Nato is unsure of itself, the EU is divided as never before, Russia is on the front foot, and the myriad disputes in the Balkans remain unresolved. And yet, 20 years after the Kosovo War, western powers are not paying attention to a region that remains a powder keg.
In the summer of 1999, 50,000 Nato troops entered the Serbian province of Kosovo following a 78-day aerial bombing campaign. The Serbian military had been forced to retreat after Nato sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army.
They were heady days. The Americans and British, led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, saw the outcome as a victory for humanitarian intervention, as outlined in Mr Blair’s famous “Chicago speech” a few days after the bombing started. It was a theme he returned to in the lead-up to the Iraq War of 2003.
I was in Kosovo on the swelteringly hot day British troops crossed the border from Macedonia. But, the night before, I had watched a Russian armoured column rumble through the capital, Pristina, on its way to take the Slatina military airbase before Nato could get there. It had travelled 600 kilometres from Bosnia, using a training exercise as cover for its movement.
I drew different conclusions from Mr Clinton and Mr Blair. I saw a rare example of air power alone achieving a military victory, and was relieved at the Serbian surrender, as a ground war would have been devastating for both sides. I also was convinced that I had just witnessed the moment when, after a decade of the tide of Russian power rolling out, it began to roll back in.
For the Americans and British, the success of Kosovo was followed in 2001 by a well-executed Nato peacekeeping deployment in Macedonia, and the British intervention in Sierra Leone. But then came Iraq and Libya. With their fingers, and two countries horribly burnt, so-called humanitarian intervention was off the table, and most Nato powers remain cautious when it comes to committing to action.
At the same time, the EU is attempting to flex its limited military muscles and to forget its hapless response as the war in Bosnia was about to break out in 1992.
Jacques Poos, the then prime minister of Luxembourg, said: “This is the hour of Europe.” Jacques Delors, the EU Commission chairman, added: “We do not interfere in American affairs. We hope they will have enough respect not to interfere in ours.”
They then dithered for three years, amid a huge loss of life until the US stepped in. Now, Moscow may have concluded that the degree of delusion about EU’s military and diplomatic powers remains intact.
To Moscow, Kosovo marked 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the diminishing of Russian power. Moscow was helpless to come to Serbia’s aid. It was also determined that humiliation would be its last. Getting to the airport first, and making itself a player in what happened next, was a small victory, but one upon which Russia built.
The Second Chechen War was launched in October to avenge the ignominy of the first, then, two months later, Vladimir Putin came to power and the military budget grew rapidly. Military success in Chechnya in 2002 was followed by Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria since 2015.
Two decades on, Nato is war-weary and Russia is back on the world stage. But Moscow knows that, with a declining population and an economy reliant on energy sources that are slowly running down, it will struggle to maintain its current level of strength. Hence, it may be tempted to achieve some foreign policy goals relatively quickly. If that is the case, the Balkans presents a stage on which it can still play.
The politics of this was not on the minds of Kosovan-Albanians’ minds this summer, as they marked the 20th anniversary of the war. Mr Clinton was the most high-profile guest, and it is a fair bet that some of the young men in the crowds were named ‘Tonibler’ after the former British prime minister.
There is much to celebrate in Kosovo and indeed Serbia – an end to the mass killing, and the birth of democracy. However, the ongoing tensions between the two, and indeed their neighbours, mean that the situation is never more than an “incident” away from escalating.
This is why 3,500 troops remain on the ground even though several Nato members, including the US, are mulling a drawdown. Western attention is at best fitful, and this is a mistake. When Europe takes its eye off the Balkans, things rarely go well.
Serbia and Kosovo remain hostile to one another, to the extent that the 2018 announcement of plans for a Kosovan army brought the threat of war from Belgrade. Several times in the past two years, the Serbian army has been put on full alert, and moved elite forces to the border.
It could have been different. Losing Kosovo led to the revolution in Serbia, which overthrew President Slobodan Milosevic the following year. In came a genuine liberal, Zoran Djindjic, who had called the EU “Serbia’s fresh air”.
He announced complete co-operation with the International Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and swore to root out organised crime from government and big business. This ensured retaliation. In March 2003, Mr Djindjic was shot and killed by a sniper in Belgrade. A bullet hit him in the back, went through his heart, exited his abdomen, and hit a bodyguard. He was 51 and left behind a wife, two young children, and a divided nation.
The outside world barely noticed. There was already a war in Afghanistan, and it was just eight days before the invasion of Iraq began. The news channels mentioned Mr Djindjic’s death, and moved on. Meanwhile, in Serbia, corruption came back strongly, democratisation slowed, and the gangs running guns, drugs, and illegal immigration into western Europe flourished.
Today, a former ultra-nationalist, Aleksandar Vucic, is president of Serbia. Mr Vucic seeks a peaceful solution to the issues between Belgrade and Pristina, even if his past gives some hope to the hardliners who still want to “freeze” the Kosovo question in the hope that eventually the EU will fall apart, Nato will disband, and Russia will ride to the nation’s rescue and help rebuild a shattered dream of “Greater Serbia”.
That is unlikely and President Vucic is not pushing this agenda, but those who dream of that scenario are still players in the game. That includes President Putin. In January, he showed up in Serbia for his third visit in eight years to shore up both countries’ non-recognition of an independent Kosovo.
The situation needs a solution. One proposal to draw a line under the past involves a land swap in which Kosovo gives up territory in its north, which has a Serb-majority population, and Serbia gives land with a Kosovan majority.
This sounds attractive, but is problematic, as any land swap would attract the envious attention of others in the region. The Serbs in Bosnia might step up efforts to integrate their territory, known as Republika Srpska, into Serbia proper. Then the Albanians of Macedonia, kindred spirits of the Kosovans, could reignite their 2001 military effort to create a separate state. This, in turn, means that both Kosovan and Macedonian Albanians might wish to merge into a “Greater Albania”.
These are, indeed “mights”, but given the region’s history over the past 120 years, they are plausible. It follows that if the above scenarios came to pass, what was left of Macedonia would fall prey to division as Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria scrambled to protect their interests.
The outside world remains busy elsewhere, but, after the drawdown from Afghanistan, the retreat from Iraq, and a partial recovery from the financial crash, there is enough diplomatic bandwidth for the Balkans to come back onto the radar. And a glance at the screen shows how much work remains to be done.