In Kosovo, the United States Risks Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Joe Biden 2024 Election
February 27, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: KosovoSerbiaRussiaAleksandar VučićNATO

In Kosovo, the United States Risks Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

The United States should provide Kosovo with a path to membership in NATO.

New developments in the Western Balkans are threatening the precarious peace achieved under American leadership since the end of the 1999 Kosovo war.

A terrorist attack in northern Kosovo last September by a group of over forty well-armed Serb militants operating from inside a Serbian Orthodox Monastery left a Kosovan policeman killed. The subsequent reaction from the Kosovan police, aided by the Western security forces, eliminated three armed militants, while dozens fled to Serbia after surrendering all their weaponry, including armored vehicles. Milan Radoicic, a millionaire kingpin leading a Wagner-like paramilitary band and a close ally of the Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, took public responsibility for this attack. Radoicic was detained shortly in Belgrade, but to the dismay of international observers, he was released after less than twelve hours in detention. This further reinforced the suspicions of links between him and the Serbian state.

Despite Serbia’s rejection of blame for this act of aggression, Western intelligence institutions who provided material for a confidential briefing to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Council signaled strong evidence for a direct link between the Serbian state and the terrorist group. Most recently, British foreign secretary David Cameron also pointedly named and shamed Serbia as a “Russian proxy” destabilizing the region.

The U.S. State Department also followed up in early 2024, approving the sale of Javelin rocket systems to Kosovo’s fledgling defense force. According to the statement from the State Department, “The proposed sale will improve Kosovo’s long-term defense capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity to meet its national defense requirements.”

The move did provoke some opposition in Congress. Representative Claudia Tenney (R-NY) has vehemently disagreed with selling Javelin systems to America’s closest ally in the Western Balkans. In a statement published in her X account, Rep. Tenney, who also chairs the Serbian Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, has pledged to introduce a “joint disapproval resolution” to prevent Kosovo from receiving the defense weaponry.

In early February, the Kosovo government banned the use of Serbian currency in the Serbian areas, citing the Constitution of Kosovo, which allows only the Euro. While Western governments agreed the issue of currency is a sovereign right of Kosovo, the Kosovan government was nevertheless slammed for not coordinating such moves with its allies and “unnecessarily raising ethnic tension.”

Why are the Balkans yet again on the verge of new conflict? Some background notes may be necessary to remind us that this crisis is a new undercurrent to the relatively peaceful few decades since the end of the Balkan wars.

Following the wars of the 1990s, the region had some notable years of progress: the Dayton Accords helped usher in an extended period of peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Kosovo became a sovereign and independent nation in 2008 with the support of the United States and its allies, based on a plan proposed by the UN envoy, former Finnish president Marti Ahtisaari

Croatia joined NATO and the European Union (EU), while Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia joined NATO, cementing the Euro-Atlantic security architecture in the region.

Kosovo and Serbia reached an important agreement in a dialogue facilitated by the EU envoy already in 2013, following the opinion of the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence did not breach international law. In the following years, Kosovo was recognized by various international bodies, from the International Olympic Committee and the International Soccer Federation to the regional bodies. Serbia, on the other hand, entered a period of improved relations with the West, which brought major investments in its economy. During the 2010s, Serbia, on the back of a more relaxed political landscape in the region, became the focal point for attracting direct foreign investments, including American investment.

As late as 2019, hopes were high for a final, legally binding settlement of the key bilateral issue of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Both President Trump in 2019 and President Biden in 2021 have insisted that Serbia and Kosovo must mutually recognize each other. Additionally, Kosovo agreed to provide for extended legal arrangements for Serbian municipalities inside Kosovo to connect through an Association of Serbian Majority Municipalities. It was meant to be a tool for enhanced protection of minority rights.

Another important step aiming for economic normalization between the two former foes was reached in 2020 after the signing of the trilateral “Washington Agreement” between U.S. president Donald Trump, Kosovan prime minister Abdullah Hoti, and Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic. The deal was negotiated by the U.S. envoy and former acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell. It was focused on improving bilateral cooperation in road and air transport, energy, and natural resources. Initially, it was supposed to be signed by the former Kosovan President Hashim Thaçi. However, a prosecutor at Specialist Chambers at the Hague, Jack Smith, published a controversial indictment on alleged war crimes by President Thaçi three days before Trump was supposed to host the peace summit in Washington, DC. 

Nevertheless, the agreement was signed months later between Kosovo’s PM Hoti and Serbian President Vucic, which ensured Kosovo was recognized as an independent nation by the State of Israel. At the same time, Kosovo agreed to open an Embassy in Jerusalem, making this agreement compatible with the Abraham Accords. The Heritage Foundation also welcomed this recognition, calling it “historic.”

Why, then, are the Balkans entering a new period of crisis?

The answer is two-fold: war in Ukraine opened the path for Russia to influence the Balkans and to diversify and increase the different stress points for the already strained Atlantic consensus. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted last year: “Russia resents the region’s push for integration with the EU and NATO and it seeks to leverage persistent ethnic and religious fault lines to undermine those efforts.” 

There are strong reasons to believe that irredentist actions by Serb nationalist elements in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo can be sourced to the same deep state circles operating under the auspices of the Serbian intelligence service in Belgrade. Following the Banjska attack, Aleksandar Vulin, the pro-Russian head of Serbia’s Security and Information Agency (BIA), resigned. The United States Government also sanctioned Vulin in July.

One consequence of the Ukraine war was President Biden’s conciliatory policy toward Serbia, aiming to prevent it from becoming a fully-fledged Russian proxy. As the Washington Post noted recently in an opinion signed by the Editorial Board, “Biden’s policy was to embrace Serbia’s authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vucic, in a bid to peel his country away from Russia. That policy increasingly looks like a failure.”

The remaining challenge for the U.S. government is the unwillingness of its traditional partner, Kosovo, to coordinate the steps.

As Politico noted in June 2023, Kosovo’s intransigent Prime minister Albin Kurti, “has achieved the impossible in American politics: consensus among Democrats and Republicans,” further explaining that “unfortunately for Kurti (and his country), the point of agreement is that Kosovo’s leader is a stubborn, and at times, reckless politician who has undermined the joint U.S.-European effort to achieve a lasting solution for peace between Kosovo and Serbia.”

Some still blame Kurti for the outbreak of violence in Banjska, despite Kosovo otherwise delivering to the United States on other issues, such as housing Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul and joining the EU and U.S. sanctions against Putin’s regime.

The terrorist attack in Banjska, however, has created a completely new landscape. 

Appeasement has failed with Serbia. Thus, there is now a need for a combination of incentives for Kosovo, such as opening the path towards NATO membership and putting pressure on Vucic to achieve the final legally binding agreement centered on mutual recognition. 

The strategic approach taken by the previous Trump administration was correct in focusing on economic relations between the two countries. However, better economic ties without settling the dangerous underlying political conflict will not, in themselves, close the painful chapters of Kosovo-Serbia violence. As Adam Tooze noted in the Financial Times recently, “It’s not a mistake to believe that economic interconnection produces real social, economic and political change…The mistake was to imagine that this transformation was a one-way process that would automatically secure order.”

Kosovo is one of the staunchest supporters of the United States anywhere in the world. Even during the Trump presidency, Kosovo’s enthusiasm for America did not dampen. On the contrary. Time magazine has reported: “In a January 2018 Gallup survey asking how other countries view U.S. leadership, Kosovo ranked first in the world, with 75 percent approval of the Trump administration.” Kosovan cities have boulevards named after both President Bush and President Clinton. Even the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) have their own statues adorning Kosovo squares.

Delivering a NATO membership path to Kosovo is the right thing to do both as an act of partnership with a reliable partner and as a relatively easy strategic investment bringing outsize peace dividends. It will also finally close any venue for Russia to use Serbia as a wedge against Balkan peace.