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Why I predicted a Kosovo crisis in March: It’s a great way for Russia to test Trump

Trump’s oft-repeated desire to avoid confrontation with Russia will likely have profound implications for the future stability of a number of states; chief among them is Kosovo.

kosovomed
kosovomed

 

By Aidan Hehir
Best Defense guest columnist

Donald Trump’s oft-repeated desire to avoid confrontation with Russia will likely have profound implications for the future stability of a number of states; chief among them is Kosovo.

 

By Aidan Hehir
Best Defense guest columnist

Donald Trump’s oft-repeated desire to avoid confrontation with Russia will likely have profound implications for the future stability of a number of states; chief among them is Kosovo.

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have risen sharply of late, with the rhetoric from Belgrade becoming increasingly fiery. This came to a head recently over Serbia’s attempt to send a train from Belgrade into Kosovo covered in “Kosovo is Serbia” slogans in 21 languages. The train was stopped at the border after Kosovo deployed its Special Police Forces. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the confrontation brought Serbia and Kosovo to “the brink of conflict” and warned that he would send the army into Kosovo if necessary.

Despite 18 years of state building, Serbs and Albanians remain essentially divided in Kosovo. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence, as do Russia and China. Many Albanians have long believed that Serbia is looking for a pretext to send troops into Northern Kosovo where the majority of Kosovo’s Serbs live. Most Albanians believe the only thing stopping Serbia is the large number of NATO troops still stationed in Kosovo.

The election of Trump, however, casts doubt on the willingness of the United States to defend Kosovo. Given Trump’s comments about NATO’s redundancy and overtures towards Russia, the balance has shifted considerably towards Serbia. Serbia’s recent actions in the wake of Trump’s election can hardly be a coincidence. Knowing that Russia has more leeway now that Trump is in power, Serbia may be calculating that Russia will support them if they launch an operation ostensibly “to protect Serbs” in Northern Kosovo and thus, they may well call NATO’s bluff.

Would Trump be willing to jeopardize relations with Russia over Serbian troops entering (predominately Serbian) northern Kosovo? It is surely conceivable that the Trump administration would be willing to abandon Kosovo; the state building project could well be portrayed as a failure that “the Clintons” should never have engaged in, while the predominantly Muslim Albanian majority are unlikely to win much sympathy from Trump supporters.

If Serbian troops did enter Kosovo without significant censure from the United States, it would cause a rupture within NATO, and surely lead to mass unrest amongst the Albanians in Kosovo who would naturally feel that they had been invaded by Serbia and abandoned by the international community. This could, therefore, lead to a recurrence of the violence that occurred in March 2004 when riots raged across Kosovo and Serbian monasteries and villages were attacked. This would, naturally, embolden Serbia to increase the scope of its “protection” operation throughout Kosovo and thus constitute full-blown war.

Instability in Kosovo would likely spread and thus have grave implications for the region, particularly Macedonia and Bosnia; peace and stability in the Balkans remains delicately balanced and it is not at all clear that Trump has the ability — or indeed the wiliness — to negotiate the intricacies of the various inter and intra state situations. Kosovo could well be the first to suffer.

Aidan Hehir is a reader in international relations at the University of Westminster.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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