Geopolitical Insights

Academy SITREP – Tension Between Serbia and Kosovo

October 5, 2023
What has Happened:
  • On September 24th, armed Serbian paramilitary personnel ambushed a police patrol in the northern part of Kosovo, killing one Kosovo police officer.
  • Following the attack, the number of Serbian troops continued to grow on the border and last Friday, the White House publicly highlighted its concerns surrounding the “unprecedented” Serbian military buildup.
  • However, this week Serbia pulled a number of troops back from the border in an apparent de-escalation of tensions (after the White House declassified intelligence showing the increase of Serbian forces).
  • As we addressed in our June 2023 ATW, tensions have been simmering for months near the border, but so far nothing has boiled over to the point of an all-out conflict similar to 1998-1999 when U.S./NATO forces intervened to end the humanitarian crisis.
  • While the U.S./NATO have previously supported Kosovo and recognize its sovereignty, Serbia (a Russian ally) has been actively providing much-needed ammunition to Ukraine and some believe that this support has resulted in more limited pressure on Serbia by the West.
  • Serbia refuses to recognize the independence of Kosovo and the concern is that these activities are part of a broader Serbian plan to “annex” part of northern Kosovo to “protect” ethnic Serbs living in the region.
Why it Matters:

“The presence of a small number (3,800) of NATO troops under KFOR has tried to keep the peace for a long time. Some Serbian communities still reside in the northern part of Kosovo, and the ethnic tensions between Kosovars and Serbians remain high. The Serbian communities are marked by the ancient Eastern Orthodox churches that are a cultural magnet for Orthodox Serbs. The Kosovar/Albanian mosques likewise mark their own territory. The Mitrovica bridge marks the boundary between Serbian and Kosovar influence, but there are enclaves on both sides. The Serbians have always had the backing of the Russians and this support dampened much of the violent behavior. That threat also kept the Kosovars in check. However, something has changed. Similar to the Armenian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russians have withdrawn support to these ethnic enclaves, and their presence no longer dampens the potential for violence. These “small wars” can erupt quickly on the slightest provocation (e.g., Northern Ireland). Local politicians and leaders are incentivized to take positions on the extreme fringes of both communities. There is not really a way to de-escalate because the local stakes are so high. While the KFOR presence is not huge, they do serve as a trip wire. Even the most hot-headed Serbians also likely understand that the Russians are not able to come to their aid at this time. The Serbian militias will likely have to acknowledge KFOR and limit their incursions. Without Russian resources, a major escalation is not likely at this time. The human tragedy of groups of people that have existed side-by-side for centuries continuing to kill each other over local tensions remains a tragedy.” General Michael Groen


“The Serbian troop pullback is an indication that they are not serious about invading Kosovo. They have too much to risk considering their request to enter the EU. They are already supporting Ukraine’s war efforts and they see weakness from Putin and less long-term support/influence from Russia. They have tried to keep a leg in two canoes, but they are seeing the canoes drifting further apart. Serbia’s own interests are becoming more tied to the West and less to Russia. The NATO forces are not only a trip wire but are also a stabilizing factor because Russian forces in the region are now almost non-existent.” General Robert Walsh


“I would add that the Serbs would likely generate a negative (if not adverse) response from the EU & NATO should their activities trigger a refugee/displaced person crisis. The EU & NATO have more than they can handle already.” General Mastin Robeson