The United States just announced support for a Kosovo army, a suggestion not well received by Serbia or its Russian ally.
A recent visit to the Balkans by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Aaron Wess Mitchell, suggests that the Trump administration intends to regain influence in the Balkans. A mention of support for a Kosovo army may be a response to international perceptions that Russia is now the leading political factor in the region, not the U.S.
The reasoning behind Mitchell’s visit is unclear, as is what exactly transpired between Mitchell and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Most assumed that Mitchell did not come to Belgrade to present once again the policy of the White House regarding the issue of Kosovo.
U.S. announces support for Kosovo army
Foreign policy analysts honed in on one statement in particular Mitchell made during his visit: “Kosovo has the right to form a professional force to address security… and it will not be a threat to Serbia or Serbs.” Mitchell’s statement alone threatens to destabilize the Balkans as it gives additional impetus to the efforts of the Kosovo authorities to create a military force at the very border with Serbia.
Mitchell added that the United States would be supportive of Kosovo’s attempt to form an army or “security forces”. Mitchell did acknowledge that to do so, a constitutional amendment and consent from Kosovo minorities, primarily Serbs, is needed.
Hashim Thaci, the president of Kosovo, and the former leader of the paramilitary organization known as Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has been trying to force Serbia to surrender Kosovo and allow the emergence of a ‘regular army’. Kosovo already has the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), but the KSF is only lightly armed and primarily focused on search and rescues, firefighting, explosive ordnance disposal and other similar civil issues.
In 2014 Thaci announced Kosovo’s intention to transform the KSF into the Kosovo Armed Forces by 2019. Thaci’s plans call for an army of 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 on reserve.
Thaci, as The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) explains, “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.”
In response to Mitchell’s statement about a Kosovo army, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said “I urge everyone to find one single paper, one single letter in some international act that says that is allowed… A Kosovo army goes against all international acts.”
Last February Vucic additionally stated that any attempt of Kosovo to enter into the United Nations would have to be approved by Serbia.
Michell’s words provoked a firm response from Russia, which is not ready to give up its influence in the Balkans.
Russia fires back at the notion of a Kosovo army
The spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Maria Zakharova, explicitly warned that Russia would not tolerate the creation of a Kosovo army. Zakharova warned such an army would pose a serious threat to the stability of the Balkans, and above all Serbia, which is still considered the most important Russian ally in the Balkans.
“The creation of the armed forces of Kosovo, a structure that has never in any way approached the state structure, is only making a bad situation even worse. An additional factor of instability on the European continent is the way in which the ‘structure of Kosovo’ was created, the goals that were set during the separation of Kosovo from the territory of a sovereign state,” Zakharova stated.
The European Union’s demand that if Serbia wants to join the E.U. Serbia must recognize Kosovo as an independent state further stresses Kosovo and Serbian relations. Political leaders in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, are under enormous pressure to normalize relations with Kosovo if they want to lead the country toward E.U. integration.
Russia draws parallels between Kosovo and Crimea
Russia often draws parallels between Kosovo and Crimea as justification for the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014. As the United States recognizes Kosovo’s right to self-determination, Russia says Crimea employed their right to self-determination in 2014 when 95 percent of Crimeans voted to break with Ukraine and join Russia. The United States and its allies argue the vote was a “sham” and conducted under threats of violence.
Perhaps the path to compromise in the Balkans travels through Crimea. Might Russia give up on protecting Serbian interests in Kosovo if the European Union and the U.S. offer some kind of compromise regarding Crimea?