JOHN KERRY, the US Secretary of State, has issued a stark warning that Kosovo is one of a number of European countries which are in line of fire when it comes to relations between the US and Russia, writes Abit Hoxha and Col. Agim Musliu (rtd.).
While this message, delivered when he appeared before a US Senate sub-committee in February 2015, may or may not be true, Russia remains very much involved in the Western Balkans on both a political and operational level. Politically, Russia considers the Rusosphere to comprise the entire former Yugoslavia – particularly Serbia.
The conflict in Kosovo is an issue which divides the international community, despite its undoubted progress since Nato’s military intervention in 1999 and its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.
Russia has been seen as a potential threat to Nato since it deployed troops in Kosovo in June 1999 without Nato permission. The incident almost led to ‘World War III’, according to the British Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson, who over-ruled the then Nato supreme commander General Wesley Clark by refusing to block the runways of Pristina Airport, which would have isolated Russian troops there.
Russia has attempted to expand its sphere of influence in Kosovo because it counters both American and European interests. Russia’s position on Kosovo remains unchanged, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comparisons of the country with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Georgia. It also seeks to block, politically, any progress of Kosovo on the international and regional stages, both through the United Nations Security Council and through Serbia.
Russia did not veto the decision to approve UNSCR 1244, which was adopted in June 1999 and established Kosovo as a state, but it is now using this resolution to stop progress in Kosovo. With this, Russia is using Serbia as a carrot and stick in Eastern Europe. In 2011, Zlatibor Djordjevic, a spokesman for the Old Serbia movement, claimed that about 21,000 Kosovo Serbs were seeking Russian citizenship. This demonstrates how Russia focusses very closely on Kosovo both from a strategic and political point of view.
In 2010, Russia built the largest military base outside Russia since the end of Cold War. This military base, in Nis in the south east of Serbia, was established as a humanitarian base from which Russian aircraft would operate in times of natural disasters. It has the capacity to undertake surveillance and espionage on the US military base in Romania, as well as accommodate Russian forces in an eventual deployment to cooperate with special units of the Serbian military in Nis.
Added to that, being able to co-ordinate with two other brigades in Raska and Vranje in Serbia, where each brigade has 11 battalions of combined forces which are already on the border with Kosovo, demonstrates that there is significant capacity for collaboration. In fact, joint military exercise has already occurred in the municipality of Ruma in the form of a joint anti-terrorist drill.
This ‘Russian Bondsteel’ (the US Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo was the biggest newly-built US foreign base since the Vietnam War) is built strategically close to Kosovo.
Military expertise claim that there are more than ‘humanitarian’ reasons behind the base at Nis just 100 km from the Kosovo border. According to Serbian journalist Dimitrije Boarov, ‘This is an example of one of those bases that goes hand in hand with major geopolitical and/or energy projects, such as linking gas pipelines.’
Kosovo presents an ideal scenario for Russian interests to initiate another conflict: there is international presence, Serbia’s territorial claims can be fuelled by Russian influence in the region for another conflict – as it did in Ukraine. While the rest of the world is preoccupied with both ISIS threats and conflict in Ukraine, the threat that Russia will initiate another conflict in the Balkans remains high.