While all eyes are on Ukraine, Serbia, backed by Russia, is provoking fresh chaos in the Balkans. By pushing the region to the brink of collapse and igniting ethnic conflicts, the Kremlin hopes to undermine NATO and re-establish Russia as the regional power broker.
A growing conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is threatening to become another crisis in Europe. In May, confrontations engineered by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo injured thirty members of NATO's peacekeeping forces, and the escalation has continued since then.
Serbia and Russia have a penchant for historical dates and myths, and this Wednesday will be another opportunity hard for Moscow and Belgrade to resist as a way to add yet more fuel to the fire in the region. June 28 commemorates the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an event deeply ingrained in Serbia’s history.
The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the Kosovo-Serbia crisis is moving "towards an armed conflict." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated how "a big explosion is brewing in the center of Europe." While it is difficult to forecast whether the situation in Kosovo will escalate to the level of armed conflict, Russia and Serbia will likely conduct information operations to exacerbate ethnic tensions in the region on June 28.
It is high time for the West to turn the script back on Serbian and Russian games and use the information space on Wednesday to put them on the defensive.
The conflict has the potential for escalation. Last week, U.S. President Biden announced that the situation is “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that NATO has “increased our presence and will continue to take all necessary measures to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo.”
To alleviate the situation, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, arranged a meeting between the two countries' leaders last Thursday, June 22 but noted on Twitter that the meeting did not yield much progress and that the situation in the north of Kosovo remains to be “very alarming.”
The crux of the matter lies in how Russia and Serbia would benefit from the escalation in Kosovo. For the former, Putin’s efforts to destabilize the Balkans are a part of his broader regional strategy to establish Russia as a global power broker while weakening NATO's credibility and distracting the West from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
On the other hand, Vučić hopes to gain more immediate strategic interests from Russia's interference, by posing as a source of stability among regional chaos, escalating and de-escalating conflicts with Kosovo as a Western bargaining chip. This strategy, aimed at retaining power, by undermining Serbia's pro-Western opposition, promoting far-right nationalists, while appearing moderate to the West. The Kosovo crisis also helps divert attention from his own domestic political issues.
There is no other holiday that is more important for Serbia than June 28, when the Battle of Kosovo took place in 1389 between the armies of Serbia and the Ottoman Empire at Kosovo Polje. It has been more than six centuries since this event, but this holiday, called Vidovdan, holds significant cultural and historical importance in Serbian history and is viewed as a symbol of sacrifice and bravery.
If history is any indication, we should recall that on June 28, 1989, the then President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, delivered a speech at Gazimestan, a memorial site to fallen Serbian soldiers. This was prior to intense ethnic tensions that resulted in the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The narrative surrounding Kosovo was essential to Milosevic's political survival, as he shaped his nationalist agenda based on this myth. Milosevic remarked: “Six centuries on, we encounter new battles, demanding the same resolve, bravery, and sacrifice once seen in Kosovo, though now in our fight for societal prosperity and 21st-century civilization. This struggle necessitates a different type of courage and heroism, indispensable for any significant and great achievement.”
Last week, Vučić spoke about Vidovdan and warned of difficult times for the Serbs emphasizing that “things have come almost to an end.”
In response, the West should employ offensive information operations using social media and local media platforms to reach out to far-right Serbian nationalists who consider Kosovo as being at the heart of their Motherland.
Instead of attempting to sell the far-right Serbs tales of Western democracies and persuade them to accept Kosovo’s independence, these operations should leverage Serbian nationalism to highlight Moscow’s duplicity and cast Russia as an imperial power that is strategically exploiting Kosovo for its own geopolitical interest. As Russia pledges support for Serbia, Western information operations should portray Moscow as an unreliable partner by reminding the Serbs of Russia’s failure to aid its ally Armenia, a member of the CSTO, during last year's clashes in Nagorno Karabakh.
Russia promised its support to Serbia, but far-right Serbs may not believe that Russia’s military capability is limited now. Instead, effective information operations should remind the Serbs that Russia had previously joined the NATO-led peacekeeping mission to Kosovo, but it abandoned it in 2003. The West should exploit the episode as a case study of the Russian government throwing its Slavic brothers under the bus, thereby emphasizing to Serbian nationalists, “Where was Russia in 1999 to protect its Slavic brothers from NATO?”
Why stop there? Instead of playing Russia’s “Kosovo Battle” narrative, the West should create a new narrative for June 28. Namely, on that day Josip Broz Tito, leader of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) abandoned Stalin although Yugoslavia had been regarded as the most reliable Soviet ally until 1948.
In April 1945 Tito established the Soviet-Yugoslav Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance making Yugoslavia an ally of the Soviet Union. After numerous ideological and strategic disagreements Stalin portrayed Yugoslav leaders as "anti-Soviet" and "anti-Marxist-Leninist." In response Tito initiated purges against Stalin loyalists in Yugoslavia, leading to Yugoslav’s geopolitical reorientation within Eastern Europe. The final affirmation of the Tito-Stalin split occurred on June 28, 1948, when the Soviet Cominform published a Resolution that accused the KPJ of anti-Soviet policies and deviating from the Marxist-Leninist line.
By leveraging the Serb’s affinity for bold leaders, the West should paint Vučić as less tenacious than Tito by employing humor and amplifying Tito’s response to Stalin after he tried to assassinate Tito 22 times: “Stop sending people to kill me. We've already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle... If you don't stop sending killers, I'll send one to Moscow, and I won't have to send a second.”
In a similar vein, the Serbian President seeks to emulate Tito’s hedging his bets between East and West, a trait that Washington should put to the test. Given Vučić’s comprehensive hold over Serbia’s media landscape, the West should leverage such consolidated authority to counter Russian influence in the Balkans.
Moscow has been using information operations to sow chaos in Kosovo to show that NATO and the West are nothing more than paper tigers. It's high time for the West to show that Russia's "Slavic Brotherhood" is nothing more than a myth in the Balkans.
Dr. Ivana Stradner focuses on Russia’s information security and Russian influence in in international organizations. She is an advisor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington where her work centers on Russia’s security strategies and military doctrines related to information operations. She has worked as a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a lecturer for a variety of universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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