Bottom Line Up Front
- On December 14, Kosovo’s parliament voted to form an official standing army, prompting a volley of angry rhetoric from Serbia and Russia.
- The decision to transition the existing 3,000 personnel of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) is backed by the U.S, and some segments of the EU, while organizations like the UN and NATO have not voiced support for the move.
- The UN claims that the move violates the UN Security Council resolution that established the Kosovo Force (KFOR), the primary peacekeeping presence since the end of the Serbian war in 1999.
- Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, claiming that the region still belongs to Serbia.
Relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which are always fraught, deteriorated further with the December 14th vote by the parliament in Pristina to establish a Ministry of Defense and a standing army. The move was immediately denounced by Serbia, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucicspeaking at the United Nations (UN) on December 17th. In his speech, he called upon to the UN to ‘tame’ Kosovo and again denied that Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008, is in fact a sovereign nation. Russia, a long-time supporter of Serbia, also condemned Kosovo’s decision, labeling it ‘illegal,’ a statement apparently offered without irony by a country that supports ethnic Russian and pro-Kremlin enclaves in a range of so-called ‘frozen conflicts,’ from Abkhazia to Crimea and beyond.
Kosovo’s decision to create a standing army is supported by the United States, which formally recognized Kosovo as a sovereign country and established diplomatic ties soon after it declared its independence from Serbia. The move, however, is not sitting well with either NATO or the UN. The primary issue is that security in Kosovo is governed by UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1244, voted upon in June 1999. That resolution established KFOR, the Kosovo Force, a NATO-led peacekeeping force of approximately 4,000 personnel. For the past two decades, KFOR has managed to maintain stability in an otherwise volatile region, characterized by a history of ethnic conflict and widespread political violence. Without question, any attempt to establish an official Kosovo army complicates the KFOR mission. UN President Guterres said in a statement that a decision that interferes with the mission of KFOR would be inconsistent with UNSCR 1244.
For Kosovo, the issue is straightforward and inevitable. As a sovereign country, Pristina argues that it has both the right and the duty to defend itself, which necessitates the development of a standing army. Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, called the decision a ‘natural step’ and logical evolution toward full sovereignty, while adding that if there was any mistake on the part of Kosovo, it was in waiting too long to take the action. There is already a quasi-Kosovo army—the Kosovo Security Force (KSF)—which counts approximately 3,000 personnel under arms. Pristina has stressed that simply formalizing its current KSF into an army poses no threat to Serbia in any manner. To be sure, Serbia’s army is far more powerful than any military force Kosovo will be able to develop. President Thaci stressed that the establishment of a Kosovo army would increasestability in the region. Thaci stated, ‘Kosovo soldiers will be soldiers of peace and Kosovo’s army will be a contributor of stability to the region.’
Belgrade and Moscow flatly dismiss the notion that an official Kosovo army could usher in stability and argue that the move is not only illegal under the longstanding UN resolution, but is also a threat to Serbia. Serbian President Vucic said he was ‘very much concerned and even a bit afraid’ of what the decision would mean for regional stability. This latest issue is unlikely to fade from the headlines anytime soon, especially in the Balkans. Serbia will continue to its refusal to acknowledge or accept Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo will move forward on its path to becoming a fully sovereign nation. KFOR will continue its mission, though the conditions on the ground will likely grow more tense than usual. Russia will not deviate from providing full support to Serbia, while the U.S. will maintain its support for Kosovo. Actual conflict between Kosovo and Serbia remains unlikely, especially given the presence of KFOR, but the path toward normalized relations between the two countries is now even more challenging.