The Shifting US Focus to the Middle East: Assessing Kosovo’s Growing Vulnerability

The United States and its Western allies are shifting their focus to contain the escalation of a larger Middle East conflict, potentially making Kosovo and the region more vulnerable to revisionist nations seeking to alter borders.

Three weeks ago, Kosovo forces successfully thwarted an organized Serbian militia’s attempt to divide Kosovo, and Belgrade responded by deploying additional Serbian troops along Kosovo’s borders. However, after a stern warning from the US, Belgrade withdrew its forces.

Serbian President Vucic’s assertive response to Belgrade’s actions should dispel doubts in Brussels and Washington regarding the city’s intentions.

While Kosovo and Serbian opposition parties unanimously point to Vucic as the architect of the September 24 Banjska attack in northern Kosovo, Western diplomats have chosen a more cautious stance, Vucic, aware of the potential for war and instability, doesn’t have to adhere to rules as long as the region’s specter remains.

The Ukraine conflict has bolstered Vucic’s position and added complexity to resolving the Belgrade-Prishtina dilemma. Fears of Moscow extending Ukraine conflict to Balkans have strengthened Vucic’s position and ties with Russia, who has rewarded him with arms sales, discounted gas, and support for Belgrade’s Kosovo stance.

Brussels and Washington are seeking to isolate Russia and counter Putin’s aggressive ambitions by involving Vucic in their camp. US Ambassador Christopher Hill has praised Vucic while publicly disparaging Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti for failed negotiations.

However, Hill’s bully diplomacy has intensified the division between Belgrade and Prishtina and needs to stop. The European Union initiated the Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue in 2020 to implement the Ahtisaari Plan, which emphasized the protection of non-Albanian communities in Kosovo.

The plan to empower the Kosovo Serb Community and incorporate it into Kosovo’s constitution has been unsuccessful due to lack of a dominant authority and political manipulation. In 2021, President Trump’s Special Envoy, Richard Grenell, proposed an economic package with a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia, but it fell through due to Thaci’s war crimes indictment. Grenell denies the agreement was part of it.

Prime Minister Kurti’s actions during the dialogue have been criticized for being a means to pad his nationalistic credentials rather than finding a lasting solution. The US and EU have accused Kurti of stubbornness and recklessness, and he has aggravated tensions in the region by forcibly installing ethnic Albanian mayors who received less than 2% of the votes following a Kosovo Serb boycott of local elections.

A clear plan is urgently needed to safeguard Kosovo’s territorial security and integrity while ensuring ethnic Serbs in Kosovo enjoy their rights as outlined in the constitution. The US should actively participate in EU-led negotiations to inject momentum and boost confidence. Accountability for the Banjska assault must be held by a collaborative investigative body led by the European Union and the US.

The US and its allies should send a strong message to Belgrade and other potential destabilizers in the region, emphasizing that such behavior will not be tolerated. This could involve adopting a strategy similar to Western policies towards Russia and its leaders, including imposing sanctions on Serbia and freezing assets and foreign bank accounts belonging to President Aleksandar Vucic and his associates.

To ensure borders remain unchanged and protected, the US and allies should increase financial and tactical support to the Kosovo forces, who acted professionally in a precarious situation. Prime Minister Kurti should redouble his efforts to engage with ethnic Serb communities, viewing them as an integral part of the solution rather than an impediment to peace.

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