More NATO for Kosovo

German Defence Minister Pistorius in Pristina: Bundeswehr to boost troop numbers in Kosovo as tensions rise – after 25 years of NATO presence. Several countries have withdrawn recognition of Kosovo.

BERLIN/BELGRADE/PRISTINA (own report) - During a visit to Pristina yesterday (Monday), Defence Minister Boris Pistorius confirmed plans to increase German troop numbers in Kosovo. In April, the Bundeswehr will deploy more than 150 additional military personnel. Germany has stationed soldiers in the former autonomous province for almost twenty-fife years within the NATO framework. Berlin and the West had promised to pacify the territory after the 1999 war of aggression against Yugoslavia conducted by NATO in violation of international law. Yet tensions have again risen sharply along the ethnic divide since a nationalist prime minister took office in Pristina in March 2021. He has instigated aggressive actions against Serbian administrative structures. Primarily in the four Serbian-speaking communities in northern Kosovo, these arrangements have so far been generally tolerated and have enabled tolerable coexistence. The entities are indispensable for the education and healthcare of the Serbian-speaking minority. In Belgrade there is some speculation about a possible return of at least parts of Kosovo in the event of a future shift in the global power balance. The number of states that officially recognise Kosovo is already declining.

Never more than three-fifths

The backdrop to current tensions in Kosovo is the still smouldering conflict over international recognition of Kosovan statehood. NATO occupied Serbia’s southern province in 1999, following its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia conducted without UN authorisation. Western powers helped the territory to formally secede from Serbia on 17 February 2008. Yet no more than around three fifths of all 193 UN member states have ever recognised Kosovo as an independent state, despite resolute diplomatic campaigning by the major Western powers, led by the United States, Germany, France and the UK. Even five EU states still refuse to recognise Kosovo. Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus have not given their recognition because they fear that Kosovo’s secession in the wake of armed struggle will send the wrong signal to breakaway forces on their own territory. Spain is concerned about Catalonia and the Basque Country, Slovakia and Romania about areas with a Hungarian-speaking majority, Greece mainly about a Macedonian-speaking minority living in the areas bordering Macedonia, and Cyprus about the Turkish-speaking part of the island with its unrecognised own state. Serbia, of course, refuses to recognise the secession of what it still sees as its southern province.

The West against the BRICS

The number of countries prepared to recognise Kosovo as an independent state has peaked. While it was stood at above 110 in 2017, with some countries avoiding a clear stance, the figure has since fallen as several UN member states have withdrawn recognition. Ghana, for example, changed its mind. As the country’s then Deputy Foreign Minister Charles Owiredu explained on 11 November 2019: Accra had granted recognition hastily, not taking sufficient account of the fact that the secession was in breach of UN Resolution 1244, which granted Kosovo far-reaching autonomy, but within Yugoslavia.[1] It is significant that Western states and their close allies quickly recognised Kosovo’s statehood, while the five founding members of the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) refuse to do so. The conflict over international recognition of the secession is thus part of the global power struggle for or against Western dominance. In the meantime, more than a dozen states have revoked their recognition of Kosovo. According to official Serbian figures, the number of countries recognising Kosovo was only 94 in January 2023, while the number of those refusing recognition was 106, with three countries still unclear in their position.[2]

Pressure on Kosovo’s minority

This internationally unresolved situation is welcomed by the Serbian-speaking minority in Kosovo, who certainly do not recognise any secession of the areas they inhabit. For a long time, the Kosovan authorities gave them a certain amount of leeway for autonomy. Indeed, this arrangement essentially corresponds to concepts of minority rights as accepted by the European Union and other bodies. For example, schools in Kosovo’s four northern municipalities could continue to be run according to Serbian curricula and financed by Belgrade. The same has applied to the region’s healthcare system. However, the government of nationalist Prime Minister Albin Kurti, in office in Pristina since March 2021, is now cracking down on Serbian structures in northern Kosovo, as the International Crisis Group confirmed in a recent statement.[3] The latest measures include banning the use of the Serbian dinar as of 1 February [4] and shutting down four Serbian institutions –albeit located outside the four municipalities in northern Kosovo [5]. The currency ban, if enforced after an unspecified transitional period dictated by Pristina, would effectively deprive the education and healthcare systems in the four municipalities of their funding. Tens of thousands of employees could then no longer be paid. As for police operations to close down Serbia-run entities, the EU and the United States have filed a formal protest.[6]

Build-up of armed forces

Last year, violent clashes broke out in the four Serbian-speaking communities following the measures taken by the Kosovan authorities. These actions were seen as an open provocation by the local population.[7] NATO has subsequently begun raising troop levels again in Kosovo (KFOR). There are almost 4,500 KFOR soldiers deployed to the territory. As German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius confirmed on 5 February during a visit to Pristina, the Bundeswehr will also be putting more boots on the ground. Germany currently contributes at least 70 military personnel, and this figure is to grow to almost 250 in April.[8] German forces already stationed in Kosovo include the military personnel deployed as part of the NATO Advisory and Liaison Team (NALT). According to Pistorius, this deployment is also assisting the “strengthening of Kosovo Security Force (KSF) capabilities”.[9] The Kosovan parliament in Pristina decided back in December 2018 that the KSF was to be transformed into a real army. This plan, too, is in violation of UN Resolution 1244 and has therefore been rejected by the UN and condemned by other bodies.[10]

The Nagorno-Karabakh scenario

Against the backdrop of growing tensions in northern Kosovo and the systematic build-up of Pristina’s armed units, observers have noted that Serbian leaders, concerned about developments in Kosovo, have been referencing the recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić was recently quoted as saying that Azerbaijan lost Nagorno-Karabakh during a period of weakness, after which it progressively built up its economy and armed forces until the time was right to seize its opportunity. The lesson being: “Accept what you have to accept and wait for the moment when you can achieve a different outcome,” said Vučić.[11] Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić has expressed a similar view. He recently pointed out that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia had also been considered successfully frozen for a long time until Baku was able to take advantage of a changed global situation. “International circumstances are changing,” he said.[12] Compared to others countries across the region, Serbia has massively rearmed in recent years. The US, for its part, has now promised Pristina the supply of 246 Javelin anti-tank weapons. This is the same type of man-portable system that Ukrainian forces used to slow down the advance of Russian armour in the weeks immediately after the invasion of 24 February 2022.


[1] Ghana reverses ‘premature‘ recognition of Kosovo. 12.11.2019.

[2] Talha Ozturk: Serbia claims 9 countries withdrew recognition of Kosovo. 04.01.2023.

[3] Toward Normal Relations between Kosovo and Serbia. 30.01.2024.

[4] Kosovo schafft den serbischen Dinar ab. 02.02.2024.

[5] Xhorxhina Bami: Kosovo Euro Rule, Closure of Belgrade-Run Offices, Draw International Criticism. 05.02.2024.

[6] Kosovo: Statement by the Spokesperson on latest police operations against Serbia-run entities. 04.02.2024.

[7] See also: Unrest in Kosovo (II).

[8] Besuch auf dem Westbalkan: Verteidigungsminister Pistorius im Kosovo. 05.02.2024.

[9] Verteidigungsminister Boris Pistorius auf dem Westbalkan. 05.02.2024.

[10] IntelBrief: Kosovo’s Controversial Decision to Form an Army. 21.12.2018.

[11], [12] Michael Martens: Das Ende der „Pax Americana“? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 05.02.2024.