Controversy in the Balkans is picking up traction once again. This time, the conflict is over a uniquely sensitive issue: the status of Kosovo’s armed forces. To understand why this is such a hot-button topic, a bit of context is necessary.
The Kosovo War of the late 1990s was a conflict that erupted due to the ethnic and religious tensions contained in the largely artificial country of Yugoslavia. Support from NATO and the United States allowed the small Kosavar rebel group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, to withstand a year-and-a-half Serbian onslaught. With the end of the conflict, a United Nations Security Council resolution placed Kosovo under the authority of an “Interim Administration Mission,” with security provided by the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR).
Over the past decade, Kosovo has slowly been creeping out from its NATO-reliant state. In 2008, the ethnic Albanian Kosovars declared independence. At that time, however, the only security force directly subservient to Kosovo authorities was an “emergency response force” called the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). Six years later, Kosovo took its first shot at upping its military posture by creating a national army of 5,000 troops. Already then, Kosovo’s intent to strengthen it’s armed forces drew ire from the Serbian government which still sees itself as the protectors of the some 100,000 Serbs that reside in Kosovo. Belgrade demanded from NATO that it guarantee no Kosovo army would ever be allowed to enter the mainly Serb north without their permission. Due to “delay[s] in the constitution of the Kosovo parliament” (read: bureaucratic nonsense mixed with political reservations), the establishment of Kosovo’s army never really got off the ground. Until now.
Over the short span of the past two weeks, Kosovo’s military aspirations were given the final push to actualization. The indication the Kosovar army was an imminent reality came on 6 December when the U.S. Ambassador to the country, Philip Kosnett declared in an interview America’s backing for the project. “Washington has consistently supported the development of the KSF and the development of the KSF into Armed Forces,” said Kosnett. “We think that the KSF‘s evolution into Kosovo Armed Forces is a positive step and that it is only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign, independent country to have a self-defense capability.” Kosnett pretty much admitted that the U.S. has in fact been providing the financial and logistical foundation for Kosovo’s army. “The United States has invested a lot of money; we have spent time on training; we’ve done exchanges between KSF and U.S. military.”
Less than a week later, on 14 December Kosovo’s parliament officially brought the National Army into being. The vote was unanimously in favor—105 deputies voted “yes” out of a 120-seat assembly. The fifteen absent ballots were reportedly those of Serbian minority groups who boycotted the vote.
So what will the consequences be to Kosovo’s bold move?
From the perspective of Kosovo’s military capability, the recent parliamentary vote will have made no immediate changes. The country’s current security force is already a small army in and of itself. Soldiers are already armed with an assortment of heavy weapons and are even equipped with basic assault vehicles. Furthermore, any advances will take years to develop.
But this reality has not staved off the criticism.
Serbia responded to the move by condemning it as essentially an act of aggression. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said Kosovo’s decision to upgrade the KSF into an army would not contribute to “cooperation, stability in the region.”
More importantly, however, the vote also prompted sharp criticism from NATO.
NATO’s apposition is rooted in the realization of just how delicate the geo-political dynamic in the region is. The Alliance sees itself (and correctly so) as a stabilizing force in the Balkans. Officials at NATO understand that any attempt by a single regional power to assert itself can potentially offset this balance. The recent example involving Macedonia and their ascent to NATO’s ranks demonstrates this clearly.
Meanwhile, Serbia has suggested that it may respond to Kosovo’s creation of an official military by invading their former province. Prime Minister Brnabić has said that armed intervention is “one of the options on the table.” To put the gravity of this threat into perspective, any Serbian invasion into Kosovo would mean a direct confrontation with thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including U.S. troops, stationed in Kosovo since 1999.
But Serbia seems pretty serious about the possibility of war. Last week, the country’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, visited Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo. Members of Vučić’s advisory team have floated the idea of sending armed forces into Kosovo and declaring it an occupied territory. The fact that Russia, Serbia’s ally, has also come out against Kosovo’s newly-founded army has certainly been no small factor in emboldening the Serbs. Of course the potential for Russian involvement with a Serbian incursion adds a whole new dimension to this schism. The U.S. would be forced to support Kosovo’s “natural right” of self defense (to paraphrase Ambassador Kosnett) with more than just words. The burden on the U.S. may only increase in light of NATO’s growing opposition to Kosovo government policy. NATO leaders have stated that they may have to re-assess its commitment to Kosovo. “NATO supports the development of the Kosovo Security Force under its current mandate. With the change of mandate, the North Atlantic Council will now have to re-examine the level of NATO’s engagement with the Kosovo Security Force,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a recent statement.
Hopefully cooler heads will prevail before the current situation devolves into the Kosovo War 2.0.