Kosovo Force (KFOR)
Operation Joint Guardian
The Balkans have traditionally been regarded as the "powder keg of Europe". Now Europe has two powder kegs, one in a hot war and the other about to explode. Moscow is playing a game of thrones in Kosovo, creating a crisis to distract attention and resources away from Ukraine, resulting in the "creeping" implementation of their strategic goals. Russia's recent failures against NATO in Ukraine have pushed Moscow to look to create a new hot spot. NATO was winning its war against Russia, with Moscow having failed to resolve deep problems in the Balkans in its favor over the past thirty plus years. Because the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not achieved the desired effect for Russia, Moscow needed to create a new war on the European continent. Moscow views the worsening rift between Serbia and Kosovo as an opportunity that it can take advantage of to weaken Western influence in the Balkans.
Russian Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on 29 May 2023 the crisis in Kosovo could escalate into a "huge explosion in the heart of Europe," the same place "where NATO carried out aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999." Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called for decisive steps to be taken to "deescalate" tensions, and "not half-measures like the idea of the Americans to temporarily 'resettle' the new 'mayors' away from municipal buildings to other facilities."
Belgrade (backed by Russia and China) regards Kosovo as a breakaway Serbian province, while the US and most of the European Union have recognized Pristina's independence. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are often highly distrustful of national authorities and retain close relations with Belgrade. The four municipalities of northern Kosovo are largely ethnically Serb, while Kosovo as a whole is 90% ethnically Albanian. Many in the north do not recognize the statehood of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Mao Ning, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a press conference on 30 May 2023 that China supports Serbia's effort to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity, opposes unilateral actions by the temporary institutions in Pristina and calls on it to perform its duty of establishing an association/community of Serb majority municipalities.
In light of escalating tensions, troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission were deployed in Zvecan, a Serb-dominated town some 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Pristina, among other spots. NATO's Joint Force Command Naples said on 30 May 2023 that it was deploying reserve troops to Kosovo to reinforce the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force. The information was later confirmed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said 700 soldiers were being deployed to the Balkan country. NATO has directed the deployment of the Operational Reserve Forces (ORF) for the Western Balkans, which was on a seven-day readiness-to-deploy status.
Belgrade responded to the crisis by putting the military on high alert, and deploying troops to the administrative border with Kosovo.Serbian Defense Minister Milos Vucevic said that tensions in Kosovo had reached a maximum and could escalate into an armed conflict. He stressed that the units of the Serbian army continue to be distributed and take up positions in the direction of the administrative line with Kosovo and Metohija.
"The situation is only outwardly peaceful. At the moment there are no incidents. The tension is maximum, the indicator is in the red zone of tension, primarily among the Serbs, who are directly under the threat of terrorist acts of the regime (Kosovo's "premier" - ed.) Albina Kurti. He is doing everything for in order to expel the Serbs and lead to an escalation that will justify further aggression and terror against the Serbs, with the ultimate goal of complete ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija from Serbs," the Minister of Defense said on TV Prva.
"Of course, Serbia can be drawn into the conflict and be represented by the aggressor side. We saw this scenario not only in the case of Ukraine , who calls whom the aggressor there, but also in the former Yugoslavia . Then the regular units of the Yugoslav People's Army were proclaimed the aggressor side. We must be as prudent as possible..., the units have been tasked with distributing their positions tomorrow by 15.00 (16.00 Moscow time)," the head of the Serbian Defense Ministry said.
President Aleksandar Vucic held a televised national address 29 May 2023 in which he blamed Albin Kurti for the violence, and accused Pristina of deliberately fueling unrest to try to cause a direct clash between Belgrade and NATO. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 states that "agreement should be reached on" to allow Serbia to deploy "an agreed number" [Russian sources report "as many as 1,000"] of Serbian troops and police in Kosovo.
Russia, which has long had close ties with Serbia, said "decisive steps" were needed to de-escalate the situation. Russia's foreign ministry urged "the West to finally silence its false propaganda and stop blaming incidents in Kosovo on Serbs driven to despair, who are peaceful, unarmed, trying to defend their legitimate rights and freedoms."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on Kosovar and Serbian leaders to seek a path to de-escalate tensions through talks. "We have too much violence already in Europe today. We cannot afford another conflict," Borrell said.
On 29 May 2023, at least 11 Italian and 19 Hungarian soldiers from KFOR were injured in clashes with ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. Some sustained fractures, burns from improvised explosives and injuries from firearm use. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that 52 ethnic Serbs were also injured. Residents of Serb-majority areas in Kosovo had been protesting as ethnically Albanian mayors took office following April 2023 elections boycotted by the Serb community. That boycot allowed ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a tiny turnout of under 3.5% of voters in those municipalities. Kosovo authorities forced their way into municipal buildings to escort new mayors in, earning Pristina rebukes from the United States and other allies that had previously called for restraint. The previous mayors resigned due to a dispute with the government in Pristina.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic stressed that it was unacceptable for mayors unelected by Serbs to be allowed to govern in Serb-majority municipalities. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic blamed Kosovo authorities for causing problems by installing new mayors, while Pristina claimed that Vucic has sought to destabilize Kosovo. Serbs there have long demanded the implementation of an EU-brokered 2013 deal to create an association of autonomous municipalities in their area. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti objected, saying this would create a mini-state and effectively split Kosovo along ethnic lines.
The US expelled Kosovo from an ongoing US-led military exercise in Europe. US Ambassador in Kosovan capital Pristina, Jeffrey Hovenier made the announcement. "For Kosovo, this exercise is over," Hovenier said in comments to local media in Pristina. The US is the among the biggest international backers of Kosovo and had supported its independence from Serbia in 2008. The expulsion from military exercise is being as the first US step to indicate Kosovo that all in not well in the current scenario.
NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999 in a bid to end violence after years of increasing repression of the Albanian population in what was then Yugoslavia — at that point made up of Serbia, of which Kosovo was a province, and Montenegro — by the Serb-dominated government, amid a growing Kosovo Albanian guerrilla insurgency. The Western military alliance carried out a 78-day massive aerial bombardment campaign that led to Serbian forces pulling out of Kosovo. The outcome of the war, in addition to Serbia's deep economic troubles, ultimately led to massive protests that pushed out Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
As of 2023 around 3,800 troops from 27 different countries (mostly NATO members) were stationed in Kosovo for the KFOR mission. They come from various EU states (though not all EU countries recognize Kosovo as a state), regional neighbors like North Macedonia and Montenegro, and non-EU NATO powers like the United States, Canada, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Several non-NATO countries also contribute. KFOR troops have been stationed in Kosovo since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999 to keep the peace between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, with tensions and violence flaring up periodically. Back then, KFOR troops numbered 50,000.
Türkiye’s Defense Ministry announced on 03 June 2023 that the country will deploy a commando battalion to Kosovo at the request of the NATO Joint Force Command. Ankara said its troops will help quell tensions in the Serbian breakaway province's north, which have intensified since ethnic-Albanian mayors were dubiously elected in the region’s Serb-majority area. “Our country closely follows the developments in the Balkans, where we have common historical and cultural values,” the ministry said. The statement added that Ankara is taking a “constructive stance” towards the “resolution of the recent events in the friendly and brotherly northern part of Kosovo, which harm regional security and stability.”
On 10 June 1999, the UN Security Council adopted a detailed resolution that outlined the civil administration and peacekeeping responsibilities in Kosovo and paved the way for peaceful settlement of the conflict and the safe return home of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees and displaced persons. The resolution was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which allowed the security forces to carry weapons to protect themselves and use force in carrying out the resolution's directives. The resolution "authorizes member states and relevant international organizations to establish the international security presence in Kosovo" as set out in the military agreement between NATO and the FRY. That peacekeeping operation was meant to enforce the cease-fire, demilitarize the KLA and other Kosovo Albanian groups, and establish a secure environment for the return of the refugees.
The force had a unified NATO chain of command under the political direction of the North Atlantic Council in consultation with non-NATO force contributors. The NATO countries were united that in the absence of the NATO Joint Guardian force at the core of any international security presence in Kosovo, the refugees would not return and the other NATO objectives would not be met. A NATO force at the core of an international security presence was regarded as the magnet to attract the refugees back. In the absence of a NATO force with American participation, it was the view of the US Government that it was unrealistic to think the Kosovar Albanians would disarm the KLA, something of great interest to Russia. The US believed that if NATO forces deployed, the rationale for the Kosovar Liberation Army having an armed force to protect itself against Serbs would disappear. The Rambouillet envisaged something like 2,500 Serb military and 2,500 police for a year, though with the commencement of Operation Allied Force NATO required all of those forces going, in views of the probability that the Kosovar Albanians would not come home to a situation where those same forces remain at their posts. NATO envisaged the standing up of thousands of Kosovar Albanian police, including possibly people from the KLA, who would be trained by the international community and could serve police functions.
NATO did not contemplate a partition of Kosovo. It had been unofficially suggested that one possible solution was a de facto partition of Kosovo whereby the Russians would patrol the north, the mineral-rich areas, and NATO would patrol the south.
Before Allied Force began operating, NATO had plans to put in a peacekeeping force of 28,000 people. Of that, 4,000 people would have been Americans. By mid-May 1999 NATO had reassessed its Op Plan for the Joint Guardian mission to see to what degree they would need reinforcement beyond the level that was originally foreseen for the KFOR [Kosovo force] international security presence in Kosovo. NATO had 16,000 troops deployed in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia trained for their mission as well as dealing with the enormous refugee inflow. Certain reinforcements from the UK and from Germany were arrived as of mid-May.
The NATO pre-deployment in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was conducted to be in a position to move very quickly into Kosovo to set up an initial military command structure and an initial infrastructure to get the basic functions going. The goal was not only for other NATO troops to come in quickly but also for the transition authority and for the humanitarian relief organizations, which in the very early stages would need a great deal of military back-up, to establish themselves by the time the NATO core element was on the ground in Kosovo.
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