Russian Influence in the Balkans

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on December 14, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Kathleen McInnis: At the heart of the Balkans, Kosovo has long been a key area of interest to the international community. It has been over 20 years since the allied bombing campaign and the initiation of NATO-led peacekeeping and stability operations in Kosovo. Today, almost – over 20 years later, Kosovo appears to be at another inflection point, with tensions growing amid Russia’s influence within the region and the deployment – recent deployment of additional Serbian weaponry along the border with Kosovo. To put it mildly, Kosovo is balancing a myriad of pressing issues.

Here to talk about the situation is Kosovo’s Minister of Defense, Ejup Maqedonci. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Minister Ejup Maqedonci: Thank you for the invitation.

Dr. McInnis: Well, if you could just – to start us off, if you could set the scene for us. How has Kosovo changed in the, you know, 20-plus years since the allied bombing campaign?

Minister Maqedonci: There are a lot of changes. Like 25 years ago we were really under genocide conducted by Serbian military and police forces for a long time. As you know maybe from readings, we used to have autonomy that was deprived in 1989. And after that, we were under classic occupation from Serbia. And they used violence in order to do ethnic cleaning for a long time, for about 10 years. Which, like, had impact on reaction of our nation for liberating ourselves from Serbia, using pacific policy at the same time but also guerrilla warfare in order to conduct attacks against police and military forces that were conducting genocide against our nation.

In 1999, after NATO bombing, we were able to get liberated from Serbia. Serbian troops withdraw to Serbia. And we were for some years under United Nation(s), we can say, administration. And during that time, we start building our institutions, culminating in 2008 by declaring our independence from Serbia and declaring our independence as country. Still, we are not recognized by all countries and not part of many international organization.

But Kosovo has changed a lot. Infrastructure has changed a lot. People, culture, and everything changed. And we are moving forward and doing a lot of progress in terms of development, not just economic but also defense and all other domains.

Dr. McInnis: Well, in late September Serbia deployed advanced weapons to its border with Kosovo. This sparked a global response, and including with from the United States with Secretary Blinken demanding an immediate de-escalation from the Serbian president. So could you set the scene for us? What was – you know, what was happening, from your viewpoint in Kosovo, in Pristina?

Minister Maqedonci: I think the problem is not really September this year. The problem goes back years ago. And this especially after 1999, when Serbia still kept Kosovo in its constitution as part of their territory. And year by year, Serbia developed very hegemonic approach toward not just Kosovo but also other countries in the region, in order to stretch influence everywhere. And also, in order to kind of regain Kosovo, that they – are they are pretending that was taken by them. In fact, we were autonomy in Yugoslavia, and we had the right to get separated from that country. But for a long time still, like four years, Serbia is conducting information operations and other operations in the northern part of our country in order to destabilize Kosovo, and that also region.

And this is, I think, also with the aim to undermine the original aim to integrate in European Union and NATO. This was policy that they, like, took for years. And really, that was the main point why all things happened after that. This group that attacked Kosovo institutions and attacked sovereignty and integrity of our territory on 24th of September was group organized and supported by Serbia government and security institutions in Serbia, with intention to separate one part of our country, northern part of our country, from Kosovo. And in this regard also, to have kind of strategic victory on their side as far as dialogue.

Dr. McInnis: OK. And then NATO subsequently increased its force deployment to Kosovo. It was part of the Kosovo force, KFOR, to now over 4,500 troops in KFOR. Do you think that that force level is sufficient given the situation right now?

Minister Maqedonci: Maybe with current situation, it is sufficient. But still, I think the problem should solve with dialogue. So all the time, like, if Serbia doesn’t kind of withdraw troops from the border line and brigades that deployed in the south, then still threat will exist for Kosovo. And not just for Kosovo, but also for other countries. So for this moment, I think it’s sufficient. But still, there is always threat since Serbia has troops deployed in the southern part of its country, and also built 48 forward operational bases that are across border with Kosovo. And three other Serbian brigades are deployed in the southern part of Serbia, which means close to the Kosovo border. All these troops deployed on the southern border of Serbia are posing threat for Kosovo and the peace and stability in the region.

Dr. McInnis: Do you – what role do you see NATO forces playing in the Balkans overall? I mean, do you see an end state to the mission there? In the U.S., we like to talk a lot about exit strategies and when we can bring forces home. But you see the NATO forces continuing to play a positive role there? And do you see an end to the mission?

Minister Maqedonci: Yes. They are playing very important role. I think they are playing crucial role currently. And for us, it’s s fundamental having NATO in Balkan region, because still there are threats, still there is influence from outside from external actors in the Balkans are aiming to destabilize and undermine Euro-Atlantic integration and democracies in the region. So presence of NATO is still required. And it’s still very important, until the time that all countries in Western Balkans, especially, are becoming a democratic country.

And in this regard we have Serbia, that still keeps two hands on two different places in Russia and the European Union. And we believe that they are waiting for the result of war in Ukraine in order to take real side where they are belonging to. And since there is autocratic regime, as it’s currently in Serbia, we still think that NATO should have presence in Kosovo, and not just in Kosovo but should have presence in Balkans in general.

Dr. McInnis: OK. So that is a great segue to a topic that is on a lot of our minds, which is Russia’s malign influence in the region. I was wondering if you could speak to the view from Pristina. What are you seeing Russia doing and trying to accomplish?

Minister Maqedonci: Historically, Russia has very strategic objective its presence in Balkans. Not just being in Balkans, but the real intention was to have – to reach Adriatic Sea and, with that the Mediterranean Sea, in order to be close to energy sources in the Middle East. So for a long time historically Russia’s intention was to have permanent influence in Balkans, especially in the coastline of Adriatic Sea.

In this regard, they used proxies. Like, Serbia was one of permanent historical allies of Russia, having in consideration their ties, cultural ties, religious ties and pan-Slavism, an ideology that both countries supported for a long time. And they used Serbia in order to stretch and to pursue their interest in Balkans. And still is doing that. So there is a presence of Russia in Serbia. And it’s not just in government of Serbia. The influence in Serbia is also stretched to society, due to these historical and cultural ties that they have with Serbia.

Also, they did a lot of investments in energy. They are supporting nationalists in Serbia. They do also military support for Serbia. For a long time they are selling and donating to Serbia weapon systems and military equipment. And also, they provide for Serbia diplomatic support in terms of opposing Kosovo independence. So all this influence is present in Serbia for a long time. And Russia has really, I think, good safe haven in Serbia, and good influence in Serbia.

Dr. McInnis: How susceptible is Kosovo and its institutions to Russian malign influence?

Minister Maqedonci: Being, we can say, most pro-American country in the world, Kosovo is really – institutions in Kosovo and society is not influenced by Russia at all. We still have issues because of Serbian minority that lives in Kosovo, which is not influenced maybe directly from Russia but is influenced by Serbia, which is influenced by Russia. And in this regard, Russia established a Russian humanitarian center about 100 kilometers from borderline with Kosovo. And this plays very important role, I think, cover – with humanitarian cover. They do kind of intelligence work with Serbs in Kosovo, especially with parallel structures and criminals that are located in the northern part of our country.

So they encourage criminals to conduct criminal activities. And they also have influence in some parallel structures that existed in Kosovo for years which were, we can say, supported by both Serbia and Russia. So this Russian humanitarian center, located in Niš in Serbia, is really something that poses a risk for region.

Dr. McInnis: OK. How is – so the ties between Russia and Serbia are strong and continuing to grow. How is – how does Kosovo act within that? What are the strategies that you can utilize to sort of mitigate against the growing interconnections?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, we are struggling for years in order to kind of mitigate threats that are coming from these sources. We think that the best solution will be integration of Kosovo in NATO and the European Union that will allow us to be together with others, and to do joint force against this threats that are not just for Kosovo but also for the other countries in the region. We are a little behind on this, due to the fact that Serbia was really supported more by European Union than they did for us.

For example, we had visa liberalization that happened for Serbia years ago, and just this year European Union took decision to allow that also to Kosovo. And this really didn’t give us so much chance to integrate Kosovo Serbs in the – like, our institutions and our society. And due to the fact that they saw that Serbia was more – Serbia benefited more than we did from European Union and from others. In this regard, we think that the best way is integration. Integration in NATO, integration in European Union. So membership will allow us to kind of be part of collective defense family.

Dr. McInnis: Yeah. What do you view as the primary obstacles to European integration?

Minister Maqedonci: Both to European and – to European Union and to the NATO, the most, you can say, obstacle for Kosovo is our country’s non-recognizer countries. Still Kosovo is not recognized by many countries. In this regard Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece don’t recognize still Kosovo. And in this regard, they pose obstacle for Kosovo membership in this institution. I think our country, our government did a lot convincing everyone that Kosovo is specific case, cannot take on us example for other problems, and this cannot be analogy with other issues in the world, due to the specifics that Kosovo has from the past.

Dr. McInnis: Mmm hmm. So despite the nonrecognition, the accession of Kosovo to these Western institutions should proceed? So there should be exceptions made, is essentially the argument?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. I think, yes. I think because of current security environment in Balkans, but also almost in all Eastern Europe, European Union and NATO should take more accelerated steps on bringing Kosovo close to membership.

Dr. McInnis: What do you see as some of the risks of not being invited by the European Union and by NATO to more closely align, if not granted membership?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. I think that will really encourage Serbia to continue with its policy, hegemonic approach toward Kosovo, using malign elements and using hybrid threats. So we are – if we are not becoming part of European Union and NATO, we will be all the time exposed to a risk and threats that are coming from Serbia. Due to the fact they that they will see this as encourage to continue dreaming that Kosovo is part of Serbia, and continuing – waiting for the moment in order to conduct maybe military offensive in order to regain, as they believe, Kosovo’s territory.

Dr. McInnis: So the stakes are really quite high.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. Yes.

Dr. McInnis: If I could turn to Pristina’s views on Ukraine and the war in Ukraine, because we’re approaching year two. What is the view from Kosovo on the conflict?

Minister Maqedonci: We are – we are strongly supporting Ukraine on its war for freedom. We are part – as a country, our government did many steps on supporting Ukraine. We are part of Ukraine Defense Contact Group. And we are participating actively on this group. In this regard, we are working in three directions to support the Ukraine. We are part of Demining Coalition, which is –

Dr. McInnis: That’s huge, mmm hmm.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, by Lithuania. And we are –

Dr. McInnis: Demining is very, very important up in Ukraine.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. And we are – we are really ready to support with training and with everything what has to do with demining. Having consideration also or experience that we have in demining field, due to the fact that Kosovo was mined by Serbian troops during the war. And for 25 years, all units are doing de mining in all territory. We have very professionals on this field.

The second thing what we are working currently is with the United Kingdom to be part of Interflex Operation, which is one operation of training Ukrainian troops in terms of combat training. And we will send our instructors in the United Kingdom to join the U.K. team and other allies’ teams, in order to train Ukrainians. And we are also preparing the donation with military tracks for Ukraine.

So aside for this, we are also supporting Ukraine with other things. There are a lot of journalists that we are sheltering in Kosovo, Ukrainian journalist. And they are part now or of our public television and our institutions. So we really are very, we can say, committed on supporting Ukraine, together with the United States and other allies.

Dr. McInnis: What do you see as, you know, the stakes for Kosovo in the war in Ukraine? I mean, it’s – the domino effects, the, the implications of the war for Ukraine is being felt across so many different countries. And the risks of a Ukrainian loss are quite profound. How is – Kosovo viewing that?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, we just saw that during the 24th of September attack. So that attack that happened against Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was replicated – I think, was kind of copied the Crimea issue. So this group that attacked our police completely replicated the green little men tactics in Crimea.

Dr. McInnis: Oh, OK. So, briefly, the 2014 hybrid warfare playbook?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah.

Dr. McInnis: OK.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. And what was different was that this group was defeated on the first stages because we believe that they miscalculated in two directions. They most probably, like, aimed to attack Kosovo’s security force in order to conduct a large-scale operation in the northern part of the country, and then to kind of build the narrative that Kosovo security force is conducting genocide against Serbian population.

Dr. McInnis: OK, so an overreaction kind of scenario. OK.

Minister Maqedonci: Yes. And by hiding in monastery, they most probably expected that Kosovo police will do any mistake during operation. For example, killing any civilian and then, again, creating this narrative of genocide against Serbian population. Both these things didn’t happen. Neither one. And police did very professional work. They defeated this criminal group and then they have to withdraw in Serbia. I think this was why they really failed on achieving their objective. But still, we see threat there. Still we see the presence of criminal groups on data on this area. And still having this 48 forward operation bases we see, the threat that is coming also from conventional side of Serbia.

Dr. McInnis: Mmm hmm. So, bearing all of this in mind, what are the immediate national defense and security priorities for Kosovo? As the Minister of Defense – (laughs) – you get to set that stage.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, we – for last two years we have very significant support from government in terms of budget. We increased budget for about 140 percent for two last years. And there are a lot of – there’s a lot of support from government regarding to building our capabilities. And we do – we build these capabilities together with the United States and with our other allies because we use U.S. doctrine, based like – or, doctrine that’s based in U.S. doctrine, adapted normally to Kosovo circumstances.

We have a plan what I explained to you before we started this program. And we are going shoulder by shoulder with the United States on building our capabilities. In this regard, we see that national resiliency is one of things what we have to work on. And making citizens responsible for defense and security in the country.

Dr. McInnis: So you’re taking whole-of-society, sort of totally societal –

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, we initiated to kind of – to make people, all our society, responsible for defense. At the same time, we are building a professional force which will play crucial role on defending our territory and also on security.

Dr. McInnis: In building the professional force, are there specific capabilities that you’re focused on? Are there are specific missions that you are focused on ensuring that the Kosovo forces are able to – Kosovo military forces are capable of performing?

Minister Maqedonci: Currently, we are building our force based on two main pillars. Building combat element means building, like, territorial defense force ready to defend our territory. And also maintaining what we built for years. Military support for civilian authorities’ capabilities. Which means we are working still on demining, search and rescue, firefighters, and other capabilities that are able to support civil authorities in terms of natural disaster. But currently our main focus is on building defense part because of our plan, but also because of threats that are very common now in the world.

In this part, we see also original cooperation as a means in order to mitigate risks that are coming from external factors. We have very good cooperation with neighbor countries, except Serbia. We have very good relations with North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro. And currently we are working on initiative of building coordination center for crisis management, like a regional coordination center.

Dr. McInnis: A regional center? OK, mmm hmm.

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah. That will really bring us together in order to face threats and risks that are coming from – not just from natural disasters, but also from manmade threats, we can say, and the risks.

Dr. McInnis: Sure, sure. The societal resilience strategy that you guys are putting together, or I guess implementing now? Or –

Minister Maqedonci: We initiated. There’s even more coming.

Dr. McInnis: Initiated? OK, OK. What are some of the initial takeaways right now? Because Kosovo is such a complex society and, yeah, what is your experience so far with designing and implementing the societal resilience plan?

Minister Maqedonci: How we are planning to start is by introducing the program for, we say, education for security in the, like, middle schools, eleven grades. These will help kind of to deliver the basic skills and knowledges to students in terms of defense and security. Starting not only from basic things like first aid and other the things that are related to personal safety, and then to go a little more deeper. And then what we are trying to do is to kind of involve also organization volunteer brigades for search and rescue and other nongovernmental organization that are now present in Kosovo. And to organize them and to link them to the Ministry of Defense in order to have them as capability in case that we need them to use for defense, security, natural disaster response, and other, we can say, security issues.

Dr. McInnis: So you’re here in the States for a few days. What are your priorities? What are you trying – what are you accomplishing while you’re here in the States and meeting with different components of the U.S. government?

Minister Maqedonci: We really confirm together our joint path, our cooperation that we have for years. And we are deepening our relations by conducting many activities together, including military purchases. We are very thankful to United States for all support that they gave to us in terms of training our people, educating our personnel, but also donating a lot to us. And now we are really on the stage that we can buy weapon systems. And we are buying weapons system from United States. And we also are deepening our relations in many other fields, like exchange of information and other things that are related to security and defense.

Dr. McInnis: So we have a question from the audience, which is: Could you describe the state of the defense industrial base in Kosovo?

Minister Maqedonci: Yeah, currently we do not have really industrial base in Kosovo. We are behind in this part because Kosovo is the youngest, you could say, independent country in Balkans. And even in the past we didn’t have so much military industry developed in Kosovo, due to the fact that they were, you can say, spread in other parts of ex-Yugoslavia. But we see that as very important, developing our defense industry, which will allow us not just to be self-sustainable but also to be – to be ready and to be able to sell this, to export this out of our country; and in this regard, not just to contribute for security, but also for economic development.

Dr. McInnis: Mmm hmm. Another question from the audience. How will Russia’s influence affect Kosovo’s trade practices and how you are thinking about your economy?

Minister Maqedonci: Normally, we were affected for years for the fact that in the northern part of our country there were – until recently, there were a lot of illegal routes that were used for smuggling from this criminal and terrorist groups that are supported by Russian intelligence services and Serbian institutions. I think this contributed to fiscal invasion of Kosovo and affected our economy for years. Just recently, our police and our government took over many things on the northern part of the country, including here cutting this smuggling routes that were used by criminals and terrorist groups.

And this, I think, accelerated their intention to conduct these armed attacks, because they were seeing that recently they were out of sources, and they are not able to damage our economy. But also in general, Russia is trying to isolate Kosovo. Russia and Serbia for long time are trying to kind of present Kosovo as unsuccessful story of the people of Kosovo and the Western countries. And really, we see that Kosovo is maybe the model. It’s a success story, not just of people of Kosovo but also all democratic world. Like, humanitarian – NATO humanitarian intervention; we left, Kosovo, for independence; and the opinion of International Court of Justice were the three elements that proved that Kosovo was successful story of joint force.

Dr. McInnis: So, to conclude our conversation, are there any final messages that you are hoping that your American interlocutors are gathering from your trip here? Or things that you want to share with our audience?

Minister Maqedonci: Kosovo is really the most pro-American country in the world. This was tested. There were a lot of polls that show that. And we see United States as a source of liberty, source of democracy, and the example, a leading country for democracies. And United States should keep this role and should – need to continue with this approach.

Dr. McInnis: Well, thank you so much, Minister Maqedonci, for your thoughts – coming here today to share your thoughts, and the view of what’s happening in Kosovo right now. Especially as things seem to be getting more and more turbulent.

For our audience online, stick around. Look at the CSIS website. There’s all sorts of information for you to take a peek at on topics from – you know, strategic topics around the world. But then, thank you so much for joining us online. And thank you, Mr. Minister, for joining us.

Minister Maqedonci: Thank you.