NATO-Kosovo Cooperation

The Kosovo Security Force (KSF) should be upgraded into a full-standing army and integrated into NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), which readies countries for full NATO membership.

The KSF was created soon after Kosovo declared independence in 2008. It is a small, lightly armed security and civil defense force akin to a national guard. It includes 2,500 members, equipped with rifles and lightweight armored vehicles. The KSF’s mission is limited to crisis response; responding to natural disasters; conducting search and rescue; disposing of explosive ordnance; and controlling hazardous materials. The KSF also does fire-fighting and other humanitarian tasks.

The KSF already cooperates with NATO. It was mentored by KFOR, NATO’s international peacekeeping force for Kosovo. It also receives assistance from the NATO Liaison and Advisory Team, building capacity to bring KSF in line with NATO standards.

A new and improved KSF would be a security asset. It could participate in NATO peacekeeping deployment to Afghanistan. It could also provide de-mining expertise to UN Mine Action Centers.

The United States has so far opposed turning the KSF into a national army. It worries that creation of a Kosovo army could disrupt the uneasy peace between Kosovo and Serbia.

US policy is evolving, reflecting changes on the ground.

Washington is concerned by Serbia stoking the flames of ethnic tension, as well as Russia’s meddling and provocations.

Serbia feigns commitment to the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, while fomenting conflict in Mitrovica, a territory in northern Kosovo where Serbs challenge Kosovo’s sovereignty through private parallel structures.

Serbia invited a Russian-made train with nationalist images and slogans reading “Kosovo is Serbia” to travel from Serbia to Mitrovica in January 2017. Serbian politicians threatened military action when the train was stopped at the border.

Belgrade blocks Kosovo from gaining greater global recognition. Serbia and Russia coordinated a campaign to prevent Kosovo from joining UNESCO.

Serbia and Russia have extensive security cooperation. Russia recently transferred fighter jets and other sophisticated weaponry to Serbia, including surface to air missiles. Russia established an intelligence base in Nis as a counter-weight to NATO.

Russia was behind a coup attempt in Montenegro last November, aimed at preventing Montenegro from joining NATO. Two Russians were arrested for coordinating the operation from Serbia and plotting to assassinate Montenegro’s Prime Minister.

In April, Russia’s support for ultranationalists in Macedonia almost precipitated a civil war. According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, attacking the parliament was intended to spark inter-ethnic strife. Mogherini warned of a “geopolitical confrontation” with Russia.

There are thousands of US troops at Camp Bondsteel in Ferizaj in Eastern Kosovo. The deployment helps maintain stability and serves as a tripwire against aggression. The United States should make Kosovo a greater priority in its regional security strategy.

Kosovo is a reliable ally. It is strongly pro-American and pro-NATO. Building Kosovo’s capacity would allow Kosovo to better provide for its own security, complementing KFOR.

Kosovo Serbs reflexively oppose Kosovo’s cooperation with NATO. They have bitter memories of NATO’s intervention in 1999.

Upgrading the KSF into a national army must be done carefully to avoid opening old wounds. It requires a transparent and legal process. The KSF was established in Kosovo’s constitution. Its status can be changed through a constitutional amendment, with support from two-thirds of the parliament.

Making a serious effort to get Kosovo Serbs on board would send a positive message. While mollifying their concerns, Kosovo Serbs do not have a veto. They must abide by Kosovo’s decision.

Kosovo Serbs will realize that their interests are served by Kosovo’s cooperation with NATO, which acts as a deterrent to foreign interference. Russian provocations aimed at causing conflict between Kosovo and Serbia actually put Kosovo Serbs at-risk.

The Western Balkans remain a tinderbox. International order is served through a strong, stable, and sovereign Kosovo.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser for Regional Stability at the European Affairs Bureau of the State Department under President Bill Clinton. He is author of Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.