October 9, 2022 | Kyiv Post

Russia’s Sham Ukraine Vote Undermines Serbia’s Kosovo Claims

October 9, 2022 | Kyiv Post

Russia’s Sham Ukraine Vote Undermines Serbia’s Kosovo Claims

Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russia’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia Regions of Ukraine on Friday, Sep. 30, stating that they “are becoming [Russia’s] compatriots forever.” Russian authorities had earlier held sham referendums on joining the Russian Federation, where the results manufactured by the Kremlin showed them overwhelmingly voting to join Russia.

Notably, in justifying the annexation, the Russian government referred to Kosovo as a model for annexation and called out the West for their perceived double standards.  While Serbia is generally seen as an ally of Moscow, it has so far refused to recognize the referendums as legitimate.

At the same time, Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, an influential secessionist, has backed Putin’s referendums. Now, with the Russian government stepping on a sore spot of Serbia’s by holding up Kosovo as an example of proper secession, given that Belgrade considers Kosovo “the heart of Serbia”, the West should take this opportunity to use information operations in the Balkans to show that Russia is not a credible ally.

Bosnian Serb separatist Milorad Dodik has more immediate strategic interests in supporting the Kremlin. It was after he met with Putin last week that he backed Moscow’s referendums. Given Dodik’s own secessionist plans, the next logical step is to organize a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska, which is one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, after the general elections that were held on Oct. 2.

Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic has already announced that Serbia will not recognize the results of the Russian-held referendums in occupied territories of Ukraine, citing the Charter of the United Nations. President Vucic himself has been clear on this point, telling the U.N. General Assembly that Serbia “supports the territorial integrity of all U.N. member states, including also the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

Some may think this refusal is Serbia’s final divorce from Russia, but it is not. Rather, it is an example of the pragmatism of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who uses Kosovo as a tool to preserve his rule, manipulate Serbian nationalists and frame himself as a source of stability by having leverage over Western powers which don’t want violence in Kosovo to escalate further. Belgrade regards Kosovo “the heart of Serbia” because it is a home to monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and disputes over religious sites remain a constant since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

To wit, the Russian Orthodox Church expressed concerns for the “destiny of Christian shrines in Kosovo” after the Kosovo-Serbia incident. While Belgrade sees Kosovo as an issue of sovereignty and nationalism, the Kremlin sees it as a point of leverage. Moscow has benefited from ethnic tensions in Kosovo for years by making it clear that no official recognition is possible without Russia’s approval in the U.N.

Vladimir Putin also often cites Kosovo as a precedent to justify the independence of Crimea. Likewise, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., referred to Kosovo last week when justifying his ongoing annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine. Claiming that Kosovo set the precedent that people have a “right to self-determination,” Nebenzya said that the residents of occupied Ukrainian territories are merely exercising that same right.

Of course, Russia is wrong on this point, since the International Court of Justice referred to it as a “sui generis” case, meaning that it cannot serve as a precedent.  Still, he has returned to the example of Kosovo time and time again.  Putin’s annexation announcement provides the perfect opportunity for the West to expose Russia’s unreliability. The West should employ offensive information operations using social media and local media platforms to reach out to far-right Serbian nationalists in the Balkans who consider Kosovo as the heart of their Motherland.

Instead of trying to convince them that Serbia should recognize the independence of Kosovo, they should exploit Serbian nationalism to highlight Moscow’s double-dealing and reveal the damage that Russia’s referendums have caused to Serbia’s national interests. The West should tell them the truth – that Russia is using Kosovo for its own strategic purposes.

The fact that Milorad Dodik  is a supporter of Putin’s referenda is also an opportunity for the West to send out the message that Dodik has thrown his Serbian friends under the bus by putting Putin’s interests first before the interests of his Serbian brothers while supporting Kosovo. Dodik has also been threatening to secede from Bosnia for a long time, even recently meeting with Putin to discuss that point.

The West should use information operations to tell Bosnian Serbs that Putin does not have the capability to help them now – especially not with Russia’s military in shambles, and the CSTO, a Russia-dominated bloc of six post-soviet states, close to disintegration after Russia failed to help Armenia when a series of clashes erupted in September between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops on their common border. Azerbaijan does not belong to the CSTO.

Moscow has been using information operations by inflaming ethnic tensions and sowing chaos through its proxy groups in the Balkans in order to delegitimize NATO and the European Union. Russia’s sham referendums in Ukraine are the perfect opportunity for the West to flip the script on the Kremlin and show that the “Slavic Brotherhood” is nothing more than a myth.

Dr. Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Foundation for Defense of DemocraciesFollow her on Twitter @ivanastradnerFDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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