On Tuesday, Serbian Armed Forces used electronic jamming measures to neutralize a drone violating its airspace, near its southern border with the disputed territory of Kosovo. Only one day previous, Belgrade scrambled MiG 29 fighter jets against UAVs detected close to the border crossing and military installations at Merdare. While the UAVs swiftly withdrew, the incident resulted in Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, issuing a shoot-down order, which was observed in action just the following day.
As investigations into the drone’s origin continue, Vučić has stated that the downing of the drone "shows we are serious." "We do not threaten anyone, we aren’t sabre-rattling, but we are determined to protect Serbia and its freedom and independence," he continued.
As Serbia’s disputes with Kosovo are longstanding, such an antagonistic turn of events may to many seem unexpected. Yet, this latest wave of provocations, follow a pattern of increasing political pressure applied on Serbia by the EU over its stance on Russia, which is now seemingly taking on military dimensions via NATO and Pristina.
Serbian Defense Minister, Miloš Vučević, recently pointed out that Serbia’s military has been on high alert for some months now, following a flaring of tensions between Serbs and Kosovan authorities in July. The unrest came about after the attempted roll out of a policy that would force Serbs in Kosovo’s north to re-register their cars with number plates issued in Pristina, and not Serbia.
According to Pristina, the policy, which is now being implemented in phases from November 1st after a requested delay by the US Ambassador in Kosovo, should run across the whole region, including in Serb enclaves. In response, Vučić has accused Pristina of failing to fulfill its obligations established by previous EU-mediated agreements, such as granting autonomy to Serbs in Kosovo’s north, which would go a long way to alleviating the current standoff. He has also highlighted that whilst neglecting its commitments, Pristina cites those same agreements as justification for its continued crackdown on documentation.
By August, diplomatic solutions appeared to be progressing somewhat, with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, meeting with Vučić to address solutions to the situation. While Stoltenberg reaffirmed that “should stability be jeopardized, KFOR stands ready to intervene”, Vučić expressed that Serbia would “continue to respect the KFOR mandate in line with international norms”. Additionally, he explained that he presented Stoltenberg with "a list of Pristina’s special units’ raids in the north," and "a list of all incidents and attacks on the Serb population."
The week previous, Kosovo PM, Albin Kurti, was more combative in his assertions, declaring that Kosovo is "vigilant, but not afraid" of a conflict with Serbia. "Kosovo is a state now, this is not the year 1998," he added, "this is 2022, so we are much more prepared to defend our sovereignty, territorial integrity, to defend our democracy, rule of law, constitutionality, and to defend our progress."
Vučić, who has been explicit in his wish for Serbia to join the EU, has also insisted that Serbia cannot recognize Kosovo’s independence. In June, Germany’s Olaf Scholz stated that Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo was imperative to its path toward membership, and would accelerate the process significantly. Unsurprisingly, this carrot has remained unattractive to Belgrade, and as the EU now opts for the stick, it also reveals its real intentions. Just last week during a visit to Belgrade, EU President, Ursula von-der-Leyen, declared that Serbia should align with EU security policy and sanctions against Russia if it is serious about future EU membership, which in essence "means sharing our values."
Given Serbia’s troubled history with NATO, and the unfolding sanction induced energy crisis in Western Europe, Vučić will be well aware of the ambiguity of von-der-Leyens notion of ‘EU values’, and the catastrophic implications of aligning with EU Foreign policy.
Though it would seem Serbia may find itself caught between a rock and a hard place irrespective of which way it turns. On Tuesday, a Berlin official told Reuters that Serbia must decide whether it wants to join the EU, or cultivate closer relations with Moscow, and that Should he[Vučić] decide to go the other way[with Russia], this will have consequences”.
Serbia’s path to EU membership, which recent polls indicate most Serbs reject, is fraught with ultimatums and consequences that Belgrade simply cannot and will not accept. Simultaneously, it appears that refusal to accept such terms will also bear "consequences," the nature of which many geopolitical analysts will be able to now guess at more accurately, given the latest wave of antagonisms by NATO’s allies in Pristina.
In April, Vučić and Interior Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, alleged that the UK & US had been supplying arms to the Pristina government, while Turkey had trained pilots, constituting a violation of Resolution 1244 that stipulates KFOR as the only legitimate armed force in Kosovo. While the British Embassy in Belgrade described the allegations as a mere fabrication, it should be noted that both the UK and US violated the arms embargoes in place during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. This was done to provide arms and training to Bosniak forces and the proscribed terrorist organization the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who became affectionately known across US newsrooms as NATO’s "boots on the ground."
Vučić is acutely aware that if Pristina mobilizes forces in Kosovo’s north, and the rights and safety of the minority Serb population are threatened, he will be unable to idly stand by. Emboldened by its NATO military presence and support, and Belgrade’s geopolitical predicament, Pristina, working at NATO’s behest and as the EU’s point of leverage, may continue in their inflammatory directives toward escalation, and forcing Vucic’s hand. This in turn would also begin a catastrophic wave of sanctions against Serbia, which if Berlin’s threats are to be taken seriously, may be on the way regardless, but which Vučić knows Serbia could not weather as Russia has.
In Rambouillet, March 1999, during talks to negotiate an end to the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, the Milošević government was asked to sign an agreement that would allow NATO "free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated airspace and territorial waters”. After Milošević’s quite natural refusal to sign, NATO increased support for KLA operations, and commenced an illegal 78-day aerial campaign against Serbia, while fraudulently touting humanitarian concerns as their rationale.
The impossible ultimatums and military provocations being employed against Serbia today, bear echoes of the same coercive tactics it was subject to over 20 years ago in Rambouillet. For all their rhetoric on respecting national sovereignty, Berlin’s threats and Pristina’s uncurbed provocations are a clear indication of the EU and NATO’s values, which care nothing of Serbia’s sovereignty, membership, and military neutrality, or the regional stability of the Balkans as a whole.
Patrick O’Reilly is an independent journalist from Brighton, UK, and Editor of The Parallax Report, specializing in Western foreign policy, civil liberties, propaganda, and healthcare.