Last week, Serbs in northern Kosovo injured around 25 members of NATO’s peacekeeping forces following confrontations in northern Kosovo. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have always been high, as Serbia does not acknowledge the latter’s sovereignty. While tensions in Kosovo have been building in recent months, this marks the most violent clash yet. 

The violence erupted in the town of  Zvecan. Prior to the violent outbreak, Kosovo’s police and NATO’s peacekeeping troops were guarding municipal buildings in Zvecan and three other northern Kosovo municipalities, as these areas had just held elections that Serbian protestors boycotted. Serbian President Vucic supported the boycott of the elections emphasizing that the Serbs should not tolerate foreign “occupation.”

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As Serbs boycotted the elections, there was only a 3.5 percent voter turnout; all four municipalities ended up electing mayors from ethnic Albanian parties. Kosovo’s Prime Minister argued that this low turnout was due to “the threatening campaign orchestrated by Belgrade… and blackmail by criminal groups.”

It’s believed that protestors were backed by Belgrade and they refused to accept the election results. Vucic voiced support for the protestors, stating that they were conducting “a peaceful political uprising” in response to injustices from “their occupiers.”

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After the elections, protestors tried to stop the elected officials from going inside the municipal buildings. After Serbian protestors began to attack NATO troops and Kosovo police forces, NATO troops had to use tear gas and stun grenades to stop the protestors from violently attacking them. The protestors “responded by throwing rocks and other hard objects at them.” 

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In a statement, NATO described how: “Several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR [NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo Force] contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices.”

Protestors also sprayed nationalist slogans and symbols on Kosovo police cars. 

Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic stated: “The consequences (of the clashes) are big and grave and the sole culprit is (Kosovo Prime Minister) Albin Kurti… I beg the international community to make sure Albin Kurti sees reason.” 

Vucic claimed that 54 Serbs have been injured and has since placed Serbia’s army on “high alert” and held a meeting with his National Security Council to determine a strategy “aimed at strengthening Serbia’s defense capabilities.”

After France and Germany suggested holding new elections in the four municipalities to ease tensions, the President of Kosovo said on Thursday that she is “ready to consider that possibility.”

The US accused Kosovo of escalation, and the US Ambassador said: “Actions taken by the government of Kosovo... have created this crisis atmosphere in the north.” 

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This was followed by French President Macron who also accused Kosovo officials of escalating the crisis. 

NATO chief Jens Stolenberg emphasized that “Pristina must de-escalate and not take unilateral, destabilizing steps.” As a result, the United States canceled Kosovo's participation in ongoing NATO exercise “Defender Europe 23.” 

Western “balancing” statements are a dream come true for Belgrade and Moscow. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow “absolutely, unconditionally supports Serbia.”

“We support the Serbs,” he added, but the Kremlin cannot trust the EU on fulfilling agreements on Kosovo.

Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko said that the situation in Kosovo was a “hybrid war” and that the West is pushing Serbia to recognize Kosovo.

The Russian Ambassador also alleged that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s opponents want to do “a Maidan-style coup.” Just a few days before this statement, the Serbian President claimed that sister intelligence services from the East warned him about the color revolution attempt.

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Serbian Director of Intelligence Agency Vulin met Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev last week and discussed Russian-Serbian relations. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the outbreak of violence “worrisome” and seemed to connect the blame to the West, stating how, “A big ‘explosion’ is brewing in the center of Europe, in the very place where, in 1999, NATO carried out aggression against Yugoslavia.” 

The ultimate question arises as to why Russia and Serbia would benefit from the escalation in Kosovo.

Russia sees the region as Europe’s soft underbelly and Moscow has used information operations to inflame ethnic tensions and encourage protests, make arms deals, embed itself in critical energy infrastructure, and leverage long-standing religious and cultural ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Putin’s efforts to push Serbia and Kosovo to the brink and ramp up tensions in the Western Balkans so he can position himself as the sole regional mediator and security guarantor. Given that NATO has a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, the Kremlin aims to demonstrate that NATO is not a credible partner for Kosovo. 

As Moscow continues to lose on the battlefield in Ukraine, Putin is using the chaos in the Balkans to distract the West.

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has more immediate strategic interests in Russia’s meddling, insofar as chaos in the region will allow him to frame himself as a force for stability. Vucic’s favorite tactic is to escalate and then de-escalate and to use Kosovo as a bargaining chip with the West.

His ultimate goal is to remain in power for as long as possible. By undermining pro-Western opposition in Serbia and strengthening the far-right nationalists, Vucic has positioned himself as a moderate deal-breaker in the lens of the Western world.

This tactical maneuver should resonate well with Kremlin Watchers as it closely resembles Putin’s political strategy at the start of his political career.

Additionally, Vucic faces significant challenges within his domestic sphere. After two mass shootings in Serbia in May, there are protests every week against his government. Now, Vucic distracts his domestic audience and strategically utilizes the situation in Kosovo as a political instrument.   

Three decades after the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, recent clashes between Serbia and Kosovo have re-ignited lingering ethnic tensions and stirred unease in the West. As Russia and Serbia continue to add fuel to the fire in Kosovo, the situation is grave enough to command the attention of Western leaders.

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And while that’s both understandable and appropriate, they must not allow their primary focus to stray from Ukraine, as Putin undoubtedly hopes it will.

 

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post

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