Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Russia in Review: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (Part 2)

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Reporting Period: May 14 - June 11, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Part 2 of 2 (read the first part here)

Authors: Andrea Snyder with Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is exploiting escalated tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Russia seeks to block the further expansion of Western structures in the Balkans region after failing to prevent the NATO ascension of Montenegro and North Macedonia, which is in the final stages of becoming a NATO member.

The tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have re-escalated. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic ordered the full combat readiness of Serbian army units on May 28 in response to an internal Kosovar anti-organized crime operation. Kosovo targeted local police officers reportedly involved in smuggling in northern Kosovo’s ethnic Serb-majority municipalities. Kosovo denied Serbia’s claims that the operation was intended to intimidate ethnic Serbs.[1] Similar police operations have previously occurred as organized crime is prominent in northern Kosovo along the Serbian border.[2] The operation did result in violent clashes. Vucic warned that Serbia will “protect our people” in Kosovo if their lives are threatened.[3] Serbian military personnel with a column of at least 12 Serbian military vehicles reportedly left their base moving towards Kosovo and a Serbian pilot flying a MiG-29 fighter made a low-altitude flight near the Kosovo border on May 28.[4] Serbian military movement in coordination with rhetoric of military action is a step change. Serbia previously threatened military intervention in December 2018 after the Kosovar Parliament voted to transform the Kosovo Security Force into the Kosovo Armed Forces, but tensions defused. Vuvic has refrained from taking further action since his May 28 threat but tensions will likely rise again.

The Kremlin is likely to support Serbia if Vucic decides to act on his military threat. The Kremlin publicly supports Serbia’s claims that the Kosovo police operation was a provocation.[5] The Kosovo police also arrested two UN Mission in Kosovo staff members on May 28, including Russian citizen Mikhail Krasnoshchekov, for hampering the police operation. The Kremlin used Krasnoshchekov’s arrest to escalate its rhetoric against Kosovo, the EU, and the U.S.[6] The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Duma (parliament), Konstantin Kosachev, also said the West lost control over Kosovo and that Serbia might need to clean up “the consequences of Western mistakes” potentially with Russia’s help if Serbia requests its assistance.[7] The Kremlin has been providing military support to regular and allegedly irregular forces in Serbia.[8] The Russian and Serbian Foreign Ministers stated on June 7 that they are closely coordinating on Serbia’s response to the situation with Kosovo.[9]

The Kremlin continues to exploit Kosovo-Serbia tensions to block the expansion of Western structures in the Balkans. Several Russian officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, held a series of meetings with Serbian leadership to discuss the Kosovo police operation and Krasnoshchekov’s arrest.[10] The Kremlin is likely attempting to shape conditions ahead of the next round of EU-led talks in July. The talks intend to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci expressed hope on June 7 of reaching a deal with Serbia this year despite increased tensions. Vucic also still attempts to balance between the EU and Russia.

The Kremlin might be attempting to shift Serbia’s equilibrium, however. Blocking Balkan states’ integration into the EU and NATO remains a strategic goal for the Kremlin. Russia failed to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO and North Macedonia’s impending entry into the NATO alliance.[11] The Kremlin maintains a stake in preventing diplomatic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, which the U.S. has encouraged, that could enable either of them to join the EU. The Kremlin has already increased its outreach to Serbia earlier this year in an effort to orient Serbia away from Europe. The Kremlin may be succeeding in its effort as Serbia worked closely with Russia following the Kosovo police operation but continued its highly critical rhetoric against Europe. The Kremlin might decide to push Serbia to escalate militarily against Kosovo—a move that would likely end the normalization talks, fully pull Serbia into Russia’s orbit, and limit Kosovo’s integration prospects with the West.

[1] “KFOR Spokesman Says No Intern-Ethnic Clashes in Kosovo on Tuesday,” N1, May 30, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a487770/KFOR-spokesman-says-no-inter-ethnic-clashes-in-Kosovo-on-Tuesday.html.
[2]Daniel McLaughlin, “Murder and Mafia Power Shake Serbs in Divided Kosovo,” Irish Times, February 10, 2018,; Benno Zogg, “How Organized Crime Inhibits Development in Kosovo,” Foraus,, accessed: June 11, 2019; [“Haziri Says: The Police Action in the North, Thaci and Vucic’s Plan!,”] Kosova Sot Online, May 30, 2019, [https://www.kosova-sot(.)info/lajme/383188/e-thote-haziri-aksioni-i-policise-ne-veri-plan-i-thacit-dhe-vuciqit/]https://www.kosova-sot(.)info/lajme/383188/e-thote-haziri-aksioni-i-policise-ne-veri-plan-i-thacit-dhe-vuciqit/.
[3] TRT World Now, “Serbian President Slams Kosovo’s Latest Action,” Youtube, May 28, 2019,; “Vucic: Army to Protect Our People if They Are Attacked,” Tanjug, May 28, 2019, [http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=483804]http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=483804.
[4] [“Kosovo Special Forces Spat on North KiM – 21 Arrested, Army of Serbia in Full Combat Readiness,”] PTC, May 28, 2019, [http://www.rts(.)rs/page/stories/ci/story/1/politika/3537038/sirene-u-mitrovici-rosu-upale-na-sever-kim-.html]http://www.rts(.)rs/page/stories/ci/story/1/politika/3537038/sirene-u-mitrovici-rosu-upale-na-sever-kim-.html; Ruptly, “Serbian Army Vehicles Spotted Driving Towards Northern Kosovo,” Twitter, May 28, 2019,; [“One MIG 29 Fired Over Novi Pazar,”] Tanjug, May 28, 2019, [http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view.aspx?izb=483810]http://www.tanjug(.)rs/full-view.aspx?izb=483810.
[5] “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Remarks and Answers to Media Questions at a joint News Conference Following Talks with Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Miro Cerar, Ljubljana, May 29, 2019,” Russian MFA, May 29, 2019, [http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/3662476?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3&_101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3_languageId=en_GB]http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/3662476?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3&_101_INSTANCE_xK1BhB2bUjd3_languageId=en_GB; [“Commentary of Russian MFA Official Representative M.V. Zakharova in Connection with Escalation of the Situation in Kosovo,”] Russian MFA, May 28, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3661577l; “Serbian President Thanks Russian for Denouncing Incident in Kosovo,” Tass, June 3, 2019, [http://tass(.)com/world/1061499]http://tass(.)com/world/1061499.
[6] Slovenia: Lavrov Comments on Anti-Smuggling Operation in Kosovo,” Ruptly, May 29, 2019, https(:)//
[7] Galina Mislivskaya, [“Kosachev: Russia is Ready to Help Serbia Ensure Security in the Region,”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 29, 2019, https(:)//; Robin-Ivan Capar, “Serbia Pivots Towards Russia Yet Again — But at What Price?” Moscow Times, June 3, 2019, https://www(.)
[8] “Serbian President Lauds Military-Technical Cooperation with Russia,” TASS, January 17, 2019, http(:)//
[9] [“On the Conversation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, with the First Deputy Prime Minster, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Ivica Dacic,”] Russia Foreign Ministry, June 06, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3676424;; [“Dacic: I informed Russia in Detail about What We Will Do Next,” Zeri, June 7, 2019, https://zeri(.)info/aktuale/265643/daciq-e-njoftova-ne-detaje-rusine-se-cka-do-te-bejme-tutje/.
[10] [“Vucic and Chepurin on the Events in Kosovo,”] Tanjug, May 30, 2019, http(:)//; [“Vyacheslav Volodin Met with the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic,”] State Duma, June 3, 2019,; “Serbian President Thanks Russia for Denouncing Incident in Kosovo,” TASS, June 3, 2019, http(:)//; [“On the Meeting of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Alexander Grushko with the Serbian Ambassador Slavenko Terzich,”] Russia Foreign Ministry, June 3, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3667292.
[11] “Montenegro joins NATO as 29th Ally,” NATO, June 9, 2017,