Is Russia opening a new front against Europe? | Popgen Tech
In April, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Belgrade in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But, unlike the rallies held in neighboring European countries, protesters in the Serbian capital waved portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin – and called on their government to back Moscow in its escalating war against the West.
Just days before the tanks started rolling, Serbia’s most popular tabloid, Informer, splashed its front page with claims that “Ukraine has attacked Russia,” and warned readers that “Americans are pushing the world into chaos.” The Balkan nation has maintained close economic, political and social ties with Moscow for centuries, and those ties only deepened after the US and NATO intervened against Serbian nationalist forces in 1999 when they invaded Kosovo amid the breakup of Yugoslavia -Slavic state. Putin even cited the West’s support for Kosovo, which Moscow refuses to recognize and considers Serbia its territory, as a precedent for creating his proxy states in the Ukrainian Donbass.
But now, with Russia’s war dividing Europe, the government of Serbia had to make a series of difficult choices. Despite the rumblings and conspiracies at home, the country’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, was reluctant to become embroiled in the conflict and risk alienating either his allies in the Kremlin, or his biggest trading partners in the EU. In April, as news of Russian war crimes reverberated around the world, Belgrade joined 91 other nations in kicking Moscow out of the UN Human Rights Council, a move Vučić acknowledged was down to the “threat of sanctions and increasing pressure .”
Earlier this month, after a meeting with EU officials, Vučić insisted that Serbia remained firmly opposed to efforts to isolate Russia, but vowed not to fall for Western economic restrictions itself. “As long as we can resist, without jeopardizing our most important and state interests, we will,” Vučić explained. “When we cannot, we will turn to our people, the citizens, and we will show them why Serbia can no longer resist the imposition of sanctions.”
But now political tensions are increasing, and the issue of Kosovo is once again between Serbia and the West. For more than a week, ethnic Serbs in the north of the breakaway state, home to 1.8 million people, have erected barricades and staged confrontations with their Albanian-majority neighbors. Traffic was blocked, explosions erupted and a Kosovo police patrol came under fire amid the worsening situation, which locals say was fueled by the arrest of an ethnic Serb ex-police officer accused of using his former attacked colleagues.
At the same time, a Serbian nationalist militia ordered its members to the border with Kosovo in a show of support for their compatriots living on the other side of the tense border line and threatened to confront NATO soldiers stationed in the region. The group, known as the ‘People’s Patrol’, is believed to have ties to the notorious Russian mercenary outfit, the Wagner group, which is currently conscripting prisoners to fight Putin’s war in Ukraine.
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Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have peaked several times this year, with a number of exchanges over the mutual recognition of travel documents and access for cars with license plates issued in each other’s jurisdiction. Increasingly playing the role of peacemaker in the region, the EU has mediated negotiations and a serious conflict has so far been avoided. Now Brussels, the US and a number of international organizations are calling on local Serbs living in Kosovo to break down the barriers and help avoid the outbreak of serious violence.
However, Serbia is only becoming more assertive. Under a previous UN resolution, Vučić requested that NATO allow him to send 1,000 police and military personnel to northern Kosovo, claiming they were needed to protect ethnic Serbs there. The request is the first time a Serbian military intervention has been considered since the 1999 war and, although analysts say it will be quickly rejected, it represents a serious escalation in rhetoric and there are fears of a new military conflict.
For some, however, it is clear that the flames are fanned from afar. “I think the concern of our Western partners and friends is the ties of Belgrade with Moscow. We do not know how they can be implemented in case of rising tensions, after escalation in the north,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, said this week.
“I think their main concern is exactly this: now that Russia is seriously wounded in Ukraine after its invasion and aggression, they are interested in spillover. They are interested in outsourcing their warfare to the Balkans where they have a client who is in Belgrade,” he added.
At the same time, Kurti tried to use the threat to push for greater integration with the West for his own nation, seeking the same welcome that other nations on the fringes of Russia’s sphere of influence – such as Moldova – had from Brussels. “There is a war in Ukraine, let’s prevent flooding. Joining the EU will help,” he continued. “I see a certain readiness in the EU to think differently after the continent is at war.”
Peace talks are currently underway. But fears appear to be building that an increasingly desperate Putin may try to open another front against Europe and divide the continent even further.
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