recently reported, “to suspend a war crimes court set up to prosecute atrocities committed by ethnic Albanians” after the after the 1998-99 Kosovo war?[5]  

Chalk that up as Russian agitprop 1, United States geostrategic interests 0.


Pro-Russia Rally in Belgrade (Credit: Euromaidan Press)

As if there were not enough threats to security in the Western Balkans, United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell averred recently in Belgrade that “Kosovo has the right to form a professional force to address security,” declaring preemptively “it will not be a threat to Serbia or Serbs.”[6]

President Aleksandar Vučić (l) and Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell (r) (Credit: Gazeta-Shpip[7])

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin begged to differ, condemning it as “a threat to peace and stability throughout the Balkans.”[8] He asked Assistant Secretary Mitchell to show him “a single sheet of paper that establishes a basis in international law for forming a Kosovo army.”[9]

I ask our guest to please cite any article, any section [of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244] that grants anyone the right to form such an army. . . . There isn’t one, and one can’t just be invented, not by the United States and not by the European Union. According to the Kumanovo military agreement, no Kosovo army can exist, only KFOR.[10]

Assistant Secretary Mitchell effectively conceded this when he acknowledged “the need for a constitutional amendment,”[11] echoing an earlier comment by Admiral James G. Foggo III, Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples, that was widely reported in the Kosovo press.[12]

While saying he was “grateful to [Assistant Secretary] Mitchell for an “open discussion” and that he is “one of the few people willing to listen and hear us, and to be honest,”[13] Mr. Vučić responded:

The Albanians [note: the Kosovo government] had only one obligation [under the 2013 Brussels Agreement][14] which was to establish the Community of Serb Municipalities, and they haven’t fulfilled this sole obligation, which the EU and the United States are aware of, and I’m grateful that [Assistant Secretary] Mitchell said that it’s important this obligation is fulfilled.[15]

He continued:

They [the United States] base it on the fact that they recognize Kosovo’s independence . . . the Americans have a special relationship and special ties with Kosovo, and since they recognize them [Kosovo] believe they have the right to form a security force.[16]

Novosto declared in less diplomatic language, “Belgrade rejects Thaçi’s army” (Beograd odbija Tačijevu vojsku). The reference is to Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi, who under his Albanian nom de guerre Gjarpëri (“Snake”) once led the political arm of the Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës or UÇK), an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization. He declared in mid-February that a Kosovo army is “knocking on the door,” as Fakti colorfully reported.[17]

Mr. Thaçi is a dubious choice of partner for the United States if one believes his profile in a 2010 Council of Europe report on illegal trafficking in human organs in Kosovo:

Thaçi undoubtedly owed his personal elevation to having secured political and diplomatic endorsement from the United States and other Western powers, as the preferred domestic partner in their foreign policy project in Kosovo. This form of political support bestowed upon Thaçi, not least in his own mind, a sense of being “untouchable” and an unparalleled viability as Kosovo’s post-war leader-in- waiting.

On the other hand, according to well-substantiated intelligence reports that we have examined thoroughly and corroborated through interviews in the course of our inquiry, Thaçi’s “Drenica Group” built a formidable power base in the organised [sic] criminal enterprises that were flourishing in Kosovo and Albania at the time.

Thaçi was commonly identified, and cited in secret intelligence reports, as the most dangerous of the KLA’s “criminal bosses” . . . Everything leads us to believe that all of these men would have been convicted of serious crimes and would by now be serving lengthy prison sentences, but for two shocking dynamics that have consolidated their impunity: first, they appear to have succeeded in eliminating, or intimidating into silence, the majority of the potential and actual witnesses against them (both enemies and erstwhile allies), using violence, threats, blackmail, and protection rackets; and second, faltering political will on the part of the international community to effectively prosecute the former leaders of the KLA. This also seems to have allowed Thaçi – and by extension the other members of the “Drenica Group” to exploit their position in order to accrue personal wealth totally out of proportion with their declared activities. Thaçi and these other “Drenica Group” members are consistently named as “key players” in intelligence reports on Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organised crime. . .

Thaqi’s acquisition of a greater degree of political authority (Thaqi having appointed himself Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of Kosovo) had seemingly emboldened the “Drenica Group” to strike out all the more aggressively at perceived rivals, traitors, and persons suspected of being “collaborators” with the Serbs.[18]

Under the headline “Shocking political message from Washington! America’s decision: Serbs, you won’t get even a small piece (delić) of Kosovo!” the pro-government Serbian newspaper Informer reported, “according to Trump’s new Balkan specialist, Serbs have no right to block the formation of the Albanian (šiptarske) army.”[19] Noting Russia’s “repeatedly stated opposition” to the creation of a Kosovo army, Serbia Defense Ministry spokesperson Marija Zaharova warned, “The creation of Kosovo armed forces would further inflame an already tense situation” in the region, one rooted in “how and why Kosovo was formed out of Serbia’s dismemberment.”[20]  

“A Knife at the Throat”[21]

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj—who although Interpol withdrew his red notice in December 2017[22] nonetheless could not obtain a visa to travel to the United States in January[23]—reportedly declared “we will soon have our own army and enter NATO.”[24] It is an “irreversible process,” (proces i pakthyeshëm) said Deputy Minister of the Kosovo Security Force, Burim Ramadani.[25]

The founder of Serbia’s Radical Party (Srpska radikalna stranka), Vojislav Šešelj,[26] said Serbia’s “only salvation is direct union with Russia. Only Russia can thwart the Americans from proceeding with their ridiculous plans in the Balkans.” He called for President Vučić “to take urgent measures to bring Serbia into the Russia-led ODKB[27] military alliance and request that Russia deploy military forces in the western Serbia.”[28]

Radio Bulgaria’s Russian-language service quoted President Vučić saying, “Serbia is on the European path, but will continue its policy of friendship and mutual understanding with the Russian Federation, however much it is pressured.”[29] President Vučić has sought out possible allies in the region to act as counterweights to United States pressure. He asked Romania—one of five European Union member-states that do not recognize Kosovo’s independence—“to help Serbia’s efforts to find a compromise solution for Kosovo.”[30] Romanian President Iohannis responded by calling Serbia “our main partner in the Western Balkans”[31] and Kosovo a “complicated problem” whose solution “will be a huge step in the European direction for the entire Western Balkans region”:

We are willing, I emphasize, willing to get involved to identify good solutions for the whole region. We will strive to find a compromise solution.[32]

Some Romanians are unconvinced. Under the headline “Belgrade’s two-pronged game, or how Russia puts a new Trojan horse in the EU,” Romanian Global News opined, “Serbia continues to play it both ways, announcing that it will maintain close ties with Russia and never impose sanctions against Moscow, even if it negotiates accession to the European Union.”[33]

Milovan Drekun, who chairs the Serbian parliamentary committee on Kosovo-Metohija, said, “Kosovo is part of the geopolitical confrontation between the United States and Russia.”[34] On this, Albanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ditmir Bushati agrees, calling the region “a geostrategic chessboard” (geostrategicheskoy shakhmatnoy doskoy).[35] Russian agitprop portals took direct aim at Assistant Secretary Mitchell. News Front, for example, wrote that “the proposed ‘Mitchell’ plan . . . is actually aimed at manipulating Belgrade toward surrendering on Kosovo [independence]” and to “drive a wedge between Belgrade and Moscow.”[36]

Inexplicably, Assistant Secretary Mitchell’s promotion of a Kosovo army plays into a long-running Russian narrative in the Western Balkans, one that highlights America’s support for an independent Kosovo but opposition to autonomy for the Republika Srpska (RS), the ethnic Serb-dominated half of perpetually fractious Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the words of RS President Milorad Dodik:

How is it possible to adhere to the principal that Kosovo has the right to secede from a sovereign Serbia but the RS must sit and tolerate its situation while remaining silent?[37]

It is not as if United States leaders are unaware. Asked by Senator Tom Cotton to “say a little bit more about which countries in the Balkans are matters of concern for you in terms of Russian meddling and interference,” Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who serves as Commander of European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had this response:

There’s obviously a historical connection there, an affiliation. And — but there’s also, because of that, a better opportunity for Russian influence. And they take advantage of that in terms of disinformation, influence upon those populations — the spoiling effect, in some cases, perhaps with Serbia, with respect to Kosovo, or within the tripartite government of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that’s my concern, and I’ve seen an increase in that, I believe, in the — in the year and a half that I’ve been in this job.[38]

Regnum[39] and other Russian media portals picked up a Večernje novosti headline that reads, “The United States considers Serbia the backbone of stability in the Balkans,” noting, however, that Assistant Secretary Mitchell delivered a “package for Kosovo” (paket za Kosovo).[40] Earlier, Regnum warned “the leaders of Kosovo, who unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, intend to seek revisions to the agreement on Serbian ethnic communities, which they reached with Belgrade in a process mediated by Brussels. . . . To this day, Serbian authorities say, they have been unable to implement this agreement” because of Kosovo’s refusal to follow through.[41]

The “package” conveyed by Assistant Secretary Mitchell was not well received. Marko Đurić, who directs the Serbia’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (Kancelarija za Kosovo i Metohiju) said, “Serbia has its own KiM plan.”[42] Others were more direct. The aforementioned Milovan Drecun called it “an amateurish document” (amesričkom dokumentu).[43] Some went further still. Warning of “potential traps in the new American proposal,” Dragomir Anđelković said that if the American proposal is intended to convince Serbia to stop blocking Kosovo’s membership in international organizations—something that “also implies [Kosovo’s] UN membership”—then:

In this case, the proposal is unacceptable because it would introduce a mirage — the promise of EU membership — that you don’t even know whether it will last if we give up on Kosovo.[44]

Mr. Anđelković can be considered a fair proxy for the sentiment of Serbians who favor closer alignment with Russia. He wrote recently, “The pendulum-swing of the strategic military balance is shifting significantly in favor of Russia,” which is “a sincere friend to Serbia who supports our national interests, from the defense of the Republika Srpska to Kosovo.”[45]

The Russian government-controlled media portal Sputnik Srbija asked, “Why can Kosovo have its own army but the Republika Srpska cannot? (Zašto vojska Kosova može, a vojska Republike Srpske ne može?)[46]

The West still makes a distinction between the RS, which it views as part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Kosovo, though its legal status is as a protectorate, nonetheless is seen as a sovereign state. This is precisely why Professor [Radomir] Nešković believes, at least for the time being, it is not possible for the Republika Srpska to reestablish its own army.[47] That would change quickly, however, if after the elections[48] Milorad Dodik becomes a member of the BiH state presidency.[49]

The RS, added President Dodik, “is always interested in the matter of Kosovo” and asked Serbian President Vučić to ensure “the issue of Kosovo is never separated from that of the RS.”[50]

How can you talk about an army for Kosovo, which is nowhere mentioned in any document, and not about the RS, which according to the Dayton accord has a right to an army?[51]

RS President Milorad Dodik (center) (Credit: Anadolu Agency)

Reaffirming the Serbian government’s support for the Republika Srpska, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said:

Today, we are where we should be, a strong Serbia and a strong RS . . . helping and interacting with one another, both in good times and in difficult times.[52]

“Kosovo Syndrome”

In a recent Moskovskiy Komsomoletsy commentary, Vadim Samodurov[53] described “a phenomenon that I would describe as a ‘Kosovo syndrome’ (Kosovskiy sindrom) — a zealous desire to return a foreign territory that has become alien.”[54] When Serbia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic met with Assistant Secretary Mitchell, he presented him a copy of an editorial published in The New York Times on 19 July 1918—St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan)—written by President Woodrow Wilson, in which he called for Americans to “Celebrate Kosovo as a Day of Honor.”[55]

Assistant Secretary Mitchell evinces the Trump administration’s lamentable (if exceptional) continuity with the Obama administration’s failed approach in the Western Balkans. As Lenard Cohen observed presciently two decades ago: 

If Kosovo is forcibly detached . . . through international military intervention and the formation of an international protectorate . . . one may see a noticeable surge in Serb support for hardline nationalism.[56]

As Mr. Samodurov noted, “Serbs in the province [KiM] are virtually nonexistent, but the memory of the ‘sacred land’ pays tribute to the national dignity of our Slav brothers.” Separatists repeatedly cite Kosovo to justify efforts to sever the Republika Srpska from BiH, as a precedent. So does the Russian government in regard to Crimea, as in this commentary by Alexy Puskkov:[57]

I propose the State Department, instead of making statement on Crimea, explain how, without any referendum, it used bombs and missiles to rip Kosovo out of Serbia . . . One should recall that during the Kosovo conflict, Russia proposed a ‘road map’ to take into account the legitimate interests of all parties . . . [while] the United States insisted the only way out of the impasse was the ‘Ahtisaari plan,’[58] which used the principle of ethnicity to justify independent status for the Serbian province.[59]

One danger of applying the “ethnicity principle” is that real (or aspiring) regional hegemons can use friendly ethnic enclaves to justify interfering in neighboring states’ internal affairs. Bulgaria, for example, justifies an interest in Kosovo because of a “Bulgarian minority” resident there. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as a 1979 CIA analysis makes clear:

While we have no evidence of foreign subversive activity in Kosovo, the situation there is ready-made for foreign meddling. This is particularly true because the Albanian minority problem in Yugoslav Macedonia could unsettle a region in which Bulgaria lays irredentist claims.[60]

Hiding One’s Head in the Balkan Sand

It is hard to argue with Dejan Miletić’s[61] assessment that Assistant Secretary Mitchell’s “message of support for the formation of a Kosovo army did not achieve anything other than to incite anti-United States propaganda within Serbia, and to create room for opponents of close cooperation between the two countries”:

As a proponent of accelerating Serbia’s Euro-integration, I was disappointed that the United States encouraged formation of a military force in Kosovo and Metohija. What can it bring, in terms of real security or a solution? Military force cannot produce meaningful results, but only worsen the security situation in the region.[62]

That the United States persists in alienating Serbia, a natural ally in the region, while at the same time coddling the thuggish Thaqi regime in KiM serves no discernable American strategic or political interest. Worse, it accomplishes the exact opposite of America’s stated goal to block Russia in the Western Balkans. “Reopening the subject of a Kosovo army has revived the ‘East or West’ debate [inside Serbia],” according to a Gazeta KNN commentary.[63] According to the Albanian language Koha Televizion, President Vučić advised Kosovo Serbs to reject offers of cash to join the Kosovo army, asking incredulously:

Really? On Serbian territory, there’s a foreign army being formed, to include Serbs? What is this, the time of the Austro-Hungarians or the Ottomans, when Serbs are to be killed by other Serbs?[64]

In Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic’s colorful but apt description, “the West hides its head in the sand”[65] about the motive of regional actors like Albania that advocate for an independent Kosovo. Prosecuting a regional policy in defiance of history is, to say the least, unwise. CIA had this to say in a 1986 analysis of potential European “hot spots”:

The greatest threat to stable relations . . . comes from the Serbs, a large and historically forceful group, and from Albanians who make up about 80 percent of Serbia’s autonomous province of Kosovo.[66]

And what of Russia? According to Serbia’s Innovation Minister, Nenad Popovic:

Putin’s reelection as president is of particular importance now when the desire for an army is being expressed in Kosovo, which Putin will never allow.[67]

The Kosovo precedent has been a gift to Russia’s prosecution of an enclave strategy in Georgia, Moldova, eastern Ukraine, and elsewhere. It is the lifeblood of ethnic Serb separatism in the RS and creates a palpable risk that BiH will split in two and cease to exist. In the meantime, Russian interests in the region are misapprehended, or over-intellectualized as some pan-Slavism redux. They are in fact easy to understand:

Russia considers itself a party that [in the 1990s] lost the Balkan game. And such losses inevitably cause a thirst for revenge . . .[68]

The same observer noted, “Unfortunately, or fortunately, the butterfly effect works in the Balkans . . . any inopportune word or casual misstatement can lead to a reshuffling of alliances.”[69] In its Candide-like stumbling into the contentious notion of a “Kosovo army” amidst a hotbed of ethnic separatism and (just barely) latent armed conflict that is today’s Greater Serbia, the Trump administration has foolishly kicked the Balkan beehive. Let us hope, at one level, that it blundered rather than acted intentionally with eyes wide open.

The translation of all source material is by the author unless noted otherwise. 

[1] “Sŭrbiya igrae shakh bez dama i top, komentira Vuchich situatsiyata okolo Kosovo.” News.bg [published online in Bulgarian 28 February 2018]. https://news.bg/world/sarbiya-igrae-shah-bez-dama-i-top-komentira-vuchich-situatsiyata-okolo-kosovo.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018. President Vučić used Kosovo’s official name, the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija [Serbian: Autonomna Pokrajina Kosovo i Metohija; Albanian Krahina Autonome e Kosovës dhe Metohisë]

[2] The cited English translation of the Serbian proverb Videla žaba gde se potkivaju konji pa i ona digla noge is by Serbia’s “Office for the Coordination of Affairs in the Process of Negotiation with the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government in Priština,” which coordinates Serbian government policy toward the former Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija, i.e., the self-declared “Republic of Kosovo”. See: “Djurić: International community must halt establishment of Kosovo Army.” Office for the Coordination of Affairs in the Process of Negotiation with the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government in Priština, Government of the Republic of Serbia website [published online in English 7 March 2017]. http://kord-kim.gov.rs/eng/v1859.php. Last accessed 21 March 2018.

[3] This is not a new or novel assessment. As Politico reported, “The sad thing is that the United States and European countries knew 10 years ago that Thaçi and his men were engaged in drug smuggling and creating a mafia state,” said a European ambassador who has followed the Balkans for decades. ‘The attitude was, ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard’.” See: “The bullies who run Kosovo. Political elite frustrates murder, kidnap and organ traffick probes.” Politico [published online 23 July 2015]. https://www.politico.eu/article/kosovo-hashim-thaci-un-special-court-tribunal-organ-trafficking-kla-serbia-milosevic-serbia-ramush/. Last accessed 21 March 2018. See also: “Thug Life. Think Mubarak was bad? Kosovo’s leaders are accused of being organ-smuggling, drug-dealing goons — and the United States is looking the other way.” Foreign Policy [published online 18 February 2011]. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/02/18/thug-life/. Last accessed 21 March 2018.

[4] Kosovar Centre for Security Studies  (2017). Russian Interference in Kosovo: How and Why? (Prishtinë: KCSS) 19.

[5] “World’s Eyes on Kosovo Amid Push to Halt War Crimes Court.” The New York Times [published online 13 January 2018]. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/13/world/europe/kosovo-war-crimes-court.html. Last accessed 21 March 2018.

[6] “PRVA POSJETA BALKANU Mitchell u Beogradu: Kosovo ima pravo da formira snage, to nije prijetnja.” Index.ba [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. https://www.index.ba/kosovo/. Last accessed 14 March 2018.

[7] http://gazeta-shqip.com/lajme/2018/03/14/zyrtari-amerikan-ne-beograd-kosova-ka-te-drejte-te-formoje-ushtrine/. Last accessed 14 March 2018.

[8] “Ministar Vulin: Vojska Kosova pretnja za mir.” Serbian Defense ministry website [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. http://www.mod.gov.rs/cir/12301/ministar-vulin-vojska-kosova-pretnja-za-mir-12301. Last accessed 14 March 2018.

 See also: “Vulin: Vojska Kosova pretnja za mir i stabilnost na Balkanu.” Jedinstvo [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. http://www.jedinstvo.rs/online/index.php/2013-01-28-10-01-43/2013-01-28-10-08-54/7489-2018-03-13-19-23-12. Last accessed 14 March 2018.

[9] “NIKO NEMA PRAVO VETA“: Okršaj Vučića i Mitchella oko vojske Kosova.” Slobodna Bosna [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. https://www.slobodna-bosna.ba/vijest/75089/niko_nema_pravo_veta_okrsaj_vuchica_i_mitchella_oko_vojske_kosova.html. Last accessed 15 March 2018.

[10] Ibid. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 adopted 10 June 1999 “provided a framework for the resolution of the conflict in Kosovo by authorizing the deployment of an international civilian and military presence that would provide an international transitional administration and security presence that would oversee the return of refugees and the withdrawal of military forces from Kosovo” See: https://peacemaker.un.org/kosovo-resolution1244. Last accessed 15 March 2018. The text can be read at: https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/990610_SCR1244%281999%29.pdf. The referenced “Kumanovo military agreement” is the 10 June 1999 military-technical agreement between NATO’s international security force known as “KFOR” and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that went into effect simultaneous with UNSCR 1244 on 10 June 1999. FR Yugoslavia (Savezna Republika Jugoslavija) is a federation formed in 1992 (and dissolved in February 2003) by Serbia and Montenegro. Kumanovo is a town in northern Macedonia where the MTA was signed. See: https://www.nato.int/kosovo/docu/a990609a.htm. Last accessed 15 March 2018.

[11] “Mičel: Kosovska vojska nije pretnja Srbiji.” Radio Slobodna Evropa [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/ves-micel-i-aleksandar-vucic-/29098968.html. Last accessed 16 March 2018.

[12] See, for example: “NATO: Ushtria e Kosovës formohet pas ndryshimeve kushtetuese.: Gazeta Express [published online in Albanian 22 February 2018]. http://www.gazetaexpress.com/lajme/nato-ushtria-e-kosoves-formohet-pas-ndryshimeve-kushtetuese-503199/. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The April 2013 Brussels Agreement was negotiated under the auspices of the European Union by the Serbian and Kosovo governments, but not signed by either party.

[15] “Mičel u Beogradu: Nije plan u četiri tačke, nego kosovska vojska.” Radio-televizija Vojvodine [published online in Serbian 14 March 2018]. http://www.rtv.rs/sr_lat/politika/micel-u-beogradu-nije-plan-u-cetiri-tacke-nego-kosovska-vojska_900770.html. Last accessed 16 March 2018. The “Community of Serb Municipalities” [Zajednica srpskih opština or ZSO] also known as the “Association of Serb Municipalities” (Albanian: Asociacioni i komunave serbe) is an intended self-governing association of Kosovo municipalities with majority Serb population, as provided under paragraph 1 of the 2013 Brussels Agreement. It includes the municipalities of North Kosovska Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavić, Zvečan, Štrpce, Klokot, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.

[16] Slobodna Bosna 14 March 2018, op cit.

[17] “Prezidentŭt na Kosovo Khashim Tachi zayavi, che dŭlgoochakvanoto formalizirane na kosovskata armiya chuka na vratata.” Fakti [published online in Bulgarian 19 February 2018]. https://fakti.bg/world/286289-prezidentat-na-kosovo-vreme-e-za-armia. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[18] The Council of Europe is an international human rights organization with 47 member-states (including Serbia) of which 28 are European Union members. Council of Europe Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights (2010). Inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo (Draft resolution adopted unanimously by the Committee in Paris on 16 December 2010), 14-15. http://assembly.coe.int/CommitteeDocs/2010/20101218_ajdoc462010provamended.pdf. Last accessed 14 March 2018.

[19] “ŠOKANTNA POLITIČKA PORUKA IZ VAŠINGTONA! AMERIKA ODLUČILA: Srbi, nećete dobiti ni DELIĆ KOSOVA!.” Informer [published online in Serbian 13 March 2018]. http://informer.rs/vesti/politika/373253/sokantna-politicka-poruka-iz-vasingtona-amerika-odlucila-srbi-necete-dobiti-ni-delic-kosova-1520978076. Last accessed 15 March 2018.

[20] “STVARANJE VOJSKE KOSOVA BI UGROZILO EVROPU! Rusija oštro protiv da Priština formira oružane snage!.” Informer [published online in Serbian 15 March 2018]. http://informer.rs/vesti/politika/373496/stvaranje-vojske-kosova-bi-ugrozilo-evropu-rusija-ostro-protiv-da-pristina-formira-oruzane-snage. Last accessed 15 March 2018.

[21] President of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, accused the United States of holding a “knife to the throat” of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in order to force him to recognize Kosovo, something that would mean “the beginning of the end of Serbia”. “ŠEŠELJ: Amerika donosi ultimatum o Kosovu – JEDINO REŠENJE JE SAVEZ SA RUSIJOM!” Informer [published online in Serbian 13 March 2018]. http://informer.rs/vesti/politika/373222/seselj-amerika-donosi-ultimatum-o-kosovu-jedino-resenje-je-savez-sa-rusijom. Last accessed 15 March 2018.

[22] “French Court Refuses to Extradite Former Kosovo Leader.” The New York Times [published online 27 April 2017]. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/27/world/europe/france-kosovo-ramush-haradinaj.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FHaradinaj%2C%20Ramush&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection. Last accessed 17 March 2018. In April 2017, Albania granted citizenship to Mr. Haradinaj and his wife, allowing them to benefit from the country’s visa-free travel agreement with the 26 countries of the Schengen area. In December 2017, Interpol removed Mr. Haradinaj’s red notice, which provides for the named individual’s detention at international border crossings.

[23] “Kosovo’s Haradinaj Cancels U.S. Visit After ‘Failing To Get Visa’.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Balkan Service [published online in English 8 Janauary 2018]. https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-haradinaj-cancels-us-visit-refused-visa/28963498.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[24] “Edhe Haradinaj thotë se së shpejti Kosova do ta ketë ushtrinë, por nuk jep afat.” Gazeta Express [published online in Albanian 5 March 2018]. http://www.gazetaexpress.com/lajme/edhe-haradinaj-thote-se-se-shpejti-kosova-do-ta-kete-ushtrine-por-nuk-jep-dat-507552/. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[25] “Transformimi i FSK-së në FAK, proces i pakthyeshëm.” Gazeta Express [published online in Albanian 15 March 2018]. http://www.gazetaexpress.com/lajme/formimi-i-ushtrise-se-kosoves-i-papranueshem-per-serbine-512251/. Last accessed 17 March 2017.

[26] Mr. Šešelj briefly served as Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister in late 2000 (October 2000-January 2001). In February 2003 he surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which had indicted him for multiple counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war. After spending eleven years in detention in the United Nations Detention Unit of Scheveningen, he was acquitted in March 2016 on all counts. He led the SRS in the 2016 parliamentary elections in which his party won 22 seats.

[27] ODKB is a Russian language acronym (Organizacija Dogovora o Kollektivnoj Bezopasnosti) for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a six-nation, Russia-led alliance of former Soviet republics in which Serbia has held non-member observer status since 2013.

[28] Informer 13 March 2018, op cit.

[29] “Po-sosedski: sobytiya s balkanskim adresom – Obshchestvo – BNR.” Radio Bulgaria [published online in Russian 28 February 2018]. http://bnr.bg/ru/post/100936587. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[30] “Vuchich prizova rumŭnskiya si kolega da pomogne za kompromis za.” 24 Chasa [published online in Bulgarian 8 March 2018]. https://www.24chasa.bg/novini/article/6752973. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[31] “Iohannis, după întâlnirea cu președintele Serbiei. “Relaţiile dintre România şi Serbia sunt foarte bune”.” Stiril PRO-TV [published online in Romanian 8 March 2018]. https://stirileprotv.ro/stiri/actualitate/presedintele-serbiei-vizita-oficiala-in-romania-va-avea-intalniri-cu-iohannis-dancila-si-dragnea.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[32] “Iohannis, către preşedintele Serbiei: ‘Soluţionarea problemei Kosovo, un pas uriaş în direcţia europeană pentru toată zona Balcanilor de Vest’.” Politika [published online in Romanian 8 March 2018]. http://adevarul.ro/news/politica/iohannis-presedintele-serbiei-solutionareaproblemei-kosovo-pas-urias-directiaeuropeana-zona-balcanilor-vest-1_5aa1abbbdf52022f75594e47/index.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[33] “Jocul la două capete practicat de Belgrad sau cum își bagă Rusia un nou cal troian în UE.” Romanian Global News [published online in Ro,anian 23 February 2018]. http://www.rgnpress.ro/rgn_18/categorii/politic/27045-2018-02-23-09-21-21.html . Last accessed 17 March 2018. The editorial concludes with, “Romanian Global News reminds that there are about 300,000 Romanians / Vlachs living in the north-east of Serbia who are being subjected to an aggressive and repressive assimilation process by the Belgrade authorities. These are seriously violating European rules on the rights of national minorities.”

[34] “Kosovo e chast ot geopoliticheskata konfrontatsiya mezhdu SASHT i Rusiya, smyatat v Sŭrbiya.” News.bg [published online in Bulgarian 13 March 2018]. https://news.bg/int-politics/kosovo-e-chast-ot-geopoliticheskata-konfrontatsiya-mezhdu-sasht-i-rusiya-smyatat-v-sarbiya.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[35] “Albaniya i yeye sosedi mogut prisoyedinit’sya k YES cherez 10 let, schitayet albanskiy ministr.” Radio Bulgaria [published online in Russian 28 February 2018]. http://bnr.bg/ru/post/100936587. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[36] “PLAN MITCHELLA: KAK SSHA PYTAYUTSYA VBIT’ KLIN MEZHDU SERBIYEY I ROSSIYEY.” News-Front [published online in Russian 16 March 2018]. https://news-front.info/2018/03/16/plan-mitchella-kak-ssha-pytayutsya-vbit-klin-mezhdu-serbiej-i-rossiej/?utm_referrer=https%3a%2f%2fwww.google.com%2f. Last accessed 17 March 2018. The publisher of News-Front is Konstantin Knyrik, who the Ukrainian writer Anton Shekhovtsov identifies as “the former head of the media portal South-Eastern Front. In 2006, he was a leader of the Crimean branch of the Eurasian Youth Union.” According to a Zeit Online profile, News-Front reputedly receives financial support from Russian government intelligence services:

The headlines are always written in capital letters at News Front. Much of the content appears to be invented. Often, real events are exaggerated in order to create fear. Knyrik and his associates say that truth is being destroyed by the established media. That’s why they call themselves “fighters” in an “information war.”

See: “War without blood.” Zeit IOnline [published online 26 February 2017]. http://www.zeit.de/digital/internet/2017-02/bundestag-elections-fake-news-manipulation-russia-hacker-cyberwar/komplettansicht. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[37] “Milorad Dodik zayavil, chto bol’shinstvo bosniyskikh serbov mechtayet vossoyedinit’sya s Serbiyey.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 March 2018]. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/5039207. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[38] United States Senate Armed Service Committee (2018). Testimony of Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the United States European Command, F.Y. 2019, 12 March 2018. http://www.eucom.mil/media-library/transcript/36273/senate-armed-services-committee-hearing-on-the-united-stateseuropean-command-f-y-2019. Last accessed 18 March 2018.

[39] “SSHA namereny predlozhit’ Serbii novyy plan dlya Kosovo.” Regnum [published online in Russian 13 March 2018]. https://regnum.ru/news/2389685.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[40] “Mičel: SAD smatraju Srbiju okosnicom stabilnosti na Balkanu.” Večernje novosti [published online in Serbian 13 March 2018]. http://www.novosti.rs/vesti/naslovna/politika/aktuelno.289.html:716625-Micel-doputovao-u-Beograd-sastao-se-sa-Dacicem. Last accessed 18 March 2018.

[41] “Kosovo khochet peresmotret’ soglasheniye s Belgradom o serbskikh munitsipalitetakh.” Regnum [published online in Russian 22 February 2018]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2383297.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[42] “KOJE ZAMKE KRIJU DOKUMENTA O KOSOVU.” Večernje novosti [published online in Serbian 12 March 2018]. http://m.novosti.rs/vesti/naslovna/politika/aktuelno.289.html:716247-Stolica-u-UN-vreba-iz-paketa-Amerikanaca. Last accessed 17 March 2018. Mr. Đurić earlier served as a foreign policy adviser to then Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić.

[43] Ibid.

[44]  Mr. Anđelković is a political analyst and proponent of the RS detaching itself from the BiH to form a Greater Serbia. His columns appear regularly in Serbian news portals, including Pečat, Vidovdan, Politika and Danas.

[45] “Dragomir Anđelković: Putinovo nuklearno upozorenje: pouke za Srbe.” Vivodan [published online in Serbian 15 March 2018]. http://www.vidovdan.org/aktuelno/dragomir-andjelkovic-putinovo-nuklearno-upozorenje-pouke-za-srbe/?script=lat. Last accessed 18 March 2018. Mr. Anđelković began his essay with the statement “After Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the White House lost interest in the Balkans. Our region was dealt with mostly by representatives of the so-called. ‘deep state’. They sought to hold to the old anti-Serbian, anti-war course, but they did not have sufficient support from the US head of state.” He argues elsewhere that when BiH Bosniaks “celebrated on the streets of Sarajevo after Turks approved a referendum on constitutional changes advocated by President Rexhep Tayyip Erdogan,” it “sent a clear message . . . that Bosniaks are not against coexistence, but an ‘the Ottoman coexistence’ in which Serbs are disenfranchised by the paramilitary of the Bosniak elite.” See: “ANĐELKOVIĆ: Bošnjaci žele da Srbi budu obespravljena raja!” Informer [published online in Serbian 18 April 2017]. http://informer.rs/vesti/politika/326227/andelkovic-bosnjaci-zele-da-srbi-budu-obespravljena-raja. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[46] “Zašto vojska Kosova može, a vojska Republike Srpske ne može?” Sputnik Srbija [published online in Serbian 16 March 2018]. https://rs.sputniknews.com/regioni/201803161114918175-rs-kosovo-vojska-amerika-rs/. Last accessed 16 March 2918.

[47] A reference to the Army of Republika Srpska (Vojska Republike Srpske “VRS”), which in 2003 folded into the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina [Oružane snage Bosne i Hercegovine “OSBIH”].

[48] The BiH constitution provides for a three-member state presidency, comprised of one Bosniak and one Croat elected from one of BiH’s two constituent entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina [Federacija Bosna i Hercegovina] and one Serb elected from the Republika Srpska. In February 2018, Mr. Dodik announced he would be a candidate for the Republika Srpska member’s seat in the general election scheduled for 7 October 2018. See: “Milorad Dodik će biti kandidat za člana Predsjedništva BiH.” Klix [published online in Serbian 15 February 2018]. https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/milorad-dodik-ce-biti-kandidat-za-clana-predsjednistva-bih/180215124. Last accessed 16 March 2018.

[49] Sputnik Srbija 16 March 2018, op cit. Radomir Nešković is a former vice president of the Executive Committee of the Serbian Democratic Party [Srpska Demokratska Stranka] (an ethic Serb political party in BiH.

[50] “Dodik: ‘Vojske Kosova’ nema ni u jednom dokumentu, a Vojska RS je u ‘Dejtonu’.” Fakti [published online in Serbian 15 March 2018]. http://fakti.org/serbian-point/srpska/dodik-vojske-kosova-nema-ni-u-jednom-dokumentu-a-vojska-rs-je-u-dejtonu. Last accessed 16 March 2018.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Mr. Samudorov is the Director-General of the Agency for Strategic Communications (Agentstva strategicheskikh kommunikatsiy), which describes itself as “A non-governmental organization engaged in the development of partnerships and interaction between the state and business, government and society, the expert community and interested commercial and governmental structures.” See: https://strategycom.info. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[54] “Kosovskiy sindrom Ukrainy.” Moskovskiy Komsomoletsy [published online in Russian 12 March 2018]. http://www.mk.ru/politics/2018/03/12/kosovskiy-sindrom-ukrainy.html. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[55] http://www.mfa.gov.rs/en/press-service/statements/17563-dacic-and-mitchell-on-regional-stability-serbias-european-path-and-continuation-of-the-brussels-dialogue. Last accessed17 March 2018.

[56] Lenard J. Cohen (1998). “Nationalism, The Kosovo Crisis, and Political Change In Serbia.” Speech to the Wilson Center Eastern European Studies Center 1 October 1998.   https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/164-nationalism-the-kosovo-crisis-and-political-change-serbia. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[57] Alexey Pushkov serves in Russia’s Federation Council (Sovet Federatsii) where he represents the Ural region Federal district Perm Krai and is chair of the Commission on Information and Media. He chaired the Committee on International Affairs in the State Duma from 2011 to 2016.

[58] Named after former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, it is formally known as the “Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement” See: https://2001-2009.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/101244.htm. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[59] “Pushkov predlozhil SSHA vmesto Kryma vspomnit’ pro silovoye otdeleniye Kosovo ot Serbii.” SM News [published online in Russian 15 March 2018]. https://sm-news.ru/news/vneshnyaya-politika/pushkov-predlozhil-ssha-vmesto-kryma-vspomnit-pro-silovoe-otdelenie-kosovo-ot-serbii/. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[60] United States Central Intelligence Agency National Foreign Assessment Center (1979). Yugoslavia: The Kosovo Problem. Marked “Confidential.” PA 79-10216 (May 1979). Approved for release 28 October 2002, iii. https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80T00942A001000060001-7.pdf. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[61] Dr. Dejan S. Miletić is President of the Center for Globalization Studies in Belgrade and a founder of Serbian Patriots for Atlantic Serbia, a group that describes itself as “committed to Euro-Atlantic integration.”

[62] “Miletić: Mičel samo podstakao propagandu protiv SAD u Srbiji.” Večernje novosti [published online in Serbian 18 March 2018]. http://www.novosti.rs/вести/насловна/друштво.395.html:717365-Miletic-Micel-samo-podstakao-propagandu-protiv-SAD-u-Srbiji. Last accessed 18 March 2018.

[63] “Ushtria e Kosovës pjesë e “konfliktit” SHBA – Rusi.”  Gazeta KNN [published online in Albanian 19 March 2018]. http://aab-edu.net/media/gazetaknn/ushtria-e-kosoves-pjese-e-konfliktit-shba-rusi/. Last accessed 19 March 2018.

[64] “Vuçiq i fton serbët e Kosovës të mos shkojnë në Ushtrinë e saj.” KOHA [published online in Albanian 19 March 2018]. http://www.koha.net/arberi/81901/vuciq-i-fton-serbet-e-kosoves-te-mos-shkojne-ne-ushtrine-e-saj/. Last accessed 19 March 2018.

[65] “Po-sosedski: sobytiya s balkanskim adresom.” Radio Bulgaria [published online in Russian 22 February 2018]. http://bnr.bg/ru/post/100936587. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[66] United States Central Intelligence Agency (1986). https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP86T01017R000404270001-3.pdf. Last accessed 17 March 2018.

[67] “ZGJEDHJA E PUTINIT NË VIGJILE TË FORMIMIT TË USHTRISË SË KOSOVË.” RTK Live [published online in Albanian 19 March 2018]. https://www.rtklive.com/sq/news-single.php?ID=253256. Last accessed 19 March 2018.

[68] “Balkanskiy krizis pravoslaviya.” Politolog [published online in Russian 14 March 2018]. http://politolog.net/analytics/balkanskij-krizis-pravoslaviya-bloger/. Last accessed 17 March 2018.


Rallying the West: The Case for Coordinated Leadership to Counter Instability in the Balkans

The Balkan Peninsula (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)

As the Balkans erupted into violent conflict in the early 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) found renewed relevance as it deployed ground forces into Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1994, conducted an air campaign against Serbia and then moved troops into Kosovo in 1999. In quelling the violence of the Yugoslav War, NATO successfully moved past its territorial defensive roots and unexpectedly adopted an expeditionary force posture. While these early operations gave NATO the confidence to move beyond its boundaries and eventually into the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan, these same operations unfortunately sowed the seeds of mistrust between Russia and the West, with opposing narratives from Moscow and Brussels about NATO’s actual role in the Balkans. And while Russia willingly placed itself under NATO command in Bosnia, Kosovo would become a major source of tension. By mid-1999, a British officer on the ground refused an order from NATO leadership, convinced NATO-Russia tension could lead to World War III. Potential bloodshed was averted, but the standoff between Russian and British troops at the Pristina Airport[1] became a portent for future relations as the new partners again found themselves reverting to opposite sides

In spite of its history in the western Balkans,[2] NATO has largely overlooked tension with Russia there and has instead preferred to focus its efforts on Russian attacks in the Baltic states and Ukraine.[3] This dynamic requires understanding Russian efforts to discredit Western democratic systems, strengthen its military posture, perpetuate false narratives, and pick old scabs.[4] Security risks that could spillover if the West fails to take preemptive steps to underwrite stability must be considered. Additionally, options for Western coordination and involvement in the region based on history, laws, identity sensitivities, and associated risks should be explored. In short, the West must galvanize itself or prepare for greater instability on its turf. During the NATO parliamentary assembly in October 2017, this need for vigilance was trumpeted by various members, citing many challenges in the Balkans, not the least of which is Russian influence. Yet, NATO is not a monolith, thus rather than waiting for the Alliance to act as a collective body, its umbrella provides a useful frame for mapping opportunities at bilateral and scoped multilateral levels, where trust and shared interests are highest.

The Balkans Today: Europe’s Ignored Backyard, Russia’s Entry to Europe

Recent NATO reports indicate Russian influence in the Balkans is growing, while Western influence is declining.[5] Worse yet, recent reports indicate that Russia and its proxy organizations are increasingly spreading misinformation about NATO and the European Union (EU), thereby mobilizing civil resistance against the West’s ability to intervene if and when it decides action is necessary.[6] Russia has further bolstered these efforts to sow Balkan distrust and fear of any Western cooperation by stirring nostalgic Pan-Slavic sentiments.

The U.S. and NATO response to Russian influence must be comprehensive. Further, it needs to incentivize and underwrite lasting cooperation amongst Balkan nations. Instead, a patchwork of efforts—from the Berlin Process to increase economic development and diversification, to support of the Adriatic Five initiative to build solidarity in the region, to formal NATO membership processes—are not coordinated, much less federated, for effect. Many of these efforts identify comprehensive Russian actions aimed at destabilizing the region, yet they have their own discrete objectives and therefore avoid direct confrontation.

It must be noted that security problems in the Balkans are plentiful and not limited to Russian intervention. For example, according to a recent Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) report, all seven of the western Balkan nations in their study—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—have internal vulnerabilities including dangerous strains of nationalism, historical grievances, corruption, weakened state institutions, weak media, economic instability, terrorism and radicalization, and transnational organized crime. These challenges tend to exist regardless of the level of Russian activity in the respective country though they are at times intertwined with Russian activities or ignored due to linkages to Russian criminal networks.[7] Therefore, there are opportunities to assist the region independent from directly countering Russian actions.

The Advancing Russian Approach

Russian influence varies across the Balkans, but is most visible in Serbia given its position of “military neutrality” as Serbia attempts to balance its military cooperation between the United States and Russia. Serbia has reiterated its commitment to a delicate balancing act between the United States and Russia, despite protests from the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee who has stated that Serbia “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time.”[8] This Serbian commitment to neutrality is further threatened by other Russian initiatives, such as the Russian Humanitarian Centre, a Russian government-sponsored activity in Serbia.[9] Other nations including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo are also seeing a significant rise of Russian influence, the most disturbing being an alleged Russian-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016 as it prepared for eventual NATO membership.[10] Further, indirect connections between Russia and the growth of organized crime, violent extremism, and foreign terrorist fighter flows to support Ukrainian separatists exacerbate and link the challenges to every other nation in the region.

It is no secret that Russia sees the world stage as a competition for influence and outcomes between it and the West as a zero-sum “great” game. Russia’s overarching objective is to strengthen its stature and ability to project itself as a world power with whatever tool most effectively meets this objective. This goal is directly correlated to discrediting and weakening perceptions of U.S. and Western institutions and democracy in general.

Both NATO and the U.S. military recognize the risk and have sought to understand Russia’s evolving influence operations, ostensibly to get ahead of their decision-making cycle. Various papers have been written on the resurgence and evolution of hybrid, irregular, asymmetric warfare, which are also conveniently referred to as “gray zone” conflicts due to ambiguity of what exactly is occurring and why.[11] Russia effectively mixes diplomatic, information, military, economic, legal, and other tools together—both under control of its government and those it can directly influence, such as private sector and black market connections. In short, Russia’s preferred methodology is classic political warfare, veiling military capabilities behind a shroud of uncertainty and deniability. This approach is not a “new” one, but rather an evolution of undeclared irregular and unconventional warfare, a way of war that has atrophied in the West since the end of the Cold War.

Russian tactics no longer follow clear doctrinal lines that the world witnessed during the fall of the Iron Curtain, or more recently in Chechnya or Georgia. Russia has learned valuable lessons through its military interventions in both Ukraine and Syria, as well as less overt practices in exploiting factionalism in nations like Bulgaria or Hungary. Their emerging approaches are nuanced and informed by local dynamics to enhance effectiveness. In general, Russia spreads misinformation to exploit nationalist sentiments or ethnic and religious divides while fostering relationships and patronage systems to exert political influence and create dependencies on Russia for critical resources such as energy. Russia then uses this as a basis for increased military cooperation and closer political alignment.

Taking a chapter from its successful playbooks in other parts of Europe, Russia uses multimedia disinformation campaigns in the Balkans to spread conspiracy theories.[12] Given the prevalence of these actions in the news media, much of the public begins all publicly available information through a lens of doubt. In Macedonia, these media campaigns spilled over into entertainment and news shows that then overlooked any positive Western actions in the region. Russia has successfully twisted public understanding of the NATO bombing in Serbia and Montenegro in the 1990s as an example of Western disdain and prejudice against the Slavs rather than Allied efforts to halt ongoing hostilities against the residents of Kosovo. Beyond these existential fears of NATO operations in Serbia, this misinformation also creates policy influence in fiscal arenas. Serbians polled in 2016 believed that Russia had a significantly higher economic impact on their country than the EU, yet the EU actually provides a higher level of economic assistance.[13] This comprehensive approach pulls on emotional strings, combining information and psychological warfare.

Russia’s central line of effort flows from a steady stream of disinformation presenting either false or exaggerated negative pictures of the West, or conversely false or exaggerated positive pictures of Russia. These channels of disinformation are diverse and directed toward national, cultural, and religious institutions. Supporting pan-Slavic, anti-Western sentiments, Russia overtly supports pro-Russian political parties and individuals and, to the extent possible, forms cooperative agreements between the United Russia party (Putin’s political underpinning) and likeminded groups in the Balkans. These efforts lead to symbolic cohesion, from joint parades, celebrations, and awarding of political decorations, to vocal support for Russia-friendly government policy platforms including the refusal to join sanctions against Russia for actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The tactic is spreading to intra-regional politics as well. While Kosovo created political seats reserved for minorities within their new nation, Serbia has taken the initiative to turn these appointments into placements of pro-Serbian operatives. Meanwhile, a rather fragile Kosovo is simultaneously struggling with radical Islamic movements, ISIS recruiting, and movements of foreign terrorist fighters to and from the Middle East.

Militarily, Russia is most active in growing its Balkan toe-hold in Serbia, despite Serbia’s declared policy of neutrality in 2007.[14] Russia’s approach appears incremental. Playing off various Russian-sponsored organizations active in the region, many of the over 100 groups openly advocating for increased Russo-Serbian military cooperation have significantly impacted political outcomes, while the public becomes increasingly comfortable with Russian intervention. For example, according to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 14 bilateral meetings were held in 2016, initially focusing on economics, agriculture, science, and energy, but shifting to commitments to possibly upgrade security partnerships in October of the same year. In December 2016, Russia announced that it would support Serbia by gifting six MiG-29 planes, tanks, and scout vehicles, and media articles characterized this provision as “saving” Serbia’s Air Force.[15] Unfortunately, the reality that these “gifted” aircraft arrived in a non-operational and dissembled state that will require an estimated $200 million and years of Russian support to become operational.[16] This twist has done little to diminish Serbian enthusiasm for increased  Serbo-Russian military cooperation. Rather, Russia has promised to deliver 30 tanks and 30 armored vehicles in the coming year. While Serbia participated in military exercises with 30 other nations in 2016, to include the United States, the largest events were with Russia and Belarus, and the Serbian government looks to build on that cooperation for the foreseeable future. The asymmetry of Serbia’s international military cooperation is apparent, despite public statements of neutrality. Serbian exercises with Russia focus on aggressive military moves, while exercises with NATO and the EU trend toward peacekeeping missions and disaster response. Further, Serbia’s agreement in the summer of 2017 to host a joint NATO-supported Regional Exercise (REGEX) in 2018 was quickly followed by statements from its Minister of Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin that the exercise was not, in fact, a joint Serbian-NATO exercise.[17] Minister Vulin further emphasized that Serbia retained the right to hold exercises with anyone from whom it learns something.[18] Considering the depth of Russian engagement and the slowness of the U.S. security sector assistance programs in the region, the outlook for true neutrality appears bleak.

Russian influence is also rated high in Bosnia and Herzegovina,[19] where ethnic tensions are again giving way to violent extremism. The situation is further exacerbated by Russian disinformation about NATO that undermines the public’s trust of Western security assistance and limits the ability of Bosnian government officials to accept and integrate that security assistance effectively. While Islamic extremism is on the rise, other groups such as a “cleric-fascism” sect of nationalist Serbian Orthodoxy, or other neo-Nazi trends, are also growing. Members of these groups have gone to fight alongside Russia in the Ukraine.[20]

Meanwhile, in Macedonia, despite the preponderance of political parties stating their continued interest in joining NATO, there are undercurrents with deep divisions along ethnic cleavages.[21] Recent protests against election results, political pardons, and other signs of corruption led to further polarization. Adding to the fog of information, Russian statements accused the United States of being a culprit responsible for the unrest.[22] In Bosnia and Herzegovina, similar divides in identity and grievances that the Dayton Peace Accords failed to address 20 years ago continue to push the nation to the brink of war.

Despite much of the negative examples, Montenegro did weather Russian influence operations that included the aforementioned coup attempt and completed its accession to NATO in June 2017, but still feels pressure from the religious divides Russia exploits and continual Russian military requests to use facilities, most recently for efforts in Syria. Russia works to portray the Orthodox Church as embodying “Eastern Christian” values that are different from Western, including NATO and EU, “values” to strengthen divides. This effort is successful, despite completely ignoring the fact that there are already Orthodox nations in NATO and the EU, such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania.[23]

What the West Should Do Next

Many in the West recognize the importance of security in the Balkans, but these stakeholders must better organize themselves and their resources in this arena. This reorganization includes developing a new approach towards the Balkans, identifying and empowering lead organizations and individuals within the process, setting communication frameworks with each Balkan nation individually, and then designing realistic strategies to organize contributions in time and space. The West has lost positioning with many Balkan governments and populaces, and therefore working collectively is essential to regain sustainable footing with the ability to underwrite stability.

Given the size of resources, NATO and U.S. European Command’s interagency teams can kick-start this process as facilitators, bringing intergovernmental organization (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individual nations together as a “Balkan Community of Interest.” Policy representatives from NATO, EU, and U.S. State Department should serve as lead brokers with an invitation to other nations to join this “board” and a schedule should be created to keep the effort on track. Beyond traditional players, U.S. National Guard partnership program leaders, and internal military forces with law enforcement duties like Italy’s Carabinieri, should be included. Balkan nations should all be encouraged to participate as potential benefactors and partners from the deliberations.

Adding to the complexity, the group must collectively determine if and how “countering Russian influence” is emphasized. Other framing options include collaborating on refugee and migration policies, addressing combating extremism in schools, enhancing counter-terrorism information sharing methodologies and application, securing porous borders, strengthening institutions to suffocate transnational organized crime, or designing opportunities to stimulate economic growth. U.S. foreign policy expert James Carafano suggested that “much of what America can and should do to squeeze Putin’s malignant efforts out of the equation ought to focus on the region itself rather than on the Kremlin’s misbehavior.”[24] In short, efforts that can be organized without directly tying to counter-Russian activities may defuse false perceptions that Balkan nations must take a side. Consideration of these activities ought to be prioritized. Further, the group must be deliberate to ensure time is well spent and processes continue to lean forward. Iterative meetings need to focus on organizing available capacities that obtain Balkan buy-in. Legitimacy and realistic scoping of efforts is critical on both sides.

Next, the group should identify Western leads to guide and synchronize efforts in each “Western lead plus Balkan nation” partnership. While enhancing security, stability, and governance is a broad starting point, various individual constitutional and political limitations must be considered up front. For example, Serbia is more likely to work with the EU or, potentially, an individual nation such as Germany. NATO leading collaboration with Montenegro is a natural fit given its new membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina could also synchronize through a NATO lead, potentially the U.S. Macedonia’s partner must be able to serve as an honest broker given ongoing disputes with Greece. These pairings should map to where trust and shared interests are highest to minimize friction and limit how and when actions are perceived as directly confrontational to Russia unless by design.

Moving Forward. Together.

The process of identifying strengths of Western representatives interested in enhancing stability in the Balkans, and weaving respective activities together, must be conducted at a higher level than any one institution or nation. NATO, the EU, and the U.S. should take steps to get behind this basic premise. Additionally, other nations, such as China, should be invited to the discussions if they are willing to work towards shared objectives with corollary benefits. Ultimately, protecting peace in Europe depends on stability in the Balkans. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in February 2017, “The challenges we face are the most complex and demanding in a generation. Neither Europe nor North America can tackle them alone. A strong NATO is good for Europe, a strong Europe is good for North America.” Ultimately, a strong Europe rests upon stability in the Balkans.

[1] BBC News, “Confrontation over Pristina Airport,” 9 March 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/671495.stm.

[2] For purposes of this paper, the term Balkans refers to what the EU has designated as the “western Balkans”: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.

[3] James Jay Carafano, “The Balkans Will Be America and Russia’s Next (Virtual) Battlefield,” April 9, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-balkans-will-be-america-russias-next-virtual-battlefield-20088.

[4] Vera Zakheim, information exchange reference USEUCOM and USAREUR priorities, October 2017.

[5] Jens Stoltenberg, “Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Plenary session at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Bucharest, Oct 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_147635.htm.

[6] Vera Zakem, Bill Rosenau, and Danielle Johnson, “Shining a Light on the Western Balkans,” Center for Naval Analyses, May 2017, p. 37, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DOP-2017-U-015223-2Rev.pdf.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Aleksandar Vasovic, “Serbian foreign minister rejects U.S. call to choose between Russia and the West,” Nov 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-serbia-minister/serbian-foreign-minister-rejects-u-s-call-to-choose-between-russia-and-the-west-idUSKBN1D22OK.

[9] “RSHC in Geneva,” http://en.ihc.rs/news/2017/10/12/rshc-in-geneva.

[10] Alec Luhn, “Montenegro finds itself at heart of tensions with Russia as it joins NATO,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/25/montenegro-tensions-russia-joins-nato-member.

[11] U.S. Special Operations Center of Excellence, National Defense University, “Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone,” Oct. 2016, http://www.soc.mil/swcs/ProjectGray/Russian_Symposium_EXSUM.pdf.

[12] Vera Zakem, Bill Rosenau, and Danielle Johnson, “Shining a Light on the Western Balkans,” Center for Naval Analyses, May 2017, p. 14, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DOP-2017-U-015223-2Rev.pdf.

[13] Dusica Tomovic, “Putin’s Party to Foster Ties with Montenegro,” April 2016, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/putin-s-party-offers-closer-ties-to-montenegro-04-08-2016.

[14] Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy, “Basic Instinct: The Case for More NATO in the Western Balkans,” Sept. 2017, https://www.ceas-serbia.org/images/publikacije/CEAS_Basic_Instict_WEB.pdf.

[15] Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy, “Basic Instinct: The Case for More NATO in the Western Balkans,” Sept. 2017, p. 52. https://www.ceas-serbia.org/images/publikacije/CEAS_Basic_Instict_WEB.pdf.

[16] Dusan Stojanovic, “Russia Starts Delivery of MiG-29 Fighter Jets to Serbia,” Oct. 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2017-10-02/russia-starts-delivery-of-mig-29-fighter-jets-to-serbia.

[17] Snezana Bjelotomic, “Vulin: REGEX is a regional initiative, not NATO-Serbia drill,” Aug. 2017, http://serbianmonitor.com/en/politics/36755/vulin-regex-is-regional-initiative-not-nato-serbia-drill/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Vera Zakem, Bill Rosenau, and Danielle Johnson, “Shining a Light on the Western Balkans,” Center for Naval Analyses, May 2017, p. 14, https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/DOP-2017-U-015223-2Rev.pdf.

[20] Jasmin Mujanovic, “The Terror of Southeastern Europe’s Failing States,” June 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/blog/terror-southeastern-europe-s-failing-states.

[21] Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy, “Basic Instinct: The Case for More NATO in the Western Balkans,” Sept. 2017, p. 114. https://www.ceas-serbia.org/images/publikacije/CEAS_Basic_Instict_WEB.pdf.

[22] The Russian Federation, “Comment by The Information and Press Department on the Growing Tensions in Macedonia,” May 2015, http://www.mid.ru/en/maps/mk/-/asset_publisher/Bx1lWHr8ws3J/content/id/1257608.

[23] Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, National Endowment for Democracy, “Basic Instinct: The Case for More NATO in the Western Balkans,” Sept. 2017, p. 142. https://www.ceas-serbia.org/images/publikacije/CEAS_Basic_Instict_WEB.pdf.

[24] James Jay Carafano, “The Balkans Will Be America and Russia’s Next (Virtual) Battlefield,” April 9, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-balkans-will-be-america-russias-next-virtual-battlefield-20088.