Amid Yugoslavia’s break up in the early 1990s, Serbia pursued its “Greater Serbia” agenda based on the belief that all ethnic Serbs in the region should belong to one single Serbian nation-state. Slobodan Milosevic’s regime did not want Serb communities living as minorities in newly established Muslim-majority countries.
To achieve “Greater Serbia,” Belgrade resorted to force. But under Milosevic, Serbia failed to carve “Greater Serbia” out of Yugoslavia’s remains amid the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Since 1999, the land under Belgrade’s control has been significantly smaller than Milosevic’s government had envisioned at the time of Yugoslavia’s collapse.
This was not because Serbia’s smaller neighbors managed to defeat Serbian/Serb forces on their own. It was because NATO—led by the world’s superpower, the United States—intervened militarily against Belgrade at a specific time in history in which Washington was dominating a unipolar international system. In the late 1990s, Russia and China were much weaker countries; they lacked the ability to deter the United States from expanding NATO’s footprint eastward in Europe or invading Iraq in 2003.
Since 1999, Serbia has not launched any military campaign to retake Kosovo. This is due to the presence of the NATO-led international peacekeeping force, Kosovo Force (KFOR), in Kosovo. As a European Union candidate since 2012 and part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program since 2006, Serbia knows that starting a fight with KFOR would be extremely unwise. But Kosovo’s policymakers and many average Kosovar citizens worry that new realities in the international geopolitical order could create conditions that eventually encourage Belgrade to resume its pursuit of “Greater Serbia.”
In Pristina, there is growing doubt about the United States and other Western countries’ commitment to Kosovo’s independence and much concern about the extent to which Washington accommodates (or, depending on one’s perspective, appeases) President Aleksandar Vučić’s government under the banner of promoting stability in the Western Balkans. Some voices in Pristina express concerns about the United States eventually going as far as revoking its recognition of Kosovo’s independence as part of a strategy aimed at improving Washington-Belgrade relations.
The United States and NATO’s botched 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan unsettled many Kosovars. The decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan following a twenty-year occupation, which left Washington’s Afghan partners at the Taliban’s mercy, prompted some in Kosovo to question whether the United States would leave the Kosovars to a similar fate.
Comments from Donald Trump about the U.S. role in protecting (or not) NATO’s Eastern European members from Russia, combined with the legacy of Richard Grenell (the Trump administration’s special presidential envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations from 2019 to 2021), have left Pristina worried about the possibility of a second Trump presidency.
Many Kosovars are asking to what extent Washington, especially if Trump is back at the helm, will view the protection of Kosovo as a priority for the United States. Given all the major challenges Washington faces on the international stage, it is less than clear if defending Kosovo from potential Russian-encouraged Serbian actions in the future is a commitment that U.S. policymakers take seriously. Even if Biden secures a second term next year, Kosovars would still maintain such concerns.
The deadly violence at a Serbian Orthodox monastery near Banjska, a village in northern Kosovo, on September 24 brought the Serbia-Kosovo dispute into the international spotlight. But all that changed on October 7, when Hamas launched its unprecedented incursion into southern Israel, shifting Washington’s attention toward the Middle East and away from central and southern Europe. If the war in Gaza rages on, or, worse, spreads to more parts of the Middle East, the Western Balkans will rank a lower priority for U.S. policymakers.
Additionally, many in Pristina believe that an extreme scenario in which China takes Taiwan by force could leave Kosovo vulnerable to Serbia’s ambitions. Put simply, certain Kosovar voices have expressed concern that NATO would be spread too thin to credibly protect Kosovo’s independence from Serbia if the U.S. military decides to enter into a conflict with China over Taiwan.
At the end of the day, it is the West’s so-called “liberal rules-based order” and NATO’s military might that have kept Serbia confined within its current borders. As a pragmatist, Vučić understands that Serbia’s military can’t directly challenge KFOR in Kosovo, annex Serb-dominated land in NATO member Montenegro, or forcefully unify Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) Republika Srpska (RS) with Serbia while the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the ground.
Belgrade is determined, at all costs, to avoid a repeat of 1999. This means that Serbia will always act to prevent such a scenario. Any moves that Belgrade might take vis-à-vis northern Kosovo or other neighboring countries would be made based on calculations regarding the status of the Western order. Within this context, there are at least three scenarios to consider when analyzing the future of Serbia’s policies toward its smaller Balkan neighbors.
First, the Western order collapses and Russia and China fill the void on the international stage amid the total decline of the United States. Under such circumstances, one could easily imagine Serbia acting boldly to retake full control of Kosovo.
Second, the Western order weakens but doesn’t collapse, and Beijing and Moscow continue to gain greater geopolitical clout, effectively balancing a NATO that remains intact albeit as a weaker alliance. If this scenario plays out, Serbia could reunite itself with portions of land in neighboring countries such as northern Kosovo and BiH’s RS.
Third, neither Beijing nor Moscow manages to ascend further, and the Western order prevails. Under this scenario, Serbia would probably be unable to change any borders. But Serbia could leverage Belgrade- and Moscow-oriented Serb groups in Kosovo, BiH, and Montenegro to continue making Serbia a regional powerhouse capable of fueling problems for NATO, ultimately solidifying Belgrade’s status as an actor that the West must accommodate.
Regardless of which scenario unfolds, Kosovo will continue to fear its revanchist neighbor and Belgrade’s relationship with Kosovo-Serbs in northern Kosovo. Pristina will want to do all it can to secure long-term support from NATO. But considering that KFOR’s presence did not prevent the September 24 episode near Banjska, which came four months after Serbian security forces allegedly entered Kosovo’s territory and arrested three Kosovar police officers, Kosovo does want to depend on the transatlantic alliance, especially given all the open questions about the West’s long-term commitment to Kosovo and NATO’s capacity to protect the country’s independence.
Within this context, Pristina wants to build up its indigenous capabilities to protect itself from possible Serbian efforts to regain control of Kosovo in a post-Western world. In sum, Kosovo’s existence and de facto independence have been products of the unipolar era in world history that only existed in the 1990s and early 2000s. As the world system grows more multipolar, Pristina will face significant challenges, requiring the small, landlocked European Muslim country to revisit its strategies for survival.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.